Just outside Yellowstone, Ennis is a hub of rich history and epic fishing
Every year, more than 3 million people visit Yellowstone National Park to gaze upon its postcard-perfect vistas, cast flies to native cutthroat trout and feel the pulse of nature. For all that plus an added dose of peaceful solitude, savvy travelers can take a scenic trip just outside the park’s border from West Yellowstone to the quiet town of Ennis, Montana, along Highway 287.
Nestled in a wide valley between the tall peaks of the Gravelly and Madison Ranges, Ennis is a hub of artistic activity, rich history, stunning scenery and epic fishing.
The Madison River, which runs right through town, deserves its reputation as the best trout stream in Montana. Known as the “Fifty Mile Riffle,” this stretch of water is home to vast quantities of trophy rainbow and brown trout. This is classic dry fly country where 50-fish days are not uncommon. Abundant public access lines the river, and local fly shops can provide advice, equipment and guided float trips.
Just north of town, the peaceful waters of Ennis Lake beckon anglers as well as birdwatchers and campers. Even if you don’t want to cast a line, you can still get up close and personal with big trout at the Ennis National Fish Hatchery, just 12 miles southwest of town.
A few miles farther south, Quake Lake is an unforgettable place to wet a line and marvel at Mother Nature’s power and unpredictability. In the summer of 1959, a powerful earthquake caused a portion of Sheep Mountain to sheer off and tumble into the Madison River, killing 28 people. The resulting natural dam formed a 6-mile-long lake. As evenings fall in the summer, hungry trout dapple the surface of the lake as they rise to feed, providing a haunting fishing experience amid the forest of standing, drowned treetops that still pierce the water’s surface.
When your casting arm grows tired, there’s no shortage of fascinating diversions to fill the days.
Per capita, few Western cities boast more artists than Ennis. Work by local wildlife and landscape painters, sculptors and photographers can be found at the Depot Gallery, River Stone Gallery and Hole In The Wall Gallery — at a fraction of the price you’d find at Jackson Hole, Aspen or Park City. A giant iron sculpture of a fisherman greets you upon arrival into the small mountain tow, and the shop windows are lined with high-quality western art of every variety. The Madison Valley Arts Festival is a perennial summer highlight, drawing visitors and artists from across the region.
Fifteen miles west of Ennis, the Old West endures in the ghost towns of Virginia City and Nevada City. Along the wooden boardwalks, glimpse life as it was 150 years ago in a booming gold mining town. Every summer, living history actors in Nevada City relive scenes from the real Wild West, while in neighboring Virginia City vaudeville shows are presented on stage by the Virginia City Players, the oldest continually operating summer stock theatre company west of the Mississippi River.
The Madison Valley History Museum, located on the highway between Ennis and Virginia City, is home to collections of artifacts, tapes, photographs and stories of historical importance to the region. It is also home to the famous “Madison Monster” — a mysterious wolf-like creature shot by a rancher in 1886 after it wreaked havoc on area livestock.
At the end of the day, make time for a visit to Willie’s Distillery, home to a stunning hand-hammered, German-made copper still that produces singular potables highlighting local fruits and Montana-grown grains.
Tags: Art gallery, Distillery, Ennis, Ennis Lake, Ghost town, Madison River, Montana fly fishing, Nevada City, Quake Lake, Virginia City, Yellowstone National Park