By now, after reading about Lou’s adventures in Whistler, you must be curious to know how Harper spent her summer vacation sans her BFF bitch-buddy, right? Well, sit tight, you’re about to hear all about it! A long-awaited break from our work-a-day world finally arrived in mid-July for my significant other, David, and me, and we caught an Alaska Airlines flight to Seattle, then took a Horizon Air turbo-prop plane over to Bozeman, Montana.
To be honest, I’m a bit skittish on those narrow, noisy, bumpy prop planes, but ours was tricked out in the green and yellow colors of the University of Oregon Ducks, so I felt strangely comforted by that. Ducks fly pretty good, right?
…he’s a walking GPS, which I hafta say, will be a handy skill if the zombie apocalypse ever happens…
My anxiety was somewhat soothed as I distracted myself with my Nook crossword-puzzle app the entire flight. David, on the other hand, sat like a hawk looking out the window at the breathtaking expanse 30,000 feet below and pointing out to me various mountain peaks, rivers, and the occasional smoke plume from a forest fire. Did I mention he’s a map freak? Yep, he knew the route number of the highways below, the names of rivers and mountain peaks, and he probably could have told me the depth or elevation of each if I’d asked! Let’s just say he’s a walking GPS, which I hafta admit, will be a handy skill if the zombie apocalypse ever happens and there are no more satellites orbiting Earth to get our coordinates.
… Madison Foods has a special section that’s a “beer cave,” a large walk-in refrigerated shrine to the god of suds.
Bozeman is a super-cool town that I totally love, but it wasn’t our final destination. Our ultimate vacation spot was my brother David’s 20-acre ranch that sits in the incredibly gorgeous Madison Valley, about a 45-minute drive from the town of Ennis. Following scenic US Hwy. 287 for about 52 miles, we left urban life far behind, were soaking up the “big sky” country vibe and looking forward to seeing my brother and his wife, Martha, on their idyllic ranch. Arriving in Ennis, we made a beeline to the town’s one-and-only supermarket, Madison Foods, to stock up on some provisions: snacks, beer (David) and wine (me). My peeps would feed us – incredibly well, btw – at the ranch, so we knew our appetites would be well handled. Gotta mention that Madison Foods has a special section that’s a “beer cave,” a large walk-in refrigerated shrine to the god of suds. It was fully stocked with imported and domestic beers, as well as local craft beers like “Moose Drool” and “Trout Slayer.” David, who loves his lagers and pilsners, was in hops heaven!!
Fishing enthusiasts from all over the world flock to the Madison River each summer to test their angling skills.
Ahhhh, 45 minutes later we came to the turnoff to get to the Madison River Ranch, a development of privately-owned 20-acre ranch properties. The beautiful Madison River, a renowned fly-fishing mecca, serves as the property line for one side of this development, and Montana’s largest national forest borders another. Fishing enthusiasts from all over the world flock to the Madison River each summer to test their angling skills. David is a lifelong fisherman, and this trip allowed him some awesome outdoor fun doing what he loves, and at a world-class fishing spot no less — just a short drive away.
Annie…was a Frisbee-chasing machine!
So not to confuse anyone, I’ll call my boyfriend David, and from now on will refer to my brother David as my Bro. Okay? He and his wife, Martha, welcomed us with big hugs, and introduced us to their newest family member, a miniature Australian shepherd pup, Annie, who we soon discovered was a Frisbee-chasing machine! We sat down and enjoyed the first of Martha’s amazing dinners, a yummy “Navajo beef stew” — you can find the recipe on BRB’s What’s Cookin’ section. This was just the first in a series of fabulous meals we feasted on at the ranch. I subscribe to the theory that vacations are not the time to diet, and enjoyed every devil-may-care bite!
…we saw a rare golden eagle, bald eagles, cormorants, ospreys, and pelicans.
Up at the crack of dawn to fish the Madison, David would return to the ranch mid-morning, and we would figure out some fun things to do the rest of each day. One day, my Bro took us out on his Alumacraft fishing boat to nearby Cliff Lake – a super-scenic lake just 10 minutes from the ranch that is part of the Hidden Lakes Chain of lakes. On summer weekends, Cliff Lake is teeming with tent campers, day-trippers and families who flock here to swim and fish, but this was a weekday and we had the whole lake almost entirely to ourselves. The water is a breathtaking aqua blue, like the Mediterranean, and the lake is surrounded by the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, the largest in Montana. As we slowly motored around the lake, both Davids trolling lines as we went, we saw a rare golden eagle, bald eagles, cormorants, ospreys, and pelicans. We even witnessed a bald eagle swoop down to the water and catch a fish! Wow, what a sight. This is bear country, and, unlike Lou and Lance who go searching for bears (see Lou’s Whistler post!), I was happy not to spot a single one, even though signs posted around the camping areas warned of their presence. That day, the Davids caught four rainbow trout between them. We spent about four hours on the lake, and I relished every minute of it with all the amazing natural beauty surrounding us.
…the 4th of July is a huge celebration in Ennis.
One day I rode in to Ennis with Martha to do a little retail therapy. My Bro’s birthday was coming up in a couple of days, and I wanted to scout out a gift. The town was totally jumping with tourist activity, mostly fisherman types from what I could tell. It was the week after the 4th of July, which is a huge celebration in Ennis. A traditional 4th of July parade happens there every year, complete with floats, horses and marching bands all going down Main Street, a main highway that’s closed down for the occasion. There’s also a classic car show, and my Bro joins in the parade and car show each year driving his prized yellow 1930 Model A Ford coupe. We’ve never visited Ennis over the 4th and will definitely have to do that one day.
Ennis, Montana – A Quaint Drinking Town with a Fishing Problem
I headed over to my favorite store called West of the Madison – I stop in there every visit to Ennis and buy a locally designed t-shirt or two, as wearable tokens of the trip. The store has lots of casual clothes for men and women, jewelry, and high-quality Montana themed t-shirts. A phrase on the front of one t-shirt I got was: Ennis, Montana – A Quaint Drinking Town with a Fishing Problem. That one was for me. For David, I found a nice cotton t-shirt with “Ennis, Montana” spread across the back and a colorful graphic of a rainbow trout. Perfect for him! The one sort of downer for me, though, was finding out that the store will be closing in November this year. But, in its place, I was told, will be a new, remodeled store, and the salesclerk promised the new place would carry similar merchandise.
I also bought a pair of cushy socks, with a cute moose design, to take back to my buddy Lou.
Another store I love in Ennis is Otter Banks; it’s a combination gift shop, furniture store, and art gallery. Their second floor has a huge showroom of rustic western furniture, rugs, lamps and art pieces. A pretty, locally made wooden jewelry box caught my eye; it was definitely an art piece and had a steep price tag, beyond my budget, so I quickly overcame my yearnings. I did find a cool leather wallet for my Bro’s birthday, though. I also bought a pair of cushy socks with a cute moose design, to take back to my buddy Lou. (Did she bring me anything from Whistler….uh, no! Just sayin’!)
I was excited to discover a wall mural in Ennis – you know me, always hunting for one of those artsy walls whenever I’m in a new place. This one was hanging on the side of a building in town and, no surprise, it’s a scene of a fisherman reeling in a leaping rainbow trout. And throughout the town, I spotted these large fish sculptures placed here and there – one in front of the library, one in a park, and one perched next to the Madison River — each painted by a different artist. Obviously the sport of fishing permeates everything in this town. I noticed even the town’s slogan continues touting the world-class fishing mecca theme: “Ennis: Catch it All!”
…even I tried to catch a fish, just as long as I didn’t have to touch it with bare hands.
Speaking of fish, and this blog post is definitely a whopper, there are several stores in Ennis that cater to every fisherman’s need – from fishing licenses to equipment to outdoor wear to booking a float trip. The store I’m most familiar with is the Madison River Fishing Company, which has very knowledgeable people working there to help you find whatever you’re looking for. When David and I visited this area several years ago, we booked a guided half-day float in a McKenzie oar boat down the Madison. Our guide knew the river and the excursion was well worth the splurge to get a mid-stream view of the river and find the best spots to drop our lines into (yes, even I tried to catch a fish, just as long as I didn’t have to touch it with bare hands!) If you do want to fish in Montana, you can go onto the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks website before you go, submit your application, buy your license online and print it at home. That way you can hit the river or lake when you arrive and not dilly-dally at a store getting a license.
…he had to be a clown and stretch it over his entire face and then put his sunglasses over it like the invisible man….
A shopping visit to Ennis wouldn’t be complete without stopping in at RiverStone Gallery, situated at the easternmost end of Main Street. The gallery has original paintings, as well as beautiful custom-designed steel gates (perfect for your ranch!) from local artists, most with a fishing or western theme. This is one of the colorful fish paintings being showcased, one I would be proud to have on my wall. The gallery opened its doors in 2000 and owners Bern and Lexi Sundell are both artists and lovers of fly fishing. Much of the paintings and jewelry you see there were done by them. Whilst I was perusing the gallery, I spotted something I thought David would like – a stretchy buff that goes around your head or neck, with a colorful rainbow trout image. Of course, when I gave the buff to David, he had to be a clown and stretch it over his entire face and then put his sunglasses over it like the invisible man…. but I do think he’ll get some use out of it when the sun is beating down and he’s got a trout on his line!
It sent more than 80 million tons of rock crashing into the Madison River below…
One day, David and I took a drive out to Hebgen Lake, located 75 miles from Ennis. This area is best known for being near the site of a massive 7.5 magnitude earthquake that hit back in August of 1959. The earthquake, felt in eight states, triggered a huge landslide – literally the side of a mountain broke off. It sent more than 80 million tons of rock crashing into the Madison River below and forming what’s now called Earthquake Lake. The quake happened near midnight and killed 28 campers asleep in their tents right in the path of the slide. You can still see, even 56 years later, the aftermath of the rubble, and that section of the Madison River has many ghostly remains of a once-vibrant forest sticking up out of the water. The Forest Service operates the Earthquake Lake Visitor Center, which opened in 1967, and it’s worth stopping in to see the exhibits and learn more about the 20th century’s second largest earthquake to hit within the lower 48 states.
… they’d added the butt pix because men patrons were tired of the boob shots getting all the attention.
Our main interest in driving out to this area wasn’t to visit the Earthquake Lake Visitor Center, as we’d already toured the facility on a previous trip. No, our goal was much less serious…. to stop in and have lunch at the Happy Hour Bar, on the edge of Hebgen Lake. Now, we’ve only visited this bar in the daytime, but we can imagine that at night there’s a different vibe. Why do we think that? Inside there’s an entire wall of “boob shot” photos as well as a trailer-trash gallery of clothes: men patron’s skivvies, well-worn baseball caps and ladies’ bras, all hanging messily from the rafters. Oh, and something new we noticed this visit—another wall of photos of men’s bare butts. Ew… really? The bartender told us they’d added the butt pix because men patrons were tired of the boob shots getting all the attention. Yes, we figure this place must turn to the wild side as soon as the sun goes down. But, in the daytime, it’s quite tame and the place has good food – the menu includes hamburgers, French dips, grilled cheese, chili and nachos. The bar is accessible by boat, car or snowmobile! Open daily through October and then closed until Christmas.
“Some folks made a fortune here. But what they left behind was priceless.”
I was able to pull David away from the river one day to visit a couple of nearby REAL western towns: Virginia City and Nevada City. Both of these old mining towns, situated about 14 miles from Ennis, have been designated National Historic Landmarks and lovingly preserved, and it’s a real kick to step back in time and imagine life back in the wild gold-rush days of the Old West, now frozen in time. The city slogan: “Some folks made a fortune here. But what they left behind was priceless.” Back in 1863, gold was discovered in nearby “Alder Gulch” and the two towns’ gold fever began. Between 1863 and 1889, at least $90 million in “placer” gold was extracted from Alder Gulch, a figure that represents the present-day equivalent of $40 billion!
David and I parked in Virginia City, bought two tickets, and hopped onto a narrow-gauge train – the Alder Gulch Shortline – that runs to Nevada City and back in the summertime. The route runs along Alder Gulch and a tour guide explains the interesting history of the area during the 15- to 20-minute ride. The train operates from Memorial Day weekend and goes through Labor Day, running from 10:00 to 5:00. The roundtrip fare is $10 for adults, $8 for youths or seniors 55+, and children under age 4 ride for free.
If you go, a must-see place is the Nevada City Museum and Music Hall. There you will walk through a re-creation of an old western town, with 100 rustic buildings dating from 1863 to early 1900. The structures are amazingly well-preserved, and walking around the compound you can truly imagine what life may have been like in this old mining town. If you go on a weekend, you can experience a “living history” presentation with local people dressed up in historic costumes bringing the town’s lively past to life.
For lunch, we ate at Star Bakery, the site of the Star Restaurant that first opened in 1863, serving meals to miners seeking their fortune in town. The restaurant menu includes American comfort food, and we were both satisfied with our meals. My Bro later asked if we got one of their famous fried pickles, which he says are super good – uh, nope, we missed out on those!
Another must-see exhibit is the Music Hall in Nevada City – an emporium that houses the largest public collection of automated music machines in North America! And some are still in working order – we know because we popped a quarter into one, and out came some honky-tonk tune — you know, the kind of player-piano ditty you might hear in an old Western film. The volume was so loud, it filled up the entire room. Maybe people in the Old West were hard of hearing!!
We did duck into a couple of cute stores in Virginia City: The Dancing Buffalo, a western art gallery, and jewelry/gift store, and Virginia City Artisans & Growers Guild, which showcases handmade arts and crafts from local artists, and sells a variety of seed packets for gardening enthusiasts. The quaint building it’s housed in is a historic one-room schoolhouse built in 1873.
…bison are allowed to roam relatively freely over the expansive landscape of Yellowstone National Park…
For anyone planning to travel to this corner of Southwest Montana, visiting Yellowstone National Park is an adventure you probably should include in your itinerary. This national treasure is one of the most scenic wilderness areas in the world and extends over 3,472 square miles, so you have lots of exploration options. The park has some incredible wildlife, including grizzly bears, elk, wolves, and bison, and you will likely spot some of these from the road – or actually in the road in the case of bison. (It’s not unusual to be caught in a big traffic jam caused by bison strolling along on the park’s roads.) Yellowstone bison are exceptional because they comprise the nation’s largest bison population on public land. Unlike most other herds, this population has thousands of individuals that are allowed to roam relatively freely over the expansive landscape of Yellowstone National Park and some nearby areas of Montana.
The town of West Yellowstone, Montana’s gateway to the park, is located just 70 miles south of Ennis, about a one-hour-and-15-minute drive. If you prefer to overnight closer to Yellowstone and spend more time exploring this incredible park, you should book your reservations far in advance, but we have always driven there for long day-trips and brought along our own picnic food. I prefer to visit the park in September, when kids are back in school, as in the summertime throngs of tourists visiting the area can somewhat diminish the experience. I could go on and on about Yellowstone, but I just wanted to mention it here as an extended side-trip option.
…gotta say we were delighted to come across several cute cottontail rabbits living on the property.
We booked our last two nights at a motel in the town of Ennis so we could get a more up-close-and-personal visit of this cute town. We stayed at the low-key El Western, a group of log cabins situated on beautifully manicured, pristine grounds– it’s not your typical roadside motel at all. It offers mountainside or creekside cabins as well as upscale “lodges.” We chose to stay in a creekside cabin – a simple bedroom and bath, with comfortable no-frills ranch-oak furniture, equipped with TV and WiFi. If you do stay here, be sure to wander out back to a picturesque bridge over a rushing stream, complete with an operating paddle wheel, and a huge, lush green lawn area – it’s their best-kept secret and we didn’t even know about it until the motel’s owner clued us in. And, gotta say we were delighted to come across several cute cottontail rabbits living on the property. We heard they are somewhat of a menace, munching away on the ornamental garden flowers, but it was totally fun seeing them hopping around the lawn and scampering outside our door in the morning. The motel is owned by a family, now in its second generation, and it’s obvious they take great pride in the upkeep of this beautiful slice of Montana.
…we kind of wished we had ordered steak, which is really their specialty.
We found two good places to eat that we’d suggest. The first night, we drove out to the nearby town of McAllister (blink and you’ll miss it!) and ate at the casual McAllister Inn Steakhouse. We’d eaten here a few years ago and enjoyed it, and thought we’d check it out again, as we’d heard the place had been remodeled and gone a little more upscale. We both went for fish entrees: David ordered panko-crusted walleye, and I got the King salmon. Both entrees were good, however, as we watched food being served to other diners around us, we kind of wished we had ordered steak, which is really their specialty. The prime rib dinner looked mouth-wateringly good, and came with a hefty $30-plus price tag. But, Montana is known worldwide for its primo beef, so why not live a little? The place is a local favorite and was jam-packed that evening, so we felt lucky to get seated – at the last table for two. So, you may want to call ahead with a reservation. The place gets rave reviews on TripAdvisor.
…super-gourmet Mexican food to die for, and that’s not an exaggeration.
Our other dining pick was in Ennis, right on Main Street. It’s a restaurant called Banditos, situated adjacent to Ennis’ Gravel Bar, which shares the same owners. This isn’t your typical Mexican restaurant at all! It’s more like super-gourmet Mexican food to die for, and that’s not an exaggeration. The ambiance is artsy and hip, more like a cafe you’d see in San Francisco or L.A. than in a small Southwestern Montana town. Everything on the menu sounded so good it was hard to decide what to order. But, we did… finally… starting with a couple of appetizers, a vegetable-stuffed chili relleno for me, and melty cheese oyster nachos for David – both were super-mega yum and disappeared quickly. For a main course, we split the special enchiladas for the evening, which were stuffed with decadent seafood morsels. It was truly a fabulous dining experience – the talented chef here has elevated Mexican food to a new level! The prices are on the high side, I admit, especially if you compare them to your typical Mexican restaurant menu prices, but we both felt the fabbo food was well worth it.
…if you’re jonesing for ice cream, a root beer float or a milkshake, this is the place.
Lastly, we have to give a big thumbs up to Yesterday’s Soda Fountain & Ennis Pharmacy (124 Main St.), a popular dining spot in town for both Ennis residents and visiting tourists alike. We never go to Ennis without stopping in here for a meal, either breakfast or lunch. It’s a good old-fashioned diner, with a menu packed with options, really anything you’d typically want for breakfast or lunch. And, if you’re jonesing for ice cream, a root beer float or a milkshake, this is the place. Open every day from 6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and always jumping. As far as we’re concerned, this is the breakfast place to go in Ennis.
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