Budget Travel: Butte, Montana

Summary: Butte, a town in the southwestern part of Montana, began as a group of gold and silver mining camps in the 1870s. When copper mining boomed, it grew into one of the wealthiest spots in the United States. During WW I, Butte was called “The Richest Hill on Earth.” Never mind that Jon Stewart’s the “Daily Show” made fun of Butte a couple years ago. It’s one of those towns with a unique place in American history that is evident at every corner.

The reason for the Daily Show fun-poking is the Berkeley Pit, the now shut down open copper mine. When the mine closed, it resulted in a lake of toxic water that has since become a tourist attraction. Like I said, never mind that. Butte, unlike what the Daily Show reported, has much to offer the traveler who is looking for a wonderful time that is easy on the wallet. For that reason, Butte has been experiencing quite the tourist boom over the past few years. This is a town that blends hard scrabble and artsy–the old with the new.

As people have discovered Butte’s charm and splendor, some have moved here bringing their money with them. Historic brick and stone Victorian-style buildings have been lovingly restored, and Butte’s can-do spirit has thrived. Evel Knievel was born and raised here, for example. Still, this is a city where laid back might as well be its middle name. You can walk to most places of interest, although, hopefully, you’re fond of walking up long hills. Butte has a doozey.

Getting in: Although Butte itself is a budget-worthy destination, getting there can be pricey. Flights to Montana are generally expensive, although regional airlines offer cheaper options to certain destinations. Delta flies into Butte’s Burt Mooney Airport, but Frontier Airlines flies into Bozeman, 85 miles away. There’s an economy priced RT flight from Phoenix to Bozeman in May for $202, for example.

Also check out Horizon Airlines or flying into a city like Salt Lake City, Denver or Seattle where you can rent a car and drive the rest of the way. We’ve done the Seattle and Denver fly and drive ourselves. A friend of ours flew from New Jersey into Salt Lake City which is 5 1/2-hours away. Frommers recommends this option for the same reasons that I do. It gives you the chance to enjoy the vast landscape in between.

Butte is also on a Greyhound route, although having a car is so worth it for the off the beaten path destinations like Philipsburg. The scenery alone makes Philipsburg, located on the Pintler Scenic Highway not far from Georgetown Lake, worth the drive. If you arrive on a Greyhound, consider renting a car for the day so you can explore more easily.

Where to Stay: The range of places to slumber varies from national chain motels to family run establishments. Most are within walking distance of downtown, but some are closer than most. The Super 8 is one less expensive option. For a historic Butte experience, try the Finlen Inn located downtown. Camping is also possible, although if you’re tenting it, you’ll have RV company. For a comprehensive list of lodging options, check out Montana Big Sky Country, the official state travel information Website.

What to See: You can’t miss Butte’s mining history, no matter from which angle you explore its hills. The headframes where miners were lowered below the ground are a prominent part of the landscape. For a close look at what was once Butte’s glory days of copper mine prosperity, head to the Copper King Mansion. Once owned by William Andrews Clark, one of the three copper mine barons, the 34-room mansion is also a B&B and has been kept to look like it did when the Clark’s lived there. Tours for adults are $7. Children are $3.50. If you’re an overnight guest, tours are free.

On the other end of the mining life spectrum is what is left of Butte’s Chinatown. The first Chinese people came to Butte in 1868 to work in the mines, eventually starting businesses like laundries, restaurants and dry goods stores. Their numbers grew to more than 2,000 until discrimination laws pushed most of them out of Montana. Two attractions not to miss are the Wah Chong Tai Company and Mai Wah Noodle Parlor buildings. Now connected, they serve as the museum of the Mai Wah Society with a purpose to preserve and highlight Butte’s important Chinese-American history.

For a fun, interactive tour, head to the World of Mining Museum to don a mining hat complete with a head lamp for a trip underground into a once active mine. There are chances to operate the machinery. After wards, take time to wander among the buildings of “Hell Roarin’ Gulch,” a reproduction of an 1890s mining town.

Part of mining lore is the disaster stories. Butte’s biggest disaster was on June 8, 1917 when an accident in the Granite Mountain mine ignited a fire that killed 168 men. Toward the top end of Butte is the Granite Mountain Memorial, a tribute to the men and their families. The view from the memorial’s vantage point is stunning.

As with any mining towns, brothels were part of the scenery. Butte’s no different. The Dumas Brothel, in operation from 1890 to 1982, is now a museum.

Wandering among Butte’s downtown shops offers a variety of antique stores, gift shops and galleries. Check out Garden of Beadin, a bead store with EVERYTHING, Jail House Coffee (housed in the original jail), and the Butte Silver Bow Art Foundation for starters.

For entertainment value, there’s nothing better than the National Folk Festival and Evel Knievel Days. The National Folk Festival is a music lover’s dream. Last summer was the festival’s first year in Butte. There are two more summers before it moves to its next venue.

Evel Knievel Days happens every July. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen motorcycles ridden by daredevils fly around the Wall of Terror. Both festivals are FREE and downtown. A good friend of mine swears by the Ai Ri Rah Festival, the largest Irish festival in the Rockies. I haven’t been to it yet, but it sounds fabulous.

The Old Butte Historical Adventures walking or trolley tours is one way to dive into Butte’s intriguing past. Tour guides, who know the inside scoop of particular buildings and the stories of the people who made Butte happen, can point out details you’d otherwise miss.

Where to eat: For dining, and to keep with Butte’s historic past, head to Pekin Noodle Parlor. This Chinese restaurant opened in 1916. It’s been operated by the same family ever since. The curtained booths use to serve as brothel stalls. For Mexican food, try La Hacienda, and if you eat meat, you can’t go wrong with Pork Chop John’s. The pork chop sandwich is tasty and cheap.