When our daughter told us she couldn't come home for a visit because of her work schedule, we did what any doting parents of an only child would do: we went to her. No matter that she worked 2,300 miles away on a remote ranch in Western Montana that had just received 10 inches of snow.
No, she's not a cattle wrangler. She was working as an intern for Project Vote Smart, a nonpartisan voter education Web site based on a ranch 25 miles from Philipsburg, Mont., an old mining town midway between Missoula and Butte.
And if winter is not exactly high season, we still found our long weekend in Montana to be unexpectedly delightful.
Philipsburg is just off Montana's oldest state road, Highway 1, a 55-mile stretch known as the Pintlar Scenic Loop for the mountain range that surrounds it. The route runs through historic copper town Anaconda, between vast tracts of grazing land dotted with black and brown cows, past glistening Georgetown, Silver and Echo lakes and up into foothills thick with pines. The recent snowfall had frosted the trees and softened the dry landscape with a smooth coat of white. Under a full moon, the effect was spectacular.
The turnoff from the highway offers no clue to the charm of downtown Philipsburg, which could be a movie set for an old Western. A center of gold and sapphire mining in the late 19th century, the town has reinvented itself as a tourist destination trading on its historic past. The wide main street, aptly named Broadway, is lined with gaslights and colorfully painted storefronts that house a variety of saloons, shops, restaurants and our home base for the long weekend, the Broadway Hotel.
The hotel alone is worth going out of your way for. Painstakingly renovated in 2003, it has nine spacious guest rooms, each uniquely and artfully decorated by owner Sue Jenner. We stayed in the Andes Room, a two-room suite with a pair of comfortable queen-sized beds separated from a small sitting room by French doors. The south-of-the-border theme was accomplished without kitsch and included a clever wall display made by draping Ecuadorean blankets into a large fan.
Sue gave us a tour of the guest quarters, all located on the second floor. (Because the entrance to the hotel is from an elevated parking lot in the rear, there are no stairs to climb.) Three suites, including ours, overlook the main street, but there was little traffic the weekend we were there to disrupt our sleep. In the Brittania Suite, furniture covered in damask and chintz accompanies mementos from Sue's native England. We especially liked the Discovery Room, featuring maps of ski areas along with antique sleds and a whimsical bedboard made of old skis.
At the heart of the hotel is a huge living room filled with chairs, tables, books and games, where guests can relax in front of a gas fireplace, often sharing the space with Sue's two friendly Boxer dogs, Georgie and Josie. (A computer with Internet access is also available for use by guests.) Lodging includes breakfast served in the modern eat-in kitchen and consisting of a serviceable selection of cereal, fresh fruit, muffins and toast, and lots of juice, tea and coffee.
It took our love of strong coffee to lure us out into the freezing air, but our effort was rewarded. Just across the street from the hotel is the Daily Grind, which serves espresso drinks along with various teas and pastries. Thus sustained, we spent the balance of the morning exploring the shops on Broadway.
Several gift shops cater to the tourist trade with local handcrafts and Western themed items. Our favorite was Wild Rose, which has an eclectic selection of reasonably priced items, from watches to wall clocks and handmade candles to light fixtures. The Sapphire Gallery has fine jewelry, much of it made with locally mined gemstones. For $25, you can sift through your own bag of stones. Don't miss The Sweet Palace, a throwback to the old penny candy store, where visitors are greeted with free samples of homemade taffy and fudge and invited to select from hundreds of bins of familiar and exotic candies, all for $7.95 a pound.
Off the main street, Philipsburg has several other points of interest. The Granite County Jail, said to be the oldest operating jail in Montana, features a tower with a hangman's noose visible from the street below. The Opera House has been restored and hosts a professional theater troupe in the summer. A few streets away, the impressive brick Philipsburg Grade School completed in 1896 is still educating young Montanans. Remains of old mining operations can be found in the numerous ghost towns that surround Philipsburg.
There are at least a half-dozen restaurants and bars that serve food in Philipsburg. The old-fashioned Doe Brothers Soda Fountain offers traditional lunch-counter fare including milkshakes and hearty chili. Road warriors that we are, we opted three times to drive about 75 miles for dinner to Missoula, a vibrant college town, where there are plenty of good dining options.
The two-lane Highway 1 is well maintained, and with a 70-mph speed limit most of the way, driving times are generally fast - but caution is advised. Traffic slows suddenly going through the towns of Drummond and Anaconda, where locals abide strictly to the posted 40- and even 25-mph signs. You can also find occasional icy patches where the road is shielded from the afternoon sun. En route to Missoula one day, we found ourselves sharing the road with a cattle drive. It took us about 20 extra minutes to pick our way through hundreds of ambling cows, who were largely unmoved by the cars and trucks trying to get by.
Alas, the time was too short for us to sample the many outdoor activities available in the area. Opportunities for hiking, hunting and ice fishing abound. In Philipsburg's Winninghoff Park, an NHL-sized ice rink and arena hosts local hockey games but is also open to the public, so bring your skates. The Discovery Ski Basin, 13 miles south of Philipsburg, had just opened for weekend skiing when we arrived. At full operation the ski area has eight lifts and 61 trails that range from beginner to black diamond. The small lodge has a cafeteria and bar, and ski rentals and lessons are available.
But for a few short days, just relaxing and enjoying the scenery of a small Montana town in winter was well worth the trip.