The west side of the valley has fishing access as well as places to shop, eat, and stay. The historic section of the valley is on the east side of the river, and is accessible at Florence, Stevensville, Victor, Pinesdale, and Hamilton.
Following are a lot of the attractions you'll come across if you start driving at the north end of Mont. 203/269 and head south.
Eight miles south of Florence on Mont. 203, you'll hit the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge (tel. 406/777-5552; leemetcalf.fws.gov), which is free and open daily from dawn to dusk. This wetland habitat is the result of dikes and dams that impound the water of several streams. It has helped to improve migratory waterfowl habitats and has created a nesting success, but a number of other species benefit as well, including osprey and deer. A short loop trail, open from mid-July to mid-September, leads around several ponds and blinds in the refuge's southwest corner. The picnic area is open year-round and has 2 1/2 miles of nature trails. Hunting for waterfowl is permitted on designated ponds during the fall duck-hunting season. Bow hunting for deer is also permitted, as is fishing, during their respective seasons. Near the entrance is the well-preserved exterior of the 1885 Whaley Homestead, an excellent example of vernacular frontier architecture. You can drive around the refuge on the dirt road and come out in Stevensville, the next stop on the tour.
Stevensville is the oldest town in Montana, the result of the early missionary work of the indefatigable Jesuit Father Pierre DeSmet, who founded St. Mary's Mission in 1841. Capped with a bell tower, the mission is a small structure paneled with logs and white boards and an important place in the development of Montana -- it was the first permanent structure in the state to be built by European Americans. John Owen bought the mission from the Jesuits in 1850 and established a trading post, Fort Owen. Though the issue of who first found gold in Montana will doubtless never be completely settled, in Owen's diary in 1852 he wrote: "Hunting gold. Found some."
From here, continue south on Mont. 203 to Hamilton and the Marcus Daly Mansion. Montana copper king Marcus Daly never did anything on a small scale, and his house is no exception. The Marcus Daly Mansion, 251 Eastside Hwy. (tel. 406/363-6004; www.dalymansion.org), is a spectacular Georgian Revival mansion with classical porticoes. It occupies 24,000 square feet on three floors, with 25 bedrooms, 15 bathrooms, and 7 fireplaces. The mansion was finished in 1910, after Daly's death, and his widow, Margaret, lived there in the summers until her death in 1941. It's typically open 10am to 4pm daily from May through October, as well as on weekends and December. Admission costs $8 for adults, $7 for seniors, and $5 for kids 6 to 17 (free for 5 and under).
On the opposite side of the river, the village of Hamilton, several blocks long and 4 blocks wide, is worth a leisurely stroll since most of the businesses here are small, locally owned, and interesting. For outdoor gear, head to Bob Ward & Sons, 1120 N. 1st St. (tel. 406/363-6204), for a good selection of fishing, skiing, camping, and hunting equipment. Nearby is Robbins, 209 W. Main St. (tel. 406/363-1733), a nice shop that sells home furnishings, crystal, china, and gourmet kitchen accessories. The Chapter One bookstore, 252 W. Main St. (tel. 406/363-5220), featuring new and used books and periodicals, adjoins the unusually capitalized JitterZ, which sells all manner of espresso drinks. Also worth a look are Big Sky Candy, 319 W. Main St. (tel. 406/363-0580; www.bigskycandy.com), Art City, 407 W. Main St. (tel. 406/363-4764), and CT's Bazaar, 111 S. 3rd St. (tel. 406/363-3473) for "collectible things and rare finds."
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.