64 miles S of Helena; 120 miles SE of Missoula; 82 miles W of Bozeman; 150 miles NW of West Yellowstone

Butte may not be most people's idea of a vacation destination, but in many ways the city is the hidden soul of Montana. Butte's emergence in the 19th century as a hell-raising, wide-open mining town drew a lot of people to the state, including a variety of racial and ethnic groups. Butte has always been a strong union town in a state and region that disdain union activity. This union and socialist tradition from the rip-roaring days has made a lasting contribution to a strong progressive political tradition.

Butte used to be called "the richest hill on earth" for its production of copper, silver, and other precious metals, and during the 1880s, Butte was the world's largest copper producer. In 1955, the world's richest hill became the beginning of one of the world's largest holes, the Berkeley Pit, which provided more cost-efficient open-pit mining of copper. The pit grew and grew and almost swallowed the town. But after the mine closed in the 1980s, groundwater seeped up through the maze of tunnels below, creating a gigantic pollution problem. The town's drinking water -- and very survival -- was threatened by this toxic sea, but the problem is now being addressed by a $20-million water treatment plant that opened in 2003.

If you can look past the signs of decline that remain from the end of the mining era, Butte is full of rich history, colorful citizens, and a sort of blue-collar San Francisco-style charm. Physically, Butte is built along the sides of steep hills, which provides a great vantage point on the valley below. It also boasts Montana Tech, an arm of the University of Montana system and one of the top-rated engineering schools in the country.

Sister city Anaconda was the "company town" formed when copper king Marcus Daly extended his copper empire 24 miles west. The community was spared the name "Copperopolis."