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A Side Trip to Deer Lodge

Deer Lodge is home to Montana's state prison, which isn't ordinarily a recommendation for a tourist destination. And we won't recommend any places to stay, because you probably won't want to spend the night. But there is a collection of museums here that makes Deer Lodge worth a morning's stop -- especially if you're a car buff or a fan of ranching life.

As you enter Deer Lodge from the west on County Road 275, you'll pass the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site (tel. 406/846-2070; www.nps.gov/grko), another of the National Park Service's marvelous facilities. The site preserves the rich history and traditions of ranch life in the West. The ranch itself was founded in the late 1850s when Johnny Grant, a Canadian trader, moved here, eventually building up a herd of several hundred cattle. After a few years, he sold it to legendary cattleman Conrad Kohrs, and the ranch became the headquarters for a vast cattle empire scattered across the open range of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. Today the site includes 90 structures, 26,000 artifacts, and a 1,500-acre cultural landscape maintained as a small-scale working ranch. Rangers lead tours of the 1862 Kohrs manor on an hourly basis. Wagon tours are offered Thursday through Monday in summer for $5 per person or $15 per family. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated. It's open to the public daily 9am to 5:30pm in summer (9am-4:30pm winter) except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day.

Gold was discovered near Deer Lodge in 1862. This was an early precursor of the gold rush that reached full bloom with the discoveries at Bannack and Virginia City. One of the consequences of this gold rush is downtown -- the castlelike Old Montana Prison, at 1106 Main St. (tel. 406/846-3111; www.pcmaf.org). Vigilantes initially dealt with the thievery and lawlessness that prevailed during the gold rush, but the need for a real jail was eventually solved by the construction of this prison, which took in its first prisoner in 1871. It was used until 1979, when another facility was built about 5 miles from here. You can take a self-guided tour of the prison. Cellblocks, maximum-security areas, turreted guard towers, and the imposing arches of the "Sally Port" gate are the attractions here, as well as a tribute to officers killed in the line of duty at the Montana Law Enforcement Museum.

The Old Prison and the Law Enforcement Museum are only two of a collection of museums in Deer Lodge, which are all covered under one admission fee ($8 adults, $4 kids 10-15, and free for kids 9 and under, with lower rates in the winter). The prison complex also houses the Montana Auto Museum, the Powell County Museum, the Frontier Montana Museum, and Yesterday's Playthings. The complex is open to the public daily year-round: from Memorial Day to Labor Day, 8am to 8pm, and 9am to 5pm or 10am to 4pm the rest of the year; not all of the museums stay open during the off season. Some of the museums have different hours different times of the year; call tel. 406/846-3111 or visit www.pcmaf.org for current information.

The newest exhibit is Cottonwood City, a re-creation of an Old West town, with a blacksmith, cabins, a church, a schoolhouse, and a mortuary (you can get your photo taken in a casket). There's a working blacksmith's shop as well. The Montana Auto Museum houses more than 120 exquisitely restored automobiles -- mostly classic Fords and Chevys, but also vintage firetrucks, motor homes, and motorcycles. The Frontier Montana Museum has a collection of the tools that were used to win the West. There is a nice exhibit on Colt "peacemakers" and their effect on the keeping of the peace. There are also saddles, spurs, and Desert John's Saloon, with one of the largest bottle and whiskey-memorabilia collections in the country.

The vast weapons collection at the Powell County Museum, 1193 Main St., includes long guns and handguns from 1776 to 1956. Yesterday's Playthings, 1017 Main St., is a doll and toy museum. The collections of Harriet Free and Pat Campbell are displayed here, with dolls, toys, and antiques of all descriptions: mohair teddy bears, carriages and cradles dating from 1835, clown dolls, and various reproductions.

For additional information on these and other activities in Deer Lodge, contact the Powell County Chamber of Commerce, 1109 Main St., Deer Lodge, MT 59722 (tel. 406/846-2094; www.powellcountymontana.com), or Gold West Country, 1105 Main St., Deer Lodge, MT 59722 (tel. 800/879-1159; goldwest.visitmt.com).

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.