This is where Montana came of age, changing in a few short years from an isolated outback of fur traders and rugged explorers to a series of bustling, boisterous mining camps, where fortunes were made and lost overnight. Butte was once the "Richest Hill on Earth," and gold strikes were also made at Helena's Last Chance Gulch and Virginia City's Alder Gulch. Bannack, another gold-mining boomtown, was the first territorial capital.

The area has calmed down somewhat since then. Butte's Berkeley Pit, full of toxic water, is a Superfund site. The Anaconda copper smelter is shut down, and the Old Works, formerly a Superfund site itself, is now a golf course. Helena is the businesslike state capital, the seat of Montana's politics.

But in the Big Hole Valley, you can still see some ranching and farming done the old-fashioned way. There are plenty of fishing and outdoor opportunities all over the mountains that cloak southwestern Montana.

While signs of modern American life are now rampant, many cross sections of this region's storied past have been meticulously preserved. The old prison at Deer Lodge can give you an eye-opening perspective on frontier justice, and the preserved mining towns of Nevada City and Virginia City provide a taste of the boomtown, mining-camp life.