Virginia City and Nevada City: 72 miles SE of Butte; 67 miles S of Bozeman; 84 miles NW of West Yellowstone. Bannack: 90 miles SW of Butte, 21 miles SW of Dillon.

Virginia City and nearby Nevada City have both a boisterous and colorful past and present. They are old towns, but Virginia City never turned into a ghost town; in fact, it's one of the oldest continuously occupied towns in the West.

In 1863, a group of miners led by Bill Fairweather took $180 in their first day of gold panning from a creek, which they later named Alder Gulch after the trees growing on the bank. A gold rush soon followed and a mining town grew. The nation was in the midst of the Civil War, and the Southern sympathizers in the crowd wanted to name the new city Varina after Jefferson Davis's wife. But G. G. Bissell, a Northerner and a miners' judge, said, "I'll see you damned first." He wrote "Virginia" on the founding document instead, a sort of compromise, but since Virginia housed the capital of the Confederacy, no one complained.

The restoration of Virginia City began in 1946 when Charles and Sue Bovey began the painstaking task of preserving and restoring many of the structures you see in town today. Most of the buildings were erected during Virginia City's heyday as the state's second territorial capital. In the mid-1950s, Bovey also began to rebuild Nevada City, then a true ghost town, by bringing in buildings he'd acquired from around the West.

In 1991, following the deaths of Sue and Charles, son Fred Bovey determined that he was unable to continue to operate the properties and attractions. He decided to sell the whole kit and caboodle, including millions of dollars of antiques (Sotheby's estimate: $60 million). The state of Montana and Montana Historical Society attempted to have the area designated a national park, but to no avail. Even the National Trust for Historic Preservation got into the act, declaring Virginia City an endangered historic site.

Finally, partly because of a public outcry and due to the efforts of Governor Marc Racicot, the 1997 Montana legislature took dramatic fiscal measures and agreed to fund the $6.5-million purchase (such a bargain), and added $3 million for operational expenses. Today, the cities operate under the supervision of the Montana Historical Society and its foundation.

The dusty main drag of Bannack also pays tribute to the mining era. The town grew up quickly after the state's first big gold strike occurred here in 1862, but the vein was a shallow one, and Bannack quickly turned into a ghost town. Despite its short life, Bannack has a colorful history. One writer said, "It is probable that there never was a mining town of the same size that contained more desperadoes and lawless characters than did Bannack during the winter of 1862 to '63."