Big Sky Family Vacation
I've lived in Idaho for twenty years now, and I just couldn't keep ignoring the siren song coming from next door. "Come visit Montana! We have mines and rivers and, um, a really big sky!"
So we packed up the family van and hit the road for four days of fun in Western Montana. Our base of operations for the first three days was Fairmont Hot Springs Resort, which is about fifteen minutes outside of Butte, in the Southwestern part of the state.
I wanted to have a place we could come back to for swimming and relaxation after a day of exploration. Fairmont was actually so much fun that we ended up cutting back on our sight-seeing just so the kids could splash and slide.
The resort itself is extremely family-friendly. Very casual and relaxed atmosphere. There's virtually nothing around it for miles, and the isolation is calming, especially when you're floating in the hot pool staring out at distant mountains across the prairie.
As you can see from the picture above, there is one large warm pool (temperature around 95F) with a tube slide, plus a smaller hot pool (temperature around 105F). They have the same configuration (minus the slide) inside if you don't want to be in the sun all day. The rooms at the resort are nice, nothing spectacular, but at least they were very clean and comfortable. The food is excellent. Best prime rib I've had in a long time. The food has to be good, because it's your only option for miles around.
On our first day after arriving at Fairmont we decided to drive into the city of Butte to see a bit of mining history. I've always been curious about this copper boomtown that was once one of the richest cities in the United States. In the early part of the 20th century, Butte's population hovered near 100,000. Back then, a third of all copper produced in the US came from Butte. The good times are gone now, and the old city is an empty, depressing place. I thought it would be fun to go into Butte's historic uptown district to have lunch, but the only two family-friendly restaurants were closed. On a Saturday at noon. If we'd needed a drink, no problem. There were plenty of bars... Two or three on every corner. We walked around for awhile, admiring the buildings, then drove to a newer part of the city for lunch at the Mackenzie River Pizza Company, a Montana-based chain of restaurants that I highly recommend.
After lunch, we drove up to see the Berkeley Pit, a huge hole in the ground that was once the largest truck-operated open pit copper mine in the US. After the mines shut down in the 1980s, the 900-foot deep, mile-wide hole filled with toxic water, making it the largest pit lake in the country. It's also extremely polluted and dangerous. My son was in awe of the place.
Oh, one piece of advice if you visit the Berkeley Pit. Don't call it The Butt-Hole, because your kids will repeat that phrase all day long.
From the Pit, we drove back through Uptown Butte to the campus of Montana Tech, where we toured their excellent Mineral Museum. They have over 1500 mineral specimens from all over the world. Our favorites were a 400-pound quartz crystal called "Big Daddy" and a massive geode that you can see in the picture above (notice my daughter's finger poking through a hole in the back).
This place really impressed my kids. My son has always been something of a rock hound, but the museum opened up his eyes to the amazing variety of minerals that exist in the world. The curator handed out some very nice mineral samples to whet my son's appetite for geology.
Next we were going to head down the street to the World Museum of Mining, but the clouds unleashed a torrential downpour upon us as we left the campus. It was quickly decided to call it a day and head back to the pools at Fairmont.
And that brings us to the end of Day One of our Big Sky vacation. Did you really read all of that? Next up, Day Two will find us hiking deep underground.