The town of Dillon, on the road from Yellowstone to Glacier National Park, is the heart of Montana’s largest county by land area with a little more than 4,000 residents. This gorgeous part of the state leaves plenty of room to roam uncrowded spaces. The 3.35-million-acre Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest surrounding Dillon offers incredible opportunities to recreate while the town itself is full of western charm. Here are nine reasons to visit.
1. See Two Ghost Towns
Thirty minutes outside of Dillon, see a remarkably well-preserved 1800s ghost town at Bannack State Park. Montana’s first territorial capital, this gold-rush town was fully abandoned in the 1950s and made into a state park. Purchase a guidebook from the visitor center to go on a self-guided tour through the buildings along the main street. Or for a more immersive experience, visit on Saturdays for special programming, the third weekend in July for Bannack Days or the third weekend in September for Living History weekend. These events help bring pioneer history to life through actors in costume, activities like gold panning and breakfast at the Hotel Meade and more.
For a spookier-feeling ghost town experience, head to Coolidge northwest of Dillon, which was a silver mine in the early 1900s. Located off the Pioneer Scenic Byway, park at the Coolidge Ghost Town Trailhead and walk for 10-15 minutes to see ruins of the town’s buildings, mill and railroad. The dilapidated buildings and lack of facilities make it feel like ghosts could be lurking around any corner.
2. Hit the Trails
There’s no shortage of impressive trails in this part of the country, so figuring out where to start can be daunting. A local favorite? The “M” and “B” hikes overlooking town. “You can hike anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours on all the trails under the “M” for Montana and the “B” for Beaverhead County on the small mountains surrounding Dillon,” says Beaverhead Chamber of Commerce & Agriculture executive director, Rebecca Jones. The trailhead starts on Ten Mile Road.
If you’d rather explore Dillon’s trails with a motor, you’re not alone. There’s some amazing off-roading on the public lands surrounding Dillon. Head to Beaverhead Adventures to rent a side by side and get local advice on where to go.
3. Dig for Crystals
If you’re traveling with kids, one of the best family-friendly attractions around Dillon is Crystal Park. Located in the national forest, this 220-acre recreation area is home to an impressive amount of quartz crystals that visitors can dig for. You might find white, grey or “smoky” quartz, or prized purple amethysts. You can keep anything you find. There’s a $5 per vehicle parking fee and only hand tools are allowed. Grab your digging supplies at Murdoch’s, Rocky Mountain Supply or Beaverhead Home Center in Dillon.
4. See Trumpeter Swans
At the remote Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge two hours southeast of Dillon, trumpeter swans now abound, but that wasn’t always the case. The refuge was established in 1935 when the beautiful birds numbered less than 70. Thanks to conservation efforts, their population has rebounded to 46,000 across North America. Try to spot these elegant waterfowl and other wildlife like raptors, river otters, moose, wolves and more as you hike, drive or canoe through this stunning wildlife refuge. Two primitive campgrounds are also available on a first-come, first-served basis. Staying overnight gives you access to the best times to view wildlife: dawn and dusk.
5. Enjoy Local Sourdough
Located 40 minutes south of Dillon, Old Schoolhouse Café in Dell is a local pilgrimage for their breakfast. Its specialty? Sourdough. Eat sourdough pancakes, French toast and pies made with sourdough crust in addition to other breakfast favorites like bacon, sausage, eggs and hashbrowns, in a historic one-room schoolhouse at 435 Oregon Shortline. This is a great stop on your way to Red Rock Lakes. Looking for breakfast closer to Dillon? It might be a small town, but it doesn’t mess around when it comes to coffee. For easy caffeine on your way to your day’s activities, stop by Peak Espresso or Coffee Works. Both are drive-through coffee kiosks, which are a staple in Montana. Sweetwater Coffee is also a great spot to sit and enjoy a coffee and breakfast, or light lunch.
6. Watch a Rodeo
Dillon’s population swells on Labor Day Weekend, which is locally known as “Montana’s Biggest Weekend,” because of the Pro Rodeo Association event of the same name. Buy your tickets to see barrel racing, saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling, bull riding and more. This major event isn’t Dillon’s only rodeo. In late July you’ll find the Dillon Territorial Rodeo Days which, in addition to a rodeo, includes living history, cook offs, cowboy poetry, concerts and more.
7. Go Camping
One of the best ways to get back to nature in Dillon is to go camping. There’s three RV parks in town that can accommodate RVs with full hookups: Beaverhead River RV Park & Campground, Southside RV Park and Dillon Motorcoach & RV Park. The latter can even accommodate rigs up to 100 feet in length. The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest has 50 established campgrounds. Or, if you’re looking to get really off the grid, there’s plenty of areas for dispersed, or undeveloped, camping near Dillon. Stop by the Dillon Visitor Center at 10 W. Reeder St. to get information on how to safely travel and camp off-road.
8. Learn Western History
Dillon, Mont. sits in the heart of western history. Start discovering it at the Beaverhead County Museum at 15 S. Main St. One of the most interesting pieces of history in this part of the country? Lewis and Clark’s traveled through here. Head to Beaverhead Rock State Park to learn more about Lewis and Clark and their Shoshone guide, Sacagawea. Sacagawea recognized Beaverhead Rock and knew the expedition was getting close to her tribe’s homelands where Lewis and Clark could trade their canoes for horses to get across the mountains and to the Pacific Ocean.
Big Hole National Battlefield is another important piece of American history that you can visit just outside Dillon. In 1877, U.S. troops waged a surprise attack on a Nez Perce camp at this site and killed 90 people. This sobering site remembers the Nez Perce who died here and gives an important look at Native American history. Join a weekend battlefield tour at 10:30 a.m. Friday through Monday, or attend the Summer Speaker Series on Saturdays and Sundays late June through late August to learn from Nez Perce presenters.
9. See the Snow
The fun doesn’t stop in this part of the country when the weather gets cold. Head to Beaverhead Adventures to rent a snowmobile and go “sledding” as the locals call it, or head to Maverick Mountain in Polaris, 50 miles west of Dillon. This unapologetically local ski area has 350 acres of terrain, 70% of which is intermediate or expert. With lift tickets costing only $40 for an adult, this mountain is truly a hidden gem.
For a truly unique winter experience, head to Wisdom for the Big Hole Valley Winterfest in late February each year. Skijoring – when a horse pulls a skier or snowboarder along behind it, is a totally unique sport to watch and at this festival, you’ll get a big dose of it.
For more information:
Dillon Chamber and Visitor Bureau
10 W. Reeder St., Dillon, MT 59725