A stagecoach carrying happy passengers rattles into town. A steam locomotive chugs up to the old depot with whistle wailing. False storefronts, weathered boardwalks, and aged hitching rails line the street. Western music tumbles out of the swinging doors of the Bale of Hay Saloon.
You don’t need a time machine for this trip, just a journey to Virginia City, Montana.
While riding down Main Street, we studied the 150-year-old buildings rising on either side of us. Like sightless eyes, wavy glass panes reflected our images. We wondered what other scenes they’ve witnessed over the years.
In Virginia City, you can immerse yourself in Old West fantasies and walk where history was made. You can also ride out of town and explore on your own or visit a nearby guest ranch.
The History Trail
Virginia City and the area around it is the cradle of Montana history. The town was founded in 1863 during a gold rush and was the second territorial capital of the state. Today, the entire town is a National Historic Landmark.
It’s thrilling to walk along the boardwalk and peer into the vintage buildings. The grocery store, barbershop, newspaper office, and apothecary are all set to go, waiting for long-dead customers.
In the 1860s, law was scarce in this section of the West. Virginia City was the site of many robberies and much lawlessness. Finally, brave citizens banded together and formed a vigilante group that rounded up desperados, then performed their own brand of frontier justice.
One of these desperados was Club Foot George, so named because of his deformed foot. You can follow the sad trail of Club Foot George by starting in the Hangman’s Building on Main Street. It was there that George and other outlaws were hung. Rope burns from the hangman’s noose are still visible on the overhead beam.
Next, head over to the old Boot Hill cemetery where a number of outlaws were buried, including Club Foot George. Around 1900, town citizens wanted to verify the location of George’s grave. So they dug it up, found his club foot, then decided to keep it as a tourist attraction! His amputated foot is still on grisly display at the Thompson-Hickman Museum.
Riding events are held yearly in Virginia City on Memorial Day and Labor Day. Parking is available in the large parking lot just west of town. Saddle up, and ride into town to purchase riding tickets.
It’s quite a sight to see up to 160 horses and riders going up and down the old streets; you almost expect to see Wyatt Earp or Ben Cartwright strolling down the boardwalk.
We went on the Memorial Ride Event. Our ticket purchase included several poker hands, prizes, and lunch at the end of the ride.
While buying our tickets downtown, a busload of tourists from England arrived. They really thought they were back in the Old West, with all the horses and riders milling around.
Buddy and Scout, our Missouri Fox Trotter geldings, were excited to begin the 12-mile loop ride. Beware as you pass the train depot! Those steam-whistle blasts may alarm some horses.
The ride is a beautiful loop that travels above town and gains about 1,000 feet in elevation. Starting out, gray curtains of morning mist lingered among the trees. Crisp, clean air was lightly scented with sage.
As our eager horses climbed, we gained views back to town. We passed by a number of old mining sites littered with rusted, twisted metal and broken machinery. Sagging buildings stood drunkenly, waiting for a strong wind or heavy snow to knock them over.
Finally, we crested the ridge top, where horse and rider were rewarded with beauty in all directions. Flocks of drifting clouds cast shadows over mountains and valleys. Several mountain ranges lined the horizon: the Tobacco Roots, the Rubies, and the Gravelly Range.
More Riding Opportunities
Another great ride right out of Virginia City is to the Axolotl Lakes Basin. Go to the east end of town, and take the first right just after the firehouse. Go steeply uphill, jog to the left, then turn right, and go on through a gate. You’ll then be on federal land managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
If you need a place to camp, this area has a convenient, primitive camp, although there’s no water. Another camping spot is at the Twin Bridges rodeo grounds, 28 miles to the west; there, you’ll find corrals and water.
From the trailhead, ride southeasterly along a soft, dirt road. At the start, notice the indents to the right of the road — old wagon ruts.
It’s about six beautiful miles to the Axolotl Lakes Basin. To the right is the deep canyon of Alder Gulch, the site of the original gold discovery. Don’t expect to see any old-growth forest. Almost all of the trees surrounding Virginia City were cut down and used for building or heating materials in the town’s heyday.
The trail winds through open, grassy parks, and pockets of juniper and ponderosa pine. In early season, this area is blanketed with the gorgeous pasque flower.
The Axolotl Lakes Basin contains seven lakes nestled in a region overlooking the Madison Valley. Because of its unique, pristine characteristics and visual attraction, this area is under consideration for designated BLM wilderness.
The local Three Rivers Backcountry Horsemen group is repairing a cabin in Axolotl Lakes Basin for people with horses. Group members have so far worked on the cabin, improved the water system, and built a corral.
Upon project completion, the cabin will be turned over to the United States Forest Service for rental. To check availability, contact the Madison Ranger District.
For a real treat, ride out of town with the Virginia City Overland Stage and Horseback Company. Wranglers will take you on a one- or two-hour ride in the foothills above town, past ponds and dilapidated buildings.
The owners also operate an authentic Concord Stagecoach, the oldest operating public-transportation system in Montana. Recently, it was voted the best stagecoach ride in the West by True West Magazine.
Upper Canyon Outfitters
Upper Canyon Outfitters is a family-operated ranch located 40 minutes from Virginia City in the Ruby River valley. It’s an incredible place to go for riding, cattle drives, pack trips, fishing, and lodging.
The drive up the Ruby River valley to the ranch is a visual feast. It’s Big Sky Country at its best: distant mountains reclining against a silk blue sky; a meandering stream; and lush green meadows where deer bed down. If we looked carefully, we could spot brown antlers floating above the sea of green.
A few miles before reaching the ranch, we saw majestic sandhill cranes. These birds can grow up to four feet tall with five- to seven-foot wingspans.
The well-designed Upper Canyon Ranch is family owned and operated by Jake and Donna McDonald. The ranch celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2010.
Donna is president of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association and helped start the "Big Hearts Under The Big Sky" project. This project provides hunting, fishing, and equine experiences for children with life-threatening illnesses.
We really liked the McDonalds’ riding philosophy. Donna explained that they prefer small groups so they can take time to stop and talk about mountain ranges, flowers, trees, and animals, and view old homesteads. Upper Canyon rides are more than just rides; they’re outdoor experiences enjoyed on horseback.
Guests are encouraged to learn about the behaviors a horse uses to communicate with people and other animals. Emphasis is put on enjoying the horse and getting much more out of the experience than just a ride up and down the mountain.
Donna says it’s amazing to see how a horse can help build confidence, courage, and pride in a person who’s just ridden in the backcountry.
The McDonalds also provide multi-day pack trips into the backcountry, where you can explore mountains, lush forests, fields dotted with wildflowers, and clear mountain streams. Pack trips can be customized to fit your needs. You can camp out all week under the stars, or just for a few days.
One specialty trip is the Outlaw Tour Vigilante Adventure. This is a progressive trip through the heart of the wilderness, including a tour of historic sites. Explore old mining claims and secluded homesteads, and relive the excitement of the gold-rush era.
Each summer, the ranch holds Quest Week, designed to enlighten guests on how to look at the Earth the way nature intended us to. You’ll also learn to see the world through the eyes of the horse. Riding, survival skills, and wilderness philosophy are taught and enjoyed all week.
Upper Canyon Outfitters provides another great horseback riding adventure: cattle drives! There are two large cattle drives each summer. The June cattle drive moves cattle from the winter valley pasture into the high mountains. The July cattle drive moves cattle from the spring pastures into the summer mountain meadows.
The Secret Ride
There are some rides that must remain relatively unknown in order to protect their pristine character. Most of us may never do these rides, but just knowing they exist provides us with a connection to nature, the past, and our heritage. So it was with the Wickiup Ride.
Just out of Virginia City, 2½ hours cross-country on horseback, in a little-known location far from any road, there stands an old wickiup. (Wickiups were built by Native Americans out of tree poles in much the same shape as tepees.) This intact wickiup is about 175 years old, roughly 12 feet across, and 15 feet high. It was built out of weathered poles now carpeted with moss and lichens. On one side is an entryway.
We tied our horses nearby and sat for some time in the sheltered forest looking at the wickiup and wondering about the Native Americans who lived here long ago.
A mystical, melancholy feeling descended upon us. Our present moment was touching the past. Spending this moment with Buddy and Scout, the beauty of nature, and the fragile wickiup made us stop and pause.
According to Tim Findley of Range Magazine, "…the best moments are always worth pausing … for they melt away as something that can never quite be seen again." That says it all.
End of the Trail
Our time spent in the cradle of Montana history came to a close. We returned home, but carried with us memories of this unique piece of Montana that will last a lifetime.
Come on out with your own horse, or enjoy the surefooted horses from Upper Canyon Outfitters. Make your own Montana memories!
Kent and Charlene Krone combine their interest in photojournalism with a passion for horses. They’ve sold photographs to magazines, books, calendars, postcards, and video producers for more than 20 years. (For a sampling, visit www.superstock.com, and type PG_1314 in the search box.) They enjoy sharing their horseback adventures in the United States and Western Canada. Reach them at email@example.com.