The shortest route from Yellowstone National Park to Sheridan, Montana is a winding road through Montana’s history. Virginia City and Nevada City stand two, intact sites of yore.
Since 1863, Virginia City has not transformed much. The historic buildings have been preserved or restored. During the mid-1800s prospectors and outlaws alike came from all over in search of gold. A lack of law enforcement and rise of wealth lead to a self-regulating system among citizens known as the Montana Vigilantes who aimed to put their city—which was at one point the capital of Montana—in order.
Montana’s first newspaper was published here in 1864. The first public school in Montana was established in Virginia City in 1866.
The main street appears to be full of storefronts, inviting visitors instead into preserved shops that are roped off much like a staged bedroom in a castle or museum.
The height of tourism is the summer when much of Virginia City is filled with reenactments and actors/interpreters dressed for the Gold Rush.
On a hill behind the main street is the town’s “Boot Hill” cemetery. “Boot Hill” was a fairly common term for cemeteries in the American west for men who died literally with their boots on—these were generally outlaws and their deaths were typically due to violent causes (i.e. gunfight or hanging, not by natural causes).
At the edge of town, you can still pan for gold or garnets. We tested out screening for garnets and had we known we’d be so successful, we might have gone for gold instead. An old prospector who spoke as though he had marbles in his mouth sold us a medium sized bucket full of pebbles for about $15. We thus put a few cups of rocks onto a screen and rinsed them in a trough. Once rinsed, we emptied them onto a sponge and sifted through the contents with large tweezers in search of garnets: dark red gems found in the earth. By the time we were done, we had nearly filled a small ziplock bag. I’m not sure they’re of any real value, but the search was exciting, while exceptionally tedious.
Nevada City was settled just up the road from Virginia City around the same time.
We ate lunch at the Star Bakery, an operating restaurant and bakery, on its last day of the season.
Historically, the railroad never actually reached Virginia City nor Nevada City, and yet, vintage trains are displayed across the street from the Star Bakery.
To plan your trip to Virginia and Nevada City, download their app (Apple and Android) which includes walking tours and maps, all via your phone. The two cities also happen to have a great website, check it out here.