Sunset in Butte, Montana – at the Big M

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Because Butte is built on a hillside, it’s pretty easy to find a great place to view a sunset or look out over the town.  But there’s no place better to take some photos than the Big M, on the side of Big Butte, in the middle of the Big Butte Open Space Recreation Area.  A short uphill scramble allows you to access the M, and if you go a bit further, you’ll be rewarded with a 360-degree view of the area.

Location

The Big Butte Open Space Recreation Area is located on the west side of downtown Butte.  From downtown, take Excelsior Avenue uphill, then turn west on Hornet Street, which turns into Oro Fino Gulch Road.  At the crest of the hill, watch for a big parking area, and a dirt road on the left.  This dirt road ends at a smaller parking area, just below the big M.

My Visit

400-and-some miles after leaving Salt Lake City, I made it to Butte, with just a few minutes to spare before sunset.  Since I had been here before, I already knew the layout of the town – and I figured I could catch a nice sunset if I just drove uphill.  Eventually, I ended up at the Big M, on the side of Big Butte, but first…

… I found my way to the Alice Mine Pit.  Technically, this is in Walkerville, which remains a separate town, even though it’s surrounded by Butte.  The Alice Mine was one of the first silver mines in Montana, dating back to the 1870’s.  Now, the pit has been reclaimed but is still off-limits behind a fence.

For a better view, you can walk up the hill that’s next to the pit.   It’s now known as Knob Hill Park, and a paved path winds around to the top of the hill.  It was so close to sunset, that I had to run to get to the top in time.

After a long day in the car, I needed the exercise, and the effort was worth it. Those are some beautiful Montana mountains.

The view back towards town is also quite nice.  Butte’s skyline is punctuated with numerous old mining headframes.  You can see several of them from here.

I could also see something else that piqued my interest – a giant M emblazoned on a hillside, not far from my location.  I pieced together a path on the winding roads and made my way over to…

The Big M

The Big M is located west of downtown.  It’s included in the Big Butte Open Space Recreation Area.  And just like another Big M in Missoula, a close-up visit requires a strenuous uphill hike.

Scramble up to the Big M and you’ll find it protected by a chain-link fence.  You could very easily squeeze through the barrier in several locations if you really wanted to get close, but the view outside the fence is just fine.  Circle around the M and continue up the hill, for a stunning view of all of Butte.

The Big M was created by students from the Montana School of Mines in 1910.  Lights were added in 1962.

I could have also caught a nice sunset from this spot, had I driven here first.  Most of the land to the west of Big Butte is vacant, and much of it is included in the Big Butte Recreation Area.

There’s one more thing worth noticing while you’re up here.  Look straight across town, at the mountains on Butte’s east side.  Not far from the radio towers, there’s a white dot.  In real life, you can more clearly see that it’s a giant statue.  Our Lady of the Rockies is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and has stood over Butte since 1985.  The 90-foot-tall statue is the fourth-tallest statue in the U.S.  At night, it is illuminated, and once the sky and the mountains go dark, it looks like a ghost floating in the sky.

Part of the road to Our Lady of the Rockies is on private land, so you’re not allowed to drive up to it.  However, you can take a two-hour tour on a bus that departs from Butte.  As of 2017, the tour costs $18 for adults, slightly less for children, seniors, and military members. Buses run at least twice a day during the summer months.
Another worthwhile stop in Butte is the Granite Mountain Mining Disaster Memorial.  It’s also located in the hills above Butte, to the east of Walkerville. Also check out the toxic soup in the Berkeley Pit.  I visited both locations on my previous trip to Butte.

Here’s a look at the drive through Montana on Interstate 15.  The drive into Butte and up to the Alice Mine is near the end, after the bug storm:

Drivelapse Video

The Bottom Line

Butte’s unique landscape makes it an interesting place to visit.  You’ll find plenty of great viewpoints as you head uphill.  Be sure to check out the Alice Mine site, and drive out to see the view from the Big M.

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