Alder Gulch was discovered in 1863 by William Fairweather and his party, who were traveling from the mining town of Bannack to Yellowstone Country. When they were approached by a band of Crow, the men retreated to a gulch, where they found gold.
The site eventually became one of the most profitable gold producers in history, generating $10 million in gold in the first year alone. It paved the way for the formation of Virginia City and Nevada City—two more significant mining locations during the Montana Gold Rush.
Alder Gulch, alternatively called Alder Creek, was eventually named after the alder trees that were prominent in the area.
The discovery of Alder Gulch left a lasting impact on Montana’s mining culture. Bannack was no longer the top destination for miners, who were attracted to the new opportunities in Virginia City and Nevada City.
Thus, the strike at Alder Gulch led to Virginia City becoming Montana’s first territorial capitol.
Around 10,000 people resided in the settlements lining Alder Gulch, named Fourteen-mile City, during the mid-1860s. Virginia City was the largest settlement, with half the population of the area based here.
The population was diverse, with Chinese, Euromericans, Lemhi Shoshone Indians, Mexicans, and African Americans all living in the area.
The gold produced by Alder Gulch helped to boost the domestic economy during the Civil War. At least $90 million in gold had been mined before 1900, which would equate to $45 billion in today’s currency (Montana Pioneer).
Following the discovery of another gold strike in Last Chance Gulch in 1864, miners in Alder Gulch moved to the newly formed city of Helena.
The population in Virginia City and other settlements in Alder Gulch rapidly declined by the early 1870s.
The territorial capitol was relocated to Helena in 1875, and construction on new buildings in Alder Gulch came to a halt after the turn of the century. The area never returned to its former glory.
Virginia City, which lines Alder Gulch, is one of the best living examples today of the mining camps that existed during the height of Montana’s Gold Rush.
Today, it’s home to around 150 residents and receives around 500,000 visitors annually who arrive to witness the period architecture and mining relics.
Main Attractions in Alder Gulch
Given the rich gold mining history of Alder Gulch, many of the most popular attractions revolve around this deeply ingrained legacy. If you’re visiting the gulch, you can’t miss the following highlights:
Virginia City is one of the best-preserved mining towns in Montana. Several of the original buildings are still standing, allowing visitors to get a sense of what it was like during its peak in the 19th century.
The main boardwalk in Virginia City is home to two old photo studios: Montana Picture Gallery and the Wallace Street Photographic Emporium. Visitors can dress in period clothing and use props taken straight from the Old West to pose for an unforgettable souvenir photo.
There is also Cousin’s Candy Shop, which has been around since 1926. The nearly century-old vendor sells homemade chocolate and fudge, plus numerous other varieties of wrapped candy.
While Virginia City in itself is a living piece of history, one of the best destinations for history buffs in the city is the Thompson-Hickman Museum. Built in the 1920s, the museum displays fascinating artifacts from the Gold Rush period, including rare guns and even geological rock samples.
The museum also boasts a photo collection that gives guests a glimpse of what the town looked like in the 19th century, as well as a gift shop selling books, prints, and postcards.
Nevada City Old Town Museum and Music Hall
What was once a booming mining camp is today the Nevada City Museum, where visitors can observe a selection of old buildings that capture the essence of the Montana Gold Rush, including authentic log cabins that were once used by miners.
The summer season is the best time to visit Nevada City since the town plays host to Living History events on the weekends. These re-enactments and interpretations of real historical events educate travelers about the town’s history while also entertaining them.
Admission to the museum starts at $10 for adults, and there are discounts available. Nevada City is open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.
Alder Gulch Shortline
The Alder Gulch Shortline was built in 1964 to connect Virginia City and Nevada City by Charles Bovey, who was restoring the area as a tourist attraction decades after its prime as a mining hotspot.
The train is a great option for those who’d like to see both Virginia City and Nevada City and learn about their legacies along the way, as the conductor will regale guests with the history of the area.
The ride only takes 15 minutes from point A to B, and is a much more fun experience than driving yourself between the towns.
River of Gold
If you’d like to learn more about the mining heritage of Alder Gulch, there’s no better way than to visit the River of Gold, an outdoor museum that displays real mining equipment, and the Mount Vernon Dredge where guests can also pan for gold!
The River of Gold is located along Alder Gulch, between Virginia City and Nevada City. There’s a gift shop on site that sells rock sand panning supplies and unique gifts.
The museum itself is free to enter, making it the perfect addition to any trip to the Gulch!
There’s a wide range of accommodation available in and around Alder Gulch. The majority of the lodging is located in Virginia City, though there are also inns in the nearby town of Ennis.
Regardless of your budget, there’s an accommodation of various price ranges and styles in the area. Some of the most popular choices include:
- $ – Vigilante View – Virginia City
- $ – The Bonanza Inn – Virginia City
- $$ – Red Bear Inn – Ennis
- $$ – Lure Me Inn – Ennis
- $$ – Sportsman’s Lodge – Ennis
- $$$ – Fairweather Inn – Virginia City
- $$$ – Harding House – Virginia City
- $$$ – Governor Meagher Cabin – Virginia City
- June – Irish Weekend
- June – Vigilante Music Fest
- July – Ennis Annual 4th of July Parade and Rodeo
- July – Ennis 4th of July Car Show
- July – Virginia City Brewfest
- August – Fly Fishing and Outdoor Festival
Activities Near Alder Gulch
Along with the main attractions to add to your Alder Gulch bucket list, also be sure to enjoy the following activities while visiting Virginia City:
Historic Tour Company
The Historic Tour Company runs tours of Virginia City in a classic 1941 enclosed fire engine. The tours typically run for 35 minutes and feature guides that give detailed accounts of the city and its history.
This is one of the best ways to see the town, especially if you don’t feel like walking!
Vigilante Carriages Tours
One of the best ways to see Virginia City is to take a historic tour with Vigilante Carriages. There are stagecoach, wagon, carriage, and sleigh tours that run around Virginia City and the surrounding areas, including all of Alder Gulch.
The company also offers dinner rides for a complete romantic experience!
The Virginia City Players
The Virginia City Players are located in Virginia City and offer shows that run for about two hours. Their shows generally consist of both melodrama and vaudeville.
Visitors can grab a drink from the nearby Bale of Hay Saloon to bring into the theater and enjoy a night of historic entertainment!
The Brewery Follies
The Brewery Follies Show is another popular form of entertainment on offer in cc. The season lasts from Memorial Day weekend through September and features two comedy shows a day, one at 4 p.m. and one at 8 p.m.
The shows themselves are cabaret-style musicals that include both comedy skits and musical numbers.