There is nothing better than an open road under a big sky, and there is no shortage of that scenario in Yellowstone Country. The Madison River Scenic Drive takes you along a scenic, must-see route either to or from Yellowstone National Park, and is a great way to spend a day exploring some of the valley regions.
The Madison River Valley lies in southwest Montana, running north and south between West Yellowstone and Three Forks. It runs through the small and quaint western town of Ennis, extending to Three Forks and the Madison Canyon near Quake Lake.
If you are traveling from south to north, the Madison River Valley begins where the Madison River leaves Quake Lake, northwest of West Yellowstone.
The scenic drive route stretches for about 90 miles north to Three Forks, and typically takes around 1.5 hours with continuous driving.
Travelers coming from the direction of Big Sky can make the scenic drive route into a loop by first heading north on US 191 to Four Corners, then west on Norris Road, and finally in a southern direction along Highway 287 through Ennis.
However, you may want to plan a few stop-offs and take some time to check out some of the attractions along the way.
These include not only the town of Ennis and its accompanying nearby lake of the same name, but there is also Norris Hot Springs to consider, aside from the plethora of fishing and other recreation opportunities along the way.
The Madison River Scenic Drive – A Guide
Scenic Drive Stats
- Approximately 90 miles long
- Around 1.5 hours of continuous driving
- Multiple Attractions along the route
There are many attractions and possible stop-offs along the route depending on how much time you allow for the complete trip.
One option is to start out from the region of the national park’s West Entrance and head north along Highway 87 into southwest Montana territory. You can also head north on Highway 191 from West Yellowstone to intersect with Highway 287 heading west.
The route offers rewarding vistas throughout and it is also a gateway to some of the best fly fishing in the state as it leads you along the Madison River to Ennis, the small western town where the upper and lower reaches of the river meet and the Madison Mountain Range stakes its presence from the valley floor.
Ennis has more than a few touches of an Old West town and is famous for its hot springs. This is part of its appeal to passing visitors, although the town is also well-known to anglers from all over the world.
The site along the Madison River began attracting homesteaders in 1863 around the time of the Alder Gulch gold rush discoveries. Certainly, the spirit of the Old West is inherent in the local farms, ranches, and rodeo shows.
Ennis functions to some extent as the hub of the region, and visitors can find a small art community, as well as a few quaint lodging options and restaurants.
Norris Hot Springs
Norris Hot Springs is slightly north of Ennis and is the chance to indulge in a soak in the wood-bottomed pool at the site.
The hot springs are a popular stop-off point in the area and are well worth making a point of visiting if you undertake the scenic drive. They have a grill and frequently host live music on weekends.
The hot springs site was originally made use of by indigenous native tribes for its rejuvenation and healing properties long before anyone else settled in the area.
Lakes in the Area
You can check out Hebgen Lake along the way which was formed by a dam on the Madison River. Hebgen Lake is an attractive outdoor recreation spot that was also a feature of the 1959 earthquake that hit the area—the third largest earthquake to hit the lower 48 states with a magnitude of 7.5.
Then there is Ennis Lake about 10 miles north of the town of Ennis, a popular spot in summer due to its warm and shallow water.
In the summer months, the lake is a hotbed of activity featuring swimmers, windsurfers, and those fishing from boats (non-motorized).
The 5-mile-long Quake Lake was also formed as a result of the earthquake that also affected Hebgen Lake and resulted in the damming of the Madison River.
Other Points of Interest
You should also catch glimpses of Hilgard Peak and Sphinx Mountain set in the Madison Range to the east as you continue along the river route and its impressive features.
With a longer trip, you might consider heading up the road fourteen miles or so to check out the historic Montana gold-mining town of Virginia City.
Just to the west of Ennis, this historic ghost town will help visitors to discover the past of the area. Many of the town’s original buildings like the saloon and a few old stores are still standing.
Recreational Activities along the Drive
There are plenty of stop-offs along the way that offers the chance to find recreation opportunities like horseback riding or fishing.
It may even be worth hiring a fishing guide to take you out for a day of fly fishing if you are heading out primarily for that reason.
There are plenty of outdoor things to do in this region of the state, and fishing is a popular one as well as white-water rafting along a particular stretch of the river.
The Madison River is considered by anglers far and wide as an ideal fly fishing destination.
Both local and visiting anglers are likely to encounter a fair abundance of reasonably-sized brown trout and rainbow trout, with a few cutthroat and cut-bows thrown in for good measure. The unwitting trout don’t have the best opportunity to examine your cast fly due to the water’s consistent flow, which makes for more success.
The stretch between Quake Lake and Ennis Lake known as the “fifty-mile riffle” is reportedly one of the most productive, and it is popular for either wade or float fishing.
There are no slow pools, boulders, dead trees, or tumbling runs to be found along this run only a section of the river that is very straight and wide.
As the Madison River flows at such a constant pace, beginners often find success much more easily along its banks.
The river is also very accessible and is easy to wade. If you are looking for a change of scenery from river fishing though the Hebgen, Quake, and Ennis Lakes also offer some decent fishing opportunities.
White-Water Rafting and Bear Trap Canyon
Just down from Ennis Lake the Madison River undertakes another 30-mile journey towards the Gallatin and Jefferson rivers to form Missouri.
This particular stretch of river runs into the rather steep Bear Trap Canyon, which is only navigable by white-water rafters who flock here seasonally to do just that.
Trail Routes near the Scenic Drive
There is a reasonably-central campground within the national park at Madison Canyon which provides a great jumping-off point for anyone wanting to access the thermal basins, as well as some of the area’s best fishing sites.
A diverse system of trails also originates in the vicinity of the campground. Some of the trails lead along the river where various top spots for swimming or dipping are prominent including the odd secret lake with unearthly views seen from a mountain summit.
Other trail areas accessible from the Madison include both short and long hikes from West Yellowstone like the one below, as well as hikes originating from the Gallatin Parkway region. This area contains some wonderfully scenic hiking terrain although it is far from over-populated with hikers.
Madison River West Entrance Road
This is an 8-mile, end-to-end trail near Yellowstone National Park. The route is generally reported as a moderately challenging route and takes an average of 2.5 hours to complete.
This trail is popular not only with walkers but also with birders and in wintertime anyone strapping on a pair of snowshoes. That said, it is unlikely that you’ll encounter too many other hikers while exploring the trail.
It is worth keeping in mind there may well be seasonal road closures at some point, and this is likely to affect roads leading to this trailhead. If in doubt, check for more information.