Road Trip: Ennis to Centennial Valley

by | Adventures

Ennis to the Centennial Valley

Guided road trip and photos by Will Casella

Southwest Montana’s small towns and public lands offer endless exploration for locals and visitors alike. From casual scenic drives to hardcore backcountry adventures, Montana is what you make of it. The key is to get out, get off the paved roads, and explore.

Our road trip starts in Ennis, Montana, a small cattle town with a big fishing problem. The draw: some of the best fly-fishing in the world, a Main Street studded with unique, locally owned restaurants, galleries and shops, and the dramatically beautiful Madison Valley. With quality products and services more typical of a posh resort town than a small agricultural community, Ennis is your last fullservice stop, so stock up here.

If you need a fix, there are eight well posted State Fishing Access Sites along the upper Madison River that provide ample fishing opportunities.

Inquire within a local fly shop for what parts of the river are fishing the best. From Ennis, continue on US 287 toward Alder. This road winds through the historical mining towns of Virginia and Nevada City. Seemingly stuck in Victorian times, these towns offer a glimpse into rich Montana history. Take a historic fire truck tour in VC, pan for gold and garnets in Alder Gulch, or saunter down the boardwalk to the Pioneer Bar or the Bale of Hay to whet your whistle and enjoy the living history.


Virginia City

The last stop prior to getting off of the beaten path is in Alder: Chick’s Bar always has colorful and friendly characters saddled up to the horseshoe-shaped bar, and the In Back Restaurant serves up fat burgers and juicy prime-rib.

Now, following signs for the Ruby River Reservoir, turn onto MT 357. This is the Upper Ruby Valley, and the next 40 miles of gravel road have stunning scenery, ample wildlife viewing and good fishing. The reservoir has excellent boating and uncrowded campsites. Continuing on, keep an eye on the river basin for moose and bears, and scope the cliffs on your left for bighorn sheep. This section of river boasts native Artic grayling, as well as rainbow and cutthroat trout; however, it is a delicate small stream fishery so please treat with according respect.

Ruby Reservoir

Soon the topography begins to change. Sprawling working ranches are exchanged for narrow pine forest valleys. MT 357 turns into Gravelly Range Road (FR 100)—there are no road signs, but if you don’t turn off through the heart of the Beaverhead- Deerlodge National Forest, this road offers unparalleled vistas of near 10,000’ peaks and backcountry adventures galore. FR 100 turns into route 204 at the entrance to the Centennial Valley, an otherworldly place of vast prairies and wetlands.

Turn left on North Side Road (route 268) heading into Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. These wetlands have great bird and wildlife viewing—keep an eye out for Trumpeter swans, which convene here each year by the thousands to breed. Off route 268, follow signs for Elk and Hidden Lake, two of the most stunning lakes in Southwest Montana. There are several camping areas, and Elk Lake Resort offers accommodations and dining.

Follow Red Rock Pass Road (route 201) out of the Centennial Valley to Henry’s Lake. From here, you can continue back to Ennis via US 87 or carry on to West Yellowstone via US 20 concluding your Montana backcountry road-trip.

This loop could be completed in one long day, or over the course of weeks, for those willing to stop and explore. There are many rustic campsites in Ennis, on the Reservoir, along the Upper Ruby River, and on Elk and Hidden Lake. A variety of motel, lodge and RV accommodations are available in Ennis, Virginia City and Alder. Pack your bags and hit the trail. The diverse scenery, wildlife, and outdoor recreation in the Ruby and Centennial Valleys will not let you down.

Will Casella has been wandering the world in pursuit of the ultimate outdoor travelling/camping/fly fishing experience for the past 10 years. Since unpacking his bags in Bozeman, he started Phasmid Rentals, through which he shares his passion for Montana and self-drive adventures by providing outfitted rental vehicles and itinerary planning for like-minded souls. Phasmid is part of the Outlaw marketing grant


Explore Rentals is the original outdoor gear rental agency in greater Yellowstone region. Our goal has always been to provide the best possible rental gear for outdoor adventures. With well over 200 different types of outdoor rentals for outdoor adventures, we certainly have an something that will make your Montana experience more fun, safe, and comfortable. 

Our location next to the Bozeman Airport, with after-hours pick-up and drop-offs possible, allows for tremendous convenience with no waiting in line, and no hassle of dealing with shipping- ever.