Drive to the top of 25-mile Canyon Creek and Quartz Hill roads, which rise out of Melrose on the Big Hole River, and the whole atmosphere changes. Ghost towns from the mining era give way to a wet, silent meadow with little else besides acres of flowers. The white-bark pine forest on the plateau shades alien-looking green gentians, with their foot-tall flower spikes; the white flowers of wild valerian, a natural sedative; and scores of other species. The most concentrated displays in the state are found in Vipond Park (park is a mountaineering term meaning "high alpine meadow"), which is easily accessible: the drive up and down, leaving from the town of Dewey, can be done in three hours.
WHERE TO STAY Guests who snag a suite at the Old Hotel (101 E. Fifth Ave., Twin Bridges; 406/684-5959; www.theoldhotel.com; doubles $125, breakfast included) should prepare for a little bit of Scotland in the middle of Montana. Chef-owner Jane Waldie, a transplant from the Scottish Highlands, has kept the 1897 house spare and rustic, placing an English antique dresser here and a Mackintosh-style stained-glass window there. Each of the two suites has its own entrance and sitting room and accommodates up to four people. Even those who can't get a room come to the Old Hotel for breakfast—such as "potty eggs," a Scottish dish of baked eggs with cream and butter (like coddled eggs)—or elaborate dinners: stuffed cremini mushrooms, chile-honey-glazed pork tenderloin, or rack of lamb with raspberry-chipotle sauce. • The main house at Healing Waters Fly Fishing Lodge (270 Tuke Lane, Twin Bridges; 406/684-5960; www.flyfishing-inn-montana.com; doubles from $950, including meals and fishing trips) sits in a grove of cottonwoods, where trout ponds dot the landscape. The inn's seven guest rooms are outfitted with Western touches (Indian textiles, rough-hewn wooden nightstands) and creature comforts (oversized tubs, private decks looking onto the Ruby and Tobacco Root Mountains). Fly-fishing is what the understated lodge built its reputation upon—owner Greg Lilly is the son of Bud Lilly, whose iconic Bud Lilly's Trout Shop in West Yellowstone helped fuel the growth of the sport in the sixties—but the Lillys have sent clients wildflower-hunting for years (ask about their secret spots).
THE GUIDE A mountain-tanned California native with a Ph.D. in zoology, Catherine Cain moved to Montana in the eighties and turned her enthusiasm for nature toward local flora. On guided tours with her High Country Discovery (220 S. River Rd., Divide; 406/267-3377; www.highcountrydiscovery.com; day trips from $300 for up to two people, $50 each additional person), Cain finds indigenous species like two-inch-high pale-pink bitterroot, the state flower, and will gladly dig up wild onions and water chestnut-like spring beauties, which she'll work into a picnic lunch.
Dean Kuipers writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times. His story about snowshoeing appeared in the February 2002 issue of Travel + Leisure.