Discover the Best 14 Destinations to Explore in Montana
The author of this article, Brad Lane, spent three years residing in Montana from 2018 to 2021.
There's nowhere quite like Montana. From the snowy peaks to the remnants of historic mining towns, the state boasts landscapes and cultural experiences that are second to none in North America. But be warned, once you've had a taste of Montana's grandeur and adventure, it's tough to be content living anywhere else.
Montana's mountainous terrain dominates much of the state, particularly in the west where the Continental Divide proudly displays the majesty of the Rocky Mountains. It's in this rugged region that you'll find some of the most desirable sights in North America, including the illustrious Glacier National Park, also known as the Crown of the Continent.
But the adventures don't end with Glacier. Montana is home to an abundance of wilderness areas and millions of acres of national forest, with several Western cities such as Missoula or Bozeman that offer even more by way of cultural attractions.
To help you make the most of your Big Sky Country experience, we've compiled a list of the top places to visit in Montana.
Glacier National Park ranks among the state's greatest highlights, boasting awe-inspiring mountain peaks, picturesque lakes, and a multitude of campgrounds.
Nicknamed The Crown of the Continent, Glacier National Park is situated in the northwestern part of Montana with Waterton Lakes National Park of Canada joining at the border. Spanning the Continental Divide, the park is the source of the headwaters of three major North American watersheds and as such, it's one of Montana's most popular state and national parks.
Millennia-old glaciers and heavy snowfall have carved out the spectacular Rocky Mountain terrain, resulting in an otherworldly, alpine landscape defined by U-shaped valleys, ice-cold lakes, and scenic peaks. The main road through Glacier, the Going-to-the-Sun Road, spans 50 miles and offers breathtaking views of the park's main attractions.
When visiting Glacier National Park, some must-see sights include Lake McDonald, Logan Pass, and St. Mary – the western terminus, middle, and eastern terminus of the Going-to-the-Sun Road. These areas have easy access via the park's free shuttle service, and numerous trails and camps sites are dotted along the way, along with some remarkable historic chalets.
In the summer months, hiking, backpacking, fishing, boating, camping, and simply basking in the stunning sceneries define the Glacier experience. Winters offer solitude, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing opportunities. The park's peak season is between Memorial Day and Labor Day, attracting an estimated three million visitors.
Don't miss the chance to see this unique jewel of Montana, Glacier National Park!
Looking for the best places to stay near Glacier National Park? Check out our recommended accommodations here: Best Places to Stay near Glacier National Park. And while you're there, don't miss out on the top-rated activities! Follow this link for more information: Top-Rated Things to Do in Glacier National Park.
Bozeman, a charming western town in southwest Montana, has something for everyone. With its easy access to wild environments and places like Bridger Bowl Ski Area and Custer Gallatin National Forest, Bozeman is the perfect spot for hiking, fishing, and skiing. Check out some of the best hiking trails here: Best Hiking Trails Near Bozeman.
But Bozeman isn't just about outdoor activities. The city also boasts Montana State University and a constant stream of vibrant young people that add to the historic Main Street running through downtown. Other educational opportunities in Bozeman include the American Museum of Robotics and the widely recognized Museum of the Rockies, with one of the largest dinosaur fossil collections in the country. For a list of accommodations in Bozeman, follow this link: Where to Stay in Bozeman. And to discover the top-rated attractions and things to do in the area, check out this link: Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Bozeman.
Missoula, the university city on the Clark Fork River, is also a great place to explore Montana and its outdoor spaces. Whether for a visit or an extended stay, Missoula offers a healthy college population and local community, as well as several cultural and entertainment outlets. Don't miss out on the fun city attractions, including the Missoula Art Museum and the Hip Strip, a trendy area of local storefronts along the river. Plus, the Clark Fork River Trail provides a convenient way to explore the city's attractions and things to do.
The city is in close proximity to scenic getaways such as the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Montana Snowbowl, which offer invigorating trails and ski slopes. Pierce deeper into Montana landscapes by exploring the adjacent national forests surrounding the city. The most delightful weather to engage in Missoula is during the summer and shoulder seasons, but winter has its own frosty charm.
Read More: Top-Rated Camping Sites in Missoula
Flathead Lake | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane Highlights: Access point to Whitefish Ski Resort, Glacier National Park, and Flathead Lake
Whitefish lies on the northern reaches of Empire Builder Amtrak line in far Northwest Montana. In addition to resorts such as the adjacent Whitefish Mountain Resort, also known as Big Mountain, this community is the ideal jump-off point for exploring the wonders of Glacier National Park via the western Apgar Entrance, located just 30 minutes away.
The Whitefish downtown district is a hotspot of local stores, eateries, and art galleries, hosting vibrant entertainment all year round, including winters when the town's streets are bustling with skiers and snowboarders from Whitefish Mountain Resort. The surrounding wilderness, which includes Whitefish Lake and the adjacent Flathead National Forest, also captures the attention of visitors.
Whitefish is also an exceptional destination to use as a base for exploring captivating sites. Additionally, to being close to Glacier National Park in the north, Kalispell and Flathead Lake are reachable with ease in the south, offering a small-town charm and western appeal that will leave you mesmerized.
Accommodation: Lodging in Whitefish
Mammoth Hot Springs | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane Highlights: First National Park in the US, comprises over two million acres of geothermal traits
The southern end of the Paradise Valley in the southwest part of the state of Montana is where visitors to Yellowstone National Park's Gardiner entrance can be found. The Boiling River, as well as the colorful travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs, are among the natural wonders that tourists will encounter at this park entrance. The historic Fort Yellowstone and Albright Visitor Center are also located on-site.
Mammoth Hot Springs is a must-see attraction on its own, featuring campground sites, eateries, and a variety of boardwalk trails. A visit to this unique and fragrant part of the park will make you yearn for more, more than the 3,500 square miles of Yellowstone that beckon for exploration, with their abundance of geothermal features and charming locales.
In Yellowstone National Park, there are numerous notable tourist sites, including Yellowstone Lake, Grand Prismatic Spring, and the Upper Geyser Basin, featuring Old Faithful. Bison and other wildlife such as black and grizzly bears, grey wolves, and elk are frequently spotted from vehicles.
Summer season and winters in Butte attract many visitors, ensuring that campground and lodge reservations fill up quickly. Tourists from around the world come to experience the Montana mining industry's history on the city's streets; Butte is a great place to witness true Montana culture.
Butte's rich history is evident with a remarkable sight at the Berkeley Pit, which served as a reminder of the city's mining past. On the retired Orphan Girl Mine, the World Museum of Mining provides visitors with an educational and exciting experience. The town is best experienced by hopping on one of many guided tours, like Old Butte Historical Adventures, which includes a classic Underground City Tour.
The surrounding Rocky Mountain landscape is a year-round destination suitable for adventure enthusiasts. Visitors can visit the next-largest town of Anaconda, which offers significant experience other than Butte.
Visitors can experience Montana's gold rush history in the State Capital, Helena, where Reeder's Alley near downtown hosts several preserved Pioneer's cabins. The State Capitol building's ornate design showcases interpretive information and historical paintings. Montana Historical Society showcases the nation-state inspired art and interpretive information. Mount Helena provides the defining backdrop of the city, and Helena city park display's great hiking trails and excellent vistas near the city center. ExplorationWorks Plaza is an engaging science museum for families to visit, and the adjacent Great Northern Carousel adds more fun to it. Cathedral of St. Helena near the city center towers impressively and is easy to appreciate for its century-old architecture.
Looking for a magnificent outdoor vacation in Montana? Look no further than Flathead Lake, a massive freshwater lake in Northwest Montana that stretches over 180 miles of coastline and offers incredible boating, fishing, and camping opportunities. Boating and water activities are the most popular things to do there, thanks to the flat surface and excellent fishing conditions. You can easily access the lake through several public access points and boat ramps along the shores.
If you're looking for adventure, be sure to visit Wild Horse Island, the largest island in the lake that is only accessible by boat. Feral horses still roam the island, and you can rent kayaks, powerboats, and even take a ferry ride from the west side of the lake.
For history buffs, Great Falls is a vacation destination that offers significant Montana history, including the Cowboy Artists, the Corps of Discovery, and indigenous populations. You can explore several fascinating museums like the C.M. Russell Museum and the Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art, or visit the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center for a more in-depth look at the city's past.
If you prefer outdoor activities, the River's Edge Trail is an excellent pedestrian path that spans the city on both sides of the Missouri River, showcasing several stunning outdoor attractions. Giant Springs State Park, in particular, is home to some of the most significant natural freshwater springs in the country. If you head west of Great Falls, you'll find First People's Buffalo Jump State Park and the site of ancient buffalo hunting grounds.
Don't worry about accommodations; you'll find several excellent hotels and lodging options in both Helena and Great Falls. And if you're looking for scenic small towns to take a break on your journey between Butte and Missoula, consider Philipsburg. Here, charming small towns await, surrounded by beautiful vistas along scenic highways.
Southwest Montana boasts two historic towns, Philipsburg and Anaconda, both of which have turned into popular tourist destinations. The Anaconda-Pintler Scenic Highway, also known as the Pintler Veterans Memorial Scenic Highway, connects these towns over a distance of 64 miles. The scenic drive is dotted with the spectacular Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest.
Philipsburg, located an hour east of Missoula, is a delightful 19th-century mining town with a bustling main street that offers a fun-filled experience. Lining the street are numerous attractions such as art galleries, vintage soda shops and the critically acclaimed candy store, The Sweet Palace. Additionally, visitors can mine for Montana sapphires and other Western gems and relive the town's mining history.
Anaconda, located at the other end of the byway, only 20 minutes from Butte, boasts a rich history tied to the neighboring "Richest Hill on Earth," which is still visible from the towering Anaconda Smelter Stack rising above the city. The town's top attractions include a historic theater, a resort with natural hot springs, and the Old Works Golf Club, complete with black slag bunkers.
Livingston, located in southwestern Montana on the Yellowstone River, offers tourists an artsy Old West experience at the end of Paradise Valley, opposite Yellowstone National Park. The city boasts a cultural scene with art galleries, restaurants, and past and present celebrity homes. It also provides abundant opportunities for fly fishing, hiking, and hot springs. Livingston Peak is visible from Main Street, providing breathtaking views of the Rocky Mountain region.
Virginia City is a perfectly preserved ghost town just west of Yellowstone National Park that was once a vibrant Gold Rush locale. Today, it offers a fun step back in time for tourists and families. Visitors can enjoy live performances at the Virginia City Opera House and take guided tours accompanied by costumed characters roaming through the streets.
The Little Bighorn Indian Memorial is a national monument located at the site of "Custer's Last Stand," commemorating the Battle of Little Bighorn and the fighters who lost their lives in 1876. The monument features an array of unique places to visit such as the Custer National Cemetery and Deep Ravine Trail, and the 7th Cavalry and Indian Memorial.
Billings, Montana's largest city, is situated in the south-central part of the state, with a population of over 100,000 residents and stunning sandstone cliffs carving through the city. Known as Montana's Trailhead, the city offers in-town outdoor attractions such as the Yellowstone River, Lake Elmo, and Pictograph Caves State Parks. The Beartooth Highway, renowned for navigating alpine terrain, stretches for 68 miles to reach Yellowstone National Park. In addition, Billings boasts museums, restaurants, and historic mansions dotting the downtown district.
Montana's best time to visit is during the summer months, from June to August, thanks to their warmest temperatures and longest days, perfect for exploring the great outdoors. September and October offer milder temperatures and fewer crowds. Spring, from March to May, also presents a good time to visit, replete with comfortable weather and a chance of occasional rainfall.
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