Massive Montana comprises the Last Best Place in the American West, encompassing a wild terrain of Rocky Mountain adventures and bucket-list places to visit. Amid the mountains, national forests and wild rivers teeming with trout, several historical and current railroad depots punctuate the state, now grown into Montana’s best cities, showcasing its independent yet inviting culture.
Interstate 90 and 15 cross in the mountainous western half of the state, supplemented by a network of state highways lending access to several notable Big Sky destinations. While some top spots get a wave of traffic throughout summer, getting around Montana typically involves wide-open roadways. Montana’s cities are small enough to explore car-free, but a personal vehicle offers much more freedom to explore outdoors.
1. Glacier National Park
Best place to satisfy wanderlust on a hiking trail
The Crown of the Continent in northwest Montana – Glacier National Park – is a true choose-your-own-adventure for jaw-dropping hiking trails. Over 700 miles of well-worn paths navigate its terrain of startling mountain peaks and wildlife-strewn valleys. Several trails challenge the legs, although a general rule of thumb is the higher the climb, the better the view.
For those just getting introduced to Montana hiking trails, head for the Hidden Lake Trail departing from the Logan Pass Visitor Center. Clements Mountain provides a scenic guidepost along this approximately five-mile round-trip hike, visible above the wildflower meadows of Hanging Gardens lining the route. For those ready for a bigger challenge, the park’s signature hiking trail, the Highline Trail, also departs from Logan Pass.
Planning Tip: Finding parking can be the most challenging aspect of visiting the famous Logan Pass – the highest point along the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The park’s free summer shuttle system ensures you’ll never be turned away because of parking capacity.
Best place for Western history
Wild West history is on full display in Butte, Montana, near the western slopes of the Continental Divide. This mining town experienced its boom in the late 1800s with vast copper lodes contributing to its moniker: “The Richest Hill on Earth.”
Mining operations have ceased in Butte, leaving behind the infamous Berkeley Pit and over 6,000 historic properties now part of the Butte-Anaconda Historic District, one of the largest in the country. This landmark status plunges visitors into the history that once made Butte the largest city between San Francisco and Chicago.
Copper King mansions, underground mines and sealed-away speakeasies are a few guided tour opportunities diving deeper into Butte’s history. The Pekin Noodle Parlor is also a current attraction of historical interest as one of the oldest family-run Chinese restaurants in the country.
Best basecamp for skiing and snowboarding
The university city of Bozeman draws an adventurous crowd throughout its long, powdery winter season. And between late November and April, residents and visitors flock toward the cold smoke of two of Montana’s best ski and snowboard destinations, Bridger Bowl Ski Area and Big Sky Resort.
Bridger Bowl is at the backdoor of Bozeman, accessible with a 30-minute drive or a free shuttle ride. Its 2,000 skiable acres attract a moderate crowd of students, community members, and tourists, though it only gets busy by Montana standards, with rarely more than a 20-minute chairlift wait. Lift tickets are cheaper if you buy online through Bridger Bowl’s website.
Big Sky Resort, located a scenic hour’s drive south, is the pinnacle of Montana skiing. A growing collection of over 30 lifts, including North America’s first 8-person lift (heated seats included), access its staggering 6,000 acres flowing down from Lone Peak. Intrepid downhill visitors can ride the Lone Peak Tram to the summit for a memorable black-diamond ride.
4. West Yellowstone
Best place for spotting wildlife
West Yellowstone is a gateway community for Yellowstone National Park, with the park’s entrance less than a mile from the center of this small tourist town. Wildlife abounds in the nation’s first national park, alongside hot springs, fumaroles, and geysers, with frequent sightings of American bison along the roadside.
Head to the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone for guaranteed sightings of Greater Yellowstone wildlife. This non-profit, AZA-accredited wildlife park maintains a stimulating habitat for animals unfit to live in the wild. Budget extra time to hang out in the Naturalist Cabin, featuring floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the resident wolf packs.
5. Flathead Lake
Best place for summer traditions
Flathead Lake is hard to miss when visiting northwest Montana. It’s the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River in the contiguous United States, requiring at least a 40-mile drive from end to end. And with state parks, campgrounds, boat ramps, and small towns lining the route, it’s often a central base for summer road trip traditions.
Flathead Cherries are one summer tradition not to miss. Cherry season is short and sweet in the Flathead Valley, with farm stands popping up near the shoreline in July through early August. Plan a visit to coincide with the Flathead Cherry Festival, typically the last weekend of July, for the full taste of these regional treats.
Planning Tip: Looking for an adventure? Rent a kayak or book a charter to Wild Horse Island near the lake’s western shore, and keep your eyes peeled for the feral residents.
Best place to fly fish blue-ribbon waterways
Missoula is a fly-fishing paradise at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana. Local author Norman Maclean captured this ethos in his iconic 1976 collection of stories, A River Runs Through It, and Brad Pitt and Robert Redford revamped enthusiasm with their 1992 blockbuster hit.
The Clark Fork, Bitterroot, and Blackfoot are world-class rivers within bicycling distance of Missoula, including tributaries like Rock Creek. Outfitters like Missoulian Angler offer guided fly-fishing trips for first-timers and experienced anglers alike. Fishing spots and hatch dates are often discussed at local fly stores like Grizzly Hackle Fly Shop.
Planning Tip: A valid fishing license is required to cast a line in a Montana waterway. Many guiding companies require you to purchase your fishing license before a trip, which can be done online.
7. Red Lodge
Best spot for a scenic drive
The Beartooth and Absaroka Mountains set the tone for the tourist-friendly town of Red Lodge in southern Montana, near the Wyoming border. These picturesque peaks, some of the tallest in the state, offer unlimited outdoor recreation opportunities. And the seasonal 68-mile Beartooth Highway offers parking lot access to all the wild terrain spanning from Red Lodge to Yellowstone National Park.
The Beartooth Highway is one of Montana’s best road trips between late May and October 15th. This All-American road tops out at nearly 11,000 feet with prominent views of the glacier-caked Beartooth Mountains and tree-lined valleys. Hiking trails, viewpoints and summer skiing opportunities line the route, eventually connecting to the hydrothermal wonders of Yellowstone National Park via Cooke City.
Best place to uncover hidden gems of the Treasure State
Phillipsburg is a picturesque mountain town on the Pintler Veterans’ Memorial Scenic Byway, approximately halfway between Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. Silver and other underground resources built this early Montana town in the 1860s, and that era still resonates down Broadway Street with antique storefronts housing modern shops and restaurants.
Montana Sapphires are still mined for in Phillipsburg, and visitors sift for their own at places like Gem Mountain and Montana Gems of Phillipsburg. Here, buy a bag of gravel sourced from nearby sapphire mines and head to the washing station to uncover personal treasures. Shops will cut and polish anything you find, though nothing is guaranteed in sapphire mining.
Planning Tip: You can also find a sweeter type of treasure in Phillipsburg within hundreds of glass jars lining the walls of The Sweet Palace. This nostalgic candy store sells homemade confections like fudge and saltwater taffy – you’ll get a sugar high from its aroma alone.