Montana is a very large and beautiful state known for its valleys, mountains, and rivers. An interesting mix of plains and mountains with a "big sky" as some say. A popular place for people to escape into the wilderness and solitude with a big outdoor culture. There are also several cool cities to visit.
1. Glacier National Park
Highlights: Glaciers, lakes, mountains, hiking, wildlife
Suggest Staying: 3-7 days
This beautifully carved mountain range with emerald lakes, breathtaking hikes, and immense wildlife makes Glacier National Park not only a top attraction in Montana, but in the world. People travel from all over to take in this majestic place. Glacier had been on my list for quite some time. In fact, it took me three attempts to finally get there! The first attempt was during a cross country trip, but I was a week too late before they closed the Going to the Sun Road due to snow. The following year, I had to cancel just a couple days before due to extreme forrest fires. Although I made it the year after that, there were again forrest fires and the west half of the Going to the Sun Road and some of the nearby attractions, including hiking trails, were closed. However, the trip was amazing, the park is huge so there was still plenty to do. The moral of the story is, check the weather, conditions, and road closures before you go!
See & Do
- Going-to-the-sun Road. Central scenic road through the park. 53 miles, 1 hour 24 minute drive end-to-end (one way) through the park. Only saw east of Logan Pass, but of the non-famous spots along the way, I liked Jackson Glacier, Wild Goose Island (awesome views especially in the morning), and Sunrift Gorge with nearby Baring Falls. There are plenty more spots for hiking.
- Many Glacier. Area with glaciers, lodge, campground. Another great place to spot wildlife like black bears, grizzly bears and moose. Beautiful views of Mount Grinnell and exceptional hiking trails. My favorite area. Spent 2 full days.
- Grinnell Glacier. Unbelievable (and strenuous) 4-6 hour hike up along the mountain ridge with sweeping views of Grinnell Lake that takes you to the base of Grinnell Glacier. I believe it’s the only glacial lake in the continental U.S. Absolutely beautiful and serene. I actually heard a loud crash and not even a minute later began to see the water swell and rise right before my feet at the edge of the lake. Presumably part of the glacier had broken off and fallen down into the lake. You may see some wildlife on the way, I saw a big horn sheep that stared me down as I scooted past. My personal favorite from I did in Glacier.
- Grinnell Lake. Beautiful views, turquoise water. A 4-mile hike from Many Glacier Hotel or 1.8-mile roundtrip hike from edge of Lake Josephine (reached by two boats and short connecting hike between lakes).
- Mount Grinnell. Entire mountain glows bright orange at sunrise.
- Lake McDonald. Largest lake, crystal clear. Great place for boating or grabbing some lunch in Apgar Village.
- Logan Pass. Sweeping views and best chance to see wildlife, especially on the Highline Trail. Definitely do the Hidden Lake Trail, one of my favorites. Highest point in the park.
- Two Medicine Lake. Beautiful lake. Can take a boat ride. Hiking around the lake.
- St. Mary Falls. Emerald green part of St. Mary lake with waterfalls.
- Saint Mary Lake. Huge lake. Filming location for Forrest Gump.
- Swiftcurrent. Area just up the road from the Many Glacier hotel with restaurant, accommodations, lake, and hiking trails. Check out Red Rock Falls.
- North Fork. Area along the river. Check out Polebridge as a pit stop or to stay.
- Looking Glass Hill Road. Beautiful mountain views (and winding roads) that cuts straight through to St. Mary from East Glacier Park Village. Goes for about 10 miles and takes approximately 18 minutes. If you want all highway, go through Browning. Takes almost the same amount of time.
Others (Didn’t Get To or Closed During My Visit)
- Avalanche Lake. Serene oasis.
- Trail of the Cedars. Trailhead 5 miles from Lake McDonald lodge.
- Garden Wall. Mountain peak, beautiful views.
- Weeping Wall. Spring fed waterways 3 miles west of Logan Pass.
- Bird Woman Falls. Tall waterfall.
- Goat Haunt Lake. Lake, views, and hiking.
- Cracker Lake. Opaque turquoise color.
- North Fork. Polebridge, Bowman Lake, Kintla Lake.
- Apgar & Lake McDonald. Apgar Village, Apgar Visitor’s Center, Lake McDonald, Trail of the Cedars, Avalanche Lake, Birdwoman Falls, Red Rock Point.
- Logan Pass. Logan Pass Visitor’s Center, Hidden Lake Trail, Highline Trail, Garden Wall.
- St. Mary. St. Mary Lake, St. Mary Falls, Wild Goose Island.
- Many Glacier. Many Glacier Hotel, Mount Grinnell, Grinnell Lake, Grinnell Glacier, Swiftcurrent, Red Rock Falls.
- Two Medicine. Two Medicine Lake.
2 Days in Glacier
- Lake McDonald.
- Avalanche Lake.
- Logan Pass.
- Grinnell Peak (Many Glacier).
- Grinnell Lake.
- Garden Wall.
- St. Mary Falls.
- Saint Mary Lake.
Food & Drink
- Three Forks Grille. Some of the best food I’ve had. Great selection, locally sourced, fresh ingredients, and everything is exceptional. Ate there 3 nights in a row. In Columbia Falls.
- Montana Coffee Traders. Awesome coffee, tea, and breakfast. In Columbia Falls.
- Glacier Park Lodge. Excellent restaurant (had some very good trout…from Idaho which was odd considering Montana is known for trout fishing I thought). The hotel is an attraction in and of itself. In East Glacier Park Village.
- General. You can find food in Columbia Falls, Apgar Village, East Glacier Park Village, St. Mary, Babb, and Many Glacier no problem.
- Planning. Took me 3 tries over the course of 3 years to finally get here due to either snow or forest fires forcing the going-to-the-sun road to close. It’s an extremely difficult place to plan a visit because of the mountains and corresponding weather. The going-to-the-sun-road, which is the main scenic road through the park is only really open from June through October and depends on the weather for specific dates. The season at Glacier is only three and a half months.
- Getting There. You can fly into Kalispell (FCA – Glacier International Airport, not Kalispell city airport) which is about 12 minutes to Columbia Falls on the west side of the park.
- Getting Around. Depending on when you go, it may be very crowded at popular stopping points. There’s a free shuttle you can take through the park to avoid contention looking for parking. Or drive yourself if you have a short trip or going off-the-beaten-path a bit. Check the road closures before you go, as depending on snow or forest fires, the going-to-the-sun road may be partially or fully closed. There is another road through the park and the park will likely still be open and can be approached from the west easily. Usually the section between Apgar and Logan Pass along Lake McDonald is what closes.
- Weather. It’s the mountains, so dress in layers. Could be warm, snow, or rain at a moment’s notice.
- Lodging. There are several lodges in the park, but they are expensive and usually fill up fast, like months or more in advance. There are also several campsites in the park if you’re ok with cold nights, like in the 30s during summer and fall. I chose to stay in Columbia Falls to the west side of the park part of the time and East Glacier Park Village the remaining time since I was headed up to Canada after and the west side of the Going to the Sun Road was closed. Whitefish is nice, slightly larger, has a lake, nice western feel on the main strip, still good proximity to west side of Glacier. Kalispell is bigger still and has more lodging, food, and shops, but proximity is a bit farther from the park. Seem to be better options on the west side, but more of the attractions are on the east side. There are tons of hotels, motels, lodges, and cabin options outside the park that you won’t find on AirBnB or Booking.com so search the web, checkout guidebooks, and call around if you want to explore more options. Don’t stay in Browning and there is limited accommodations in St. Mary.
- Bears & Bear Spray. It’s best to travel in groups of 4 to avoid bear attacks, but if you’re a couple, or even solo, definitely invest in a can of bear spray. Costs about $50 to buy, but is worth it for peace of mind. It might be possible to rent, but if you’re going to be traveling to other parks like Yellowstone or Grand Teton (or driving up to places like Banff or Jasper in Canada), and you’re not flying, it’s definitely worth purchasing. There are bears all over the park (black and grizzly), but they generally stay away from humans as long as you don’t bother them, startle them, come within their food, or bring with you strong scented food. I would suggest if you bring snacks on trails, only bring those that are sealed and bring a plastic ziplock bag to put trash in to keep smell in.
- Logan Pass. This extremely popular area fills up quick, so arrive before noon at the very latest, but closer to 8 or 9 am if you want your best shot at a parking spot. Nice bathrooms and water bottle fill ups.
- Grinnell Lake & Glacier. If you are short on time or don’t have the ability to do the longer Grinnell Glacier hike, do the shorter 1.8-mile roundtrip hike to Grinnell Lake. Great place to stop for lunch. If you are able, I highly recommend Grinnell Glacier and skip the lake hike as you can see it better from the ridge anyway. You’ll also save yourself some time and energy. Bring plenty of water, bear spray, snacks and layers. I would also recommend taking the boat to shave off about 2 miles each way. You pick it up at Many Glacier Hotel, costs $27, takes about 45 minutes each way, and is actually two boats across two beautiful lakes with 1/4-mile hike between the boats. You may even see some ptarmigans or other wildlife.
- North Fork. There is inside and outside North Fork roads, inside going inside the park and outside not in the park. Depending on fires, inside may be closed. Polebridge is the junction that gets you back into the park. North from there to the lakes is unpaved and a bit bumpy, but not horrible. Check the status, as parking fills up fast at Bowman and then they close the road up there until it frees up.
Bozeman has become pretty popular and trendy, at least as far as rural western cities go, and I've seen mentioned repeatedly in articles about top trendy hipster cities in the U.S. However, it seemed to maintain a friendly and mellow vibe when I visited. Scenic quiet, mountains, and skiing nearby. Certainly interesting to see the contrast of hipsters and cowboys. Seems to be up and coming in tech, entrepreneurship, and conservation from what I've read. Personally, I was a bit disappointed. There is much potential, but for all the hype I read and having been to places like Austin, Portland, and Asheville, I thought there might be a little more going on. Granted I was only there for a day. I think it's a cool place and definitely if you're into winter activities it's worth a visit. Montana is a beautiful state and if you're looking to take a trip through and maybe have your sites set on Yellowstone National Park, a side excursion to Bozeman would be a worthwhile detour.
I really liked Missoula, more than Bozeman actually. Bustling but not overcrowded or busy. Clean and healthy food options. Just something about it I really liked. I only passed through for lunch and to drive around the center a bit. Good stop if you're on your way between Bozeman and Seattle. Alternate option to fly into or otherwise begin an excursion to Glacier National Park.
4. Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
Little Bighorn Battlefield
Highlights: Battlefield, memorial
Suggest Staying: 1-2 hours
Stay Around: N/A
Site of the famous battle of Little Bighorn between General Custer and the Native Americans. One of the most famous battles in American history. The area is very pretty and there are headstones and other monuments detailing some of the history of the battle. Closes around 5 or 6pm, so plan accordingly.