Montana

Known as Big Sky country, the huge state of Montana has some incredible landscapes and is one of the prettiest states in the U.S. Mountains, forests, lakes, valleys, rivers, hot springs, fishing. A utopia for those who love the outdoors. Plenty of solitude and wilderness, as much of Montana is relatively undeveloped. It's also the only place I've ever been where it's not unusual for it to be raining while sunny. Half the sky may be dark and stormy, while the other side is bright and sunny. There are also several cool cities certainly worth visiting.

My Favorites


1. Glacier National Park

Mount Grinnell

Highlights: Glaciers, lakes, mountains, hiking, wildlife
Suggest Staying: 3-7 days
Stay Around: Columbia Falls or East Glacier Park Village (Brownies Hostel & Bakery)
Internet: Weak
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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.

By Area

  • 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.

Tips

  • Reservations. As of 2023, the park started requiring advanced reservation to travel on the going-to-the-sun road during peak times. Check the website.
  • 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.

Park Resources

2. Missoula

Missoula

Highlights: Mountains, lakes, waterfalls, hot springs, hiking, skiing, hunting, fishing
Suggest Staying: 3-5 days
Stay Around: Downtown or Riverfront
Internet: Strong
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Missoula is a very cool city with plenty to do and a great place to even just hang out and relax. Clean and healthy food options, welcoming, friendly, and the great outdoors are right at your doorstep. A great place to visit, vacation, or live for a short or long term stay. Reminded me of other hipster cities like Austin, Portland, and Asheville, but way less people and a bit more rural. Great entry point to Glacier National Park.

See & Do

  • Rockin Rudys. Local staple that sells all kinds of stuff. Definitely worth a stop in.
  • Montana Antique Mall. If you’re into antiques, multi-level building.
  • Roxy Theater. Indie movie theater that plays old and new films.
  • Pattee Canyon. Hiking area.
  • Mount Sentinel. Mountain peak.
  • Bitteroot Valley. Area to the south down route 93. The Kootenai Creek Trail is great. Pass through Hamilton on the way to Lake Como. Nearby Darby is located at the edge of the Bitteroot and is where the TV series Yellowstone is filmed. You can’t casually tour Chief Joseph Ranch (aka Dutton Ranch), but you can pay to stay there.
  • Garnet Ghost Town. Old West town.
  • Garden of One Thousand Buddahs. Who would’ve thought a Buddhist temple could be found in the mountains of Montana. Really cool spot.
  • Holland Lake. Locals spot for swimming and kayaking or SUP. The drive up passes several other beautiful lakes including Harpers Lake, Salmon Lake State Park, and Seeley Lake.
  • Clark Fork Area. Rivers, hot springs, mountains. I didn’t make it too far out that way, but Clark Fork Triple Bridges is super cool.
  • Rattlesnake National Recreation Area. Forest with a bunch of hiking trails and the Rattlesnake Creek.
  • Lolo National Forest & Hot Springs. Nice drive down route 12 to the developed hot springs pool and lodge. I camped at Lee Creek Campground amongst a biker gang and rogue brown bear. There was also some reggae and CBD/weed festival across from the hot springs. Certainly one of my more random camping experiences.

Food & Drink

  • Lake Missoula Tea Company. Really great tea that’s sold all over Montana. You can also sit for tea.
  • Butterfly Herbs. Herbs, spices, tea, and food. Nice spot for a healthy breakfast.
  • Missoula Farmer’s Market & People’s Market. Fresh local foods and other goods.
  • Good Food Store. Amazing, large healthy grocery store. Similar to Whole Foods. Outstanding frozen fish selection, locally sourced.
  • Tagliare Delicatessen. Some of the best Italian sandwiches I’ve ever had.
  • Boxcar Bistro. Wine bar vibe with really outstanding food. Ate there several times.
  • Clyde Coffee. Coffee and breakfast.
  • Edelweiss Bistro. Solid German food and beer.
  • Cuchina Florabella. Good Italian food.
  • Pho Vi. Vietnamese. Housed in what looks like an old Howard Johnson or Pizza Hut.

Nearby

  • Flathead Lake. Known for its deep clear blue waters. Not far from Missoula with some beautiful scenery on the drive up.
  • Butte. Small town that’s a nice stop for breakfast or lunch. Hummingbird Cafe is great. You can also drive along the continental divide.
  • Anaconda. Mountain area outside Philipsburg. Good for camping and hiking.
  • St. Regis Travel Center. Good place to stop from a long drive if you’re driving across the state or otherwise passing through.

3. Bozeman

Hyalite Canyon

Highlights: Mountains, lakes, waterfalls, hiking, hot springs, skiing, hunting, fishing
Suggest Staying: 3-5 days
Stay Around: Downtown or Valley West
Internet: Good
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The draw of Bozeman is definitely the outdoors. Surrounded by mountains, the landscape is strikingly beautiful, as is most of Montana. The town is considerably smaller than I would have thought, but has a nice selection of restaurants and shops. It’s quiet, chill, and rural but with all you need for a short or long visit. There are some nice residential areas being developed as more people move here due to its gaining popularity. In some travel circles, Bozeman is considered quite hipster, and I’ve heard has an up and coming tech, entrepreneurship, and conservation scene. Certainly interesting to see the contrast of hipsters and cowboys. Summers are great and winters offer skiing and other winter sports. It gets quite cold starting in October through April. Considered the gateway to Yellowstone National Park and the Gallatin Range, there’s adventure waiting in every direction.

See & Do

  • Peets Hill. City park with some light hiking, views, and sculpture garden at the edge of town.
  • Bozeman Hot Springs. Several indoor and outdoor pools of varying temperatures. Even has a cold plunge and large heated indoor swimming pool. Gets a bit crowded during summers with kids. Campground right next door. Costs $17. Open until 11pm or sundown on Fri, closed Sat. Thins out after 7pm in the summer from the kids. There are smoothies, drinks, and snacks available.
  • Bish’s RV. Not your typical RV dealer, has some really cool RVs and campers if you’re in the market that you might not find elsewhere.
  • Bridger Bowl. Ski area and nice views.
  • Drinking Horse Mountain. Hiking trail with views of Bozeman. Also nearby is the hike to the “College M.”
  • Storm Castle. Mountain peak.
  • Big Sky. Montana is known as big sky country, but this is a specific area just outside city limits with tons of hiking, views, and skiing. In this area, check out Beehive Basin for hiking, Big Sky Resort & Mountain Village for skiing, Ousel Falls for a nice little river and waterfall hike, and Yellowstone Club where the fancy people live.
  • Hyalite Canyon. Gorgeous area you could easily spend all day. Take a nice drive through the mountains, stop off at Hyalite Reservoir to swim if you’re brave or otherwise fish or kayak.
  • Palisade Falls. Great, short hike to a towering waterfall.
  • Gallatin River. Great for fishing. Where A River Runs Through It took place and was filmed.
  • Bear Trap Canyon. A little off the beaten path. Follow the Madison River here and you’ll find camping, fishing, boating, and a bit of light off roading.

Food & Drink

  • Community Food Co-Op. Healthy grocery store.
  • Fresco Cafe. Italian.
  • Nordic. Really good bar & grill in a neat food hall with a couple of shops.
  • Steep Mountain Teahouse. Great tea spot with seating and snacks.
  • Gallatin Family Farmer’s Market. Open M-F.

Nearby

  • Gallatin Range. Mountain range to the south that leads into Yellowstone.
  • Livingston. Nearby rural town next to Paradise Valley along the Yellowstone River.
  • Norris Hot Springs. Cool spot where they may have live music at night. A bit small and can get crowded by those camping on site.
  • Chico Hot Springs. Didn’t get here, but looks cool.

4. Beartooth Highway

Beartooth Highway (Rock Creek Vista Point)

Highlights: Mountains, lakes, hiking
Suggest Staying: 1/2-1 day
Stay Around: Red Lodge
Internet: Weak
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Touted as one of the most beautiful drives in America with valleys carved by glaciers. Starts at Red Lodge and runs west through the northern part of Wyoming. Nice route to take if you’re on your way to Yellowstone or as I did, the scenic route going north to Bozeman. I would highly suggest combing with Chief Joseph Scenic Byway which is a lovely drive, very colorful, and great views. You’ll then continue on to the Beartooth Highway which is more mountainous and higher elevations so you’ll likely see snow. A few notable stops include Yellowstone Overlook, Beartooth Lake, Beartooth Basin Ski Area, Rock Creek Vista (look for Marmots!), and Greenough. There are shops and restaurants in Red Lodge, including Prerogative Kitchen which is super cool and has good food. Weather can be unpredictable, especially outside of summer, so check the forecast to make sure the summit pass is open. My route from Cody to Bozeman took over 6 hours, including picture taking and meandering, so I would definitely plan for the entire day. Apparently you can go skiing near the top which looked both incredible and terrifying.

Other Considerations


Helena

Helena

The capital city is located about halfway between Bozeman and Missoula to the north and actually resembles those two cities in some respects. Wander around downtown through Last Chance Gulch and Reeders Alley. Enjoy some boating at Canyon Lake. Don’t miss the beautiful Gates of the Mountains where you can just take pictures or venture into the wilderness. Take a dip at Broadwater Hot Springs.

Internet: Good

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

Little Bighorn Battlefield

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 and plan around 1-2 hours, so plan accordingly.

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