When you hear of a place having more cows than people, it’s a bit hard to get excited, but then you take a look around and get smacked in the face with some seriously jaw-dropping nature.
Milky blue lakes, ice-capped mountains, verdant valleys, and bears and moose wandering in your campsite… Hello, Montana, it’s really nice to meet you!
And soon, you’ll get to properly meet this wonderful state as well. And, of course, a road trip is the best way to get to know a state of this size. You’ll notice I focused on just a couple of pockets – the north and the south of the state – as this is where my Montana road trip took me. Let’s get into it!
Before you head off, I have a few more posts that will be crazy helpful for your road trip, be sure to check them out:
- Your Road Trip Essentials Packing List and Tips (+Printable Checklist!)
- How to Plan a USA Road Trip & Choosing a Vehicle
- 19 Mistakes to Avoid When on a Road Trip in the USA
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Montana Road Trip
Below you’ll find some of the coolest and most adventurous places to visit in Montana. You can do a few highlights in a week, but you’ll likely need nearly a month to properly see everything while still making time to eat and sleep.
It’s no secret the USA is massive, and to drive and enjoy even just one of the states can take quite a while. Always add on more time than you think, take your time, and perhaps try to focus on one region of the state if you don’t have a lot of time. You don’t want to spend half of your visit driving across the state!
Visiting Big Sky on Your Montana Road Trip
Big Sky is essentially an outdoor lover’s playground. With incredible mountain terrain, beautiful views, and an abundance of exciting activities, there is no end to the adventure in Big Sky. Big Sky consists of the town itself and Big Sky Resort, and it truly lives up to its name.
The town is tucked into the flanks of the ski resort, a huge ski area that boasts a massive range of activities to enjoy. When people think of Big Sky, the first thing that comes to mind is undoubtedly the skiing, but Big Ski is also a great summer destination, with plenty of hikes and activities to enjoy once the snow begins to clear.
This makes it a great addition to your Montana road trip no matter the time of year.
Winter Sport Activites
Skiing in Big Sky is unlike skiing anywhere else on earth – it really is all in the name. The resort is vast, and some of the busiest runs would be considered relatively empty elsewhere.
Its signature peak is Lone Mountain, with a distinctive summit rising 1000ft above the village below. From its peak, you will be greeted with outstanding views of Montana and Yellowstone.
Overall there are 5850 skiable acres that cover 4350 verticle feet, which is a huge place to ski. Plus, it means lift lines are virtually non-existent, and there is something for everyone. Whether you are new to skiing or are prepared to take on the harder runs, Big Sky has you covered.
Big Sky has also acquired the adjacent Moonlight Basin Ski Resort, which also caters for snowboarding, sledding, and snowmobiling if that is more your thing.
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In the summer months, Big Sky opens up for hiking. Take a scenic lift ride up the mountain before choosing one of the many self-guided or guided hikes. Expect to see vibrant wildflowers, rushing streams, and distant peaks capped in snow. Just pick the length that is right for you, and set off to explore the gorgeous mountain landscape.
Uplands Trail: (2.2m -easy) – The start of this trail can be found in Big Sky Town Center. It is suitable for hikers of all levels and will take you through some beautiful meadows, offering you some great views of the Big Sky area.
Ousel Falls: (1.6 miles – easy) – Surrounded by lush forest, Ousel Falls is a treat for the eyes, and the gentle mist provides a great place to cool off in the hot summer months. Take the easy trail following the Gallatin River before reaching the scenic overlook where the waterfall cascades before you.
Although not one of the highest, it is a seriously impressive fall, with a vast veil of water flowing into a shallow pool. There are plenty of benches along the way so you can stop for a bite to eat.
Beehive Basin: (7.1 miles – moderate) – This is one of the most popular hikes in the area. It provides access to the alpine terrain below Beehive Peak. Picture alpine meadows and lakes surrounded by an impressive mountain backdrop, meaning there is something new to see around every corner. The trail is well marked and well-traveled, however, be aware there are some steep climbs along the way.
Lava Lake: (5.5 miles – moderate) – The Lava Lake Trail will have you meandering through the forests of the Madison range of mountains until you reach the beautiful Lava Lake. This incredible lake was formed by a landslide and is well worth seeing, although you have to climb 1600 feet to achieve it.
Lone Mountain: (7 miles – hard) – This hike will definitely live up to its hard rating, but it provides some incredible views of the Big Sky area as you hike, and even better vistas when you reach the peak. There are some drop-offs along the way, so it is not advisable that children go on this hike. This is certainly not one for the faint of heart.
Summit Lake: (15.7 miles – hard) – For those up for a little bit of a longer hike, give the Summit Lake hike in the Madison Range a go. This hike will take you a little off the beaten track, heading towards Bear Basin and the higher points on the range. At 15.75 miles, it is one of the longer hikes in the Big Sky area.
Ziplining: Get an adrenaline rush on the longest zipline in the Yellowstone region. As you zoom down the mountain, you’ll be treated to views of Lone Mountain and the peaks of the Madison Range. The four lines span up to 1500 feet and are 150ft above the forest floor.
Mountain Biking: There are over 40 miles of mountain biking trails in Big Sky, including 20 miles of lift-served trails for some exhilarating runs. Speed over the ever-changing terrain with some of the best views of Montana as your backdrop.
Lone Peak Expedition: For the more adventurous, the Lone Peak Expedition is a must. You start with a scenic chair lift ride and then take an off-road vehicle to a second sky lift to the very top of Lone Mountain, where you will be greeted with some of the most stunning views of Montana.
Enjoy Lake Levinsky: Head to the beautiful Lake Levinsky in the summer and take to the water in a pedal boat, canoe, or paddleboat to explore the shoreline from a different viewpoint.
Whitewater Rafting: Get that adrenaline rush racing through the foaming waters of the Montana waterways at Big Sky. The winter run-off and speedy currents allow for a fantastic whitewater experience, ranging from tumbling whitewater to gentle ripples. Take one of the guided tours, get equipped with all the safety gear, and be prepared for the ride of your life.
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The stunning, outdoorsy town of Whitefish, Montana is located just outside of Glacier National Park. This charming little mountain town sits at the base of Whitefish Mountain Resort and offers plenty of things to do as part of your Montana itinerary.
Danny On Memorial Hiking Trail: (7.2 miles – hard) – One of the most popular hiking trails in the region is the Danny On Memorial Hiking Trail, which extends 3.8 miles from the village to the summit of the mountain. From the peak, you can enjoy vistas of the Fathead Valley, and on a clear day, you may even be able to see as far as Glacier National Park.
Although not the longest trail, due to the elevation gain, it is considered difficult. If you want to extend the hike, there are two other trails connected at the summit – the East Rim Trail and the Flower Point Trail.
Go Skiing at Whitefish Mountain Resort: Skiing on Big Mountain opens in early December, ideal for beginners all the way through to experienced skiers. There is terrain for skiing and snowboarding for all levels, with about 50% beginners and intermediate and 50% advanced and expert runs.
On a clear day as you ski, you will be greeted with picturesque views of Whitefish Lake and the town.
Hit the Beach on Whitefish Lake: In the summer months, the city beach is a great place to head to. The beach area is ideal for a little rest and relaxation, with the lake right there for a cooling dip when you get too hot.
Biking: There are nearly 11 miles of multi-use trails in the area which welcome cyclists. The trails offer stunning vistas and isolated forests, making them a great place to explore on two wheels.
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Flathead Lake/Flathead National Forest
Flathead Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake found west of the Mississippi River, spanning a vast 191.5 square miles. This incredible lake exists thanks to the flooding of the prehistoric Glacial Lake Missoula back in the ice age.
It is surrounded by stunning mountains, and the water is crystal clear, making it a popular spot. It provides endless outdoor and water activities, with several charming towns nestled around the shores of the lake.
Head here on your Montana road trip and explore the six state parks also around its shores, including Wayfarers, West Shore, Yellow Bay, Big Arm, Wild Horse Island, and Finley Point State Park. There are several public access sites around the lake, with plenty of camping, swimming, and picnic spots.
Head Out on the Water
You can easily pick up a boat from one of the many boat rentals around the shore. Jet skiing, sailing, and kayaking are all great options and a great way to explore the shores and secluded coves.
Kayaking is a popular activity on the lake. Kayak rentals can be found in all the major towns around the lake, and you can rent them from a few hours up to a week.
One of the best places to paddle is the Flathead Lake Marine Trail, a series of waterways that feature various stopping points at places of interest. Just pick up a map when you rent your kayak.
There are many routes to choose from, so it is excellent for both beginners and more experienced kayakers. Those who are skilled in navigating a kayak can enjoy some of the most challenging routes, while those closer to the shore have calmer waters, making them perfect for beginners.
There are abundant hiking trails in the state parks that surround the lake, many of which provide views of the surrounding lakes and mountains. A great trail is the Flathead Lake Trail, and the Jewel Basin Hiking Area is another popular hiking destination.
The Jewel Basin offers a unique place to walk, with 15,000 acres that have been maintained exclusively for hiking. Overall there are 35 miles of well-marked trails that wind between 25 alpine lakes. Hikes range from easy to strenuous, meaning there is something for everyone.
Great Northern Mountain Trail: (9.5m – hard) – The first few miles of this hike are very steep, but as soon as you hit the ridgeline, the climb becomes more gradual, and the views will take your breath away. Keep your eyes peeled for mountain goats that call the slopes their home. It is a lovely but strenuous hike, so it is worth waiting for a clear day so you can take in the views.
Birch Lake Trail: (6.2 miles – moderate) – The Birch Lake Trail can be found in the Jewel Basin Hiking Area. This stunning lake can be reached via a moderately flat hike from the Camp Misery Trailhead. If you are up for a little more adventure, you can continue for another 3 miles after reaching the lake down to the deeper Crater Lake. From the Camp Misery Trailhead, you could also attempt the 6-mile roundtrip to the top of Mount Aeneas.
Flathead Lake Trail: (0.4 miles – easy) – One of the more apparent hikes to take while in the area is the Flathead Lake Interpretive Trail. This hike is only a short loop, just be aware that it is very steep, and offers some great views of Flathead Lake from above, and the western skyline beyond.
Holland Falls National Recreation Trail: (1.6 miles – easy) – Everyone loves a waterfall hike, and Holland Falls will not disappoint. The trail starts following the even grade of the shoreline of Holland Lake, before heading uphill about 750 feet to reach the falls. In addition to the falls at the end of the trail, you will also be greeted by a stunning vista of the lake backed by the Swan Mountains.
Morrell Falls National Recreation Trail: (5.4 miles – easy) – This is another excellent waterfall trail. Follow the route to the vast 90-foot double waterfall that will take your breath away, before heading back down and relaxing around the stunning shores of Morrell Lake.
Marion Lake Trail: (7.5 miles – moderate) – Follow the trail through the thick trees of the forest before stepping out onto the shores of the stunning Marion Lake. The lake is beautiful no matter the time of year you visit, and for quite a large portion of the year, it is completely frozen.
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Custer Gallatin National Forest
Spanning over 400 miles and covering more than 3 million acres, there is plenty to explore in the Custer Gallatin National Forest if you wanted to add it to your Montana itinerary. Each area has its own diverse landscape.
The area is often known as the gateway to Yellowstone National Park, but features many adventures of its own within the rugged mountains. It is here that you will find the tallest peak in Montana – a contrast to the vast stretches of open prairie that is also located within the forest landscape.
Pack your climbing gear and get ready to take on the mountain ranges. Beartooth Mountain is a favorite climbing spot with plenty of metamorphic rocks and crags of granite, resulting in an exciting climb. In the winter, the experienced climber can also try their hand at ice climbing on the frozen waterfalls south of the Bozeman in Hyalite Canyon.
You could also try rock climbing in the scenic Gallatin Canyon, with Montana Alpine Guides to lead you safely up the steep sides of the canyon.
The forest has more than 125 named trails, meaning there is something for everyone to enjoy. There are trails just half a mile long, such as the Island Lake Trail, or some more challenging, longer options like the 26 mile Mile Creek Continental Divide.
Passage Falls: (5.1 miles – moderate) – The journey to Passage Falls is entirely different from other nearby hikes as for the majority of the way, you will be walking through a fire-ravaged forest. Yet despite this, the wildflowers that are now able to grow in the area make it a very scenic walk to these graceful falls.
Pine Creek Falls: (2.5 miles – moderate) – Get your blood pumping on the uphill climb to the stunning Pine Creek Falls, following the path that winds its way through rugged, dense forest. These falls are pretty cool as the water runs down a deep crevice in the rock.
Woodbine Falls: (1.4 miles – easy) – There is no better hike than one with a waterfall at the end, and this one has a huge reward for such a short and easy walk. It is a steady climb the whole way up, but you’ll be able to get some great views through the trees as you go.
Blue Lake: (7.5 miles – moderate) – This is a very cool hike with some killer views along the way. When you reach the end of the hike, you will be greeted with a beautiful, blue alpine lake. If you want to carry on the adventure, you could hike up some of the surrounding peaks for a view of the blue water from above.
Sunlight Lake Trail: (8 miles – hard) – This is a hike where you can’t be faint of heart when it comes to heights, but with height comes some incredible views. The first 3 miles are a gentle climb but get steeper, and it won’t be long before you break the tree line and walk along the ridge. Once you reach the lake, you will be very high up, with incredible views of the surrounding mountains.
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Glacier National Park (The Most Popular Stop on a Montana Road Trip!)
With an incredible landscape made up of alpine meadows, pristine forests, towering mountains, and glistening glacial lakes, it is no wonder that Glacier National Park is often number one on a Montana itinerary.
The park lies in Northwest Montana and features some of the most impressive scenery in North America. In 1932 it was joined together with Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada, and became the world’s first International Peace Park.
There are 35 named glaciers in the park, and the area is also famous for its incredible wildlife that ranges from lynx to grizzly bears. The area covers more than 1,500 square miles, with some of its most popular points being the Lake McDonald Valley, Logan Pass, and the Saint Mary Valley. Travelers will experience a ton of adventure in this part of the world.
It would take years to even scratch the surface of all the hikes that can be found in Glacier National Park. Overall there are over 700 miles of trail, which vary from easy to difficult.
Two Medicine Lake Loop: (11.2 miles – moderate) – One of the best hikes is the Two Medicine Lake Loop. This beautiful hike will take you around one of the clearest lakes in the park. You’ll also be able to see Twin Falls and Aster Falls on this trek, surrounded by beautiful pine and spruce forests.
Iceberg Lake Trail: (9.3 miles – moderate) – For one of the most scenic hikes, take the Iceberg Lake Trail. This hike offers some of the best views in the park, filled with craggy cliffs and glistening alpine lakes. The final view of the lake itself will make the climb worth it.
Redrock Falls: (3.6 miles – easy) – A shorter hike that is great for the less experienced hiker is Redrock Falls, where wildlife sightings are prevalent. Keep your eyes peeled for moose, deer, foxes, and even bears, so make sure you have your bear spray to hand.
Highline Trail: (14.9 miles – hard) – With towering mountain peaks and deep glacial valleys, not to mention shimmering alpine lakes, the Highline Trail is a great way to take in some of the highlights of Glacier National Park. This trail departs from the highest peak in the park which can be accessed by a vehicle, Logan Pass.
Hidden Lake Overlook: (2.8 miles – moderate) – Hidden Lake Overlook is a great, short hike with plenty of opportunities to see some of the local wildlife such as goats, marmots, and even grizzly bears. Although the trek ends at a magnificent overlook, you will have scenic views the whole way.
Apgar Lookout Trail: (7.1 miles – hard) – Although not the longest of hikes, Apgar Lookout is rated as hard due to the very steep climb almost the whole way. At the lookout, you will be greeted with a view of Lake McDonald and the surrounding area. This is a great trail if you are up for a bit of a challenge.
RELATED: Things to Do in Glacier National Park—Hikes, Camping, Tips & Itinerary (Montana)
Drive the Going-to-the-Sun-Road
This is one of the most well-known scenic drives in the US, and for a good reason, and it definitely deserves a spot on your Montana itinerary. At 50 miles long, it gives a great glimpse of the best bits of the park.
You’ll drive across the Continental Divide while being treated to some genuinely jaw-dropping views along the way, such as cascading waterfalls, incredible valleys, and towering mountains, with a new viewpoint around every corner.
Logan Pass is the highest point on the drive, therefore it offers some great views, and Jackson Glacier Overlook allows you to see one of the park’s largest glaciers.
Take in the Views: Sun Point offers some of the best views in the park, and it will be worth fighting through the crowds for. Snow-covered mountains create an incredible backdrop to the clear waters of St. Mary Lake, making it the perfect picnic spot.
Go Waterfall Chasing: There are so many different waterfalls within the park, so waterfall chasers will be spoilt for choice.
Take a Boat Ride: Get out on a boat on Lake Mcdonald from Lake McDonald Lodge to explore the lake, while giving your feet a rest.
RELATED: Where to Stay in Glacier National Park—Camping and Lodges (Montana)
Helena – Louis and Clark National Forest
Located across the north and central part of Montana is the scenic Lewis and Clark National Forest, a great stop on any Montana road trip. It sits along the upper Missouri River and the Smith River, tucked into the mountains, so as you would imagine, there are plenty of things to keep you busy there.
The forest is managed as two separate zones, the east is a mixture of grass and shrublands, while the west is the Rocky Mountains Division, which straddles the Continental Divide.
There are many miles of designated trails that run through the forest, all of which provide a variety of challenges and opportunities. Head across bridges, through the forest, and into open prairie. The landscape is pretty big, and most of the named trails will take you up in elevation, offering some great viewpoints along the way.
Altogether there are around 1500 miles of hiking trails that provide access to the seven different mountain ranges which can be found within the forest.
Dearborn 206: (6.1 miles – easy) – The Dearborn 206 trail is a great easy and beautiful walk along the banks of the river. This hike really does have it all: Creeks, meadows, forests, and rolling Montana mountains.
Headquarters Creek to Rocky Mountain: (7.8 miles – hard) – This is a pretty difficult hike, but there are waterfalls, mountain goats, and stunning views the whole way to take your mind off the climb. The first few miles are wooded, so you’ll have to peer through the trees to get a glimpse of the view, and then it is a reasonable scramble to the second ridgeline as you begin the climb up the mountain where you will have incredible vistas of the forest.
Mount Wright Trail: (3.8 miles – hard) – Although short, this is by no means an easy hike, but you will feel like a complete boss once you are done. When you do reach the top of Mount Wright, the views are absolutely incredible and are pretty much 360 degrees, so you will forget all about the tough hike on the way up.
Highwood Mountains Loop: (14.6 miles – hard) – The Highwood Mountains burst with wildflowers in the spring and early summer, and shimmer with reds and golds in the fall. Because of its more remote location, this hike is great if you want to escape the tourist crowds and really immerse yourself in the beauty of nature and towering mountain peaks.
Ice Caves Trail: (5 miles – hard) – This unique trail will take you to some year-round ice caves, which is not something you would expect to see in the middle of a forest. Start the hike at the Crystal Lake Campground, and in the first 3 miles you will climb 2,200 feet, while the rest of the way is relatively flat as you hike along the Snowy Crest.
White Water Rafting
For those seeking a heart-pounding adventure, get yourself on the tumbling waters of the Missouri River. There are many locations where you can hook up with a tour group and experienced white water guide and hit the water. This will certainly get your blood pumping.
RELATED: Your Road Trip Essentials Packing List and Tips (+Printable Checklist!)
Yellowstone Country & Yellowstone National Park (Going South on Your Montana Road Trip)
Yellowstone Country is often overlooked in favor of Yellowstone National Park itself, yet this untouched area of natural beauty is well worth a visit. Most of the well-known points of the park are located in Wyoming, but it also spans over into both Montana and Idaho.
It was the first national park in the US, and today it still remains one of the most famous. It is known for its incredible wildlife, geothermal wonders, and incredible mountain landscape.
It’s no secret what’s next on your road trip, Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming! Yellowstone Country is in south Montana but the best-known areas of the park are in Wyoming. For more info on combining the areas, you can read my Yellowstone post!
I hope this post helped you plan an epic Montana road trip. Which one of these places are you most excited to visit? Let me know in the comments below!
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Nina Ragusa is an adventurer, messy bun master, breakfast fan, and full-time travel blogger. She’s been abroad since 2011 and blogging on Where in the World is Nina? for nearly as long. Nina helps people like you move around the world while making money. She loves talking about how to work abroad and online to travel longer!