There is perhaps no continental state better suited to hiking than Montana. After all, the very name comes from the Spanish word for mountain, which is what the state is full of. Giant ranges hide glittering lakes while endless prairies disappear into the horizon. 

Naturally, many outdoor enthusiasts find themselves drawn specifically to iconic Glacier National Park, which is home to most of the best hikes in the state. Besides being home to the largest concentration of grizzly bears on the planet, tons of moose and herds of bighorn sheep, Glacier is basically a one-stop-shop of trailheads taking hikers to magnificent destinations of varying difficulty. 

But Montana is huge (the 4th largest state in the U.S. after Alaska, Texas and California), and with only one million residents, has ample natural spaces for hiking-based exploration. Here are just a few of the greatest hikes the Treasure State has to offer.

    Glacier National Park, Montana
    Many outdoor enthusiasts find themselves drawn specifically to iconic Glacier National Park, which dominates the top 10 list of best hikes in Montana © Kan Khampanya / 500px

    Tips for hiking in Montana

    • The intense winters of the region will limit hiking (without snowshoes) to the warmer months, roughly between April and October.
    • The weather can change quickly, dress in layers and bring rain gear and a hat
    • Stay hydrated and make sure to bring plenty of water with you. Throw in some snacks packed with protein and carbs as well. 
    • Be sure to bring a trail map, compass and flashlight (don’t depend on your cell)
    •  Montana’s wilderness is rich with wildlife, so take every precaution to avoid human-animal conflicts. Make noise on the trail to let them know you're coming and carry bear spray. 
    Glacier National Park's Avalanche Lake
    Avalanche Lake is  easily the most trafficked trail in the entirety of Montana @ Getty Images

    Avalanche Lake

    Glacier National Park
    Length: 5.9 miles
    Type: Out and back
    Elevation gain: 757 feet

    Within Glacier National Park, close to the west entrance, is Avalanche Lake, easily the most trafficked trail in the entirety of Montana. It begins on a wooden footbridge through old growth cedars and hemlock, before ascending gently alongside the glacial melt of Avalanche Creek. Despite the trail’s popularity, the scenery is rich and evocative of Montana’s deepest wilderness, with wildflowers like glacier lilies and critters of all kinds visible until reaching the crystal blue waters of Avalanche Lake. This easy trail is great for novice hikers or those without too much time to go deep into the backcountry. 

    Grinnell Glacier Trail

    Glacier National Park
    Length: 11.2 miles
    Type: Out and back

    Elevation gain: 2,181 feet

    On the Eastern side of Glacier National Park is the Grinnell Glacier Trail, a popular trail among experienced hikers who want to see the park’s namesake glaciers up close. This incredibly scenic hike has waterfalls, wildlife - including grizzlies and mountain goats - and panoramic views of lakes, forest and mountain peaks. The hardest part of this challenging hike comes at the end, when a series of switchbacks leads hikers to the glacial lagoon beneath Grinnell Glacier. Bring walking sticks, water, rain gear and anything else required of an all-day hike.  

    Danny On Memorial Hiking Trail

    Flathead National Forest
    Length: 8.6 miles
    Type: Out and back

    Elevation gain: 2,037 ft

    Montana’s beauty is not contained only within Glacier National Park. Just beyond the borders are more hiking opportunities to explore, including one of the best hikes in Whitefish: the Danny On Trail. This dog friendly trail is steep and challenging, but with plenty of rewards. On the right day, hikers can find themselves experiencing an inversion, watching the clouds roll by below them. This trail is often decorated with wildflowers, with huckleberries to pick during the growing season. From the top hikers enjoy a stunning view of nearby mountains and the Canadian Rockies. Many opt to take the ski lift down (or up), as it operates during the summer.

    Hiking above Missoula, Montana
    There are many hiking opportunities in Missoula, incluing Mt. Sentinel © akpakp / Getty Images

    Mount Sentinel "M" Trail

    Length: 1.2 miles
    Type: Out and back

    Elevation gain: 643 feet

    Since 1908, a giant M has decorated the west-facing side of Missoula’s Mount Sentinel, and today, that M marks the end of a popular hike. A quick but steep zigzag trail leads to this local landmark, from which hikers get an excellent bird’s eye view of the city below. While the M is a destination in and of itself, there are two more trails to complete the final mile to the top of Mount Sentinel if desired.  

    Rattlesnake Trail

    Rattlesnake National Recreation Site

    Length: 33.9 miles
    Type: Out and bac
    Elevation gain: 2,818 ft

    Rattlesnake Trail is a popular spot for outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds, from hikers to backpackers to equestrians. It’s part of a larger complex of trails in the Missoula area, but this portion is distinctive due to being an old logging road. Usage of this trail is deemed heavy, but that’s really only for the first mile or so, and it’s around mile 5 that the beaver dams start appearing. It’s only after the 9th mile that the grade begins to steepen, so overall there is a lot that a hiker can do with the trail provided. This trail is dog friendly as long as they are leashed. 

    Bridger Mountains near Bozeman
    The views of Gallatin Valley from Bozeman's M are iconic © Carol Polich / Lonely Planet

    College M Trail

    Length: 1.6 miles
    Type: Loop
    Elevation gain: 820 feet

    Bozeman’s M - also a nod to their local university - is 7 years younger than the one found further north in Missoula, but it’s just as iconic to the region. There are two routes to reach the M and accompanying iconic views of Gallatin Valley: go right at the first junction for the steeper, more direct climb, or take a hard left for the less steep but more winding option. This is a popular trail for hikers, and can even be done during winter provided the right gear is being used. It’s especially popular in spring, as it faces the sun, melting the snow earlier than on other trails. For a more challenging hike, continue up to summit Baldy Peak. 

    Lava Lake (Cascade Creek) Trail

    Custer Gallatin National Forest
    Length: 6.0 miles
    Type: Out and back

    Elevation gain: 1,620 feet

    Just outside of Bozeman is the Lava Lake Trail, a rocky path winding through dense lodgepole forests, past numerous waterfalls until reaching the beautiful Lava Lake set beneath the Spanish Peaks. This is a moderate trail with over 1,600 feet of elevation gained throughout, and the rockiness can provide some technical challenges, but overall it is doable for most hikers. Camping and fishing are permitted at Lava Lake, a stunning backdrop for any overnighter. 

     Wild goose island viewpoint, Glacier National Park
    Glacier Lake (and the trail to get there) is near the town of Red Lodge on Montana’s southern border © puttsk / Shutterstock

    Glacier Lake

    Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness
    Length: 4.6 miles
    Type: Out and back

    Elevation gain: 1,492 feet

    The Beartooth Highway is one of the most scenic drives in the entire United States, so it’s no surprise that hiking in the area yields similarly beautiful views. Glacier Lake (and the trail to get there) is near the town of Red Lodge on Montana’s southern border. The trailhead is at the end of an unpaved road, and the hike itself is somewhat strenuous, despite relatively moderate elevation gain. Switchbacks and waterfalls define this trail, but the work is well worth it upon reaching Glacier Lake, which can be a great place to cool off after such a workout.  

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