Offering ample opportunities for recreation in some of America's biggest landscapes, alongside classic icons of the American west, Montana calls out to travelers in search of the authentic America. One thing that surprises visitors to Big Sky Country, however, is just how big the state is. Many travelers drop into Bozeman and nearby Yellowstone and are shocked to discover that Glacier National Park is a 7-hour drive away.
As the fourth largest state in the nation, Montana has much to see and do, but visiting takes some planning. It’s worth the effort and long driving hours to see the state's skyscraping mountains and Old West towns, and meet the wildlife and hardy people that call these magnificent landscapes home. With so much ground to cover, here are a few suggestions for places to focus on when planning your trip to Montana.
Best for foodies
Most Montana visitors will probably make it to Bozeman at some stage. Not only is Bozeman the closest large city to Yellowstone National Park (which sprawls south across the state border into Wyoming), it’s a worthy destination all by itself. This is Montana’s hub for art and culture, politics and music, and also the setting for many of Montana’s best restaurants. From the Southern cuisine at Roost Fried Chicken to the shockingly good Dave’s Sushi, with all the burger places and American food you could ever want in between, Bozeman provides. Head over to Stacey’s Bar in nearby Gallatin Gateway for authentic Rocky Mountain Oysters (fried bull testicles, a local speciality).
Bozeman still has an old-school frontier sensibility, but with a distinctly hip vibe–some even refer to it as Boz Angeles thanks to the new residents flocking in from coastal cities. There is excellent shopping in town, a good range of hotels to choose from, and the student body at Montana State University keeps the town perpetually youthful and adventurous. Whether you’re looking for a handy Yellowstone base or somewhere to get fully ingrained in Montana culture, Bozeman has it all.
Best for luxury travelers
Big Sky isn’t just Montana’s most popular nickname; it’s also the name of the burgeoning ski-town located between Bozeman and Yellowstone National Park’s west entrance. People throng here in winter to tackle the ski slopes at Big Sky Resort, but you’ll never be wanting for something to do in summer. Whitewater rafting, fly fishing and rugged mountain hikes are just a few of the activities that draw visitors to this lofty mountain resort, not to mention easy day trips to Yellowstone.
Big Sky is nestled into an alpine valley and attracts lots of luxury travelers. This is partly thanks to the Yellowstone Club, an exclusive private resort with members such as Mark Zuckerberg and Justin Timberlake, and occasional visitors like Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck. Other resorts in the area are similarly luxurious, with Lone Mountain Ranch and its restaurant, Horn and Cantle, offering a rustic-chic getaway that showcases the best of Montana.
Best for music and nightlife
Celebrated as the home of the University of Montana, Missoula–aka, The Zoo–this bustling mountain town on the Clark Fork River is where the big country meets downtown. Energetic outdoor recreation comes up against hip breweries, gourmet restaurants and arty boutiques. Best of all, because it’s not adjacent to any of the national parks, Missoula is one of the least crowded starting points in Montana for exploring nature.
After spending the day river rafting or hiking through the Bitterroot Valley, or walking on the rounded hills rising right on the town limits, catch a live music show at The Wilma or the KettleHouse Amphitheater. This town is also home to Big Sky Brewing Co, whose popular beers can be found for sale throughout Montana–their Moose Drool brown ale is a firm fan favorite.
Best for relaxing
Northwest Montana has an endless number of tiny towns that conjure up a nostalgic image of back-country America, but Hot Springs–population 550–should not be missed. As the name suggests, the big draw is the town's natural hot springs, which visitors can ease into at very low cost, but the way the countryside spills into downtown adds to the appeal. Hot Springs is located on the Flathead Indian Reservation, a few turns off Highway 90 if you're driving between Idaho and Washington; it makes for a relaxing stop on the journey in either direction.
If you want a prime downtown base, Symes Hot Springs Hotel has a vintage vibe and a delightful, naturally-heated pool to soak in. The town has places worth checking out beyond hot springs. Local bar, Fergie’s Pub, serves a fully-loaded and very memorable Bloody Mary, as well as a hearty menu of all-American bar food. Nearby Quinn’s Hot Springs Resort in the township of Paradise has more excellent springs as well as appealing log cabin accommodations.
Best for lake lovers
Perched at the northern tip of Flathead Lake, Bigfork is an idyllic resort town best known as a summertime hub for water-based activities such as boating, fishing and kayaking. During winter, outdoor enthusiasts head here for dog sledding, skiing and especially ice fishing out on the lake–a quintessential Montana experience. When the weather's warm, mountain bikers and hikers head to the hills for breathtaking lake views.
There's more than a hint of the Old West about Bigfork, and downtown area is rich with boutique shops and restaurants, with the Flathead Lake Brewing Co on hand for beer lovers. For those just passing through, Bigfork is well-situated, just 40 miles from Glacier National Park and 20 miles from the tiny national park airport at Kalispell.
Best for off-the-beaten path travelers
Just west of Glacier National Park, near the end of the North Fork Road, Polebridge is a dot of civilization in the forest that is delightfully stuck in time. The biggest draw of this tiny town, besides its proximity to the national park, is the Polebridge Mercantile, a distinctive Old West-style provisions store selling the town's signature pastry, the huckleberry bear claw. The Merc, as locals call it, also sells camping supplies, one of a kind souvenirs, and hot pizza and sandwiches.
Polebridge is a popular place to rent a cabin or launch a camping trip to nearby Flathead National Forest, a rugged reserve with six campsites, a beautiful lake, and a network of trails to explore, with scenery to rival neighboring Glacier National Park. To access Polebridge, be prepared to drive for some time on a dirt road; go slow to keep from kicking up the dust. And unless you’re snowmobiling, this is not an ideal winter destination, as the Merc, cabins, and campgrounds all close for the season.
Best place for outdoorsy road trippers
Red Lodge is a town close to Yellowstone National Park at the northern end of the Beartooth Highway, one of the most scenic driving routes in the entire country. The town has a totally Western vibe, with a nostalgic main street lined with diners and provisions stores, plus vintage hotels that embrace visitors with warm hospitality. Adventure tour operators abound in Red Lodge, making it an excellent starting or stopping point for any traveler wanting to dive deeper into nature. Wild Bill Lake and the Lake Fork Trail are especially popular, but in these places, and in town, wildlife is frequently spotted, so keep your bear spray handy.
Bannack Ghost Town
Best spot to relive the Old West
To truly experience the Old West, there’s no better place than Bannack Ghost Town, a state park in Dillon, Montana, with over 60 still-standing wooden and brick structures from the 1860s. These include a macabre gallows, the once-lively Hotel Meade, and a weatherboard Methodist Church erected by the town's self-appointed minister. Bannack was a hub for gold prospectors before it became a mining town, finally losing relevance in the 1950s. Today it welcomes visitors throughout the year, though during summer it’s open for longer hours. There's a visitor fee of $8 for out-of-state vehicles; Montana vehicles can enter for free.
Glacier National Park
Best place for hiking
Glacier National Park in northwest Montana is one of the most beloved national parks in the entire country. Every year, millions of visitors are drawn like moths by the chance to hike to glacial lakes, spot iconic American wildlife such as grizzly bears, and drive the famous Going To The Sun Road, which transects the park from east to west. Founded in 1910, Glacier is one of those national parks where, the very second you enter, you'll immediately understand why such a unique section of the American wilderness needed to be protected forever.
Stunning peaks stand guard over glacial valleys, unbelievably clear lakes and rivers reflect the mountains and dense forests cloak the slopes–just some of the features that make Glacier such a remarkable place to visit. The two-hour hike to Avalanche Lake is an incredibly popular choice for those looking for a classic Glacier experience without too much physical exertion, while the full-day Highline and Grinnell Glacier trails offer a more serious challenge with rewarding views to match.
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