Driving is a way of life in Montana. The state is rural by nature – people live there to enjoy the amount of space between them and their neighbors – and it's scenic no matter the route.
A road trip in Montana offers the chance to see a bounty of wildlife, from grizzly bears to bald eagles taking off from their treetop nests, and landscape views full of mountain peaks, crystalline lakes, and undulating valleys. Or a driver may find themselves exploring a ghost town stuck in time. Intrepid travelers will find tons of opportunities to take the road trip off-road, but be advised that these adventures require a 4x4 vehicle, driving skill, and a strong constitution.
Wherever you choose to drive in Montana, beautiful sights await. Here are a few suggestions for exploring the best of Big Sky Country by road.
Start - Cooke City; End - Red Lodge; Distance - approx 68 miles
The magnificent Yellowstone National Park is just one part of a broader, equally beautiful ecosystem that is best accessed by the scenic Beartooth Highway. Between Cooke City (home to Yellowstone’s Silver Gate entrance) and Red Lodge, 68 miles of twisting roads rise and fall through peaks and pines, alpine lakes and valleys. It’s not a long drive, but you will want to take advantage of the turnouts, each of which offers a uniquely beautiful view. Depending how often you plan to stop (or how many hikes you want to add on), the route can be done either as an addendum to a Yellowstone trip or a full day adventure. Make sure to stop at the 45th parallel, which is exactly halfway between the North Pole and the Equator. This road trip is drivable between Memorial Day and Indigenous Peoples' Day, weather permitting.
Start - West Glacier; End - St. Mary; Distance - approx 50 miles
Glacier National Park’s east-west transmountain drive is one of the most scenic ways to see the park. Glacier’s famous snowy peaks, dense pine forests, and abundance of wildlife have drawn road trippers for more than a century. When traffic is light, the whole drive can be done in two hours, though most visitors choose to spend an entire day stopping at the many sights along the way. Popular pullovers include Jackson Glacier Overlook for a chance to see an actual glacier, and any of the three visitors centers.
There are no gas stations along the road, so plan to enter the park with enough fuel to get to the other side. Note that in 2021 an inexpensive ticketing system was instituted for visitors driving Going-to-the-Sun Road which may reappear for subsequent years. It is in addition to the Glacier National Park entry fee and requires booking in advance. Check with the National Park Service for information on weather-related closures.
Park to Park
Start - Glacier National Park; End - Yellowstone National Park; Distance - approx 394 miles
Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park are two of the largest draws for visitors to Montana, but they are at polar ends of the state from each other: Glacier sits on the northern border and Yellowstone on the southern. Montana’s beauty is not limited to these parks, however, and a road trip between them is an excellent way to see almost everything the state has to offer. There are a lot of paths to take, but this itinerary offers an unbeatable scenic drive avoiding freeways as much as possible.
Beginning at Glacier National Park, head south towards Flathead Lake, swinging East at Bigfork through the Seeley-Swan Valley, a quiet, forested region with glittering lakes and endless picnic spots. Continue on to Helena, the state’s capital city, and stop at the Dirty Dozen for donuts. Continue south through Bozeman until reaching Gardiner, where Yellowstone’s North entrance is located. This is a 7-hour drive without stopping, so feel free to spread that out over a few days to enjoy what Montana’s small towns have to offer.
Start - Garnet; End - Virginia City; Distance - approx 184 miles
Montana’s many ghost towns reflect moments in not only the state’s history, but the entire country’s, unperturbed as they are by modern innovations. Start this spooky road trip in Garnet Ghost Town, which is just outside of Missoula. Explore the old buildings and defunct mines to get an idea of what life was like in the 1800s. Head on down to Philipsburg, where Granite Ghost Town State Park has remnants of the 1890s silver boom still standing. Continue on to Cable Mine in Anaconda, where gold was once struck, until ending in Virginia City and Nevada City. The neighboring ghost towns once drew fortune seekers the world over, now serving to showcase Montana’s history through a number of buildings, attractions, and activities.
Start - Billings; End - Baker; Distance - approx 222 miles
Most of the action in Montana happens in the mountainous western region, but that just means the eastern part is overlooked. The southeastern section is rich, particularly when it comes to the history of the Great Plains. There are countless small towns in this section of the state, each evocative in its own way. Start this road trip by heading east out of Billings on Highway 12, which goes along the Yellowstone River. Pompeys Pillar National Monument is a great first sight along the way, with sandstone outcroppings that captivated Lewis and Clark themselves. Further east, stop in Miles City to explore history at the Range Riders Museum, or drink it all in at Montana Bar. Finally, pull up to Baker, Montana, and enjoy the hospitality of one of the least-touristic regions in the country.
Tips for driving in Montana
Montana’s roads are largely well-maintained since they undergo annual repair following the snow melt, but they are sometimes impassable when snow is still present. And while they’re no Autobahn, Montana traffic laws allow for driving at an above average speed limit, a measure imposed somewhat recently. The low population relative to excess roads has made driving fast possible, though this will surely be changing as Montana’s popularity grows.
Driving in Montana can be confusing for visitors coming from big cities, who are accustomed to fighting for their place on the road. Traffic is unfamiliar in Montana – unless there’s a large herd of cattle crossing – but generally local folks are not in a rush. Take care to adopt this local sensibility, as your efforts will be greatly appreciated by those unaccustomed to aggressive driving.