With so much wilderness right on the doorstep, there's always something to do in Montana, but the state is highly in tune with the rhythms of nature, and activities vary depending on the weather and season. Peak summer and winter always draw in a crowd, but the shoulder seasons of late spring and fall show a calmer, quieter side to the Big Sky state. Whenever you come, check if you can do the activities you want to do and see the places you want to see at that time of year.
Summer is considered the high season, thanks to the endless opportunities for hiking and outdoor exploration, but snow sports in winter are another major draw, thanks to the state’s consistent covering of fluffy snow. It’s important to note that businesses often use the less popular shoulder season and off-season to perform renovations or reduce their hours. Even so, the quieter months are ideal if you want to see Montana looking more like it did in the frontier days, without queues of RVs on the highways.
Here's a guide to what Montana has to offer throughout the year, from hiking-friendly summer to ski-tastic winter and everything in between.
The shoulder season (September–November) is the best time for avoiding the crowds
Shoulder season is generally Montanans' favorite time of year. After all, people don’t live in Montana for the noise and bustle. The weather is mild, the roads and trails are still open, and the crowds have mostly gone home after the summer crush. If you're looking to see Montana in its most pristine state, this is the time to come. Plus October is when the leaves start to change color, with a vivid shift towards crimson, orange and yellow that rivals anything in New England.
There are inconveniences too, however. Many restaurants, hotels, and other businesses lose some staff thanks to schools starting back up again, and some use the lull between summer and winter to perform renovations. Service may be slow and activities harder to come by, but Montana culture is nothing if not encouraging of a little self-reliance. It’s also worth noting that Montana’s unpredictable weather can mean rain in September, obscuring the views.
The summer high season (July–August) is the time for hiking and water activities
Montana is extremely family-friendly and when there’s no snow, it’s easy to drive deep into wild country, making summer the peak season for the state. Yellowstone National Park will be in full swing by this point, and Glacier National Park’s Going To The Sun Road is finally cleared of snow and open to traffic by the end of June or early July. As the snow melts, seasonal workers flock to staff mountain resorts and support the surge in tourism, and bears come out of hibernation.
This is the ideal time to engage in the summer activities for which Montana is famous. Fly-fishing, hiking, whitewater rafting, wildlife spotting, admiring the wildflowers and going to the rodeo are just some of Montana’s most popular ways to keep busy in the summertime. This is also when the huckleberries come out, if you’re willing to fight the bears for them (carry bear spray to be on the safe side).
The cons of visiting Montana during the high season are the crowds, which can somewhat defeat the purpose of exploring these wide open spaces. Another inconvenience is the heat, which often surprises visitors who assume this snow-prone state is always cold. It can reach over 100 degrees during the day in the high season, and with regular wildfires, the air is often hazy, obscuring the mountain vistas that many have traveled so far to gaze on.
The winter high season (December–March) is the best time for snow sports
Winter is another extremely popular time to visit Montana, also for outdoor activities, just a different set from the summer ones. There are ski and snowboarding resorts throughout the state, the most popular of which is Big Sky, about an hour from Bozeman. Snowmobilers also descend on Montana en masse in the winter, congregating in Cook City, just north of Yellowstone National Park.
Winter is actually an exceptional time to visit Yellowstone, even though only the northern road is open. Okay, so you won’t be able to see Old Faithful or many other famous sights in the park, but wolves and other wildlife (besides the hibernating species) gather in the Lamar Valley, and are easy to spot against the white snow. Tour operator Yellowstone Wolf Tracker’s winter tours are nothing short of epic for wildlife spotters. Other popular winter activities in Montana include snowshoeing, dog sledding and cozying up by the fire in a log cabin while snowflakes fall outside the window.
However, note that winter is not always an easy time to visit Montana, though it can be very rewarding. The roads can be tricky to navigate if you are not an experienced winter driver, and many non-tourist businesses close their doors until summer comes again. Sunshine is limited at this time of year, and temperatures can drop past the point of being deadly if you’re not prepared; keep emergency food, water and blankets in your vehicle. On the plus side, you may spot the aurora borealis lighting up the sky on dark nights, and many towns serve up winter cheer in the form of fun-filled carnivals.
Low season (April–June) is the best time for budget travelers
What other places refer to as the low season, Montanans call the mud season. This is the time of year when winter turns to spring and the snow melts, leaving lakes of mud in its wake. It's not all bad though – this is playtime for off-roaders and 4WD enthusiasts, and car washing businesses as well. Restaurants and tour operators use the slow season to get ready for summer, and many popular outdoor areas stage a soft opening without the overwhelming summer crowds.
As you might expect, this is a rainy time of year, which can create hazardous road conditions and disappointing vistas. On the flip side, hotels will be at their least expensive prices during this slow season for customers.
January sees snow and the aurora borealis
January is typically snowy, with temperatures to match. Snowfall can vary but it’s best to come prepared with winter tires and layer upon layer of clothing, plus blankets, water and food for your car. Winter storms are frequent and can delay travel, so flexibility is a must. Because of the consistent snowfall, skiing and snowboarding are excellent. Head to the northern part of the state for the best chance at seeing the aurora borealis, as January has the longest nights.
Key events: Montana Winter Fair (Lewistown)
February is a boom time for ski resorts
February is another snowy month, and often colder than January. The ski resorts will be booming by this point, especially since many schools offer a break this month.
Key events: Winter Carnival in Whitefish
March is the last chance for wintersports fun
Winter may still be in full force at this point, or spring could be starting early down in the valleys, but you'll find higher elevations are still covered in snow. Ski resorts are open in March, and winter activities are in full swing. It’s still a fairly reliable time to take a winter vacation to Montana.
Key events: Winter Carnival in Red Lodge
April sees warming weather and pond skims
Most ski resorts close by the first week of April, as the snow begins to melt. To mark the end of the season, many ski resorts host their final event, a pond skim, in which costumed downhillers compete by trying to skim across a pond on their skis or snowboards. As the thaw takes place, hungry bears emerge from hibernation, making this a good time for wildlife spotting.
Key events: Pond skim events, International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula
May is wildflower season
Watch for wildflowers beginning to bloom in almost infinite amounts in the foothills. Despite the May rain, they will share their beauty right through the summer. May is also the most common time for farmers' markets to reopen, and towns to start their annual program of art walks.
Key events: Art walks and farmers markets begin
Heavy rain arrives in June
A shockingly rainy month – the rainiest of the year. June sees businesses and activities open but not yet mobbed. Things get busier as the month wears on, but early June is a relatively peaceful time to explore.
Key events: Lewis and Clark Festival in Great Falls, Montana Mule Days in Hamilton
July is big for festivals and activities
Hot, popular, crowded, and beautiful, July is Montana’s busiest month for tourism. The wildflowers are blooming, wildlife is out in force, and every summer activity for which Montana is known is available. When traveling to Montana during July, it’s highly recommended to make bookings in advance, particularly for accommodation and national park trips.
Key events: Under the Big Sky Festival in Whitefish, Evel Knievel Days in Butte, Flathead Cherry Festival in Polson, Going To The Sun Road in Glacier National Park reopens
Foragers will find rick pickings in August
The crowds are still at their peak through August, but this is the prime time for huckleberries, which have a relatively short season. The heat – and likely smoke – from wildfires will be noticeable during August. As in July, it’s best to plan ahead when it comes to bookings.
Key events: Sweet Pea Festival in Bozeman, Huckleberry Festival in Trout Creek
September sees smaller crowds and fall colors
A Montanan’s favorite month, September has cooler weather but fewer crowds, and the leaves start their annual journey into rainbow color as the month wears on. Some restaurants introduce reduced hours in anticipation of falling demand, though this is less common in tourist-frequented towns such as Bozeman and Missoula.
Key events: Whitefish Songwriter Festival, Missoula Oktoberfest, Wine and Food Festival in Billings
October brings blazing fall colors but cooling temperatures
Larches and other deciduous trees begin to dramatically change color, carpeting the state in a yellow-orange hue. Autumn has arrived in Montana, with a chill in the air to prove it. An errant snow day or two may occur, but it’s unlikely to stick to the roads. Still, be prepared for the possibility of weather cold enough to require specialized clothing.
Key events: HarvestFest in Billings
November sees the cold sweep back in, and prices drop
November is a cold, rainy month, second only to June, and winter is becoming ever more obvious. Many trees will have dropped their leaves by this point, and residents will be getting their woodpiles ready to endure the upcoming freeze. Thanksgiving can be busier than other times of the month, but overall this is not an especially popular time to visit Montana. Many businesses close until the end of shoulder season. However, hotel prices are greatly reduced compared with the high season.
Key events: Gun shows in Helena and Billings
December is frosty but there's plenty of seasonal cheer
It’s cold in December, but not necessarily snowing yet. People in resort towns hold Pray for Snow parties in the hope of a good season of snowfall. Winter sports kick-off as soon as the snow sticks to the ground, which is likely to happen at least mid-way through the month. But even if it doesn’t, visits to Montana during December can still yield wonderful holiday decorations and accompanying winter cheer.
Key events: Ski resorts open, Bozeman Ice Festival