Montana is big, the way countries are big. This isn’t just the big sky and big mountains talking. Montana has that special kind of vastness you only find in the American West, with over 70,000 miles of roadway covering 147,040 sq miles of territory. That's a bigger area than Germany.

From a local’s perspective, driving for several hours to visit a friend or pick something up is not considered a major journey. But to explore properly, you need wheels: to say the state is car-centric would be an understatement. For those driving in Big Sky Country for the first time, there's plenty to learn about the state’s roads, speed limits, and local driving behavior.

However, non-drivers need not despair. Montana's cities are usually walkable downtown, though you'll need to pick your hotel carefully, as public transportation is limited even in larger hubs. Still, there are other means of getting around, from buses to trains, and bikes to national park tours – here's a guide to the best ways to get around in Montana.

Woman looking out van window at bison in Yellowstone
Be respectful to other road users in Montana! © Abigail Marie / Shutterstock

Car

Montana is car country. Locals get around in everything from sedans to trucks and All-Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) to classic muscle cars. To travel just about anywhere in the state, you'll need four wheels (or two, during the motorcycle-friendly summer season). With a 4WD vehicle, you can add on Montana’s vast network of dirt and gravel roads. Despite the number of tourists who visit Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park, there is no dedicated public transport between the two reserves, so the 6-7 hour drive is still the best option.

When it comes to driving in Montana, follow the lead of locals. The roads and overall infrastructure were designed to accommodate the one million residents that call the state home, not the annual surge of fair-weather sight-seers. Following driving advice from locals could save your life, or at least help you avoid an awkward confrontation – consider the following locals' tips.

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Watch out for deer before dusk

Montana’s beautiful wildlife includes abundant white-tailed deer, which unfortunately are exactly the same color as the tawny grasses growing by the side of the road throughout Montana. In an average year, 1 in every 57 drivers in Montana has a collision with a  deer, and the animals are particularly active as the sun sets. Drive cautiously on the edges of any areas of woodland, and during fall when hunters drive deer out of their normal ranges. If a deer does step in front of your vehicle, the prevailing wisdom is to try to stop in a straight line, rather than swerving and potentially ending up in a ditch.

Move over into the right lane after you’ve passed on the left

In Montana, the left lane (where there is one) is intended to be left open for passing drivers.  Once passing is complete, the correct etiquette is to quickly return to the right lane. Not every state shares this custom, but Montanans appreciate it when visitors take the time to learn how things are done in the Treasure State!

Exercise patience

With such vast distances to cover, Montanans are rarely in a rush, and locals are unaccustomed to aggressive city driving. Locals find it quite shocking when high season hits and suddenly the roads are full of drivers using aggressive tactics to get ahead of the traffic. Be patient and check your speed while navigating the one and two-lane highways ubiquitous in Montana – you’ll still get to where you’re going, and you'll notice more of the stunning scenery on all sides.

Respect local speed limits

Montana did not impose an official interstate speed limit until 1999, when the max speed was set at 75mph. This was increased to 80mph in 2015, but many locals are more accustomed to driving at what is known as a “reasonable and prudent speed.” Give slow drivers space and wait patiently for a chance to safely overtake, and you'll get a friendly thumbs-up from locals.

Montana's big sky will take your breath away

Go slow in snow

Driving in the snow can be baffling and unnerving if you are not used to it. Going slow is the best way to approach the white stuff. Although plows keep the roads open, interstate driving speeds drop to 45–60 mph when conditions are bad. Note that braking can take longer in snow, and slippery black ice is nearly impossible to spot. It may be better to continue through a yellow light than slamming on your brakes and swerving into the middle of the intersection. A bonus tip – in winter, keep a survival kit consisting of food, water, blankets, a torch and a charged cellphone handy in your car.

Stop for pedestrians

Pedestrians have the right of way over traffic throughout the United States, but this is not always respected. In Montana, locals do adhere to this rule, so make eye contact and offer drivers a polite wave when they stop for you; it’s just the nice thing to do.

Bus

Taking the Greyhound Bus is an inexpensive way to get around Montana, and a good alternative for crossing the state without the stress of driving through snow. Tickets should be booked well in advance, as some routes incorporate local services using buses and vans to supplement the main bus network.

Jefferson Lines is a useful in-state bus service with many routes, great customer service, and deep knowledge of the logistics of traveling in Montana by road. They make booking easy, cover a lot of destinations, and their prices are generally quite affordable. For more information on all the bus services in and beyond Montana, visit Montanalinks.

Larger towns have their own local bus services. Bozeman has an innovative free downtown bus network provided by Streamline, while Missoula's Mountain Line bus company is in the process of rolling out electric buses across its fleet, with 40% of buses already gas-free. Great Falls and Billings also have bus lines covering metropolitan areas.

Snow buses are another option in ski resort towns, offering a (usually free) shuttle service from town to the slopes. Whitefish Mountain Resort’s S.N.O.W. Bus is one of the most popular ways to get to the top of Big Mountain, while the Skyline Bus performs a similar service in Big Sky. Snow buses often operate year-round, but schedules vary by season.

A passenger train crossing over trestle bridge in Glacier National Park
A passenger train dwarfed by the landscapes of Glacier National Park © john lambing / Alamy Stock Photo

Train

Amtrak’s Empire Builder train runs through northern Montana, winding in and out of Glacier National Park. Trains go from west to east in the morning and returning westwards in the late afternoon. This service is a popular way to access either end of the park for a full day, as well as providing an extremely scenic vantage point from which to admire the scenery. The train continues right across the northern part of Montana, continuing west to Portland or Seattle, and east to Chicago.

Currently, there are no other passenger train services operating in Montana, but the newly formed Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority aims to change this.

Plane

Interstate flights buzz into Bozeman, Billings, Missoula, Great Falls and Kalispell (for Glacier National Park), plus some smaller airstrips. However, there few point-to-point flights within the state, unless you have the money to charter a plane. Commercial flights from one city in Montana to another usually involve a change in an out-of-state hub such as Portland or Seattle (Alaska Airlines), Denver (United Airlines), or Salt Lake City (Delta). Some flights use small propeller planes, so book early to secure a seat.

Horse riders in Glacier National Park
Horse riding is one of the most atmospheric ways to reach many parts of Montana © Justin Foulkes / Lonely Planet

Walking & Cycling

For fit adventurers, walking and cycling are popular ways to get around Big Sky Country, offering access deep into national parks and state forests. Montana is the setting for some of America's greatest hikes, and guides are easy to find in tourist hubs such as Bozeman and Missoula. However, be wary of poor weather conditions, drivers, and the wildlife (a can of bear spray is a wise investment). Contact the Montana Cycling Association for tips on cycling in the state. Don't dismiss getting around on horseback – trail riding is possible all over the state.

Accessible transportation in Montana

Away from big towns, Montana is not set up well for those living with a disability, but many travelers with accessibility issues and other disabilities still visit the state, mostly with their own transport. According to Montana’s public transportation department, more than 75 agencies provide specialized services for elderly people and those living with disabilities in Montana, and some of these operators can arrange specialist transfers and tours.

Call 800-714-7296 or email TransitInfo for region-specific information. The bus service Jefferson Lines is committed to serving travelers with disabilities, with accessible routes throughout the state. You'll also find useful information on Lonely Planet's Accessible Travel Resources page.

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