Montana is the ultimate destination for outdoor adventurers, with endless mountain ranges, forest hiking trails and wonderful waterways to choose from – all of which transform dramatically from season to season.
Despite the trappings of the modern age, the Treasure State still embodies the spirit of the Old West, offering opportunities to experience life on horseback, hunt and forage for wild food and drift through ghost towns that look like the last cowboy just rode into the sunset. But there's more to Montana than cowboying up and getting outside.
Bustling towns are made more colorful by burgeoning artistic talent, and the world is taking notice of Montana’s innovative culinary scene. Whether you’re seeking adventures in untouched landscapes or creative encounters in cool urban hubs, Montana can provide what you’re looking for. Here's a guide to the top things to do in Big Sky Country.
Hiking in Glacier National Park
Hitting the trails in Glacier National Park is probably the most popular activity for visitors to Montana, and for good reason. Glacier’s jagged mountain peaks, lush valleys and crystal clear lakes and rivers are accessed via endless miles of wilderness trails, from popular and accessible jaunts like the Avalanche Trail to more rugged, challenging expeditions like the hike to Hidden Lake.
Meeting mountain goats, moose and grizzly bears is just part of life in the park, giving visitors the sensation of being truly in the bosom of America’s wildest wilderness. Hiking is exceptional throughout Montana, not just inside Glacier – so long as you carry bear spray, stick to designated pathways and follow the usual safe-hiking rules, every day will be brimful of adventure.
Flyfish the Madison River
Rushing rivers drain down from the mountains across Montana, inspiring writers, artists and anglers alike. The state is one of the world's top destinations for flyfishing, thanks to unpolluted turquoise rivers teeming with trout. And with the lack of crowds, fishing here is a truly peaceful experience – which is, after all, the true goal for many anglers!
Grab a Montana fishing license and head to the Madison River, close to the southwestern city of Bozeman. The 50 miles of river near Quake Lake offer rich catches for both waders and boat-based fisherfolk, particularly along the so-called Riffle. Alternatively, head to Yellowstone National Park where the Madison River begins. Montana Angler can give you tips on which angling guides to hire, and even the best lodges to stay in to access prime stretches of river.
Raft the Gallatin River
Fishing fans aren't the only people who love Montana’s legendary rivers. Adrenaline junkies flock to the state every summer to take on Montana's famous whitewater rapids, which churn furiously along the Gallatin River, just outside Yellowstone National Park’s western entrance. Based out of Big Sky, rafters can hit rapids reaching up to Class IV, with the rapids at their most intense early in the summer while the water is still high from the spring melt.
Along gentle stretches of river, rafters may see bald and golden eagles flying overhead, or elk stopping by the riverbanks for a sip of icy water. Montana Whitewater and Geyser Whitewater Expeditions are two great options for a guided trip on the Gallatin.
Hit the powder in Big Sky
Snow is a fact of life in Montana, so rather than shying away from it, outdoor adventurers embrace it. Winter snowfall in Montana is ample and powdery, and slopes are protected by the Rocky Mountains and free from the chill winds that scythe along the coasts. Unsurprisingly, this is a dream destination for skiers and snowboarders.
Big Sky Resort is the ultimate destination in Montana for winter sports, with 5800 acres of ski-able terrain, including plenty of slopes suitable for beginners. There are ski-in accommodations perched on the mountainside as well, making it possible to plan a whole trip around shredding gnar.
Horseback riding at Bar W
For a proper Old West experience, you have to get into the saddle. Head up to the resort town of Whitefish, where the Bar W Guest Ranch offers everything from first-time lessons to trail rides through the pines and along the banks of glittering Rocky Mountain lakes. You can even take on the challenge of learning rodeo skills.
Many guests opt to stay on site to take advantage of everything the ranch has to offer, with accommodation in a wood-floored lodge or comfy log cabins. However, trail rides can be found throughout the state, both at resorts and country ranches, so be sure to saddle up wherever you’re bound.
Soak in a hot spring
Geothermal springs extend well beyond Yellowstone's boundaries, with hot pools found all the way to Montana's northern border, providing ample opportunities for a relaxing alfresco soak. The town of Hot Springs is an obvious and fun place to dip into earth-warmed water, while Quinn’s Resort in the nearby town of Plains offers a more high-end experience.
Near Bozeman, Chico Hot Springs is a popular add-on to a Yellowstone vacation. The resort offers accommodations and dining in addition to hot springs, making it an excellent spot for enjoying the waters without adding too much driving into the mix.
Wildlife watching at Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park was the country’s first-ever national park, and it protects a landscape that has hardly changed since the park was founded in 1872. The geysers and other thermodynamic features are obvious drawcards, but it’s the safari-like experience of seeing America’s mightiest mammals roaming wild and free in their natural habitat that will stay with you.
Driving Yellowstone’s roads and hiking on its walking trails will throw up chances to spot roaming bison, packs of wolves, grizzly bears, moose, bald eagles and a multitude of other species that flourish away from human interference. Check out tours with Wolf Tracker to see the famous Yellowstone wolves; they can be tricky to spot without help from an expert.
Connect with Native American culture
Many imagine, mistakenly, that Native American culture is something of the past, but the people who survived what can only be described as genocide and mass theft of their land follow their own way of life in mountainous Montana, defying the stereotypes depicted in movies and media.
Most of Montana's large Native American population come from twelve tribal nations: Assiniboine, Blackfeet, Chippewa, Cree, Crow, Gros Ventre, Kootenai, Little Shell Chippewa, Northern Cheyenne, Pend d'Oreille, Salish, and Lakota or Dakota.
Exploring Glacier National Park with Glacier Sun Tours offers a fascinating Native American perspective on Montana, as guides from this indigenous-owned company delve into the park’s dark history and the ways local plants and animals were used by indigenous peoples. Finally, head to the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning on the Blackfeet Reservation for a deep dive into the challenges faced by Montana’s Native Americans.
Live the upscale Old West life at Paws Up
Real-life cowboys lived uncomfortably self-reliant lives that most modern people would not want to emulate; you can however experience a luxurious version of the cowboy life at the Paws Up ranch in Greenough, a town close to Missoula. This all-inclusive Wild West experience is set on a working beef ranch of 37,000 acres, with all sorts of outdoorsy activities from archery to off-road driving and horseback riding.
For independent spirits, the ranch has 100 miles of trails and a 10-mile stretch of river, mean hiking and fishing are never too far away, whether you opt for camping, glamping, or living it up in one of their luxury cabins. If glam isn’t your style, Montana has many other dude ranches offering varying degrees of luxury. Bonanza Creek Ranch in Martinsdale feels a bit more like the old days, with log cabins and horse-riding at a more affordable price point.
Get acquainted with local artwork in Missoula
Montana isn’t all ranchers and hikers. The incredible scenery and self-reliant way of life has inspired plenty of artists working in every conceivable medium. Artistic talent can be seen throughout the state, but Missoula in particular seems to stimulate the creative mind.
Museums and galleries abound in this small city, including the free-to-visit Missoula Art Museum and Elk Country Visitors Center Museum. Visitors interested in supporting local talent can head to Radius Gallery and 4 Ravens Gallery to browse work for sale from Montana artists. While you're here, take a walk into the hills – several trails start right on the town limits.
Take a road trip on the Beartooth Highway
Montana is stunningly beautiful, and you don't need to take an extended hike to take in the views. The achingly scenic Beartooth Highway spans the northern part of Wyoming and the southern part of Montana, passing just beyond the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. It's best explored during summer when the snow is gone; poor weather conditions typically close the road from October to the Memorial Day weekend (see the state government website for updates).
This winding road twists over mountain passes, plunges into deep green valleys, and terminates at the rugged town of Red Lodge, where plenty of outdoor adventures on foot and four wheels can be arranged. Take advantage of pullouts on the roadside to scan the countryside for wildlife, including mountain goats, bears and eagles.
Explore ghost towns
The prosperity that the Gold Rush bought to Montana didn’t always last, leaving many of the towns hastily assembled by prospectors to crumble to ruin once the ore dried up. Garnet was once a busy gold mining town, and its time-aged remains are preserved as a memorial for those who want to wander streets that once thronged with optimistic gold seekers.
Bannack State Park offers a more formal approach to ghost town exploration, with fees and tours to help make sense of the many remaining centuries-old structures. Coloma and Virginia City are two more ghost towns worth exploring, but Visit Montana can steer you towards many more. Stick to the greater Bozeman area to see them all.
Go snowmobiling in Cooke City
While Yellowstone National Park falls mostly silent during the winter, just north of the park, Cooke City is bustling with snowmobilers. Trails covering more than 60 miles of wild country let snowmobilers explore southern Montana under a blanket of snow on the edge of the Beartooth Mountains.
Backcountry snowmobiling is popular throughout Montana during the winter, but Cooke City is a great place for beginners to get a feel for the sport. Many enthusiasts bring their own sleds with them – accessing the town through Yellowstone’s northern entrance in Gardiner then driving east through the Lamar Valley – but snowmobiles are widely available for rent when you get here.
Stimulate the soul at the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas
Montana may not seem like the most obvious location for Tibetan Buddhist devotion, but the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas in Arlee is challenging traditional notions of Montana’s identity, as well as providing a place for people to focus on peace and contemplation.
Though donations are encouraged, visiting this dharma-wheel-shaped garden of statues and stupas is free, and the setting is very conducive to meditative self-exploration. The garden is on the land of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation just outside of Missoula.
Hunt antiques in Glacier country
The East and West Coast cities have their luxury chain stores; Montana has its antiques. Antique shopping is one of many ways to find treasure in the Treasure State, and the options are limitless. The Kalispell Antiques Market is one of many incredible sources of antique shopping in the area, as is the Cowboy Cabin in Whitefish, where items for sale have included one of Annie Oakley’s guns.
Driving from here to Glacier National Parks will take you past a slew of townships and villages overflowing with antique shops; check out Shops at Station 8 in Columbia Falls, which offers an ever-changing, curated selection of goods.