Montana is a magical place to visit.

Wild rivers and outstanding mountains dominate the open landscape, comingled with signs of civilization like a State Capitol built near a mining camp once known as Last Chance Gulch. This air of Western history hangs on every Montana attraction, alongside a sense of exploration that makes each day feel like the one you might strike it rich. 

Outdoor recreation is often the core of any Montana vacation, and there’s no other state that’s easier to explore outside. National forest acreage easily outnumbers people in Montana, all featuring uncrowded trailheads, available campsites and a personal slice of Big Sky Country. Montana’s small towns and 'big' cities await on the fringe of these adventures with a friendly dose of community events and local storefronts. 

1. Spend the night in Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park is one of the most-visited places in Montana, and for good reason. The Continental Divide rips down the middle of this illustrious public land, providing prime habitat for mountain goats, grizzly bears and slack-jawed tourists witnessing the mountain majesty that makes Glacier the 'Crown of the Continent.'

Just a day in Glacier gives you a taste of the adventure beyond every trailhead. But you really need to spend the night to get the most out of its relatively remote location in Northwest Montana. Several overnight options exist within the park, including 13 campgrounds and a quaint collection of historic lodges.

The Many Glacier Hotel might take the cake for the most outstanding views. The hotel overlooks the banks of Swiftcurrent Lake with a dominating profile of Mt Grinnell from the back porch. Reservations are required months in advance to enjoy the historic rooms, but anyone is welcome to check out the lodge’s lobby and lakeshore.

Two anglers in waders cast off as they fly-fish in a river
Fly-fishing is a way of life in Montana © Stewart Sutton / Getty Images

2. Go fly fishing in the Yellowstone River

Fly fishing is as synonymous with Montana as the White House is with Washington, DC. It’s not just a hobby for many Montana anglers; the free-flowing rivers represent a way of life. And there’s no shortage of rivers and tributaries swarming with trout, including the Blackfoot, Clark Fork, Madison and Missouri, just to name a few. 

You can’t talk about fly fishing in Montana without mentioning the Yellowstone River. This remarkably free-flowing river spans nearly 700 miles from Yellowstone Country to North Dakota. But it’s approximately a 100-mile stretch from Gardiner to Livingston that sees the most shoreline fishing and floating. The river runs through the aptly named Paradise Valley along this postcard section, lined by the Absaroka and Gallatin Mountains on both sides. 

Planning tip: Don’t know where to start a Montana fly fishing adventure? Several outfitters, such as Yellowstone River Adventures in Livingston, offer excellent trips for novice and experienced anglers alike.

3. Meet dinosaurs in Bozeman's Museum of the Rockies

Even if the Jurassic Park movie franchise didn’t raise your pulse, the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman will have you standing in awe beneath real-life dinosaur bones. Several triceratops skulls and a fully mounted T-Rex are just a few of the impressive displays within the Siebel Dinosaur Complex of this Smithsonian-affiliate museum, alongside a prehistoric soundtrack coming through the speakers. 

Expect to spend more time than expected in the dinosaur display. But be sure to budget some of your visit for other exhibitions, including galleries devoted to native populations and the boom of Yellowstone Country as a tourist destination. Catching a 20-30 minute screening in the facility’s Taylor Planetarium is also essential to the visiting experience, featuring eye-popping and visually striking educational films.

A mining shaft at the edge of a town backed by a mountain range
Mining history is on display in Butte, Montana © DenisTangneyJr / Getty Images

4. Explore Butte’s history at the World Museum of Mining

The vast copper resources mined from Butte in the late 1800s led to its unique moniker, "The Richest Hill on Earth". Mining operations have ceased in Butte, but its history remains on full display throughout the Butte-Anaconda Historic District – with over 6000 historic properties listed. This makes simply walking around Butte a time-traveling experience.  

The World Museum of Mining offers one of the best ways to dive into Butte’s underground legacy. Visitors start their tour of this immersive museum by kicking up dust down the recreated Hell Roaring Gulch, resembling Butte’s streets during its early-1900s heyday. Opt for the additional Orphan Girl Mine Tour to get a feel for what it was like to work in a copper mine (hard helmets and headlamps included).

5. Check out First Fridays in Missoula

Missoula has a strong community feel along the banks of the beautiful Clark Fork River. This is especially apparent on the First Friday of the month when local art galleries pop up throughout town, and every sidewalk is part of the party. Alongside the art on display, expect to encounter live music, free drinks and plenty of people swapping adventure stories.

Start your First Friday on the Hip Strip in Missoula, on the south side of the newly renovated Beartracks Bridge (Higgins Ave). This eclectic collection of shops and restaurants is always buzzing on First Fridays, especially the beer garden at GILD Brewpub. Cross the bridge overlooking Caras Park and let your senses guide you into the rest of the evening.

Planning tip: Don’t bother driving downtown for First Fridays, especially when the Clark Fork River Trail and Bitterroot Trail weave throughout Missoula and deliver visitors downtown. 

6. Drive the Beartooth Highway

The Beartooth Highway spans 68 miles in southern Montana from Red Lodge to Cooke City and the Northeast Entrance of Yellowstone National Park, with a dip into Wyoming. Along this span is enough scenery to convince you to move to Montana for life. The upright Beartooth Mountains make the biggest impression, the tallest in the state, laying the foundation for the outdoor opportunities lining every inch of this All-American Road.

This seasonal highway tops at 10,947ft with national forest trailheads, campgrounds, and points of interest accessible from both highway shoulders. The road also lends easy access to the alpine-lake-infused Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, where getting lost for days is possible.

Planning tip: The Beartooth Highway only operates between Memorial Day (late May) and October 15, weather dependent.

A solo figure stands on a paddleboard on an incredibly still lake surface
Flathead Lake is known for its vastness and its extremely flat waters © Brent Doscher / Aurora Photos / Getty Images

7. Get out on Flathead Lake

The massive Flathead Lake anchors the Flathead Valley between Missoula and Whitefish in Northwest Montana. The lake earns the title of the largest freshwater lake in the Lower 48 west of the Mississippi, but that doesn’t begin to capture the size and scenery of the lakeshore. The best way to put the lake in perspective is by taking a boat out onto its notoriously flat waters. 

Sizeable towns like Polson and Kalispell aren’t far from the shoreline, offering rental boats and guided tours. And once you’re ready to captain the steering wheel, several sites operated by Flathead Lake State Park provide easy access to the water. Five mainland units comprise the state park, including the bustling West Shore Unit, offering kayak rentals throughout the summer.

Planning tip: The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes operate the southern half of Flathead Lake, and a Tribal Wildland Recreation Permit is required for exploring outside the park units (available online or at select vendors).

8. Tour the CM Russell Museum in Great Falls

Even if you aren’t familiar with the name Charles Marion Russell, you’d probably recognize his work. He was the original "Cowboy Artist" in the early 1900s, pioneering Western art with a portfolio of iconic paintings and imagery, including buffalo hunts horseback marauders, and Lewis and Clark meeting the Flathead people.

Charles M Russell lived nearly his entire life in Montana and spent the peak of his career in Great Falls on the Missouri River. Today, his modest home and log cabin studio are a central attraction of the CM Russell Museum. The facility also houses the largest repository of the artist’s work and entire galleries dedicated to his contemporaries. Expect to spend at least four to five hours exploring everything on-site.

9. Hike through towering trees at Ross Creek Cedars Scenic Area

Tree hugger or not, it’s hard not to marvel at the western red cedars punctuating this special grove in Kootenai National Forest in Northwest Montana. Some of the cedars at Ross Creek predate Christopher Columbus cruising by the continent, and their height and girth speak to this longstanding nature, some more than 12ft in diameter.

Sitting benches and big trees line the nearly mile-long accessible loop departing from the parking area. This paved path is popular for families with young kids and anyone looking to stare up trunks of giant trees without much of a hike. For those wanting to explore further, follow the ambling Ross Creek Trail #142 for up to four miles.

Planning tip: It’s a steep and windy final four-mile drive on a paved road to Ross Creek Cedars Scenic Area, and trailers and bigger rigs aren’t recommended. This entrance road is gated off throughout the winter, between December 1 and approximately mid-May, when the route becomes a favorite for groomed cross-country skiing.

This article was first published Oct 21, 2021 and updated Oct 24, 2023.

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