The rugged individualism and spirit of the Wild West isn’t confined to your grandparents’ black and white TV screen or dusty old history books. It’s a living, breathing way of life in modern-day Montana.
From fly fishing on a wild mountain river to making friends with cowboys in an Old West saloon, here are a few of the best experiences to be had in a state that offers a bit of everything.
Montana is famous for its word-class fly fishing © Patrick Orton / Getty Images
Fly fishing: catch your own dinner
Montana is world famous as a fly-fishing paradise, with dozens of clear cold-water rivers teeming with healthy fish populations. The state does not stock its waters with trout, which maintains the wild character of its rivers while protecting native habitat species.
Famous for rainbow, cutthroat, and brown trout that average 14-16 inches long, Montana’s rivers also often pair with spectacular mountain scenery that make a day fly-fishing on the river a highlight of any visit. There’s a reason ‘A River Runs Through It’ was filmed here. With 450 miles of rivers and streams classified as ‘blue ribbon’ trout waters, the state allows anyone to fish anywhere on the river up to the high-water mark (even if it passes through private property). You can also camp along the river banks anywhere up to the high-water mark, which means you can spend days on the river catching and cooking your own meals.
The Yellowstone River is Montana’s longest river and one of the best places to fly-fish in the state, with the section of the river in the Paradise Valley between Yellowstone National Park and the town of Livingston making for a particularly scenic stretch. Hire a guide from a local outfitter like Angler’s West Fly Fishing Outfitters, who will soon have you knee-deep in the river with the Absaroka Mountains in the background for a gorgeous (and productive) day reeling in wild trout.
Hot springs: Soak in a Montana experience
With more than 60 known hot springs, Montana offers a wide variety of options – from hot springs-fed pools in luxurious resorts to hidden natural hot springs in the backcountry. Fairmont Hot Springs near Butte is a particularly glamorous spot with on-site golf course, water slide, and bar serving tropical drinks poolside in the summer. Or you can soak in a natural hot spring within Yellowstone National Park at a popular spot called The Boiling River. Many Montana hot springs like Norris Hot Springs and Bozeman Hot Springs even feature live bands, so pull up to the water’s edge with a Montana craft brew in hand and soak in the scenery. Literally.
Is there anything better than floating down a river on an inflatable tube with a drink in your hand? © Jay Gentile / Lonely Planet
River floating: Enjoy an aquatic happy hour
While fishing and rafting are popular summer activities among locals, there’s little Montanans like more than spending a relaxing day floating down the river in their own tube. No guides, licenses, or expert knowledge is required. Just pack up the car with some sort of inflatable flotation device and float your way down the Montana river of your choice (preferably with a drink in hand.) Just remember where you parked or, better yet, organize ahead of time where the float will end and have a friend drop off your car (or bike) so it will be waiting when you’re done.
National Parks: Blaze your own trail
With just more than a million people spread out across 147,000 square miles, Montana is the third least densely populated state (after Alaska and Wyoming), which means there’s always plenty of room in Big Sky Country. Yellowstone National Park has a small northern section in Montana and it’s possible to get away from the crowds there. In the Northern part of the state, Glacier National Park is one of the most picturesque mountain parks in the world, with spectacular alpine lakes and the popular Going-to-the-Sun Road scenic drive offering plenty of opportunities for DIY nature excursions.
The Old Saloon in Emigrant, Montana is an iconic watering hole in Paradise Valley © Jay Gentile / Lonely Planet
Saloon-hopping: Drink at a Western watering hole
Montana is chock full of real-life Western bars that look like something ripped out of a Wild West movie, from the Bale of Hay (Est 1863) to the legendary locals-heavy Pony Bar in the tiny town of Pony. Another historic watering hole is the Old Saloon located about halfway between Yellowstone National Park and the town of Livingston. It’s been slinging drinks since 1902 and features a diverse cast of characters – from grizzled old-timers and local families to adventurous tourists and hipsters. For a real Montana experience, stop by to see live country bands rocking the picturesque outdoor stage as the glowing Montana sun sets in the background.
Ride the range: Stay in luxury on a ranch
Montana is famous for its ‘dude ranches,’ but for a less touristy experience a visit to the new Sage Lodge in Montana’s Paradise Valley is a must. Located on a 1,000-acre ranch in a wilderness area, Sage offers an upscale food and cocktail program and luxury accommodations along with fishing, horseback riding, and river floating excursions from local partners. With 34 hotel-style rooms plus 16 rooms in four cabins (all with towering views of nearby Emigrant Peak), Sage also lets you make your own cider with apples you pick from trees at their on-site orchard.
KettleHouse Amphitheater is nestled along the banks of the Blackfoot River © Jay Gentile / Lonely Planet
Outdoor amphitheaters: grab a spot in the grass
The new KettleHouse Amphitheatre, opened last year on the banks of the Blackfoot River outside Missoula, is a stunning natural setting in which to take in some live music. While here, pair sounds from bands like The Flaming Lips and Trombone Shorty with some of Montana’s top craft brews from Missoula brewer KettleHouse Brewing Company. Accommodating 4,000 people in both seated sections and open grass at the top of the gently sloping venue, there’s not a bad seat in the house. Ride the shuttle bus to the venue from the Top Hat in Missoula and make some new friends on the way.
Explore: Find your favorite Montana small town
In places like Virginia City and Bannack, you can stroll the streets and get a taste of what Montana life was like in the late 1800s. And if you like a thriving modern-day town with a heavy nod to the past, old West neon bar signs and unmistakable character, the town of Livingston should be high on your list. Attracting an interesting mix of artists, writers, outdoor adventurers and real-life cowboys, the center of the action in town is the historic Murray Hotel and Murray Bar. The Mint and Whiskey Creek are other fine establishments in this bar-heavy town, but a quiet stroll in the park along the Yellowstone River makes for an equally pleasing Montana experience.
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