Montana’s spectacular scenery makes it the perfect destination for year-round outdoor adventures. The state is famous for its mountainous terrain yet only one-half to one-third of the state has mountains. The rest is made up of prairies, badlands and rivers. Each season’s landscape offers an entirely different playground. Plan your trip in the winter when snow blankets everything and Montana becomes a wintry wonderland. When the ice and snow have melted, the warm weather brings flowing rivers and blooming pastures. From world-class skiing, fly-fishing and Old West ghost towns to luxury dude ranches and Native American history and culture, there’s something for everyone in Montana. No matter which season you choose to travel, these vacation ideas will inspire your visit to Big Sky Country.
Big Sky Resort: Big Sky
(Jeff Engerbretson/Courtesy of Big Sky Resort)
Located approximately 45 miles southwest of Bozeman, Big Sky Resort is one of the largest ski resorts in the U.S., encompassing more than 5,850 acres of world-class ski runs. The vertical drop is 4,350 feet and the summit, Lone Peak, measures at 11,166 feet above sea level. Accommodations range from luxury hotels and ranches to individual vacation homes. Spend winter days snowboarding or skiing or try something new like dog-sledding through the mountains with a team of huskies. In the winter – or in the summer – ride the longest zip line in the Yellowstone area, Adventure Zipline. For a challenging hike, take the scenic lift where you can venture to the top of Lone Peak for unforgettable views of the surrounding scenery.
Located in northwestern Montana, Flathead Lake is the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, covering almost 200 square miles – and with 185 miles of shoreline. The scenery here is truly awe-inspiring: Snow-dusted mountains serve as the lake’s backdrop, while verdant forestry and cherry orchards line its calm shores. Spend your days here with family or friends swimming, water skiing, fishing or boating. Make sure to take time to visit Wild Horse Island, which is only reachable by boat and is home to bighorn sheep, mule deer and a small band of wild horses. For accommodations, reserve a rustic room or cabin at Flathead Lake Lodge, an all-inclusive 2,000-acre dude ranch situated along the lake.
Glacier National Park via the West Glacier Gateway
The majestic beauty of this region in Glacier Country is unparalleled. Take a week off to explore the 1,600 square miles of pristine landscapes and rugged beauty that make up Glacier National Park. Guides and outfitters are available year-round for activities like hiking, rafting, snowshoeing or even ice climbing. While here, don’t miss one of the most scenic drives in the U.S., the Going-to-the-Sun Road. This 50-mile drive crosses the Continental Divide at 6,646 feet at Logan Pass. After long days of adventuring, relax in the nearby town of Whitefish at The Lodge at Whitefish Lake. This chic resort town located approximately 30 miles southeast of the West Glacier gateway to the park features excellent restaurants, nightlife and boutique shopping. If you want to stay a little closer to the park, Columbia Falls – about 20 miles from the gateway at West Glacier – offers several types of lodging and vacation rentals. During your visit to Columbia Falls, Backslope Brewing is a great spot to grab casual fare and a cold brew – and you can hire a local guide for a customized tour of the park with Glacier Adventure Guides.
The Blackfeet Indian Reservation: Browning
For another option to enter the park, check out the eastern gateway entrance from the town of Browning. This entrance is approximately 70 miles east of West Glacier – and Browning is home to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Encompassing 1.5 million acres of land on the eastern side of the park, these lands have been home to the Blackfeet Tribe (and many other tribes) for thousands of years. If you’re visiting the area in early July, don’t miss Browning’s North American Indian Days, a celebration of the Blackfeet traditions and one of the largest gatherings of U.S. and Canadian tribes.
In the park, you can learn about the Blackfeet, Kootenai, Salish and Pend d’Oreille tribes during Native America Speaks. This series of programs, started in 1982, takes place during the summer – and it’s the longest running Indigenous speaker series in the National Park Service. You’ll find these programs at various locales throughout the park, including the St. Mary Visitor Center, and the historic lodges and park campgrounds. There are also cultural presentations along Two Medicine Lake, at the 193 Ranger Station and at Logan Pass during what’s known as “star parties.” These events are hosted by the Big Sky Astronomy Club and feature evenings of stargazing under the Montana’s big dark sky.
Virginia and Nevada cities
Take a step back into 1864 and the days of Montana’s gold rush with a trip to these famous ghost towns in southwest Montana. Here, families can spend long summer days exploring the second most extensive collection of Old West artifacts and buildings in the U.S. (behind the Smithsonian). Kids can learn about the art of blacksmithing during Living History events or go panning for gold. And you can take a ride on the seasonal Alder Gulch Shortline Railroad, which connects the two old towns that are located just 1.5 miles apart – or even take a tour by stagecoach. Then, plan to spend a spooky night at the rumored-to-be haunted Fairweather Inn in Virginia City.
Helena, Montana’s capital, is located halfway between Glacier and Yellowstone national parks in southwest Montana. This old prospecting town offers activities and attractions perfect for family vacations. The Gates of the Mountain boat tours take visitors along Lewis and Clark’s exploration on Holter Lake. And The Last Chance Tour Train highlights Helena’s Old West history, traveling through gold rush-era neighborhoods such as Reeder’s Alley. Adventure-seekers will appreciate Helena’s world-class fly-fishing, mountain biking, rock climbing, horseback riding and 80 miles of hiking trails that are accessible from downtown. No matter what you decide to do, save time for a relaxing dip in the invigorating mineral waters at Broadwater Hot Springs.
Located along the Yellowstone River in southeast Montana, Billings is the most populated city in the state. It’s also the gateway to Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in the U.S., via the Beartooth Highway. Known as Yellowstone’s Most Scenic Route, the nearly 70-mile-long drive to the northeast entrance of the park offers unparalleled views, especially at the summit of 10,977 feet elevation through Beartooth Pass. You’ll also find more than 20 mountains with peaks reaching over 12,000 feet high along the route. Back in town, check out Montana’s only walkable brewery trail, the self-guided Billings Brew Trail. Culture and history buffs can peruse several museums, including a Western Heritage Center, which is affiliated with the Smithsonian and highlights the history of Billings and the surrounding area.
If you’re visiting in mid-August, you won’t want to miss nine days of fun at the annual MontanaFair, the largest event in the region. There’s also plenty of year-round adventure for outdoor enthusiasts, including rock climbing, horseback riding, hiking, biking, boating, paddleboarding, kayaking and windsurfing. In the winter months, you can bundle up and head outdoors for cross-country skiing, ice fishing and spectacular views of the town’s winter wonderland. For accommodations in the heart of Billings, close to the city’s top restaurants and bars, reserve a room at the historic boutique property, the Northern Hotel.
Warrior Trail Highway
Discover the history of the Native American warrior on this storied route in Indian Country. Warrior Trail Highway is one of three road trip routes through Indian Country, and it takes travelers from Billings through southeast Montana. Along the way, you’ll hear stories of the tribal war chiefs and visit the fields where famed battles once happened. Take a guided tour of the former site of Sitting Bull’s camp on the Little Bighorn River at the Custer Battlefield Museum on the Crow Reservation. Afterward, stop at the Custer Battlefield Trading Post and Café for a buffalo burger or an Indian taco. And at the Medicine Turtle and River Crow Trading Post, you’ll find souvenirs of Crow-designed handcrafted artwork and jewelry. If you’re continuing on the trail, plan an overnight stay where you can stargaze outside your luxury tent provided by the Apsaalooke Glamping Company.
Situated in southwest Montana, Bozeman is regarded as a home base for many visitors to Yellowstone National Park. The city sits between the park’s north entrance – 91 miles away in Gardiner – and the west entrance (78 miles away) in West Yellowstone. Bozeman is also an outdoor adventurer’s paradise. Anglers will want to fly-fish for several species of trout and other fish, like white sucker and mountain whitefish, on the 97-mile-long Gallatin River, which has seven access points for fishing. Hyalite Canyon Recreation Area, the most visited recreation area in the state, is another draw for active outdoor enthusiasts. Located just 15 miles south of Bozeman, the popular spot features several campgrounds, trails for hikers and bikers, and a reservoir for canoeing and fishing. In the winter, thrill-seekers can go ice climbing, while less adventurous visitors can head out for cross-country skiing. After a long day of exploring, visitors can head back to explore Bozeman’s exciting culinary and bar scene. You can kick back and relax over craft beers, casual bites and steaks at Montana Ale Works or, if you prefer to sip a glass of wine and people-watch outdoors, grab a seat with a view at Plonk. And for accommodations, the historic Kimpton Armory Hotel downtown is an excellent choice for your stay.
Yellowstone National Park
Montana is one of the best spots in North America for seeing wildlife. As the first national park in the U.S., Yellowstone National Park (which stretches across parts of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho) is home to grizzly bears, elk, mountain lions, gray wolves, bighorn sheep, bison, pronghorn, bald eagles, and many more species of mammals and birds. At one time, as many as 60 million bison roamed the Great Plains, and now Montana is one of the last places where you’ll find them in the wild. You can even take a private safari-style tour to view the animals year-round with Safari Yellowstone. If you want to stay close to the park, West Yellowstone is the closest town – located just minutes from the West Entrance. Here, you’ll have access to a variety of accommodations, restaurants and fun activities like ice fishing, dog-sledding, sleigh rides and cross-country skiing in the winter. In the summer months, head out on the hiking and biking trails, take a ride on 3,000 feet of zip lines at Yellowstone Aerial Adventures, or check out the action at the Wild West Yellowstone Rodeo.
The Ranch at Rock Creek: Philipsburg
(Courtesy of The Ranch at Rock Creek)
For romance and adventure combined with a five-star luxury experience, plan a getaway to western Montana at The Ranch at Rock Creek. This all-inclusive Relais & Châteaux resort is set on a 6,600-acre working cattle ranch. Choose from 29 distinct accommodations, which include upscale Western-themed rooms with a view of the grasslands at Granite Lodge to glamping under the stars in hybrid canvas-covered cabins situated along the banks of Rock Creek. Fill your days with invigorating outdoor activities such as fly-fishing on Blue Ribbon Rock Creek, horseback riding in the wilderness, or try your hand at sporting clays at Rimfire Range. When you’re ready to relax, unwind with a signature treatment at The Spa at Rock Creek or grab a drink on a seat with a saddle at the Silver Dollar Saloon.
Central Montana’s Scenic Byway motorcycle ride
Hop on a motorcycle or put the top down for this 265-mile road trip through central Montana. The route begins 25 miles east of Great Falls on U.S. Route and includes 71 miles of the Kings Hills Scenic Byway before circling back to Great Falls. Take a break for a locally brewed Pig Ass Porter or Get Lost Ale at Harvest Moon Brewery in Belt or take a dip in the hot springs at White Sulphur Springs. Between Helena and Great Falls, explore sections along Interstate 15 and the frontage road with its picturesque scenery along the Missouri River. And at First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park in Ulm, visit an archeological site and educational center that pays tribute to the bison and the Native American people that honor this magnificent animal. Before heading back, dine with the locals at The Angus Bar in the small town of Cascade.
Missoula – then take a road trip to Kalispell
Take several days – or even a week – to make the 120-mile trip from Missoula to Kalispell. Start your adventure with a few days in Missoula at the AC Hotel Missoula Downtown, which is convenient to some of the town’s best dining and imbibing spots, including The Camino Mexican restaurant and Bar Plata, a Spanish-inspired cocktail bar and eatery. If you’re an angler, you’ll want to head out on the Bitterroot, Blackfoot, Clark Fork or Missouri rivers for some of the best trout fishing in the U.S. with local outfitter Grizzly Hackle Fly Shop. And don’t miss attractions like the Missoula Art Museum, Radius Gallery, a hike on the short M Trail to the top of Mount Sentinel and live music performances at the KettleHouse Amphitheater, situated along the Blackfoot River. When it’s time for a sweet treat, get in line at Big Dipper Ice Cream to choose from tasty, handcrafted flavors like huckleberry, a local favorite.
On the way to Kalispell, make sure to plan a quick stop in Bigfork. This charming community, located at the convergence of the Swan River and Flathead Lake, about 100 miles north of Missoula, features boutiques and galleries with artwork and pieces from western Montana artists. While in town, grab breakfast at Pocketstone Café (be sure to order a cinnamon roll) and have lunch and a cold beer at Flathead Lake Brewing Co.
(Courtesy of The Kalispell Grand Hotel)
During your visit to Kalispell – approximately 15 miles south of Whitefish, the gateway to Glacier National Park – plan to stay at The Kalispell Grand Hotel, a historic property located on Main Street. From here you can walk to three legendary favorites in town. A visit to Kalispell wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Norm’s Soda Fountain for huckleberry ice cream; pizza and a cold beer at Moose’s Saloon; and shopping for a pair of Western boots (with more than 2,500 pairs to choose from) at Western Outdoor.
When you’re ready for outdoor adventure, local outfitter Sea Me Paddle offers year-round kayaking excursions. Horseback riding is also available year-round on trails in the Salish Mountains with Artemis Acres Guest Ranch. You can also take a 2-mile walk or go biking on the new Parkline Trail, which sits along the tracks of the Great Northern Railway running through the downtown area. And for a unique way to explore northwestern Montana’s beautiful scenery, book a shorter three-hour evening trek or an extended multiday excursion with Swan Mountain Llama Trekking. After working up an appetite, check out the culinary and beverage scene featuring locally sourced meats and produce. Some not-to-miss spots include Mercantile Steak, KM Bar, Waters Edge Winery & Bistro and Big Mountain Ciderworks.
Fort Peck, Montana
Northeastern Montana’s section of the Missouri River is home to the largest body of water in the state, the Fort Peck Reservoir. There are 1,520 miles of shoreline and 50 species of fish, including the prized walleye, small mouth bass and chinook salmon. Spend time fishing and hiking in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, which offers more than 1 million acres of public land. Then, visit the Fort Peck Power Plant Museum to learn about the “largest hydraulically filled earth dam in the world.” In the evenings, return to The Historic Fort Peck Hotel, built in the 1930s, to experience an earlier slice of Montana life.