The Best of Big Sky Country
There’s a sense in montana that anything is possible. This is a special place: unspoiled, rugged, and wild. The boundless blue skies and majestic mountains inspire discovery every season of the year. Hiking trails lead to glacial lakes and wildflower meadows. Abundant wildlife — including buffalo, bear, and elk — roam free. Ghost towns and a one-of-a-kind Dinosaur Trail preserve a dazzling array of historical treasures. And, eight Indian Nations celebrate the state’s rich American Indian heritage. Best of all, the locals’ welcoming spirit makes every traveler feel at home.
Expand your horizons and discover the possibilities in Montana. To help you start planning your trip to Big Sky country, we’ve charted eight Ultimate Montana Road Trips.
1. Yellowstone Country
Outdoor adventure and spectacular scenery abound on this five-day scenic loop through southern montana and into Yellowstone National Park. Hike on a wilderness plateau. Raft the Stillwater River. Horseback ride in Paradise Valley. Along the way, make a stop to soak in a hot spring-fed pool.
On The Fly
Begin in Livingston with a pilgrimage to Dan Bailey’s, the all-things-angler shop founded in 1938 by the father of Montana fly-fishing Buy hand-tied flies, hire a local fishing guide, or get tips on where the trout are biting that day.
Eat & Stay: Livingston Bar and Grille and Yellowstone Valley Lodge, Livingston.
Ride Or Raft
Trade your car for a horse and hit the trail. Paintbrush Adventures in Absarokee leads rides into Montana’s highest mountains. Bear Paw Outfitters in Paradise Valley offers trips to places like Yellowstone and Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Or, take a pulse-pounding rafting trip down the Stillwater River with Absaroka River Adventures.
Eat & Stay: Café Regis and The Pollard, Red Lodge.
Soak in the scenery on the Beartooth Highway (U.S. 212), an All-American Road connecting Red Lodge to the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park. The highway (open late May to mid-October) leads past 20 peaks of more than 12,000 feet and over the 10,900plus-foot Beartooth Plateau.
Eat & Stay: Beartooth Café, Cooke City (open late May to late September), and Silver Gate Lodging, Silver Gate.
Prepare to be amazed as you follow the Grand Loop Road south through Yellowstone National Park. Highlights include the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone; the bubbling Mud Volcano area; and the Mammoth Hot Springs, a hotbed of geothermal formations.
Eat & Stay: Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins (open late April to early October, and mid-December to March), Yellowstone National Park.
Road Less Traveled
Turn onto scenic U.S. 89 in Livingston to take the Paradise Valley Scenic Drive. Paralleling the Upper Yellowstone River between the Absaroka and Gallatin mountain ranges, the drive passe through pasturelands of the lower valley, and delivers pure Montana mountain and river vistas.
Eat & Stay: K-Bar Pizza, Gardiner, and Chico Hot Springs Resort and Day Spa, Pray.
2. Great Plains Adventures
For Montana’s native american people, bison, or buffalo, are revered symbols of strength and unity. Celebrate the bison, see them roam, and discover how the mighty buffalo helped create the state on this six-day drive across Big Sky badlands and prairies.
Birthplace of Montana
Start where the state began in Fort Benton, once the world’s largest inland port. At the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, buy a two-day admission to the center, Old Fort Benton, the Museum of the Upper Missouri, and the Museum of the Northern Great Plains.
Eat & Stay: Union Grille and Grand Union Hotel, Fort Benton.
The next day, go antiquing at the Virgelle Mercantile. Try horseback riding at Sky View Guest Ranch (reservations required), and see the “buffalo rock” used as a bison scratching post.
Eat & Stay: Navlivka’s Original Pizza Kitchen and Best Western Phis Havre Inn and Suites.
All About The Bison
Stop at Wahkpa Ch’Un Archaeological Site (open June to Labor Day) to see a buffalo jump an excavated wall of archaeological deposits, including compacted buffalo bones and skulls. See wild bison on a guided tour of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation’s buffalo reserve.
Eat & Stay: Great Northern Hotel and Steakhouse, Malta.
Dinosaurs & Detours
Play paleontologist at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum and Phillips County Museum in Malta. Take a side trip to either Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge or Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs Resort
Eat & Stay: Great Northern Hotel and Steakhouse, Malta.
Railroad & Refuge
Next is the self-guided Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge auto tour through the badlands. Northwest of Lewistown ride the Charlie Russell Chew Choo Montana dinner train (select weekend days in summer and early fall).
Eat & Stay: Dash Inn and Historic Calvert Hotel, Lewistown.
Back In Time
On the drive back to Fort Benton pull off at Bear Gulch Pictographs, a 313-million-year-old limestone inland sea formation with more than 3,000 drawings by ancient peoples.
Eat & Stay: Wake Cup Coffee House and Bakery and The Lark and Laurel Bed and Breakfast, Fort Benton.
3. Small Towns and Ghost Towns
Wander through authentic 1800s ghost towns on this rambling four-day route over mountains, across the Continental Divide, and along blue-ribbon trout streams. Butte (population 33,854) is the “big city” on the drive. Legend has it some of the smaller towns harbor gold-rush-era ghosts.
Begin in Butte, once known as the “richest hill on Earth” thanks to a multibillion-dollar mining industry. Take an underground tour at the World Museum of Mining, located on the former site of the Orphan Girl silver and zinc mine. Continue this theme at Headframe Spirits, makers of Orphan Girl Bourbon Cream Liqueur. In the distillery’s tasting room, try an Orphan Girl Chocolate Drift (mixed with vodka and chocolate syrup).
Eat & Stay: Joe’s Pasty Shop and Finlen Hotel and Motor Inn, Butte.
Consider detouring at Wise Riser to Big Hole National Battlefield. This sacred site of the Nez Perce people is part of the multistate Nez Perce National Historical Park. At Wise River, slow down and enjoy the scenery along the 49-mile-long Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway. In summer, visit the ghost town of Coolidge.
Eat & Stay: Jackson Hot Springs Lodge, Jackson Hot Springs.
Stop in the route’s three best-preserved ghost towns: Bannack State Park. Nevada City, and Virginia City (which remains a living town with about 190 fulltime residents). The latter two towns house a collection of 19th-century buildings and Americana, including more than a hundred arcade and music machines. If visiting in summer, reserve tickets for Virginia City’s bawdy Brewery Follies or family-friendly Virginia City Players shows.
Eat & Stay: Bale of Hay Saloon (May to September), Virginia City, and Nevada City Hotel and Cabins, Nevada City.
Catch and Release
Spend the day fishing (or learning to fly-fish) in the tiny town of Ennis with such fly-fishing outfitters as the Tackle Shop, Madison River Fishing Company, and Trout Stalkers. Buy or rent outdoor gear, book a guided fly-fishing trip (April to November 1), or get angling tips. Continue on to Norris Hot Springs (open year round), known locally as “water of the gods.” While soaking, watch for deer and antelope.
Eat & Stay: Banditos, Ennis, and Norris Hot Springs Campground (May to September), Norris.
4. Backbone of the Rockies
Rugged, wild, and incredibly scenic, this five-day trip is filled with only -in-in-Montana experiences. Travel Glacier National Park’s legendary Going-to-the-Sun Road. Take a ranger-led tour to see the park’s namesake glaciers. Raft or fish untamed waters. And, chow down on ahearty steak supper or sleep in a restored rail road car.
Pre-register fora wildlife photography workshop at Kalispell’s Triple “D” Game Farm, a safe place to capture images of wolves, grizzly bears, mountain lions, and other native Montana animals. Or, hike in Lone Pine State Park for far-as-the-eye-can-see views of Kalispell, the Flathead River and Flathead Lake, and the Swan Mountain range.
Eat & Stay: Western Barbecue Dinner Ride at Artemis Acres Paint Horse Guest Ranch and Kalispell Grand Hotel, Kalispell.
Take a Hike
There’s so much to see in Glacier National Park that you’ll need to spend at least two days there. Begin by hiking the Highline Trail (for alpine views and possible wildlife sighting) or the Iceberg Lake Trail, which leads to a teal-blue lake holding small icebergs most of the summer.
Eat & Stay: Base Camp Café, Columbia Falls, and Belton Chalet, West Glacier.
Crown of the Continent
On your second Glacier day, drive the epic Going-to-the-Sun Road (partially closed mid-September through early June) through the heart of the park and over 6,646-foot Logan Pass.
Eat & Stay: St. Mary Lodge and Snowgoose Grille, St. Mary.
Off the Beaten Path
On the eastern side of the park, take a detour to Browning and the Museum of the Plains Indian. Watch Native American artists demonstrate authentic crafts, including weaving with porcupine quills.
Eat & Stay: Johnson’s of St. Mary (mid-May through September), St. Mary, and Izzak Walton Inn (railroad car room), Essex.
See & Ski
Whitefish Mountain Resort is an all-season destination for adventure. Ride the lifts to the summit in winter to ski and year round for views of Glacier National Park, the Flathead Valley, the Canadian Rockies, and more.
Eat & Stay: Loula’s and The Lodge at Whitefish Lake. Whitefish.