Even though Montana is the fourth largest state in America, it’s ranked in 44th for its population. Big Sky Country has wide-open spaces in every direction, with 28 million acres of public lands, seven state forests, and 55 state parks. The wildlife runs free in this slice of the U.S. as well, with 100 species of mammals including caribou, elk, deer, bighorn sheep, bobcats, and bears. Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks are well-visited and if you love spending time in the outdoors, you’ll find a plethora of activities to do here, including soaking in natural hot springs fed from geothermal sources. Read on for the top 10 destinations in Montana.
See Where the Buffalo Roam in Yellowstone National Park
Established in 1872, Yellowstone National Park is the world’s first national park. Travelers here are rewarded with big adventures as the park sits on an active volcano, experiences one to three thousand annual earthquakes, and is home to 10,000 hydrothermal features and 500 active geysers (more than half of the world’s geysers). The wildlife here is unbelievable. You’ll see herds of bison—the largest land-dwelling mammals in North America—throughout the park, in the valleys and grasslands, near the thermal areas, and even wandering in front of cars.
Drive the Going-to-the-Sun-Road in Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park, the Crown of the Continent, is one of the most stunning national parks in all of America. Drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road and pull over at multiple spots along the way to hike and explore over 745 miles of trails. The park is home to hundreds of lakes—Lake McDonald is the largest—and over a million acres of wildlife-studded land. See 26 glaciers throughout the park but visit soon because they’re sadly melting at a rapid rate.
Brush Up on History at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, near the Crow Agency, recognizes the historic location of the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, which was one of the last efforts lead by Native Americans to preserve their way of life. This site is a memorial to those who fought in the battle: George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry and the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes. Begin at the Visitor’s Center and then see the Custer National Cemetery, 7th Cavalry Memorial, and the Reno-Benteen Battlefield.
Pan for Gold in Virginia City
Have you ever seen a double-decker outhouse? See a well-preserved pioneer mining camp in Virginia City, situated along the richest-placed gold strike in the Rocky Mountains: Alder Gulch. Stay in rustic lodging, ride the train from Virginia City to Nevada City, see a live theater show, fill your bellies with taffy from the candy shop, don authentic garb from Ranks Mercantile, and pan for gold. You’ll get a taste for what life was like circa 1864 if you visit the Thompson-Hickman Museum and the cemetery.
Marvel at Lone Peak in Big Sky
Midway between Bozeman and West Yellowstone sits Big Sky, Montana, home to some of the best skiing in the world. During the warmer months, you can go whitewater rafting, biking, trout fishing, horseback riding, camping, and hiking. The outdoor adventures are endless, and if you visit here, likely, you’ll spend most of your time moving your body in the outdoors, breathing fresh mountain air, and spotting wildlife.
Venture Into the Dark at Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park
A really stellar place to visit, less than one hour from Bozeman, is Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park. Go on a two-hour tour, inside the limestone caves dotted with bats, where you’ll see stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and helictites. One of the most fun features of the cave is the Beaver Slide, a natural formation that is perfect for kids.
See Fossils at the Museum of the Rockies
Situated in the picturesque town of Bozeman, the Museum of the Rockies is a top-notch research and history museum with an enormous collection of dinosaur fossils. See the most massive Tyrannosaurus skull ever discovered, as well as the most extensive collection of dinosaur remains in America. Visit the Taylor Planetarium, wander through the Explore Yellowstone exhibit, and learn about Native American history.
Tip: If you’re cut from the cloth of travelers that like to try a destination’s unique foods, then belly up to a bar and try Rocky Mountain Oysters. Battered, fried, and served with sides of ketchup, mayonnaise, and hot sauce, these bull testicles are a byproduct of the Montana cattle industry. Virginia City hosts an annual Rocky Mountain Oyster Fry, and you can order Cowboy Caviar at several grills throughout Montana, like Stacey’s Old Faithful Bar and Steakhouse in Bozeman.
Walk the Grounds of the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas
Montana might not seem like the most obvious place for a Buddhist public park, founded by a Tibetan Master. Still, the mountainous landscape on the Flathead Reservation is quite stunning for the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas. Intended to be an international center for peace, the garden is home to a few festivals throughout the year, including the Peace Festival and Tibetan Cultural Festival.
Visit the State Capitol in Helena
Helena, also known as Last Chance Gulch, was initially founded by miners as a gold town in 1864. Visit the sandstone and granite Montana State Capitol building, the Cathedral of Saint Helena, Montana Historical Society Museum, Holter Museum of Art, and the Archie Bay Foundation for the Ceramic Arts. Schedule a tour of the original Governor’s Mansion or take a ride on the Last Chance Tour train.
Helena is also an excellent home-base for exploring the Helena Lewis and Clark National Forest, the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, and the Elkhorn Wildlife Management Unit.
Take a Boat Tour Through the Gates of the Mountains
Follow the path of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and ride a boat through the striking Gates of the Mountains. You’ll see mountain goats and Bighorn sheep clinging to the sheer limestone cliffs as your watercraft glides through the five and half-mile-long mountain pass. Keep your eyes out for birds of prey flying overhead.