The Best Small Towns in Montana

Montana

Wendy Altschuler

Farms dotted with cows, horses, and chickens, complete with red barns and barbed wire fences, is what you’ll see if you explore tiny towns in Montana. Often the best antique shops, diners, and unexpected oddities can also be found outside the state’s larger cities. Low light pollution, fewer people, no traffic, and abundant wildlife are just a few of the more obvious perks. Intrepid and adventurous travelers, who love authentic local flair, will find that Big Sky country is full of Instagram-worthy moments. Keep reading to learn about the best small towns in Montana and what you should do and see once you get there.

01 of 09

Livingston

Moody sky and mountain landscape near Livingston, Montana, USA
Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo / Getty Images

Fewer than 8,000 people call Livingston home. Located along the Yellowstone River, this small town originated as a stop on the Northern Pacific Railway. Visitors here should stop at the Livingston Depot, built in 1902, which houses a railroad museum; try fishing for trout on the Yellowstone River; and learn about Native Americans, pioneers, and homesteaders at the Yellowstone Gateway Museum. Livingston is also known for its antique shops and art galleries, many of which are located on Main Street. Grab a bite to eat at The Mint Bar and Grill, the Pickle Barrell, or Mark’s Inn & Out Beefburgers.  

02 of 09

Butte

Only left turn sign at downtown street of Butte, Montana, USA
Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo / Getty Images

Southwest Montana is home to Butte, a small town located between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Hiking, fishing, river floating, wildlife viewing, and exploring the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail draws outdoor adventurers from all over the state. While downtown, marvel at the turn of the century architecture, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and eat and drink at restaurants and bars with European heritage. The Historic Clark Chateau Museum and Gallery is a great place to begin your town exploration to give yourself some context, as is the Mineral Museum.  Butte Brewing Company, Casagranda’s Steak House, Freeway Tavern, Great Harvest Bread Co., Pekin Noodle Parlor (the oldest known continuously operating Chinese restaurant in the country), and Mac’s Tavern are all popular choices.  

03 of 09

Whitefish

Wildflowers in the mountains

Wendy Altschuler

Whether you go skiing at Whitefish Mountain Resort in the winter or hiking at Glacier National Park in the summer, the charming town of Whitefish is a year-round adventurer’s paradise. Explore Whitefish Lake, go on a guided mountain bike ride at Whitefish Bike Retreat, and ride horses at Bar W Guest Ranch. You’ll spend most of your time outside while visiting, but there are several great places to rest your head while in town: The Lodge at Whitefish Lake, the Firebrand Hotel, or Kandahar Lodge. You’ll see the stars at night when it’s clear out and hear the birds in the morning at first light. Now, what could be better than that?

04 of 09

West Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park

Wendy Altschuler

While many gateway towns lead into Yellowstone National Park, the closest one in Montana is West Yellowstone. It’s here that you can hike or mountain bike in the national forests, try your hand at fly fishing, or raft in the rivers during the warmer months. Go Nordic skiing, snowmobiling, or snowshoeing in the winter months. The wildlife viewing opportunities are abundant—spot elk, bison, birds of prey, and antelope—and many species can be seen year-round. Plus, West Yellowstone is home to several fun happenings like farmers’ markets, a bluegrass festival, and a rodeo.

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05 of 09

Big Timber

Bull-o-Rama Rodeo, Big Timber, Montana
Paul Souders / Getty Images

Less than 2,000 people call Big Timber home. A visit here, where Lewis and Clark once roamed, will allow you to explore wide-open spaces without other tourists. Stroll the historic downtown, full of restaurants, small boutiques, and antique shops. Visit during Sweet Grass Brewfest, the Big Timber Rodeo, or Sweet Grass Fest Car and Tractor Show. Bump elbows with locals and try a local beer at Crazy Peak Brewing Company. The Crazy Mountains are the perfect backdrop for photography, wildlife viewing, hiking, fishing, and outdoor adventuring.

06 of 09

Bozeman

Bozeman, Montana

Wendy Altschuler

Still considered a small town by U.S Census Bureau standards, Bozeman is growing rapidly and likely won’t fit in the bracket for long. Go while you can, before it swells too big. In the warmer months, hike to Palisade Falls and float in tubes down the Madison River. In the winter, ski at Bridger Bowl or go snowshoeing. And, no matter what time of year, visit the Museum of the Rockies, see the Gallatin History Museum, and listen to music at the Emerson Cultural Center. Grab coffee at Treeline Coffee Roasters, arguably the best coffee in town. Stay at the Lark Bozeman or the Kimpton Armory Hotel, located downtown within easy access to restaurants, shopping, and nightlife.

07 of 09

Polson

Jetty At Sunrise with Sunstar
Carolyn Hebbard / Getty Images

Located on the south end of Flathead Lake, in the far northern reaches of the state, Polson is fun to visit for easy access to water activities, shopping, dining, live theater, and museums. Accessible only by boat, Wild Horse Island State Park is a must-visit destination where you can see bighorn sheep, mule deer, bald eagles, and wild horses. Not to be missed, the Flathead Lake Cherry Festival happens each July. Polson’s small-town charm will hook you from the start.

08 of 09

Red Lodge

Scenic drive on Beartooth highway
John Morrison / Getty Images

The Beartooth Scenic Highway is just that—scenic. When snow is present, it can be a bit of a white-knuckle drive, but this 68-mile stretch of winding road, connecting Red Lodge to Yellowstone National Park, awards you with stunning views and easy access to trailheads. Visit the Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary while you’re in Red Lodge, and be sure to wander around the downtown area, full of shops, restaurants, and old cowboy saloons. Be sure to visit the Carbon County Historical Society & Museum, where you can see several exhibits, including the Local Rodeo, The Crow Tribes of the Beartooths, and Challenges of the Beartooth Highway exhibits. And, of course, hiking, biking, ATV riding, horseback riding, climbing, fishing, and camping opportunities are always nearby to satiate your outdoor needs.

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09 of 09

Virginia City and Nevada City

Virginia City, MT

Wendy Altschuler

These two cities are worth visiting in tandem as they’re only one mile apart. Situated along the Alder Gulch, these towns have a big claim to fame as the site of the richest placer gold strike in the Rocky Mountains. If you’ve ever wanted to see the true wild west, this place is it. Once in Virginia and Nevada Cities, you can pan for gold, ride on the railroad, visit a living history museum, see live theater and music, and explore the shops and restaurants on the boardwalk. The best dining can be found at Bob’s Place, Nacho Mama’s Burritos, the Road Agent’s Roost, Wells Fargo Steakhouse, and Star Bakery Restaurant. For dessert, especially if you have kids in tow, visit Cousin’s Candy Shop, where you’ll find taffy, hard candy, chocolates, and more.

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