The majestic Rocky Mountains, the wide-open prairies, and the clear winding rivers make Montana a vacation wonderland. The state's colorful human and natural history—touching on everything from Lewis and Clark to paleontology to Old West mines and mining towns—is the subject of many attractions that appeal to visitors from around the world.
Often referred to as "Big Sky Country," Montana is spread across over 147,000 miles but is one of the least populated states in the United States. For travelers looking for stunning vistas, untouched natural parks, and to get away from the crowds, Montana should be a top pick destination.
Glacier National Park is famous for its jagged snow-capped peaks, glacier-carved valleys, serene lakes, rushing rivers, and abundant wildlife. And, yes, even a handful of glaciers remain. A popular way to experience Glacier National Park is by traveling the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a steep, windy, amazingly scenic route. To enhance the experience, visitors will find grand historic lodges and recreation options that range from easy to challenging.
Big Sky Resort, halfway between Bozeman and West Yellowstone, calls itself “The Biggest Skiing in America," with over 5,850 acres of terrain for skiing and and 4,350 vertical feet. Get your snow fix as you ski along the eastern side of the 11,166-foot Lone Mountain.
Those wanting a different type of snow activity can try everything from a winter zipline to dog sledding to snowshoeing or even sleigh rides. Various types of accommodations including hotels, homes, cabins, and condos are available as are passes for true ski buffs.
Near the capitol of Helena, the Montana Historical Society Museum, also known as Montana's Museum, is filled with interesting artifacts from the state's past and present. The museum's Mackay Gallery of Russell Art houses a fine collection of about 80 paintings, sculptures, and illustrated letters by prominent U.S. artist Charles M. Russell.
The "Montana Homeland" exhibit provides a timeline of interesting objects that take you through all phases of the state's history. Special and traveling exhibits change over time, covering topics that touch on the history of Montana and the region. The museum is closed Sundays and holidays.
In the early 1800s Lewis and Clark (the Corps of Discovery Expedition) found their way to many points in Montana, both when traveling westward seeking the Pacific Ocean, and when returning back to the East. Paddling or walking parts of the same route is a thrilling way to experience and appreciate their historic accomplishment. There are several Montana road trips you can take themed around Lewis and Clark attractions and activities. The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center, located in Great Falls, is a highlight, with a nice selection of significant sites nearby.
The Gates of the Mountains, a gorgeous canyon on the Missouri River, can be enjoyed on a fascinating boat tour available 20 miles north of Helena. Interesting geology and varied wildlife, including birds of prey, can be seen throughout the trip. Gates of the Mountain was named by Meriwether Lewis in July 1805 during the Corps of Discovery expedition; you'll find out why on the tour. You'll also stop at the entrance to Mann Gulch, site of a tragic 1949 wildfire that is the subject of several books. The area is officially the Gates of the Mountain Wilderness Area, administered as part of Helena National Forest. Boating, camping, hiking, and picnicking are among the available recreation activities.
Charles M. Russell is one of the great cowboy artists of the U.S., capturing accurate and compelling images of the West, covering its days as a wild frontier into the era of homesteading and settlement during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The C. M. Russell Museum Complex in Great Falls, open daily, includes not only several galleries, but the original Russell home and the artist's log cabin studio. Highlights from the museum's permanent collection include hundreds of Russell paintings and sculptures, a selection of illustrated letters, and the Browning Firearms Collection. The Studio also contains an exhibit of artifacts from Russell's personal collection.
The Upper Missouri Breaks is a unique stretch of the Missouri River that passes through remote and rugged canyons. Many folks take multi-day canoe trips on the Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River, which passes through the monument, enjoying the same scenery and wildlife experienced by Lewis and Clark.
The official Missouri Breaks Interpretive Center is located in the small historic town of Fort Benton. Experts at this spot can fill you in on all the details you need to explore the Upper Missouri Breaks by land or water, whether you plan to take a guided trip, or your own boat or canoe. While at the interpretive center you can learn about the natural and human history of the region. Hiking, birdwatching, fishing, and camping are all available.
In 1898, about 1,000 people including gold miners lived in the town of Garnet in the Garnet Mountain Range. The town east of Missoula grew to have a school, hotels, a doctor's office, saloons, and more. Garnet is the most well-preserved ghost town in Montana, and it makes an interesting family field trip to check out the remnants of the small town buildings.
In Garnet, you'll find a few trails to explore. Near the town, outdoor activities from camping to mountain biking to cross country skiing are fun ways to spend a day.
The Beartooth Highway is a National Scenic Byways All-American Road. This scenic drive covers about 70 miles, passing through the rugged Beartooth Mountain range in both Montana and Wyoming. The route follows U.S. Highway 212 from Red Lodge, Montana, in the east, to the Cooke City entrance to Yellowstone National Park at the west. Along the way, there are numerous places to stop and take in the stunning mountain views, whether from a scenic overlook, on a hike, or during a picnic. You'll also find clear lakes, waterfalls, a fire lookout tower, a general store, and, in autumn, colorful foliage. The Beartooth Highway is considered one of the most beautiful drives in the U.S.
The natural and human history of the amazing Rocky Mountain region is the focus at Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman. Montana's rich body of dinosaur fossils and knowledge represented at the museum is worth a visit on its own. But there's more.
Other exhibits cover aspects of Montana's human history, including Native Americans, mining history, and transportation. The Museum of the Rockies has a lot to stimulate young minds; the "Explore Yellowstone" exhibit in the Martin Children's Discovery Center does an awesome job of introducing little ones to the animals, geology, and outdoor recreation opportunities to be found in Yellowstone National Park. The Taylor Planetarium, a living history farm, and traveling exhibits are other fun things to check out while at the Museum of the Rockies.
Check out some stalactites, stalagmites, and other interesting mineral formations at Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park, home to one of the biggest limestone caverns in the Northwest. The caverns can be experienced on one of their many guided tours from early May through the end of September. The park also offers hiking and biking trails, 40 campsites, a modern visitor center, an amphitheater, interpretive displays, a gift shop, food and beverage concessions, and many more activities for visitors, from bird watching to viewing wildlife or canoeing.
After a long day in the outdoors, one great place to relax is at one of Montana's numerous local breweries. Philipsburg Brewing Company, located inside a bank from the late 1880s in a historic town, is a fun stop. Missoula's Bayern Brewing is Montana's oldest brewery, having been started in 1987, called the "only German brewery in the Rockies." Also in Missoula, Big Sky Brewing Company is a popular destination for those looking for some sips of the alcoholic beverage. In Billings, an unofficial downtown brewery district includes six breweries, two distilleries, and a cider house, all within walking distance.
A map of state breweries will guide your way to some enjoyable times.
An hour east of Billings, right off of I-90, the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument preserves the site where the famous Battle of the Little Bighorn took place in June of 1876. Stop first at the visitor center, where you can view an orientation film, check out exhibits and the bookstore, and find out about ways to explore the monument in greater depth. Then head out on a ranger-led or self-guided tour. Allow plenty of time for a walking tour of the monument to see sites such as the Last Stand Hill, the Custer National Cemetery, and Indian Memorial. There is also the option to listen to a 4.5 mile audio tour (using your cell phone) while driving your car, making various stops along the way.
History enthusiasts will want to head to Pictograph Cave State Park, a National Historic Landmark in Billings, for a one of a kind activity walking on a loop trail to check out cave paintings dating back about 2,000 years and discovered in 1936. Generations of prehistoric hunters who stayed in the area left behind about 30,000 artifacts—like weapons and stone tools—and more than 100 rock paintings, known as pictographs, in three main caves. The visitor center is a good place to start your day and learn from the interpretive displays.
In the east part of Kalispell, a tourist favorite is the Conrad Mansion which was completed in 1895 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1976, the Conrad Mansion Museum opened to the public. Charles E. Conrad and his brother played an important part in Montana history with their shipping and freighting business that turned into a significant transportation center.
The 13,000 square foot home with three floors and 26 rooms sits on a bluff overlooking the valley and the Swan Range of mountains. You'll see everything from colorful flower beds to stained glass to billiard and game rooms on the mansion's year-round tours.
Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center is a not-for-profit, wildlife park and educational facility in West Yellowstone that gives visitors a rare opportunity to see wild animals every day of the year. The animals cannot survive in the wild for a variety of reasons. You'll be able to view three Yellowstone wolf packs and seven rescued grizzly bears in a large outdoor habitat. Programs for children and adults include topics like grizzly bear eating habits, bear encounters and pepper spray use, and are also about the onsite raptors such as hawks, eagles, falcons, and owls.
If you are looking for some inner peace, The Garden of One Thousand Buddhas is a botanical garden and public park known to bring about positive change; approximately 2,000 monthly visitors of many faiths show up in the warmer months.
Located 20 miles north of Missoula in the Jocko Valley in western Montana, the garden boasts lovely Mission Mountain range views. The information center is also a gift shop selling imported items from Nepal, local crafts, and Buddhist shrine pieces. While the garden is open daily, tours go from April through October; check the website for particulars.
With 4,000 years of artifacts related to the history of humans and technology, the American Computer and Robotics Museum, founded in 1990 in Bozeman, is a tourist destination you won't want to miss. Exhibits cover diverse topics like historic cuneiform tablets, the first personal computers, and women in computing.
There is no charge to enter the museum unless you are on a reserved group tour.