Make no mistake, Montana is all about showing off its natural gifts. Sure, there are fantastic resort towns like Whitefish and buzzing small cities like Missoula where you can kick back with a locally crafted beer and feast on freshly caught river trout, but the real attractions in Big Sky Country are the sublime beauty of Glacier National Park, watch geysers sprout like clockwork at Yellowstone and step back into the Wild West to pan for gold at ghost towns like Virginia City.
Glacier National Park
Montana’s top outdoor destination is undoubtedly one of America’s most stunning natural parks. Fortunately, it’s also one of the least visited due to its remote location along the Canadian border. Glacier is a mystical land of pristine valleys, jagged peaks and scenery that will make you stop and appreciate the beauty around you. It’s also home to a remarkable amount of wildlife including grizzly bears, moose, elk, and mountain goats. You can cruise down the scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road or get on a trail for a more intimate look at some of North America’s finest playground.
Address: West Glacier, MT 59936
No other town embodies the Montana spirit as well as Missoula. Sitting in a pretty valley along the Clark Fork River, it’s a university town with plenty of smarts and creativity to go with its love of the great outdoors. This youthful area attracts artists, writers and environmental do-gooders that fill its lively downtown with plenty to enjoy. After a day skiing at Snowbowl, fly fishing on Rock Creek or hiking in the Rattlesnake Wilderness, you can relax at the local brewpub, catch a local band or take it easy a comfortable downtown hotel. The Garden City has one of Montana’s mildest climates to boot.
Address: Western Montana
Montana’s most popular resort town hasn’t gone the way of Aspen or Jackson Hole and still remains pleasantly laid back, letting the beauty of its mountainous environment and huge lake settle over the charming Western town. Despite its popularity, Whitefish's impressive downtown cafés, bars and shops rarely feel crowded. Visible from town is the Whitefish Mountain Resort, a fantastic ski hill that hosts a rotating number of festivals in the summer. The area is a major gateway to Glacier National Park, but try to set aside a few days to stop and smell the alpine wildflowers here as you motor around Montana’s heaven.
Address: Northern Montana
Yellowstone National Park
Although the majority of Yellowstone is located within Wyoming, there are three entrances to the park at the southwestern corner of Montana near the town of Livingston. The world’s first national park is still a beauty with its psychedelic mineral hot springs, gushing geysers and herds of bison, bear and elk roaming around unconcerned. It’s a busy place in the summer to be sure, but there’s nothing quite like Yellowstone. You can drive through much of the park or hop on dozens of trails to admire waterfalls, hanging valleys and otherworldly geothermic magic.
Address: PO Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
The site of Custer’s Last Stand, the final battle between the American Indians and the US Army, is a great example of the brutal struggle that took place in Montana during the greedy westward expansion of the young frontier. Exhibits detail the course of events, while the battlefield is laid out to give visitors a sense of how it all went down. The vast prairie is reason enough to come, exemplifying the state’s nickname, Big Sky Country.
Address: Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Big Horn, MT 59022
Virginia City and Nevada City
Before Montana was a state, this territory was at the very edge of the western frontier. Virginia City and Nevada City were neighboring gold rush towns that boomed in 1863. At their heyday, they exemplified the Wild desperadoes and gunslingers running rampant in these barely lawful towns. Though Nevada City desolved into a ghost town when the gold ran out, Virginia City continued to thrive. Today, these restored areas offer one of the best looks at Montana’s mining boom of the 1860s. The main streets are lined with original buildings without any kind of tourism kitsch. Take the steam train Locomotive #12 between the two towns for a taste of the landscape, then wander through the old saloons and hotels picturing yourself smack dab in the middle of the crazy wild west.
Address: Southwest Montana
Montana’s largest city is home to just 100,000 souls, but it’s the best place to experience the urban face of Big Sky Country. The railroads made Billings, but cattle and grain turned it into the thriving economic city it is today. There’s a quirky western chic vibe thanks to the sizable art community. Drive the Avenue of the Sculptures to see some of their work or spend an afternoon browsing the western displays in the Yellowstone Art Museum. ZooMontana is a great open-space concept zoo, while downtown Billings offers all the comfortable amenities required to enjoy a couple of relaxing days here.
Address: South Central Montana