Often characterized as the last frontier of the lower 48 states, Montana benefits from an infectious and pervasive live-and-let-live ethos. The independent spirit of this rugged state reflects the intimidating scope of its natural bounty, which requires no small degree of intrepidness to explore. Dedicated visitors will reap rich rewards from Montana’s intoxicating scenery, epic parks and one-of-a-kind towns and cities.
Most visitors to Montana base their trips around the state’s two national parks. Glacier National Park contains 700 miles of trails through undisturbed wilderness. Nature enthusiasts can explore scenic highlights, such as Lake McDonald Valley, Logan Pass, and the secluded North Fork and Goat Haunt areas. While a large slice of Yellowstone National Park lies in Wyoming, Montana claims its own portion, with three of the park’s five entrances located in the Montana towns of West Yellowstone, Cooke City and Gardiner. The road from Gardiner to Mammoth Hot Springs remains open all winter, and serves as a stellar introduction to northern Yellowstone.
Explore Frontier Communities
Several frontier communities provide an ideal transition back into civilization. The community of Pray, which rests along the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley, offers access to Yellowstone National Park and the Gallatin National Forest. Pray’s Chico Hot Springs lures a diverse clientele that includes both locals and Hollywood celebrities. Bozeman has a relaxed, college town vibe centered on Montana State University, and features the Museum of the Rockies. The village of Bigfork on Flathead Lake is an artsy community with fine restaurants, galleries and boutique shopping. The Bigfork Summer Playhouse offers some of Montana’s finest theatre performances.
With so much open space, Montana begs for exploration via car, and the state’s notable driving routes provide one of the most popular activities for visitors. Going-to-the-Sun Road, a National Historic Landmark, straddles the Continental Divide over 53 miles. The Gallatin Valley Route in southwest Montana follows a course charted by Lewis and Clark. Drivers can enjoy scenery featured in the movie “A River Runs Through It,” and views of the Spanish Peaks and Gallatin Canyon. The Paradise Valley Route charts a path the Yellowstone River and ventures through Yankee Jim Canyon, a former stagecoach byway.
Visit Montana’s Cities
Montana’s major cities often surprise visitors with their urbanity and cultural appeal. Missoula often garners comparisons to Austin and Portland. Centered on the University of Montana, Missoula offers a wealth of attractions, including ample hiking in the Missoula trail system, the Missoula Art Museum, and a historic downtown full of shops, restaurants and galleries. The state capital of Helena surprises visitors with its small size and homey atmosphere. The Cathedral of St. Helena, a neo-Gothic church, was modeled after the famous Cologne Cathedral. History lovers can partake in the Last Chance Tour Train, while shoppers can explore Last Chance Gulch, a former mining camp and site of a pedestrian-only outdoor mall.