Best Montana Road Trips: Unforgettable Landscapes and Hidden Gems

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Unforgettable Montana Road Trips

A spectacular place filled with wide open spaces, ghost towns, Native American history, and scenic drives under a legendary big sky, Montana makes an ideal road trip destination. From Glacier National Park in the west to Yellowstone National Park shared with Wyoming to the small towns in the east where digging up dinosaur bones is possible, Montana sets the stage for some of the best road trips in the western USA. Add to that the 77 named ranges of the Rocky Mountains that dot the landscape and you’ll understand how Montana earned the moniker “Land of the Shining Mountains.”

These Montana road trip itineraries provide a glimpse of treasures across the state whether you choose to explore western Montana, central Montana, or explore eastern discoveries. Of course, if time permits, doing them all yields an action-packed unforgettable road trip.  

Read More: Complete Guide to Yellowstone National Park

Western Montana Bucket List Road Trip

Home to 55 state parks offering a mixture of boating, camping, fishing, hiking, kayaking, and swimming, Montana represents paradise to outdoor enthusiasts. And there’s no better place to start these explorations than in western Montana.

Unforgettable Montana Road Trips - Small town charm on Whitefish, Montana’s Main Street
Small town charm on Whitefish, Montana’s Main Street Photo credit: Shutterstock

Kick Off Your Road Trip in Montana’s Small Towns

Located just 30 minutes from the West Glacier entrance to Glacier National Park, Whitefish provides the ideal starting point for a western Montana road trip. This charming community successfully blends its pioneer and railroad roots with a rustic-chic vibe. Whether you enjoy dabbling in the arts, shopping, or a little day or evening drinking and dining, Whitefish delivers.

Abundant outdoor activities surround Whitefish including skiing and snowboarding in winter months. In warmer weather, mountain bikers enjoy 22 trails serviced by two chairlifts in Whitefish Bike Park.

two campers in front of Bowman Lake in late summer, a great time to visit Glacier National Park
You can have the park to yourself if you go a bit off the beaten path. Photo credit: Nick Kopf

Glacier National Park

Alpine meadows, deep forests, glistening glaciers, sparkling lakes, and waterfalls await exploration in Glacier National Park. Included in the National Register of Historic Places In 1983 and designated as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1985, Going-To-The-Sun Road ranks as a top experience in western Montana.

Completed in 1932, this awe-inspiring 50-mile two-lane highway bisects Glacier National Park east and west. The route is worth traveling in either direction as the view changes from one side of the road to the other.

Within the park, Lake McDonald spans ten miles and is 472 feet deep. The park’s largest lake was formed in a basin gouged out by Ice Age glaciers. The fjord-like lake is surrounded by various mountain ranges of the  Rocky Mountains providing a stunning backdrop. Keep an eye out for wildlife near Lake McDonald. Species often spotted include bighorn sheep, black bear, elk, mountain goat and whitetail, and mule deer.  

West Glacier anchors the western entrance to Glacier National Park and provides a visitor center, a cafe, and gift shops.

Drive about 15 miles south of Whitefish to discover Kalispell. Situated at the edge of the Kalispell National Forest, this is a hiker’s paradise. For more outdoor adventures, Flathead Lake is popular for boating, fly fishing, and kayaking. Nearby you’ll find championship golf courses and two ski resorts.

Moving Down the Road to Central Montana

A scenic drive southeast for just under 200 miles leads to Helena which sits at the edge of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest. Montana’s capital city is best known for the state’s history. Here you’ll find the Montana State Capitol building and a Mansion District showcasing stately homes from the golden days.

Helena is also home to an abundance of hiking trails overlooking three major lakes just east of town. The dammed lakes; Holter, Hauser, and Canyon Ferry coupled with the Missouri River add even more opportunities for watersports including kayaking, rafting, and day trips for fly-fishing.

Central Montana provides a mix of landscapes from high mountain peaks to wide-open plains. Lewis & Clark explored much of this region as they traveled up the Missouri River. Charming small towns offer a peek at rural life while sharing Montana’s Native American history.

More Montana Gems to Explore

Another Montana city to check out, Bozeman boasts incredible views, hundreds of miles of trails, and plenty of untouched backcountry. But this mountain town’s Main Street is also a foodie’s paradise and a hot spot for craft beer enthusiasts. Bozeman is home to the Museum of the Rockies which includes the Siebel Dinosaur Complex. An excellent place to kick off explorations of Montana’s Dinosaur Trail, the museum houses one of the largest collections of North American dinosaurs in the world.

Inch your way 25 miles east to Livingston, Montana – a historic railroad town revitalized by the arts. Surrounded by four spectacular mountain ranges alongside the Yellowstone River, Livingston is referred to as the “small town with a big appetite.” Another foodie’s paradise, Livingston features numerous farm-to-table restaurants, ethnic foods, steakhouses, sushi, seafood, European-style bakeries, vintage burger joints, and more. It also serves as a gateway to Yellowstone National Park which is a 55-mile drive through the awe-inspiring Paradise Valley.

Read More: Best Dinosaur Museums in the US

the boardwalk at Grand Prismatic at Yellowstone National Park
The boardwalk is an easy way to see Grand Prismatic. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Venture Into Yellowstone National Park

America’s first national park’s official address is in Wyoming, but Yellowstone National Park actually touches three states. A small section of the park’s north and northwest corner is in Montana with another one percent in Idaho. Of course, there’s no shame in adding a dip into Wyoming to your western Montana road trip to view some of Yellowstone National Park’s most famous sites. Here you’ll find hot springs, mud pots, freely roaming bison, and the world’s most famous geyser, Old Faithful.

Continue East on the Beartooth Highway

Continue your Montana road trip discoveries as you meander to the state’s eastern treasures. For those traveling in the summer months, the Beartooth Highway is the way to go for a white-knuckle driving adventure. Declared “the most beautiful drive in America” by the late Charles Kuralt, this uber-scenic drive travels 68.7 miles through the Beartooth Pass. Hairpin curves, sheer drop-offs, and minuscule guardrails cause the aforementioned white knuckles. But, with 20  peaks exceeding 12,000 feet, 10,000 mountain lakes, and three national forests to pass through, it’s worth it.

Note: The Beartooth Highway is only open in the summer months because no one wants to travel this road in a blizzard!

Exploring the Treasures of Eastern Montana

With a population of just under 120,000, Billings ranks as Montana’s largest city. But don’t expect a big-city vibe. What you can expect are historic landmarks that share the history of southeastern Montana. One example, the only remaining physical evidence of the Lewis and Clark Expedition is located in the Pompeys Pillar National Monument. For evidence of early civilizations, take a peek into ancient caves at Pictograph Cave State Park.

Billings’s historic downtown showcases a blend of the past and present with historic buildings, an art deco movie theater, and colorful murals lining the streets. It’s also home to the Billings Brew Trail comprised of 11 breweries, three distilleries, a cider mill, and a winery.

Unforgettable Montana Road Trips - Downtown Billings
Downtown Billings. Photo credit: Terri Marshall

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

Formerly known as Custer Battlefield National Monument, this hallowed ground was renamed by President George H.W. Bush to accurately represent those who were in the battle, Native Americans and the 7th Cavalry.

Start your explorations at the visitor center where the museum contains exhibits related to the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn. To understand the role of Native Americans in the Battle of Little Bighorn, book a tour with Rose at Indian Battle Tours by Crow Agency.

Unforgettable Montana Road Trips - Indian Memorial commemorating the sacrifice of Native Americans in the Battle of Little Bighorn
Indian Memorial commemorating the sacrifice of Native Americans in the Battle of Little Bighorn Photo credit: Terri Marshall

Highlights from Montana’s Dinosaur Trail

In a state with so many variations of road trip options, it’s difficult to choose a theme – beyond the big sky beauty, of course. But as you venture into the eastern side of the state, following the Montana Dinosaur Trail leads to even more discoveries.

The trail is statewide, but there are a few not-to-be-missed places in the east – especially for the dinosaur-curious. One is the small town of Ekalata which is home to the Carter County Museum – a treasure trove of dinosaur fossils and exhibits. With special arrangements, you can also join students from the Montana Learning Center for a hands-on experience of paleontological excavation. Yes, you can dig up dinosaur bones!

Moving on to Glendive, a visit to the Makoshika State Park Dinosaur Museum provides insights into the region’s dinosaur heritage. The exhibits are incredible here and when you step outside to check out the park’s hiking trails, it’s easy to imagine these ancient creatures roaming through the ancient landscape.

Unforgettable Montana Road Trips - Ancient landscapes in Makoshika State Park
Ancient landscapes in Makoshika State Park. Photo credit: Terri Marshall

In Conclusion

It really doesn’t matter which corner of Montana you choose for your road trip adventure – it’s all good. From jaw-dropping landscapes to quaint small towns brimming with history to the rich cultural heritage of Native Americans and the fascinating legacy of ancient wildlife, a Montana road trip is an unforgettable adventure. Oh…and let’s not forget the Big Sky sunsets!

Unforgettable Montana Road Trips - Big Sky sunset in Medicine Rocks State Park near Ekalaka
Big Sky sunset in Medicine Rocks State Park near Ekalaka. Photo credit: Terri Marshall
Terri Marshall Avatar
Based in New York City, Terri Marshall is an award-winning writer covering cultural travel, multi-generational travel, road trips, soft-adventure, camping, cars and characters. From hanging out with penguins in Antarctica to fishing for piranhas in Peru to road-tripping through the jungles of Belize, Terri’s always up for an adventure. Drop her into a landscape filled with mountains, towering evergreens, waterfalls and a glacier or two and she’ll be in heaven. But what thrills her most of all is traveling with her teenage grandkids. Terri serves on the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility Committee for the North American Travel Journalist Association (NATJA). She also serves as the First Vice-Chair of the Eastern Chapter for the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). In addition to writing for SheBuysTravel, Terri’s publication credits include AARP, Island Soul, Girl Camper Magazine, A Girls Guide to Cars, CHILLED, World Footprints, North Hills Monthly, Alaska Business Monthly, Alaska Contractor and more. Follow her on Instagram at TrippingWithTerri.
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