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Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park call Montana home and are the best-known national parks in Montana. But there are more National Park Service sites in Big Sky Country beyond the Big Two. In a state that touches Canada, visitors will get equal doses of the expansive North American grassland with the cloud-touching Rocky Mountains.
With outdoor activities leading the way to fun, travelers can enjoy the likes of hiking, rafting, horseback riding and camping. For history enthusiasts, Montana’s historic sites preserve the history of Native Americans, like the Lakota and Nez Perce. Ideally explored on a road trip, travelers can weave several sites into their trips, especially on the western side of the state.
Here are the Montana National Parks and why they are worthy of a pitstop.
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Glacier National Park
As one of the top 10 National Parks in the U.S. Glacier National Park is located in Montana and shares a border with Canada. Known as the Crown of the Continent, Glacier offers a short summer season to explore with its main road across the park opening in late June.
Glacier National Park offers lots of outdoor activities. With over one million acres, visitors can explore its distinct areas by hiking, boat cruises, horseback riding and more.
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For visitors entering from Kalispell, Columbia Falls or Whitefish, Montana, the West Entrance offers something for most from hiking trails to boat tours to the historic Lake McDonald Lodge. The Apgar area offers lots of camping.
Glacier’s alpine region is best explored at Logans Pass via the Going-to-the-Sun road, a seasonal scenic drive crossing the Rocky Mountains. The scenic byway travels 50 miles (80 km) from the west entrance close to Apgar area across Glacier National Park to the St Mary entrance on the east side of the park.
To enter from Great Falls on the east side of the park, the Rising Sun area is “where the mountains met the prairies.” It is a good place for a hot meal along with lodging and some signature hikes plus waterfall viewing. St Mary Visitor Center is in the area.
Another popular area is the Many Glacier area, which offers all the activities of the main part found elsewhere along with some glacier viewing and the largest lodge in the park.
The largest population of grizzly bears outside of Alaska lives in Glacier National Park. So visitors need to stay bear aware and keep a healthy distance.
Glacier National Park is open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. Admission is $35 for a 7-day pass for a private vehicle. If visiting several national parks within 12 months, consider an America the Beautiful annual pass.
Drivers will need to secure a 3-day vehicle pass to travel the Going-to-the-Sun Road in advance. As is the case for most summer traveling, reservations are a must for lodging, camping and activities.
Yellowstone National Park
It is known as the first national park in the world protecting jewels like Old Faithful Inn and Old Faithful Geyser. Located primarily in Wyoming, though the park is so big it oozes into Montana and Idaho. It is a favorite national park among park enthusiasts and many consider it the best national park in the U.S.
After its landmark creation, more national parks would be set aside like Yosemite and Glacier. Then the National Park Service came into being to manage and protect the collection of national parks as well.
In a park that is over about 3,471 square miles in size, most visitors spend several days exploring it. Top areas include the Old Faithful Geyser and Old Faithful Inn, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Lake Yellowstone, Mammoth Hot Springs along with Lamar or Hayden Valley for animal viewing, like the bison. Grand Prismatic Spring offers a pool in a rainbow array and visitors can see (or smell) fumeroles and mud pots, all thanks to Yellowstone’s volcanic history.
Yellowstone National Park is open 365 days a year and 24 hours a day. Use an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80) or purchase a 7-day pass for $35 per vehicle. Vehicle permits are not required for Yellowstone though parking is in demand at popular points of interest.
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Nez Perce National Historical Park
With sites in Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Montana, the Nez Perce National Historical Park preserves the sites of the Nez Perce Flight of 1877. The Native American people traveled over 1,170 miles from their original homelands.
In addition to the Big Hole National Battlefield, important NPS sites in Montana are Canyon Creek Battlefield and the Bear Paw Battlefield. Canyon Creek is the site of the second to the last skirmish between the U.S. military and the Nez Perce. After the group had left Yellowstone National Park, Col. Sturgis and the Seventh U.S. Cavalry pursued them and warriors of the Nez Perce fought back.
Visitors to the Canyon Creek Battlefield will find a pull-out with interpretive information. In addition, visitors can take the Nez Perce Trail Auto Tour, a downloadable guide from the NPS site.
The main visitor center is located 10 miles east of Lewiston, Idaho.
Big Hole National Battlefield
On August 9, 1877, the U.S. military fired at the Nez Perce camp during its Nez Pierce Flight of 1877. During this time, over 800 members of the Nez Perce, including family and children, along with 2,000 horses were headed to Montana.
Big Hole National Battlefield is one of 38 sites in the Nez Perce National Historical Park. It offers a visitor center with interpretive displays along with a park film. It is open from 9 am to 4:30 pm daily (10 am in the winter).
Visitors will find a viewing platform out back to see the site’s tipis, a monument along with a howitzer cannon. The Big Hole National Battlefield offers hiking trails through its 655-acre site.
Located at 16425 Hwy 43 West in Wisdom, Montana. This is a day-use park and it is free to enter.
Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area
Where National Parks protect special landscapes and historical parks protect places where history happened, recreation areas are all just for fun. Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is a 120,000-acre park located about 100 miles southeast of Billings, Montana, adjacent to the Crow Indian Reservation.
Straddling the border with Wyoming, the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is divided into two districts. The north part offers primarily water recreation, like boating, and the southern district’s activities are land-based.
The North District features the seasonal Yellowtail Dam Visitor Center and the Afterbay Reservoir. Visitors will find the Ok-A-Beh Marina along with a boat launch and campgrounds. Kayakers can access the Three Mile River.
To reach the North District, drivers will head south through the Crow Indian Reservation after passing through Hardin, Montana. It is primarily a summer destination with most boating amenities open from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
The South District offers the year-round Cal Taggart Visitor Center. Visitors will find the Horseshoe Bend Marina, the Devil Canyon Overlook and the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range. In addition, there are four historic ranches open for self-guided tours and 12 hiking trails along with campgrounds. Custer National Forest is also in the area.
To reach the South District, drivers will head south of Billings to Sheridan, Wyoming, into the park. The Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is free to enter though camping is additional.
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
This monument memorializes the Battle of Little Bighorn. A battle between Lakota Chief Sitting Bull and his warriors and Lt. Col. George A. Custer and his U.S. 7th Cavalry soldiers is legendary.
On June 25 and 26 of 1876, the Lakotas, the Cheyennes, the Crow and the Arapaho along with the Arikara scouts defended their way of life against the US Army’s 7th Cavalry, under the command of Lt. Col. George A. Custer near the Little Bighorn River. This area was home to one of the last armed battles between the Native Americans and the U.S. Army.
Custer died along with his men in what would become known as Custer’s Last Stand. This battle was a decisive win for the Native Americans as the Plains War drew to a close.
The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument has several areas to see like the Custer National Cemetery with close to 5,000 graves. Additionally, there is the Indian Memorial dedicated to the Native Americans in the battle. The 7th Cavalry Memorial sits on Last Stand Hill. Visitors can see the Reno-Benteen Battlefield along Tour Road.
The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is located just south of Crow Agency, Montana. To enter it is a $25 vehicle pass. It is open daily from 8 am to 4:30 pm during the year and closes at 6 pm during the summer season (Memorial Day to Labor Day).
Lewis & Clark National Trail
In 1803 two explorers set out with a team of men to travel through the American West. Lewis and Clark spent years traversing the wilds of North America from Pennsylvania to the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon and back.
This national trail retraces their epic voyage and flows through 16 states as it follows several rivers, like the Missouri River. Several historic sites and state parks are dedicated to the journey.
In Montana, visitors will find Pompeys Pillar National Monument where Captain Clark inscribed on the rock face. It offers a visitor center and is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. It is located at 5001 Southgate Drive in Billings.
Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center is a 25,000-foot museum dedicated to explaining the journey. Located in Great Falls, its address is 4201 Giant Springs Road.
Fort Union Trading Post
From 1828 and 1867, the Fort Union Trading Post was a fur trading post along the Upper Missouri River. Used in clothing like hats and coats, fur trappers met with agents of the John Jacob Astor Fur Company. The furs were traded for goods, like clothing, guns and ammunition along with cookware.
Several of the High Plains Indians including the Blackfeet and the Plains Chippewa traded peacefully at this site. In all, more than $100,000 of goods were traded in the 1800s.
Summertime visitors to the Fort Union Trading Post can see a living history presentation during the season at the Trade House. The visitor center runs a year-round interpretive film, explaining the significance of the NPS site.
The visitor center is actually in North Dakota, off Highway 1804 which runs close to the Missouri River. It is open year-round from 9 am to 5 pm and free to enter. It offers a picnic area though no camping or a lodge.
The Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site
Preserving what remains of a 10-million-acre cattle ranch created by Canadian Johnny Grant, the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site explains how open-range cattle ranching shaped the western U.S.
With 88 historic structures, visitors walk through the headquarters of a working cattle ranch, like the draft horse barn and the bunkhouse. The Ranch House offers guided tours of the original home of the Grant and Kohrs family, filled with many of its family antiques. The tour is free and offered several times a day.
Hikers will find 10 miles of trails including a .25-mile nature trail.
Located at 251 Grant Circle in Deer Lodge, Montana, between Yellowstone and Glacier Park. It is a day-use park and open year-round from 9 am to 4:30 pm (5:30 pm during the summer). It is free to enter.