Montana is criminally underrated. Its natural beauty has earned it the nickname “The Last Best Place” and, after a week-long road trip across the state, you’ll have a hard time arguing otherwise. The western half of Montana is particularly spectacular thanks to the wonders of Glacier National Park, Flathead Valley, and its many small town splendors. But don’t miss out on the beautiful highways that wander around the 100+ mountain ranges in the state.
One of the many unintended consequences of COVID-19 travel restrictions has been the rebirth of the American road trip. Instead of flying to far flung places, people are escaping in their vehicles, in search of rest and respite. Luckily, there is only one way to properly see Montana in all its glory– road trip.
Due to the sheer size of the state, it would be nearly impossible to scratch the surface of Montana in a week. Instead, spend your time enjoying the Western side of the state– where buffalo roam in front of snow capped mountains.
Trip length: 7-10 days; 448 miles (720km)
Best time to visit: August through mid-September (fewer crowds, weather is still warm)
Essential photo op: Lake McDonald
Can’t miss experience: Driving Going the Sun Road
Quick road trip summary:
Day 1- Kalispell and Flathead Lake
Day 2- Wild Horse Island and Bigfork
Days 3 and 4- Glacier National Park
Day 5- Missoula
Day 6 and 7- Bozeman and West Yellowstone
Optional additions: Whitefish
Start your Montana adventure in quaint Kalispell! This quintessential Montana town, which will only take a day out of your itinerary, is the gateway to Glacier National Park, making it the best introduction to the state any first-time visitor could ask for. It’s an essential rite of passage for every visitor to order a huckleberry milkshake from Norm’s News.
If you have the time, drive 14-minutes south towards Flathead Lake! It’s the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River and an idyllic place for a picnic. In warmer weather, you’ll see people stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, and horseback riding around the Lake. You might also spot Flessie, the resident lake monster that locals swear dwells in the water. Flathead Lake is also home to guided Llama treks for the extra adventurous.
A 20-minute drive north from Kalispell will land you in Whitefish, a gorgeous town known for its ski slopes and high-end boutiques. Whitefish also has quite the reputation for its “romantic getaway” status.
Montana has the second most breweries per capita in the country (just behind Vermont), and Whitefish has plenty of them. Because of this, it’s almost a requirement that you grab a craft beer from a locally-owned brewery like the Bonsai Brewing Project. If you happen to be visiting during the summer, check out the town’s farmer’s market for local vendors selling everything from florals to produce and handcrafted jewelry.
Short on time? Skip Whitefish (for this visit) in lieu of exploring Flathead Lake.
Bigfork, Montana, nearly qualifies as a hidden gem. It gets overlooked regularly by those passing through, but that’s a mistake. Bigfork is so picturesque it was proudly featured in the Hallmark film “Christmas in Montana”. Bronze bear fountains are dotted throughout the town, adding to its Western feel and shops along the main street sell homemade preserves from native berries. Make sure to try a pint of the local brew at Flathead Lake Brewing Company.
Wild Horse Island
For a totally unique Montana experience, head to Wild Horse Island. The island, which is actually a state park, is inhabited by bighorn sheep, deer, bald eagles, and (just as the name suggests) wild horses. You can kayak or paddleboard out to the island if you’re feeling fit, or opt to relax on a boat ride from Bigfork.
Glacier National Park
Warning: visitors who travel to Glacier National Park may never want to leave. If there is one single spot you simply cannot miss on a visit to Montana, it’s Glacier. As the Crown Jewel of the state, it could keep you occupied with its scenic trails and glacial lakes for days on end, however, you’ll want to allow yourself a minimum of two days.
First-time visitors to Glacier might feel overwhelmed by the wealth of options for what to see and do, but there are some clear winners topping any must-see list, including: stopping by Lake McDonald, hiking Grinnell Glacier, and, of course, driving Going the Sun Road. This 50-mile stretch of road is a feat of engineering that takes about 2 hours to drive one-way. The Highline Trail and Avalanche Lake are also well-worth seeing.
As far as college towns go, Missoula, Montana, is one of the best for outdoor enthusiasts. It is also one of the country’s quirkiest. An autumn visit to Missoula calls for a hot cup of caffeine at Clyde Coffee, Butterfly Herbs, or Break Espresso. Enjoy your joe while you stroll around the city and take in its many murals and Tibetan prayer flags flying from front porches. There are plenty of local businesses to support, including Hometana, The General Public, and Rockin’ Rudy’s.
On the way to Missoula, make sure to stop in at Ninepipes Museum to support Indigenous art and designs.
Venture further south and you’ll land in Bozeman. Made extra popular with tourists thanks to the television series “Yellowstone” (starring Kevin Costner), Bozeman is known locally as the “California of Montana” due to the number of start-up companies. Despite its reputation as a “pass-through” place with pseudo cowboys and obvious wealth, Bozeman is remarkably easy on the eyes. it only takes a heartbeat to see why everyone wants to live there.
Bozeman has a thriving food and coffee scene (local favourites include Nova Cafe, Jam!, Five on Black, and Plonk), historic ghost tours, and luxury spas. Bozeman is also home to the Bozeman Stampede Rodeo, the Montana Ballet Company, and rowdy Montana State University football games.
(West) Yellowstone National Park
Montana might be home to only 3% of Yellowstone National Park, but that sliver is steeping with phenomenal views. Fill your days up here with fishing, whitewater rafting down the Yellowstone River, and hiking the nearby trails. After all your outdoor recreation, treat yourself to dinner and huckleberry ice cream at Arrowleaf Ice Cream and Grill.
Red Lodge Montana and the Beartooth Highway
The Beartooth Highway is a 68-mile All-American road connected the town of Red Lodge, Montana to Yellowstone National Park. It is considered one of the most beautiful drives in America. It is typically open in the summer months, but those with adventurous snow experience can try their hand at a snowmobile in the winter. Stop over in Red Lodge for a charming small western town experience.