Montana is one of the least-populated American states, and it is virtually free of any "major" major cities. But the Treasure State is rich in more than just lucrative minerals. It is well-stocked in small towns that are exquisitely placed amongst startlingly beautiful landscapes and full of friendly faces. The communities highlighted here make for excellent places to chill out – for an afternoon, a weekend, or an extended, reclusive vacation.
Chilling out doesn't have to be synonymous with laziness. For many Montana adventurers, settling into a satisfying rhythm of outdoor recreation is the perfect vacation from sedentary 9-5 life. Situated strategically between the popular city of Bozeman and the national park gateway of West Yellowstone, Big Sky is all about high-octane but chilled-out vibes. Ski bums and bunnies flock here in the wintertime to enjoy the full range of runs that Big Sky Resort maintains on the slopes of the impressive Lone Peak. But if you come back in the summer, the chairlifts will still be running – this time to shuttle avid mountain bikers to the trailheads. If you want to keep the good times going but need to rest your legs, try a couple of runs on the year-round zipline or hit the Gallatin River for a whitewater rafting tour.
At the South end of the beautiful Bitterroot Valley (which runs North all the way to Missoula), the idyllic town of Hamilton is a lovely spot from which to explore the scenery and plug into the history of this late-19th-century community. Hamilton, the county seat of Ravalli County, is one of eight wholesome settlements that dot the banks of the Bitterroot River, are connected by the 50-mile paved Bitterroot Trail, and offer quick access to the solitude and hiking trails of Bitterroot National Forest and Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area. Some architectural attractions in town include the old courthouse converted into the 28-gallery Ravalli County Museum and the opulent, Victorian-style Daly Mansion, former home to the town's founder and copper mine tycoon.
At the North end of the Bitterroot Valley, just 20 miles North of Hamilton and still within Ravalli County, is Montana's first non-indigenous permanent settlement: Stevensville. This old Jesuit community was established in 1841, 48 years before Montana was formalized as a US state. With the cooperation of the local Salish Indians, Father Anthony Ravalli and his followers built the St. Mary's Mission, one of the current icons of the town. Just a short walk North of the chapel, visitors can take in the sights and stories of Fort Owen State Park, which still sports the original barracks (also constructed in 1841). Otherwise, the natural bounty of the river valley, framed by the Bitterroot and Sapphire Mountains, supports all those with a passion for the wilderness.
Another gem in Montana's Southwest region, 85 miles West of Bozeman and 68 miles Southwest of the capital city of Helena, Butte invites all history buffs to have a thorough look around. At one point, the copper-stocked Butte Hill was named "the richest hill on earth" – the fruits of which can be seen today across the Victorian uptown business district and Queen-Anne-style mansions. The entire town is recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the collection of 6,000 properties constitutes one of the largest Historic Districts in the country. During the summer, hop on the Butte Trolley for an easy-going overview of the entire area.
For as beautiful as Bozeman is, it has been drawing lots of attention lately. So the nearby train town of Livingston (only about 25 miles to the East) offers a chance to switch back into quaint Montana mode. This scenic Park County settlement is a cherished fly-fishing spot – leveraging its position on the zig-zagging Yellowstone River. If the craft eludes your abilities but not your interest, check out the Fly Fishing Discovery Center to get a feel for the quintessential frontier pastime. If touring informative and engaging facilities is up your alley, then make sure to visit the Yellowstone Gateway Museum to learn about America's oldest national park, as well as the Livingston Depot Center – a former train station turned railroad history museum. Just don't spend all day indoors. Livingston has an attractive and walkable downtown that is perpetually teased by the surrounding vigor of Paradise Valley.
Another stellar resort town that specializes in outdoor recreation is Whitefish in Northwestern Montana. Just like with Big Sky, skiing/snowboarding is the focal point of this Flathead County community, but also, like Big Sky, the good times keep rolling year round. Whitefish is only about 25 miles from the entrance of the deservedly popular Glacier National Park and the world-renowned Going-to-the-Sun Road. Even with a stopover hike at the picturesque Logan Pass, a reasonable day trip can still have you back on the shores of Whitefish Lake for a late-afternoon dip. When it's all said and done, the vibrant downtown is ready to serve all of your caloric and nightcap needs.
Just West of Butte, the oddly-named Deer Lodge County town of Anaconda is a chilled-out, all-American kind of place. The simple grid pattern is pleasant to walk around, and certain buildings pop out from the rest, such as the library, courthouse, and the 1930s bar, Club Moderne. In the immediate vicinity, Anaconda has 5 lakes, over 100 miles of trails, loads of camping options, and the highly-rated Lost Creek State Park. And beyond the town limits, there are protected forests on all sides that are begging to be explored, including the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness to the West, Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest to the South, and Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest to the Northeast.
Red Lodge is a small city (population of less than 3,000 residents) and the seat of Carbon County in South-Central Montana. This laid-backed, shop and restaurant-lined spot is part of the Beartooth Scenic Highway, which rolls for approximately 68 miles through the Beartooth mountain range, passing through part of the nearly 3.5-million-acre Custer Gallatin National Forest on its way to Yellowstone National Park. But don't rush off too quickly. The well-curated Broadway Avenue is full of independent establishments where you can wet your palette, rest your head, hear some great live music, and mingle with the genuine, grounded locals.
For a bit of chilled-out lake life, pop into Polson. This Lake County spot sits on the Southern shore of the 191 square-mile Flathead Lake, where it joins the Flathead River and is within the boundary of the Flathead Indian Reservation. Polson opens the door to boating, paddling, fishing, and swimming around one of the largest natural lakes West of the Mississippi or simply kicking back, having a picnic, and enjoying the big blue views and mountainous skyline. And if you're there for the summer, you'll be treated to copious supplies of recently harvested cherries, especially at the Flathead Lake Cherry Festival, which takes place every July.
Montana isn't the kind of state where people swarm for spring-break shenanigans. It is a place to settle into an old-fashioned groove and simply chill out amongst mostly-untouched nature. There are mountains to climb, trails to ski/bike/hike, prairies to admire, historical relics to absorb, and all kinds of unique memories to be made. If you're tired of the rambunctious coasts and pretentious city scenes, then head to small-town middle America to rediscover the priceless treasures of Montana.