Montana is an outdoor lover's paradise. This nature-soaked playground is the fourth largest state in the U.S. (in terms of area) and also one of the least densely populated. Though there are some well-known crowd-pleasing destinations, several of which will be discussed here, generally speaking, the wide-open wilderness, varied landscapes, and distinct seasons set a flexible stage for all kinds of outdoor hobbies and adventures. The following is a list of ten spectacular areas to visit while exploring the Big Sky Country.
Glacier National Park
Located in Northwestern Montana, Glacier National Park comprises over 1-million acres of gorgeous Rocky Mountain scenery and iconic wildlife. Since it was established in 1910, Glacier has exploded in popularity. During the summer season (May to September), roughly 3-million people come to appreciate the outdoor highlight reel. Therefore, an acceptance of the inevitable crowds is a must if you are visiting during this time. That being said, Glacier National Park has over 700-miles of trails and limited road access, so hikers have the opportunity to escape into the unspoiled backcountry, which includes over 200 glacial lakes, and endless mountain/glacier views, and stunning waterfalls.
While in Glacier National Park, be sure to make your way to the 6,646-foot Logan Pass. This subalpine environment produces fields of colorful wildflowers which look like offerings to the towering Reynolds and Clements Mountains. Logan Pass is also home to mountain goats, bighorn sheep, marmots, pikas, and even some black and grizzly bears. Because this area is accessible by car, it is a premier attraction within the already highly-visited park. The best way to quietly explore the beauty of the pass is to go for a hike. There are many options to choose from based on fitness, experience, and duration. It is even possible to summit several of these Continental Divide mountains to get an even better view of the valley.
Continental Divide Trail
Speaking of the Continental Divide, the Trans-American footpath known as the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail is an excellent way to challenge yourself while also having a serene backcountry experience. The entirety of the 3,100-mile journey passes through parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, a sliver of Idaho, and a wondrous 800-mile stretch in Montana. Of the ten other National Scenic Trails, the CTC is the highest, most remote, and, therefore, one of the most difficult. Hikers should therefore come prepared to bag big summits as they retrace some of the footsteps of Lewis and Clark.
Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex
If 800-miles of the CTC sounds a bit overwhelming, consider setting aside a few days to explore one of its stellar sub-sections: the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. This 1.5-million-acre undeveloped region is the ultimate haven for outdoor lovers. One of the top highlights is the 22-mile long, 1,000-foot-high escarpment known as the Chinese Wall, which uncannily resembles the man-made structure after which it is named. If you feel moved to basque in its presence for a few days, there is a tough but much more digestible 75-mile trek that loops around this marvelous natural formation.
This walkable mountain town in Southern Montana makes for a relaxed and charming place to take in the scenery, absorb a bit of cowboy and Native American culture, and leap off to nearby magnets for outdoorsy folks. Around Bozeman, visitors can try their hand at backpacking/camping, hunting, fishing, rock climbing, and all kinds of biking; plus, there are outdoor festivals, street markets, rodeos, and friendly patios to peruse. Just south of town is the Big Sky Ski Resort and Yellowstone National Park, and a short drive Northwest is Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park - all of which deserve some elaboration.
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone, the world's first National Park, is a must-see for nature-lovers. Founded on March 1st, 1872, this historic initiative continues to ensure the protection of 2.2-million-acres of wilderness across parts of Wyoming, Idaho, and of course, Montana. Within this boundary, the approximately 4-million annual visitors can find close to 500 geysers (i.e., nearly half of the planet's active geysers) and other impressive geothermal features that tease the volcanic forces below. Such a large, intact ecosystem also provides a safe haven and dependable viewing opportunities for legendary mountain mammals such as bears, bison, elk, and even wolves.
Between Bozeman and Yellowstone, Big Sky awaits all outdoor-recreation enthusiasts. Skiers and snowboarders know to head here in the wintertime for everything from low-key runs to cross-country trails to elite-level descents. However, summer is far from the off-season. The lifts keep running, and the rental shops swap out skis for mountain bikes to satisfy another high-octane crowd. For even more thrills, join a whitewater rafting tour on the Gallatin River. If you prefer to spend your sunny days hitting the links, there is the 18-hole, Big Sky Golf Course, which was designed by the legendary Arnold Palmer. Oh, and for family fun, be sure to check out the year-round zipline. No matter your fancy, the Mountain Village at the base of Lone Peak will accommodate all sorts of activities.
Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park
Montana's first state park highlights the mysterious features of this large limestone cave system. Located just 50-miles Northwest of Bozeman, Lewis & Clark Caverns makes for a great afternoon getaway. Guided tours regularly operate on a first-come, first serve basis between May and September, and festive candlelight tours are available by reservation in late December. Though viewing the illuminated rooms filled with stalactites, stalagmites, and other naturally decorative formations is certainly the standout event, the rest of the 3,000-acre park is open year-round, allowing for a variety of camping and wilderness experiences.
A little further West of the caverns is the 96-mile-long Bitterroot Valley. Here, eight small towns pepper the banks of the Bitterroot River. These serve as an excellent base to enjoy the pleasant views and quiet surroundings or to head off on some adventures. In particular, this region is known for its top-tier fly-fishing and full-spectrum rock climbing (bouldering, traditional, and come the winter, ice-climbing). Mountain bikers will enjoy the rougher trails, and casual cyclists will get a kick out of the 50-mile paved Bitterroot Trail, which spans from the valley's middle community of Hamilton up to Missoula, the last stop on this list for outdoor lovers.
Just North of Bitterroot Valley is the small and scenic city of Missoula. Here the Bitterroot River, Clark Fork River, and the Blackfoot River all run through town. Missoula is also surrounded by National Forests and Wilderness Areas, with the Rocky Mountains stepping up to fill that quintessential Montana horizon. This setting not only provides the usual spread of outdoor activities but also some of the more social benefits that come from blending nature and a nature-appreciative community. Do you like birdwatching? Well, you will surely find some like-minded friends exploring the trails, riverbends, and quiet streets for glimpses of the many winged wonders. Prefer to hone your frisbee golf (or "folf") skills? Great. There are four different 18-hole (or basket) courses throughout town.
When it comes to the great outdoors, Montana truly has it all. Its state and national parks rival any in the country, and the combination of omnipresent mountains, rolling ranchlands, vast protected forests, clear skies, and glacially-formed waterways will surely satisfy all lovers of nature. Pick your season, pick your destination, and then rejoice in the laundry list of wholesome activities that you will be afforded. Yeehaw!