WHY VISIT MONTANA
Two stellar national parks, bountiful wildlife, and super-friendly locals: make sure you book a return ticket to Montana, or you might be tempted to stay.
Straddling the US-Canadian border, Glacier National Park is the jewel in Montana’s crown. A land of mammoth mountains and ice-hewn valleys splashed with turquoise lakes, visitors can drive over the Continental Divide via the hair-raising Going-to-the-Sun Road, or choose from more than 1,100km (700 miles) of hiking trails, which crisscross the park. A classic route is the Highline Trail, where epic vistas and sightings of bighorn sheep, marmots, and grizzly bears compensate for vertigo.
Southwestern Montana is a gateway to another beauty: Yellowstone, the world’s first national park. The earth is alive here, with spewing geysers and bubbling hot springs simmering between mountains, rivers, and canyons. Bison, elk, wolves, and grizzlies roam this mesmerizing landscape, which is worth visiting any time of the year, particularly in winter – hop on a snowmobile to see steaming thermal pools, and snow ghosts, and frost-mottled bison.
While you’re at it, bring your skis to one of Montana’s brilliant downhill resorts. Big Sky and Whitefish are up there with the best, but befriend the locals and they will reveal a clutch of smaller, low-key hills that most visitors miss.
There’s more to Montana than mountains, though. Head east to Montana’s High Plains, a region of buttes, prairies, and meandering waterways. Follow the canoes of legendary explorers, Lewis and Clark, on a paddle through the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument or spot antelope, elk, and 200 varieties of birds in the CM Russell National Wildlife Refuge. No wonder they call it the “Treasure State”.
WHAT TO SEE IN MONTANA
- Glacier National Park: Montana’s top outdoor destination is undoubtedly one of America’s most stunning natural parks. Fortunately, it’s also one of the least visited due to its remote location along the Canadian border. Glacier is a mystical land of pristine valleys, jagged peaks, and scenery that will make you stop and appreciate the beauty around you. It’s also home to a remarkable amount of wildlife including grizzly bears, moose, elk, and mountain goats. You can cruise down the scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road or get on a trail for a more intimate look at some of North America’s finest playgrounds.
- Missoula: no other town embodies the Montana spirit as well as Missoula. Sitting in a pretty valley along the Clark Fork River, it’s a university town with plenty of smarts and creativity to go with its love of the great outdoors. This youthful area attracts artists, writers, and environmental do-gooders that fill its lively downtown with plenty to enjoy. After a day skiing at Snowbowl, fly fishing on Rock Creek, or hiking in the Rattlesnake Wilderness, you can relax at the local brewpub, catch a local band or take it easy in a comfortable downtown hotel. The Garden City has one of Montana’s mildest climates to boot.
- Whitefish: Montana’s most popular resort town hasn’t gone the way of Aspen or Jackson Hole and still remains pleasantly laid back, letting the beauty of its mountainous environment and huge lake settle over the charming Western town. Despite its popularity, Whitefish’s impressive downtown cafés, bars, and shops rarely feel crowded. Visible from town is the Whitefish Mountain Resort, a fantastic ski hill that hosts a rotating number of festivals in the summer. The area is a major gateway to Glacier National Park, but try to set aside a few days to stop and smell the alpine wildflowers here as you motor around Montana’s heaven.
- Yellowstone National Park: although the majority of Yellowstone is located within Wyoming, there are three entrances to the park at the southwestern corner of Montana near the town of Livingston. The world’s first national park is still a beauty with its psychedelic mineral hot springs, gushing geysers, and herds of bison, bear, and elk roaming around unconcerned. It’s a busy place in the summer to be sure, but there’s nothing quite like Yellowstone. You can drive through much of the park or hop on dozens of trails to admire waterfalls, hanging valleys, and otherworldly geothermic magic.
- Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument: the site of Custer’s Last Stand, the final battle between the American Indians and the US Army, is a great example of the brutal struggle that took place in Montana during the greedy westward expansion of the young frontier. Exhibits detail the course of events, while the battlefield is laid out to give visitors a sense of how it all went down. The vast prairie is reason enough to come, exemplifying the state’s nickname, Big Sky Country.
- Virginia City and Nevada City: before Montana was a state, this territory was at the very edge of the western frontier. Virginia City and Nevada City were neighboring gold rush towns that boomed in 1863. In their heyday, they exemplified the Wild desperadoes and gunslingers running rampant in these barely lawful towns. Though Nevada City dissolved into a ghost town when the gold ran out, Virginia City continued to thrive. Today, these restored areas offer one of the best looks at Montana’s mining boom of the 1860s. The main streets are lined with original buildings without any kind of tourism kitsch. Take the steam train Locomotive #12 between the two towns for a taste of the landscape, then wander through the old saloons and hotels picturing yourself smack dab in the middle of the crazy wild west.
- Billings: Montana’s largest city is home to just 100,000 souls, but it’s the best place to experience the urban face of Big Sky Country. The railroads made Billings, but cattle and grain turned it into the thriving economic city it is today. There’s a quirky western chic vibe thanks to the sizable art community. Drive the Avenue of the Sculptures to see some of their work or spend an afternoon browsing the western displays in the Yellowstone Art Museum. ZooMontana is a great open-space concept zoo, while downtown Billings offers all the comfortable amenities required to enjoy a couple of relaxing days here.
WHEN TO GO TO MONTANA
The best period to visit Montana is from June to September.
Montana’s climate is dictated by the Rocky Mountains and of the four seasons, three of them are absolutely magical in their own distinct ways. The only time of year that isn’t particularly pleasant is spring, which tends to run from April through May and is often soggy. This is a time when everything melts rapidly, turning trails muddy and the weather an unreliable mess. Of course, this is also the time to find the cheapest rates on hotels throughout the state.
Summers kick off in mid-June when the daytime highs creep into the upper 70s°F peaking in the low 80s°F by July and August. Clear blue skies punctuated by frequent, but beautiful afternoon thunderstorms are the norm. It still gets cool at night, but summer is the ideal season for many forms of outdoor recreation and wildlife viewing. Fall comes quick on the heels of summer, with September temperatures dropping into the 60s°F. In general, you can expect spectacular blue skies and pleasantly crisp temperatures right through the end of October. But always be prepared for the random early snowstorm.
Winter weather arrives by the beginning of November and lingers all the way until March. This is a lovely time of year in Montana, even though the daytime highs hover around the freezing point and below December through February. Plenty of snow falls during these months, creating a white powder wonderland for skiing and snowmobiling. But it is very cold, so always go outside dressed in layers.
WHAT TO DO IN MONTANA
Fly fish under Big Sky
Montana isn’t just spewing hyperbole when it calls itself Big Sky Country. Spend a day outside and you’ll see how the landscape just looks larger here. It’s especially evident when casting a line from the middle of the Yellowstone River, the longest undammed river in the country that runs through the mountains outside its namesake national park. It’s far from the only spot ideal for fly fishing in the state. You’re almost guaranteed to catch something in the trout-packed Missouri River or the wild and beautiful Madison. Even if your hook comes up empty every time, spending a day breathing the fresh mountain air and gazing at the towering surroundings is quintessentially Montana.
Following is a list of typical festivals and celebrations of Montana.
- Wild West Winterfest: the locals of Bozeman break up the doldrums of the long winter with a fun and warming festival called Winterfest. The Gallatin County Fairgrounds transforms into a cold weather carnival featuring a kids’ rodeo, horse-drawn carriage rides, and an ATV ice racing competition. There is storytelling and music, a chili cook-off, and a pet trick contest.
- Whitewater Festival: in the Flathead Valley of northwestern Montana, there’s a little town called Big Fork. Every May when the local Swan River is running high thanks to the spring snow melt-off, this town gets wild and crazy on the river. Try your luck on the rapids of the “Wild Mile” or watch the action from land. Local bars, brewpubs, and restaurants provide food, beer, and entertainment.
- Custer’s Last Stand Re-enactment: every June, at the site where General Custer made his last stand against the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes relive this monumental event in American west history. It’s one part of the larger Little Big Horn Days, a popular festival that spans several days at the Battle of Little Bighorn National Park.
- Sweet Pea Festival: one of the biggest arts festivals in Montana, Sweet Pea attracts hundreds of craftspeople to the town of Bozeman each August to show off their wares. The event is held in Lindley Park and is a complete volunteer endeavor. Besides the amazing art, you can enjoy live music and theater along with food vendors and plenty of activities for children.
- Montana Beer Festival: the best craft breweries from across the Rocky Mountain region converge on the town of Bozeman to share their latest ales at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds in August at the peak of summer. Live music provides the perfect backdrop as you sample dozens of excellent beers.
- Yellowstone Ski Festival: in November, Yellowstone National Park marks the beginning of another long and snowy winter with its annual ski festival. Despite being the early weeks of the season, skiers from around the country flock to Yellowstone for cross-country races, ski clinics, gear swaps, and lots of other fun activities geared toward the sport.
HOW TO REACH AND TRAVEL THROUGH MONTANA
Taxis can be useful if you are just rolling through a single city for a quick business meeting. You will only find cabs in the main cities like Missoula and Billings.
You need a car to get around Montana. Even if you stay in just one town, you’ll be relying on your feet unless you have your own wheels. Public transportation is extremely limited, even in the big cities. Most of the big American rental companies have offices in all of Montana’s airports and the downtown districts. Renting is the most common option for visitors and it’s advised to book in advance if traveling during peak tourist seasons like summer or Christmas.
Montana is a huge state, and most travelers enter by air or car. If time is not an issue, the train offers a wonderfully scenic and relaxing way to see Montana. Amtrak’s Empire Builder line runs right through 12 small northern towns on its route from Chicago to Seattle. This legendary ride stops at Whitefish, West Glacier, Shelby, and several others. The seats are comfortable and the scenery is magnificent. You can rent a car in Whitefish to carry on your journey.
The Greyhound Bus is the most flexible means of travel to Montana because it runs buses from cities all over America and stops at all the big cities and many popular small towns. Within the state, you can use Powder River Trailways and Rimrock Trailways to get between a handful of Montana destinations. The fares are cheap, making traveling by bus the most affordable transportation option. Billings and Missoula have public buses that run around their downtown core. They are marginally useful for visitors with limited schedules and routes.
Main airports are:
GENERAL INFORMATION ON MONTANA
health tips & vaccination: none
local currency: US Dollar
local time zone: GMT-7 (-6)
electricity: type A and type B (120V – 60 Hz)
WHAT TO DO IN MONTANA
Typical food in Montana
- Buffalo burgers
- White honey
- Buttemilk biscuits
- Smettanick pie with cherry jam, almonds and sour cream.
Souvenirs from Montana