If you’ve been wanting to take a Montana road trip, but haven’t felt the timing was right, now could be your perfect opportunity. Although many international destinations remain off-limits, most travel within the United States is as wide open as the Big Sky for which Montana is famous.
Below, I’ll talk you through some of the top Montana attractions and destinations you’ll want to visit on your trip. These range from Montana’s legendary national parks and natural landscapes, to charming cities and towns you might never have heard about before.
I’ll also explain some of the nuts and bolts of hitting Montana’s open roading, from tips about renting a car, to recommendations for Montana resorts and hotels at any budget. In this post, as is the case in Montana itself, there’s a lot of ground to cover. Let’s get started, stall we?
Montana Practical Matters
Before we get into specific destinations you should visit on your Montana road trip, it’s a good idea to go over practical issues—the first is lodging. Accommodation takes all forms in Montana, from rustic cabins and campgrounds where you can set up your own tent, to boutique hotels and lodges and a wide range of Airbnb properties. Without recommending specific properties, I’d give you the general advice of seeking out an authentic place to stay, preferably one that’s locally owned and operated.
There’s also the issue of your Montana rental car. Since public transportation basically doesn’t exist in the state, I’d recommend picking up your car at whatever airport you fly into, and arranging to drop it off just before you fly out. The largest airport in Montana is Billings, although you might also fly into or out of Kalispell, Missoula, Helena or Great Falls.
Where to Go During Your Montana Road Trip
Glacier National Park
Although many of the park’s namesake ice sheets have vanished due to climate change, Glacier National Park is still one of my favorite places to visit when I drive through Montana. What is the best time of year to visit Glacier National Park? I like late September, when the air is still warm but when the trees have begun to turn yellow. However, I’ll speak about this (both for Glacier and when it comes to Montana more generally) in just a second.
In reality, your Montana road trip might begin in Kalispell, which is actually where the Glacier Park Airport is located. However, I recommend waiting until after you’ve driven and hiked through Glacier for a couple days to enjoy the town. As far as what you do here, that’ll depend on whether or not the coronavirus pandemic is over. Museums such as the Victorian Conrad House and Hockaday Museum of Art are fascinating, but not what I would called socially-distanced activities!
Lewis and Clark National Forest
Located not far from the state capital of Helena, the Lewis and Clark National Forest is one of the underrated places to visit in Montana, as far as I’m concerned. In addition to its namesake forests, the park is home to the gorgeous waters of Giant Springs State Park. The aptly-named Big Falls, meanwhile, is one of the largest waterfalls in Montana, and probably the most impressive one you can see outside of Yellowstone (more on that place in a second).
As you can probably see by this point, I believe the key to a successful Montana road trip is balance. In this vein, I imagine that after stints in Glacier and Lewis and Clark Forest, you’ll be craving an urban escape, especially if you didn’t spend long in Kalispell. While cities like Billings and Butte have their charms, my pick is Bozeman. In addition to Montana State University, this dynamic and youthful town also hosts the Museum of the Rockies, a must-visit for dinosaur enthusiasts.
Yellowstone National Park
How many days do you need in Yellowstone? Well, that depends on if you plan to cross states line or not. The Montana portion of Yellowstone National Park (known as “West Yellowstone”) is actually not where you find attractions like Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Spring. It is, however, where you’ll find many of the best accommodations in the park, and certainly the best-value ones.
How Many Days Do You Need in Montana?
My general answer to how many days in Montana you should spend is “as many as possible,” but I’m sure some of you need more specific guidance. If you visit the five places I’ve mentioned here—and in order, starting at Glacier National Park and ending in Yellowstone—I’d say that a week in Montana is the bare minimum you can expect to spend. Realistically, however, I’d say two weeks is a smarter amount of time to spend, certainly if you plan to continue your journey from Montana to Wyoming.
If, on the other hand, your Montana road trip is about one particular destination (likely Glacier) rather than the journey, you can come for a long weekend. Keep in mind, however, that getting to Montana requires a flight (often more than one) and several hours of travel time (almost five hours from Atlanta!) from most places in the US. As a result, spending just a few days here might or might not be worth the trouble!
Other Montana Road Trip FAQ
What is the best month to visit Montana?
For most travelers, the best month to visit Montana is July, which tends to be the warmest and sunniest month. With this being said, summer (which also includes August) is also the busiest time of year in Montana. You might strike a better balance if you visit during “shoulder” months such as June and September.
How long does it take to drive across Montana?
It would take more than 10 hours, without stopping, to drive east to west across Montana, while traversing the state north to south would take 5-6 hours. The size of Montana is 559 miles latitudinally, and 321 miles longitudinally. Big Sky Country is just “big,” period!
Is it safe to drive through Montana?
Although Montana has a relatively high incident of traffic accidents (and drunk driving), the state is a relatively safe place for tourists to drive. Most crashes in Montana occur at night, and as a result of relatively low seat belt usage. If you drive during the day, stay sober and buckle up, you have little to worry about.
The Bottom Line
Now might just be the best time to take a Montana road trip. A spacious, sparsely populated state with social distancing baked into it, Montana is practically made for the Covid era, to say nothing of its timeless Big Sky. This is not, of course, to say you have to spend all your time out in the wild. Montana is just as worth visiting for Glacier National Park, for example, as it is for charming towns like spiritual Kalispell and youthful Bozeman. If you end up taking my advice on your road trip through Montana, be sure and let me know how it went in a comment below!
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who’s been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as “CNNGo” and “Shanghaiist” along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.