Renowned for its wide-open spaces, world-class outdoor recreation, and jaw-dropping landscapes, Montana is a bucket list destination for many – and rightfully so, if you ask us! But as the fourth-largest state, there’s a whole lot of ground to cover here. So, what are the can’t-miss things to do and very top places to go in Montana?
After much deliberation, we put together what we believe is the ultimate Montana bucket list. From nature to culture and summer to winter, it covers the absolute best the state has to offer. And even if you’re a long-time resident, we bet you’ll find some things on this list you haven’t done before.
Table of Contents
As we’re writing this in the summer of 2020, this post is intended more as inspiration than as encouragement to visit Montana from out of state right now. And if you’re in the state, please steer clear of the tribal communities that are working to stay safe. Many of these activities are also currently limited or unavailable, so be sure to check their individual websites for updated information.
Packraft the South Fork of the Flathead
If you like hiking, camping, and rafting, you’ll love packrafting, which is a pretty niche activity that’s only recently gained popularity. What does it entail? You load up your pack with all the usual backpacking gear, add a specialized portable raft that only weighs around ten pounds, and hike through the backcountry to your favorite alpine river. Now for the good part – you get to float your way back to civilization.
Packrafts are popular for accessing really remote areas that you’d never be able to haul a regular raft or boat to. It just so happens that one of the most remote regions of the Lower 48 – and one of the best places for packrafting – is Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness (just make sure you call it “The Bob” to sound like a local). More specifically, this is where you’ll find the source of the South Fork of the Flathead River, which makes for an incredible, secluded five-day paddle after a couple days of backcountry hiking.
Take the Gates of the Mountains Boat Tour
The Gates of the Mountains is easily one of the most scenic sections of the Missouri River, with imposing limestone cliffs that flank its curvy shores and obscure the river’s path ahead. But this section of the river lies within the road-less Gates of the Mountains Wilderness, which means there are only two ways to see the cliffs: on foot or by boat.
The latter, especially when aboard the Gates of Mountain tour boat, is much less strenuous, and is frequently touted as one of the best things to do in Montana. The cruise lasts two hours, giving you plenty of time to take in the stunning scenery, spot wildlife like mountain goats and bighorn sheep, and view Native American pictographs, all while listening to the guide’s informative stories.
Float the Smith River
Floating the Smith River is so insanely popular, there’s a lottery every year to distribute the limited number of permits. There are plenty of places to go inner tubing in Montana, but none are quite like this. In 59 miles of river, there’s just one public access point – meaning floaters are treated to peace and solitude you won’t find on most of the state’s rivers.
If you aren’t lucky enough to get a permit through the lottery, you can book a guided trip with one of the handful of authorized outfitters. Still, even though it doesn’t require special skills or endurance, this just might be the hardest Montana bucket list item to actually accomplish.
Take a Sailing Lesson on Flathead Lake
Flathead Lake is truly something special. This massive 200-square-mile lake has six state parks, charming towns around the edge, and even some sandy beaches. From stand-up paddleboarding to jet skiing, there are tons of fun ways to get out on the water – but if you only have time for one, sailing is our pick.
Flathead is easily Montana’s top sailing destination, and the state’s only certified sailing school is located in the town of Dayton on the lake’s western edge. The Flathead Lake Sailing School offers a one-day introduction course, which includes a three-hour sailing trip, as well as multi-day certifications. Sign up for a lesson, and you’ll get a beautiful day on the lake, the exhilaration of trying something new, and some useful knowledge for your next trip.
Kayak or Canoe the White Cliffs of the Missouri
The White Cliffs of the Missouri are wild Montana at its best – completely undeveloped, stunningly beautiful, and almost always free of crowds. For 46 miles between Virgelle and Judith Landing, the Missouri’s banks have looked nearly identical for hundreds of years. White sandstone walls tower above the river throughout the journey, and bighorn sheep and herds of elk can be found peaking over the precipices.
Paddling the White Cliffs usually takes three or four days, depending on how many side trips and stops you make along the way. You can also easily extend the trip to Fort Benton if you want a little more time on the water. Be aware that Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument surrounds the White Cliffs, so camping is only permitted at a few designated sites.
Stand-Up Paddleboard on Whitefish Lake
With over 3,200 lakes and reservoirs (and those are just the ones with names!), Montana has no shortage of places to go stand-up paddleboarding – but Whitefish Lake has got to be the best. You can access the lake from City Beach right in Whitefish or from either of the two state parks along the edge.
Either way, you’ll be treated to smooth clear water and stunning mountain views as you paddle. If you need a paddleboard, you can rent one from Sea Me Paddle or the Sportsman & Ski Haus. Or if you’re there on a Sunday during the summer, take it up a notch with a SUP yoga class through Yoga Hive!
Ski the Ridge at Bridger Bowl
In 2008, Bridger Bowl opened the Schlasman’s Lift, which added 300 acres to an already amazing ski area. More importantly, it provided access to the mountain range’s famous ridgeline, creating an experts-only playground like none else. On the Ridge, experienced skiers (like, “I-ski-black-diamonds-in-my-sleep” experienced, not “I-have-skied-before” experienced) can tackle some of the most challenging terrain any ski area has to offer.
Even the most advanced skiers need to come prepared, though. There’s an increased risk of avalanche up on the Ridge, so avalanche transceivers are required to get on the lift; a shovel and probe are also suggested, and you should always go with a partner. But braving the deep chutes and rocky cliffs of the Ridge is a rite of passage in Bozeman’s ski bum community and an aspiration for those on the bunny hill.
Attend the National Skijoring Finals
Wait, what is skijoring? Only the most quintessentially Montanan of sports. It’s a race in which galloping horses pull skiers through slalom gates and over jumps – cowboy meets ski bum. Racers can reach speeds of up to 25 miles per hour and get serious air off those jumps.
In some places, the skiers are pulled by dogs instead, but skijoring with horses really got its start in Red Lodge. This has got to be one of the most unique winter sports, and it’s exciting to see the premier event happen in this mountain town every year.
Like any activity involving animals, there are definitely questions about animal cruelty in skijoring. But, probably because it’s not a very well-known sport, we’ve never been able to find much information on the ethics of skijoring or the treatment of horses involved. If you do, please share it in the comments!
Learn to Speed Skate in Butte
Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the southwest Montana town of Butte was at the center of the speed skating world. With its mile-high elevation, the town has ideal conditions for competitive sports training, and a local businessman led a massive fundraising effort to build an outdoor rink. Once it was built, Butte’s U.S. High Altitude Sports Center even played host to the 1987 Speed Skating World Cup, a preliminary to the Calgary Olympics.
In an unfortunate stroke of bad timing, speed skating began to shift indoors not long after the track in Butte opened. It was still a popular training site up until the early 2000s, but has since fallen out of use with professionals. However, Butte’s rink is still popular with Montanans eager to learn the ropes of speed skating. Lessons and skate rentals are offered when the rink is open during the winter, typically mid-December through late-February.
Fun fact: former Montana Governor Judy Martz, who grew up in Butte, was once an Olympic speed skater!
Go Cross-Country Skiing in Glacier National Park
There’s no denying that Glacier National Park, aka “The Crown of the Continent,” is one of the top places to go in Montana. There’s a reason it features on pretty much every Montana road trip itinerary.
Of course, the park’s popularity means you’ll probably have to fight against the crowds to take in those breathtaking glacial views. But we’re going to let you in on a secret: you can have the park practically to yourself during the winter, when it’s magical in a whole different way.
To experience the best of Glacier in the winter, don a pair of cross-country skis and glide into the snowy silence and solitude. Many areas of the park are accessible to skiers, but some of the most iconic views are found near Lake McDonald or St. Mary Lake. If you don’t have your own skis, you can rent a pair at the Sportsman & Ski Haus in Whitefish.
More Outdoor Activities
Wander the Badlands of Makoshika State Park
Up against the famed mountains and glaciers of western Montana, the vast plains of the eastern part of the state have a tough time competing for the attention of adventure-minded tourists – but that’s only because they probably haven’t heard of Makoshika State Park. In fact, many Montanans haven’t heard of this remote park, even though it’s the state’s largest, at 11,000 acres.
Makoshika protects an otherworldly expanse of badlands, and if you’ve never experienced badlands before, well, you’re in for a treat. The park is a favorite among hikers and mountain bikers, and you can walk or ride for miles, or just stop at the viewpoints along the main scenic road. The site has also yielded an impressive number of dinosaur fossils, which can be found inside the visitor center, and the park hosts a variety of events all year long.
Hike a Section of the Continental Divide Trail
Far less known than the famed Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail (after a certain Reese Witherspoon movie came out, anyway), the Continental Divide Trail shines as the country’s premier route for long-distance hikers who are after solitude and a serious challenge. Just 200 or so people complete the entire 2,800-mile trek from New Mexico to the Canadian border each year.
But even if you’re not ready for the months-long thru-hike, you can still tackle individual sections of the trail – and some of its best parts lie in Montana. For an impressive (and scenic) multi-day trip, there’s a section of the trail inside the Bob Marshall Wilderness and another that crosses Glacier Park.
Need something shorter? You can access a relatively easy section from MacDonald Pass near Helena, which makes for a great day hike. Either way, doing even a small part of the CDT is something special.
Tour the Lewis & Clark Caverns
Montana’s first state park (created in 1935) has the usual hiking trails, campsites, and picnic areas, but there’s one iconic reason to visit: to tour the caverns. Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park has one of the largest and most impressive limestone caverns in the Northwest, packed with stalactites, stalagmites, and other unique geological features. The cavern is naturally air-conditioned, so it’s cool inside, even at the peak of summer.
You can visit the rest of the park independently, but the cavern is only accessible on a guided tour (and once you’re inside it, you’ll understand why!). Tours are offered hourly on weekdays during the summer only, and they last about an hour and a half.
Go Horseback Riding
Horseback riding is quite possibly the most iconic Montana activity there is, so can you really leave the state without giving it a try? On horseback, you’ll enjoy a totally different perspective on the outdoors, visit places that might otherwise be inaccessible, and get a taste of the cowboy life.
From half-day rides to multi-day camping adventures, Montana has tons of opportunities to hit the trail on horseback. Most of the guest ranches and tour companies around Glacier and Yellowstone (including in Bozeman and Whitefish) have rides on offer, so just look around to find a trip that suits you. Just be prepared to feel sore the next day!
Hike Along the Chinese Wall
The Bob Marshall Wilderness envelops the Continental Divide between Glacier Park and the town of Lincoln. The road-less interior of “The Bob” is one of the wildest places in all of Montana, and deep in the wilderness lies its crown jewel: the Chinese Wall. This 12-mile-long cliff face towers over a thousand feet above the valley floor, and it offers some of the best hiking in Montana.
Accessing the wall is no easy task, though, requiring a strenuous multi-day hike from the Benchmark Campground trailhead, 18 miles away. As such, many visitors choose to get there by horseback, usually with a local outfitter, which is a unique experience all in itself. Either way, it’ll be worth it in the end, when you’re looking up at the backbone of the Continental Divide.
Cycle the River’s Edge Trail in Great Falls
Stretching for a whopping 60 miles along both sides of the Missouri River, the River’s Edge Trail runs almost all the way through Great Falls and past Giant Springs State Park. Along the way, the trail passes by many pieces of public art, several city parks, and even the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.
For a gentle ride along the river, the paved section from town to Giant Springs can’t be beat. For more strenuous and technical cycling, start at Giant Springs and take the single-track toward Morony Dam. If you need to rent a bicycle, the Knicker Biker has you covered.
Go Stargazing in Hyalite Canyon
The wide-open spaces and relatively small population centers mean Montana has very little light pollution – and that makes it a prime destination for stargazing. As long as it’s a clear night and you’re not right in town, you can get a decent view of the night sky most anywhere in Montana.
But Hyalite Canyon outside Bozeman is one of the state’s prime spots for stargazing. Search for constellations, glimpse the Milky Way, and if you’re extremely lucky, the Northern Lights might even be visible. There are several campgrounds in the canyon, including two on Hyalite Reservoir, if you want to make it an all-night trip.
Go Camping in Bighorn Canyon
Straddling the Montana-Wyoming border south of Billings, Bighorn Canyon is a sprawling 120,000-acre National Recreation Area. The namesake canyon offers scenery unlike anywhere else in Montana – in fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re actually somewhere in the Southwest.
A place so massive is best visited on a multi-day trip; fortunately, Bighorn is one of the state’s best spots to camp. You can car camp at any of the five campgrounds, or trek into the wilderness and go backcountry camping (which is free and doesn’t require a permit).
Stay at a Forest Service Cabin
Taking a camping trip usually entails forgoing most creature comforts: things like a toilet, central heating, or anything more comfortable than an air mattress. However, there is a way to enjoy a night deep in the Montana wilderness without completely roughing it – by renting a Forest Service cabin.
Over a hundred of these cabins are spread across the state, many in remote locations that require a lengthy hike or cross-country skiing expedition to reach. Inside the cabin, there’s usually a couple bunk beds with mattresses, a table, and a wood stove. Montana’s Forest Service cabins are quite popular, though, and they usually get booked solid during the summer, so make your reservations as early as possible.
Food & Drink
Buy a Pound of Candy at the Sweet Palace
There are quite a few impressive candy stores in Montana, but none can rival the Sweet Palace in Phillipsburg. We were seriously skeptical of the store’s claim that it’s the “World’s Greatest Candy Store” – but that was before we walked inside.
The shop is massive, and it’s absolutely crammed full of candy. It has over 1,000 different kinds of candy to choose from (really!), including 70 flavors of taffy prepared right in front of your eyes.
Just wandering around this historic store is a treat, as the sweet aroma invades your nostrils, but you’ll undoubtedly end up buying enough candy to feed a small army (or is it just us?). In any case, this is a great stop to make while driving the Anaconda-Pintler Scenic Route or after a day of exploring the nearby Granite ghost town.
Visit the Sip ‘n Dip Lounge
When we were making our Montana bucket list, we wanted to avoid tacky tourist traps and include only things that truly warrant making a trip. Well, GQ once rated the Sip ‘n Dip as the “#1 bar in the world worth flying for,” which more than justifies its spot on this list.
Located inside a 1960s-era budget motel, this Great Falls tiki bar is one of a kind. It’s known for its kitschy tropical vibe, the tunes of local icon Piano Pat, and the dangerous Fish Bowl cocktail. But the Sip ‘n Dip’s claim to fame is the mermaids.
Behind the counter is a window that looks into the hotel’s swimming pool (which is only weird if you think about it too much). The bar hires mermaids (and occasionally mermen) to swim in the pool and entertain bar patrons on the other side of the window, which is really what has made the Sip ‘n Dip famous. There’s no place else quite like this entirely unexpected bar, that’s for sure.
Have a Treat at the Huckleberry Patch
Located in Hungry Horse (yes, that’s the name of an actual town) just outside Glacier National Park, The Huckleberry Patch is an iconic gift shop, restaurant, and purveyor of all things huckleberry. Let’s back up: a huckleberry is a blueberry-like fruit that only grows in the Pacific Northwest, and you really can’t come to Montana without trying one.
At the Huckleberry Patch, you’ll be spoiled for options of foods flavored, infused, and packed with huckleberries. There’s ice cream, fudge, jam, daiquiri mix, honey, tea, and more, but it’s the pies and the milkshakes that are truly legendary. And make sure you pick up some huckleberry taffy for the road – we promise you won’t regret it.
Eat a Pasty in Butte
Butte is a town that’s known for many, um, disparate things, like the Berkeley Pit and Evel Knievel. But its other claim to fame? The delicious pasties.
Essentially a meat-and-potato-filled hand pie, the pasty arrived in Butte by way of Cornish immigrants who came to work in the underground copper mines in the 1800s. A pasty kept well in a lunch pail, required no utensils to eat, and provided enough calories to keep a hardworking miner fueled through the day.
Today, Butte has a few different pasty places, but we recommend Nancy’s Pasty Shop, a no-nonsense eatery that sits just below the Berkeley Pit. It’s not a restaurant, but rather a stand where you walk up and order at the window, so drive down the road to McGruff Park and make a picnic of your scrumptiously flaky meal.
Visit a Brewery or Five
When you think of great craft beer, do you think of Montana? Well, you should! With nearly 100 breweries currently operating, Montana consistently rates in the top three states for number of breweries per capita. Even the most rural towns have their own brewery now, and most of the larger ones (which are still almost all under 80,000 people) have several to choose from. Literally, no matter where you go in Montana, there will be a craft brewery to visit.
But if you want to seek out some of the best, Bayern Brewing in Missoula is known for its traditional European-style beers, and at MAP Brewing in Bozeman, you can enjoy incredible mountain views while you imbibe. We also love Glacier Brewing in Polson for its experimental brews (and tasty non-alcoholic ginger beer!), as well as Philipsburg Brewing Company for its two cool locations in this tiny town – one in a historic bank building and the other with a great outdoor venue.
History & Culture
Explore a Ghost Town
The boom-and-bust cycles associated with mining have left the Treasure State with an abundance of ghost towns, and they’re among the top attractions in Montana. Most are located in the southwestern corner, stretching from Helena to Dillon, but abandoned towns dating back to the 1800s can be found just about anywhere someone once struck it rich.
Bannack, which briefly served as the capital of the pre-statehood Montana Territory, is the most famous and best-preserved one. Now the site of Bannack State Park, over 50 buildings are still intact, including a school, a church, a hotel, and many homes. Virginia City is another popular (if more touristy) one, with its tours, demonstrations, and still-functioning bars.
But our favorite Montana ghost town is Elkhorn, located near the tiny town of Boulder. State park status preserves a couple pristine buildings in the center, but most of Elkhorn is nearly untouched, and it doesn’t get many visitors. There’s nothing quite like being the only one left in town.
Tour the Copper Mine in Butte
Most Montana ghost towns were built on mining, but you can now only view the exterior of the abandoned mines from a distance. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to descend thousands of feet into the earth to excavate copper in dark, claustrophobic tunnels.
But in Butte, an old mining community that’s now one of the state’s largest towns, you can experience it for yourself. The World Museum of Mining – often named among the best museums in Montana – runs tours of the abandoned Orphan Girl Mine. During the 90-minute tour, you’ll drop 100 feet below the surface to see the mine up close and personal.
The tour requires a hardhat, a light, and good balance (there’s a steep, mud-covered slope inside the mine), so you know it’s the real deal. Make sure you save time to explore the rest of the museum before or after the tour.
Visit the Museum of the Plains Indian
You can’t understand the history and culture of Montana without understanding the history and culture of the Native people in this state. Today, Montana is home to eight reservations and twelve federally-recognized tribes, and Native Americans make up about six percent of the total population.
The Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning – the headquarters of the Blackfeet reservation – is one of the best places to learn about the Native tribes in this area. The museum is small, but it houses a range of impressive arts and crafts and informative exhibits on the heritage, traditions, and lifestyles of many of the tribes in Montana. Browning is about halfway between Great Falls and Whitefish, and it’s accessible as a day trip from either one.
Take the Underground History Tour in Havre
Few would suspect there’s anything of interest beneath their feet in this sleepy town on the Hi-Line, and that’s why the eye-opening Havre Beneath the Streets Tour is one of the top things to see in Montana. A fire decimated Havre in 1904, forcing many businesses to seek shelter in basements while the town was rebuilt. For years, the entire downtown operated underground, including everything from a barbershop and laundromat to a saloon and brothel.
Today, many of those businesses are still well-preserved below the streets of Havre, and you can explore it all on a guided underground tour. As you peruse the subterranean labyrinth, a local guide regales you with tales of mobsters, railroad barons, and high rollers that make Havre sound more like a gritty HBO series than a quiet farm town.
Unless you’re traveling the Montana Dinosaur Trail, Havre is admittedly a bit out of the way. But it makes a nice day trip from Great Falls, and this tour is well worth the effort of getting there.
Misc. Montana Bucket List Items
Take a Blackfeet Tour of Going-to-the-Sun Road
If Glacier National Park is the most gorgeous part of Montana, and Going-to-the-Sun Road is the most gorgeous part of Glacier, then you know it’s a must-see. This 50-mile-long road cuts straight through the park, passing its two biggest lakes, offering iconic glacial views, and crossing the Continental Divide at over 6,600 feet.
Driving this spectacular road is easily one of the top things to do in Montana, and it’s where you’ll find many of the state’s most awe-inspiring photo spots. But to really make the most of your experience, travel with Sun Tours instead of driving it yourself.
The company’s interpretive tours of Going-to-the-Sun Road are led by a local guide from the Blackfeet tribe, who shares insights into the local culture, history, and environment. Not only will you learn a ton from your guide and get to enjoy the park without the stress of driving, you’ll also be supporting a Native-owned business and reducing your carbon footprint. Win-win!
Go on a Yoga Retreat at Feathered Pipe Ranch
For places to unplug, relax, and connect with nature and with yourself, it doesn’t get much better than rural Montana, and that’s exactly what Feathered Pipe Ranch offers. Situated in the Rocky Mountains outside of Helena, the ranch has been hosting renowned yoga and mindfulness teachers for over 45 years. Choose from the enticing schedule of weeklong retreats offered every summer – any one of them is sure to leave you feeling rejuvenated.
You’ll stay in perfectly rustic accommodation (ranging from tents and yurts to chalets and condos), eat nourishing meals on-site, and rest your muscles in the sauna or hot tub. In addition to a balanced schedule of yoga, meditation, and other activities, you’ll be able to indulge in massage and bodywork, visit the nearby lake, explore the many hiking trails – or just do nothing at all. Sounds like a blissful way to spend a week, no?
Drive the Beartooth Highway
There are so many great scenic drives in Montana, but the Beartooth Highway just might be the best. A 68-mile stretch of Hwy. 212, the road connects the small town of Red Lodge with Yellowstone National Park, dipping into northern Wyoming along the way. The switchbacks are harrowing if you’re not a fan of heights, but the views of snow-capped mountain peaks and alpine lakes are more than worth it.
Due to the extensive snow removal that has to take place on the highway every summer, the drive is typically only possible between late-May and mid-October. If you want to make it a day trip from Red Lodge or Billings, turn around at Beartooth Pass, just inside the Wyoming border – you’ll still be treated to the most impressive portion of the drive (and you’ll get to see it twice!).
Ride the Train along Glacier National Park
Glacier is closer to an Amtrak route than any other U.S. national park, creating a totally unique opportunity to experience it by rail. The Empire Builder line, which connects Chicago with Seattle and Portland, runs all along the southern edge of the park. You can ride the rails for just that section, which is the most scenic part of the route anyway.
For a memorable day trip, get on in Whitefish or West Glacier in the morning, and ride the two hours to East Glacier. Spend the day on the eastern side of the park, and ride back in the evening.
You’ll get to enjoy the breathtaking scenery of the park without any of the traffic or stress of driving – plus, riding the train is an experience in itself. For a longer adventure, you can ride all the way from East Glacier to Libby in Montana’s northwest corner (about four hours).
What’s at the top of your Montana bucket list?