Visit Montana is sponsoring this look at Montana summer road trips that take you off-the-beaten-path.
Are you thinking about a summer trip to Montana? It’s the perfect season to experience the vastness of Big Sky Country. From the western mountains to the eastern plains, summer fun stretches across Montana in an endless series of outdoor and cultural opportunities.
If you’re a boomer traveler looking for hiking, fishing, kayaking or just about any other outdoor activity, you’ve come to the right place. But all outdoor adventurers, history lovers and cultural aficionados will find their fill of summer fun in the Treasure State, too.
When it comes to summer road trips in Montana, Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park and Beartooth Highway near Yellowstone National Park are probably the most famous. They are also very crowded in summer.
But there are many scenic drives to enjoy in the Treasure State that offer the same Wow factor as Going to the Sun and Beartooth Highway. You just need to know where to find them. That’s where I come in.
My favorite summer road trips in Montana
With a population of a little over a million people, Montana has plenty of open spaces to explore. If you’re looking for a summer vacation in Montana that includes hidden gems and off-the-beaten-path destinations, my tips will take you there. Let’s get started with five of my favorites.
1. Visit Stevensville for a look at Montana’s origins
You could say that Stevensville is where Montana began, considering it was the first white settlement in the state. Located in the Bitterroot Valley, about an hour south of Missoula, you’ll find history, excellent hiking and biking trails, and a vibrant small-town community that celebrates its western heritage. Spoiler alert: Alan and I live here.
Attend Western Heritage Days on the last weekend in June for a small town celebration complete with a parade down Main Street, chuck wagon cook-off and Saturday night street dance in front of the Stevensville Hotel.
But don’t spend your entire time in Stevensville celebrating. Visit Historic St. Mary’s Mission before heading off on a bike ride along the Bitterroot Trail that stretches from Missoula to Hamilton on 50 miles of paved path next to US Highway 93.
Or hike any number of close-by trails. My favorite is Kootenai Creek Trail. You’ll probably see folks fishing on this creek, too.
2. Take a ride on Montana’s wild side
South of Dillon, almost to the Montana-Idaho state line, Big Sheep Creek Backcountry Byway rambles off into what is definitely considered off-the-beaten-path, even for Montana. The dirt road travels from the community of Dell (off Interstate 15) to Highway 324 near Clark Canyon Reservoir.
The 50-mile dirt journey ambles through Big Sheep Canyon before popping out into Medicine Lodge Valley—a vast and untouched valley bordered by snow-capped mountains. This area has been unchanged, taking you back to the days when the West was only inhabited by indigenous tribes. You’ll expect a band of horsemen to appear at every turn of the road.
When Big Sheep Creek Backcountry Byway ends at Highway 324, continue driving to Bannack State Park for a look at a ghost town from Montana’s gold mining days. Dillon makes a good headquarters for grub and a bed.
3. Drive the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway
If the Big Sheep Creek Backcountry Byway sounds a bit too rustic for you, Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway provides the same awe and natural inspiration on a paved surface. The byway travels from Wise River in the Big Hole Valley to Highway 278 west of Dillon.
Along the way, you’ll pass 10,000-foot peaks on a drive that meanders near the Wise River. You’ll discover a surprising number of things to do in those 49 scenic miles. Take a side trip to Coolidge Ghost Town—leave the RV in its camping spot—for a walk through the woods to a ghost town that nature is reclaiming.
At Crystal Park, stop to dig for quartz and crystals. Later, refresh yourself at Elkhorn Hot Springs. The drive ends in the Grasshopper Valley where blue camas bloom from May to July.
Camping and RV travelers are in luck as there are many dry camping areas to pull over for a stay. You’ll also find hotel lodging in Dillon, cabin choices in the Big Hole Valley or stop over at the Grasshopper Inn, located along the byway in Polaris, where bellying up to the bar means sitting on a saddle.
4. Hike in the Absarokas on the other side of Yellowstone
Alan and I discovered the Absarokas when we stayed in Fishtail on a move-to-Montana scouting trip. The moment we drove into the rental cabin’s driveway, I knew that Big Sky Country was the place for me.
You won’t find summer crowds on hikes to Mystic Lake, Elk Lake, or the Stillwater Trail to Sioux Charley Lake, to name just a few of the gorgeous trails in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. When you’re not hiking, explore the tiny community of Fishtail, chow down at the Grizzly Bar and Grill in Roscoe, or go whitewater rafting on the Stillwater or Yellowstone rivers.
5. Explore the Big Hole Valley
The Big Hole Valley is the highest and widest in a series of valleys that populate western Montana. Sitting between the Pioneer Mountains and the southern end of the Bitterroot Mountains, the Big Hole offers incomparable outdoor recreation opportunities. It also happens to be another favorite of mine (and Alan’s).
Many folks come to fish the Big Hole River, but you’ll also find more hiking trails and four-wheeling roads in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest than you can explore in an entire summer. Don’t miss a visit to the Big Hole National Battlefield to learn the important history of the battle and the Nez Perce Flight of 1877.
Rent a cabin in the valley or look for lodging in Jackson or Wisdom. When you tire of exploring, soak those travel-weary bones at Jackson Hot Springs.
Montana summer road trips that I’m adding to my to-do list
This summer, I’m adding five more want-to-visit destinations that are hidden gems to my Montana summer road trip list. Alan and I hope to visit all five of them. Will I see you there?
1. Attend a Play at Fort Peck Summer Theatre
From June through July, Fort Peck Summer Theatre offers a series of plays, giving you (and me) the perfect opportunity to explore northeast Montana. Did you know that Fort Peck Theatre is on the National Register of Historic Places?
So where does the summer road trip part come in? We’ll drive along the Hi-Line (US Highway 2) across northern Montana, stopping along the way to explore small towns filled with Montana history.
And while we’re in Fort Peck, we’ll go fishing at Fort Peck Lake. Or we could visit “Peck’s Rex™” at the Fort Peck Interpretive Center. The Tyrannosaurus rex dinosaur was found near here, but of course there are lots more fossils to see as northeast Montana is a hotbed for some of the world’s most important paleontological discoveries.
2. Hike the Ice Caves Trail near Lewistown
Did you know there’s a cave in Montana that stays cold enough to contain ice the entire year? It takes a bit of a hike to reach the limestone outcropping and ice cave, but the 10-mile-round-trip Ice Caves Trail is worth it.
In addition to the cool rush of an ice cave, you’ll be rewarded with expansive Big Sky Country views on the Snowy Crest of Trail 490. On a clear day, you might see the Grand Tetons, about 220 miles away, in addition to the Absarokas, Little Belts, Crazy Mountains and more.
Lewistown, located in central Montana, makes a good addition to a Fort Peck visit. Drive south on US Highway 191 from US Highway 2 (the Hi-Line) to explore the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument before arriving in Lewiston and your ice cave adventure.
3. Stargaze at Brush Lake State Park
Sure, we could enjoy a dip in the deep, clear waters of Brush Lake in far northeastern Montana. But I’m also bringing you to Brush Lake State Park for the dark-sky-certified views. You’ll be astounded to see what the Milky Way really looks like!
Located among the sprawling wheat fields near Dagmar, the 280-acre Brush Lake offers swimming, kayaking and canoeing, or bring your boat for water skiing. Unfortunately the alkaline, spring-fed waters preclude any fishing, but there’s plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities. While in the area, birdwatchers will want to visit Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge to see the large American white pelican colony as well as many other waterfowl species.
4. Appreciate art in Lincoln
An outdoor art gallery that celebrates a community’s uniqueness sits in the Blackfoot Valley near the Continental Divide in western Montana. The Blackfoot Pathways: Sculpture in the Wild International Sculpture Park is like nothing you’ve ever seen.
Sculptures created from organic and industrial materials are displayed along the paths of a 26-acre lodge-pole pine forest. The artwork reflects the logging, mining and ranching in Lincoln, Montana, as well as the living experiences of tribal culture.
While you’re in Lincoln (halfway between Missoula and Great Falls), book a fishing experience on the Blackfoot River for world-class trout fishing, or hire an outfitter for a camping trip into the Scapegoat Wilderness Area, a rugged, pristine wilderness that’s home to abundant wildlife.
5. Take a pontoon boat tour of Bighorn Canyon
Exploring Bighorn Canyon in southeastern Montana has long been on my to-do list and a pontoon boat ride is a great way to experience the rugged beauty and unspoiled nature of this place. Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is filled with big travel experiences, especially boating and hiking. Can you tell I’m definitely a fan of off-the-beaten-path travel?
Let’s make our headquarters on the Bighorn’s North District at Fort Smith. While in the area, Alan wants to look for wild horses living in the Pryor Mountains on the border of Montana and Wyoming, which requires a drive to the South District of Bighorn Canyon.
Have I given you enough Montana summer vacation ideas? If you’re a fan of off-the-beaten-path destinations without the crowds, these Montana road trips are for you!