Montana Trip Planning A Comprehensive Bucket List

Are you prepared to explore the breathtaking landscapes and hidden treasures of Montana?

Well, you’re in for a treat because we’re here to guide you through the ins and outs of planning the ultimate getaway to Big Sky Country.

This article is for nature enthusiasts who crave breathtaking hikes in Glacier National Park and breathtaking views of Flathead Lake. It’s for history buffs who want to delve into the fascinating stories of the Native Americans who once called this land home.

It’s also for foodies who love indulging in the delicious flavors of Montana, from hearty meals to delectable treats like locally made ice cream.

If you’re an adventurer with a hunger for awe-inspiring landscapes, unforgettable experiences, and heartwarming moments, we’ve got you covered.

Get ready for a bucket list of insider tips and captivating experiences that will inspire you to pack your bags and explore Big Sky Country.

Buckle up, because this journey will be one for the books!

Montana Bucket List: Must-Have Experiences

A fork in the river along one of Montana's rivers.

Montana is a treasure trove of must-have experiences, and I’m here to guide you through the essentials.

From witnessing the might of glacier-covered mountains to exploring the secrets of Wild Horse Island, we’ll create memories that will last a lifetime. 

Get ready to check off your Montana bucket list and make your dreams come true. Let’s go!

1. Montana’s Top Destinations

A section of Montana's Glacier National Park covered sporadically with trees.

When it comes to top destinations in Big Sky Country, there is no shortage of stunning parks and outdoor adventures to be had.

Some of Montana’s must-visit destinations include:

  • Glacier National Park – As the pride of Glacier Country, the park has a little bit of everything you would want for your outdoor adventures: hiking, wildlife viewing, rock climbing, mountains, lakes, and camping.
  • Yellowstone National Park – Only 3% of the park is in Montana, but that’s more than enough to experience its natural splendor and diverse wildlife. We recommend getting into the park through West Yellowstone.
  • Big Sky Resort – Big Sky Resort, Montana’s 2nd-largest ski destination is in Madison County, an hour south of Bozeman via U.S. Highway 191.
  • Bridger Bowl Ski Area – For a welcoming and local skiing experience, consider Bridger Bowl in Bozeman. With a sustainable approach, it accommodates everyone from beginners to advanced skiers.
  • Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument – The Little Bighorn Monument honors a famous American battle, and you can witness an annual reenactment of the clash between the United States and Native American tribes.

With so many stunning parks and attractions, Montana truly is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts.

2. Montana’s Top Things to Do

Two people on horseback in a picturesque Montana field.

As far as exploring the great outdoors, the Treasure State doesn’t disappoint. There are many things to see and do in Montana, so you won’t ever be bored.

In Montana, adventure awaits in the form of the following must-try activities:

  • Horseback Riding – Montana is home to highly rated horseback trails. One is the Blue Flower Trail, which goes through Paradise Valley near Livingston.
  • Backcountry Hiking – Consider hiking in the Mission Mountains for a true wilderness experience.
  • Guided Tours – A guided tour of Yellowstone gives you a chance to explore the sights instead of trying to figure it out on your own.
  • Fly Fishing – The Gallatin River near Bozeman is a fly-fishing paradise. Try and visit during the salmonfly hatch in June when trout are eager to feed on the surface.
  • Whitewater Rafting – Some excellent places to go whitewater rafting in Montana include the Yellowstone River and Flathead River.
  • Driving Along the Highway – One of the most beautiful roads in Montana to drive along is Beartooth Highway. It takes a few hours to drive and offers some amazing views.
  • Visiting the Lakes – Montana is home to more than 3,000 lakes and reservoirs. A prime destination is Flathead Lake near Kalispell, which you can drop by on your way back from Glacier National Park.

Montana’s diverse outdoor adventures abound, from horseback riding and backcountry hiking to fly fishing and scenic drives.

Plus, many of these take place in the state’s most stunning natural wonders.

3. Montana’s Best Lakes

Fort Peck Lake in Montana

The diversity of water bodies in this rugged state is truly remarkable.

From serene alpine lakes nestled amid towering mountains to expansive reservoirs, there’s a lake for every kind of adventurer.

And trust me, you won’t want to miss out on these beauties.

Here are some of Montana’s most notable lakes:

  • Flathead Lake – Flathead Lake, the largest natural body of freshwater in the western U.S., boasts crystal-clear waters and is surrounded by numerous access points, restaurants, campgrounds, marinas, and lodges.
  • Fort Peck Lake – In eastern Montana, Fort Peck Lake is both the state’s largest and the 5th-largest man-made reservoir in the United States at 134 miles long and 200 feet deep. It’s a hub for boating, fishing, and swimming, and offers plenty of hiking and camping options nearby.
  • Whitefish Lake – Whitefish Lake in Northwest Montana is a popular spot for swimming, fishing, and boating. It’s also home to The Lodge, one of the top lake resorts in the area.
  • Canyon Ferry Lake – Canyon Ferry Lake, situated on the Missouri River just 20 miles north of Helena, is a vast reservoir famous for trout and walleye fishing, as well as for boating, hiking, and camping.
  • Lake McDonald – Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park’s largest lake, offers stunning fjord-like beauty, surrounded by mountains on 3 sides. It’s a prime spot for wildlife viewing, including bears, bighorn sheep, elk, mountain goats, and deer.

Montana’s lakes offer an escape into nature’s untouched beauty. So whether you’re seeking relaxation or adventure, these lakes are waiting to be explored. 

4. Montana’s Hiking Trails

Iceberg Lake Trail in Montana

Hiking in Montana is the ultimate way to explore the diverse landscapes of this incredible state.

From towering mountains to expansive plains, winding rivers to shimmering lakes, Big Sky Country has more than its fair share of scenic hiking trails.

Unlock some unforgettable hikes on these favorite trails in Montana:

  • Iceberg Lake Trail – This approximately 9-mile round-trip hike in Glacier National Park leads to a pristine alpine lake, notable for featuring a year-round iceberg at its center.
  • Lava Lake Trailhead – This 6-mile hike in Custer Gallatin National Forest, situated in Gallatin Gateway, is ideal for a day trip. Along the route to the alpine lake, you’ll traverse a lush forest and cross several streams via bridges.
  • Beehive Basin Trailhead – Beehive Basin in Big Sky is renowned as one of Montana’s finest hikes. Its sweeping mountain vistas, fields of wildflowers, and the serene lakeside sunbathing at the hike’s apex are must-have experiences.
  • Sundance Pass Trail – Sundance Pass Trail, just outside Red Lodge, MT, is a hiker’s dream. It offers a series of alpine lakes along the route, abundant wildlife sightings, and a stunning, unspoiled trail.
  • Avalanche Lake Trail – Avalanche Lake in Glacier National Park is a must-hike in Montana. This straightforward round-trip trail offers stunning lake views, mountains, and waterfalls, providing a glimpse of the park’s beauty.
  • Grinnell Glacier Trail – The Grinnell Glacier Trail is the primary trail that leads to Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park. The trail is a moderately strenuous hike that typically begins near the Many Glacier Hotel area.

As you venture out on these hikes, it’s important to come prepared. Don’t forget essentials like bear spray, especially if you’re hiking in areas like Logan Pass.

With their captivating landscapes and unforgettable experiences, Montana’s hiking trails are truly a nature lover’s dream come true.

5. Montana’s State Parks

A view of Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park from the outside.

While the famous Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park often steal the spotlight, let’s not overlook the exceptional experiences that can be found in Big Sky Country’s state parks.

Here are some state parks in Montana that are not to be missed:

  • Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park – This state park boasts some of North America’s most remarkable limestone caverns. During your visit, you can explore the caves on a guided tour, go hiking, and enjoy camping.
  • Flathead Lake State Park – Flathead Lake State Park is a must-visit for water enthusiasts. It’s perfect for fishing, boating, and camping, providing an ideal getaway for those who love spending time on or near the water.
  • Wild Horse Island State Park – Wild Horse Island, a historic refuge for Kootenai Indians’ horses, is renowned for its diverse wildlife, including bighorn sheep, deer, songbirds, waterfowl, eagles, falcons, and wild horses.

While the renowned national parks of the Treasure State may grab the headlines, the renowned offerings of its state parks are just as fulfilling.

From awe-inspiring caverns to tranquil lakeshores and wildlife playgrounds, these underrated marvels will ensure your Montana adventure is truly unforgettable.

6. Montana’s Local Delicacies

Elk steak on a grill in Montana

When it comes to exploring a new destination, there’s one aspect that never fails to excite: sampling the local cuisine.

There’s just something about concluding a day of hiking or adventuring with a satisfying meal that adds an extra layer of enjoyment to the entire experience.

Montana is a food lover’s paradise, showcasing its culture and unique flavors through the following culinary delights:

  • Anything huckleberry – Montana is famous for huckleberries, unique dark-colored berries rich in antioxidants, iron, vitamin C, and potassium. Throughout the state, you’ll find huckleberry-infused treats like soda, beer, candy, ice cream, jam, and pie.
  • Bison Burger – In Montana, almost every burger joint features a locally sourced bison burger on the menu. Bison meat, akin to beef but with a distinct sweet undertone, is a popular local specialty.
  • Elk Steak – Elk steak, a rare delicacy, is known for its tender, juicy, and savory qualities when grilled just right, ideally medium to medium rare. Montana, with its abundant elk population, is a go-to destination for this unique culinary experience.

In Big Sky Country, you’ll find food tours that allow you to explore the local culinary scene and discover all the delicious offerings this state has to offer.

With so many food options to choose from, you’ll never go hungry during your trip. So get ready to tantalize your taste buds and embark on a culinary adventure like no other in Montana.

7. Montana’s Must-Try Restaurants

Plonk restaurant in Montana

In Montana, you’ll find an array of excellent restaurants that add to the vibrant culinary scene scattered throughout the state. Some of the most notable include: 

  • Plonk – Plonk, with locations in Missoula and Bozeman, MT, offers a comfortable atmosphere that celebrates food, wine, and art. The menu includes options like cheese boards, salads, seafood, and steak, with prices ranging from $20 to $40 per dish.
  • Roadhouse Diner – In Great Falls, MT, the Roadhouse Diner has consistently been voted the best burger in Montana since 2017. Their burgers, priced around $15 each, feature locally sourced meat, potatoes, and homemade buns.
  • The Burger Dive – Located in Billings, MT, The Burger Dive gained fame through its feature on “Man vs Food.” Their menu boasts both classic and adventurous burgers, such as the Huckleberry burger, with burger and fry combos ranging from $12 to $18.
  • South 9th Bistro – Bozeman’s South 9th Bistro has maintained a 5-star rating since 2016. Situated in a charming Victorian building, the restaurant offers French and American dishes, including steak, scallops, and lamb, with entree prices spanning $30 to $50.
  • The Desoto Grill – A popular BBQ spot in Kalispell, MT, The Desoto Grill is conveniently located just off the main street. They serve an array of BBQ favorites, including brisket, pulled pork, ribs, and classic sides like potato salad, baked beans, and cornbread.

From upscale dining to mouthwatering burgers and tantalizing BBQ, Montana’s restaurants have something to satisfy every craving and suit every budget.

So, whether you’re exploring the misty mountains or hiking through breathtaking landscapes, be sure to take a break, treat yourself, and sample the local flavors of the Treasure State.

Navigating Montana: Tourist Behavior and Hacks

A man with ski poles walking a snowy trail in a mountain in Montana.

Take your Montana adventure to the next level by developing an understanding of tourist behavior and employing insider hacks.

Let’s explore some of these to ensure your journey is nothing short of extraordinary.

1. Montana’s Best Time to Travel

Sunlight shining on a mountainside in Montana on a summer day.

When it comes to planning a trip to Montana, timing is everything.

With its stunning natural beauty and abundance of outdoor activities, it’s no wonder that many travelers flock to this picturesque state during the summer months.

Whether you’re hiking in Glacier National Park or Flathead Lake, or taking a scenic mountain drive, summer in Montana offers the perfect blend of great weather and a relaxing atmosphere.

But with popularity comes competition, and the summer season can be crowded with tourists vying for the best spots.

To beat the throngs of annual visitors and still enjoy pleasant weather, consider visiting Montana in September after Labor Day. In September, the summer heat starts to subside, making it an ideal time for outdoor adventures. Plus, you’ll have more room to breathe and explore.

Will it be the height of summer or the end of the season? The choice is yours! If you have a clear idea of what you want to experience during your adventure, you’re unlikely to be disappointed.

Read more about the Best Time to Visit Montana.

2. Montana’s Ideal Accommodations

A view of Whitefish Lake from The Lodge

When it comes to finding the perfect place to rest after a day of exploration in Big Sky Country, the warm and clean embrace of a hotel, hostel, or Airbnb can be irresistible.

While camping under the stars holds its own charm, there are times when the modern comforts of these accommodations in Montana are too hard to resist:

  • The Lodge at Whitefish Lake – This lodge is situated on Whitefish Lake in Whitefish, MT, and highlights its spa, restaurant, gym, and water toy rentals for lake exploration.
  • The Wilson Hotel – This hotel is situated in Big Sky, MT, offering convenient access to shopping, dining, hiking, and skiing. Note its amenities such as a pool, hot tub, complimentary breakfast, and an in-house bar and grill.
  • Kimpton Armory Hotel – Situated in downtown Bozeman, MT, emphasizing its charm, historic ambiance, and energetic atmosphere. Mention its rooftop pool, state-of-the-art gym, and music hall.
  • Northern Hotel – The hotel is just minutes from Billings Airport and offers luxurious accommodation and 2 in-house restaurants.
  • Blue Mountain Bed and Breakfast – Located in Missoula, MT, it’s an ideal spot for a mountain getaway, with stunning views, nearby hiking trails, and a hot tub for a relaxing visit.

No matter your preference, these ideal accommodations in Montana offer contemporary conveniences while still allowing you to immerse yourself in the heart of downtown or the beauty of the great outdoors.

So go ahead and treat yourself to a memorable stay in this breathtaking state.

3. Montana’s Money-Saving Tips

A man handing money to a woman, and the woman giving him his receipt in Montana.

When planning a trip to Big Sky Country, it’s important to be mindful of your budget.

Unlock the secrets to a budget-friendly Montana adventure with these savvy money-saving tips. They include:

  1. Stay in Accommodations With Kitchen Facilities – By cooking your own meals, you can save money on dining out, especially in places like Glacier National Park, where food options may be limited and pricey.
  2. Engaging in Free Activities Like Hiking – Montana’s vast landscapes offer free outdoor adventures on hiking trails, like in Custer-Gallatin National Forest. Prioritize food and lodging to stretch your budget.
  3. Road Trip With Your Own Car – This is a cost-effective way to explore the state, offering flexibility and savings on flights and rentals.
  4. Consider purchasing the “America the Beautiful National Park Pass” – For only $80, this annual pass provides free access to all National Parks and National Forest Day use areas for a year. You could save up to $200 using this pass.
  5. Save on Accommodation by Camping – For budget-conscious travelers, camping in Montana is a money-saving choice with various options, including free sites in national forests and BLM land.

While on the subject of camping, remember to enjoy public lands responsibly and prepare for changing weather, rough roads, and potential wildlife encounters.

In Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota, there are no designated long-term camping areas; the maximum stay is 16 days.

Camping on undeveloped BLM lands with legal access and existing roads/trails is allowed, also with a maximum stay of 16 days.

By following these money-saving tips, you can enjoy all that Montana has to offer without draining your bank account.

Go ahead and explore the breathtaking landscapes, immerse yourself in outdoor adventures, and create unforgettable memories on a budget.

4. Montana’s Cultural Sensitivity and Appreciation

A Native American family sitting on the grass in Montana.

Before visiting Big Sky Country for the first time, it’s crucial to be conscious of the customs and traditions that are deeply rooted in the fabric of this state.

Montana celebrates and values its Native American heritage, and as visitors, it’s important to show respect and appreciation for these by:

  • Respecting Native Traditions – Montana’s Native American heritage endures. Explore museums near Billings and Kalispell for insights. Support local businesses on Indian Reservations like Blackfeet, Fort Belknap, Fort Peck, and Turtle Mountain.
  • Leaving No Trace – Montana values conservation. Clean up after outdoor activities to protect nature. Pack out what you bring in, preserving it for future generations.
  • Giving Space – Montana offers solitude. Respect the locals’ preference for personal space while exploring the wilderness.

By being culturally sensitive and appreciative of Montana’s Native American heritage and conservation values, you can make the most of your visit to this incredible state and ensure a positive and respectful experience.

5. Montana’s Tipping Culture

A wooden tip tray with a couple of dollar bills and coins.

As far as tipping, Montana follows the general customs and expectations of the United States.

It’s important to show generosity and appreciation for the hard work service industry professionals put in to make your experience memorable.

Here’s what to keep in mind when tipping workers in Montana:

  • Restaurants – When dining at restaurants, it’s customary to tip between 15% to 25% of your total bill. It’s considered impolite not to leave a tip.
  • Tour Guides – Tipping tour guides is not as straightforward as tipping restaurant workers. Tipping is expected, but the exact amount isn’t communicated.
  • Housekeeping – The American Hotel and Lodging Association recommends tipping housekeeping staff between $1 and $5 per day for their services.
  • Luggage Handlers – It’s customary to tip luggage handlers around $2 per bag they carry or move.
  • Taxi Drivers – Like in restaurants, it’s considered appropriate to tip taxi drivers between 15% to 20% of the total fare.

Remember, tipping is a way to show gratitude and support for those who make your experiences enjoyable.

By embracing the local tipping culture, you contribute to the overall well-being of the service industry in Montana.

Montana Trip Planning Final Thoughts

A man stands at the edge of a dock on a lake surrounded by trees in Montana.

When planning a trip to Montana, it’s crucial to prepare a bucket list of must-have experiences and must-visit locations.

This will ensure that you don’t miss out on the breathtaking beauty of national parks like Glacier and Yellowstone, or the serene tranquility of magnificent lakes like Flathead.

Thorough planning is key to a successful adventure and it starts with deciding on how to get to Montana. Then selecting suitable accommodation, understanding tipping customs, factoring in Montana weather and dining choices, and showing respect for the local culture are all aspects that can enhance your overall experience.

Don’t forget to create a well-structured budget. By carefully considering your expenses, you can maximize your enjoyment without breaking the bank.

By taking the time to plan and prepare, you’ll be rewarded with an unforgettable Montana adventure. 

So what are you waiting for? Start planning your trip today and embark on the journey of a lifetime!

Montana Trip Planning FAQs

1. Where Is the Best Place to Visit Montana for the First Time?

For first-time visitors to Montana, the best place to start touring is Glacier National Park.

After taking in the awe-inspiring natural beauty of this stunning park, head to the king of ski resorts, Big Sky Resort, for some thrilling mountain adventures.

Finally, no trip to Montana would be complete without visiting Yellowstone National Park, famous for its geysers, wildlife, and unparalleled natural wonders. 

2. When Is the Best Month to Visit Montana?

Generally, the best time to visit Montana is during the summer season, from June to August, as the weather is warm and inviting, making it ideal for outdoor activities.

However, it’s worth noting that some tourists may find the peak season too hot and crowded.

In such cases, you may consider visiting Montana in September, toward the end of the summer, just after Labor Day.

3. What Is Montana Known For?

When it comes to Montana, it’s hard to pin down just one thing it’s known for. However, if it comes down to it, it would be Glacier National Park.

This majestic park is not only home to awe-inspiring glacier-covered mountains, but it also shares borders with Waterton Lakes National Park, making it the world’s first international peace park.

4. Does Montana Have a Lot of Tourism?

Yes, Montana generally has a lot of tourism, thanks to its unique natural beauty and stunning national parks like Glacier National Park.

In fact, in 2022, the total contribution of non-resident spending in Montana amounted to an impressive $8.88 billion. 

5. What Do I Need to Know Before Going to Montana?

Prior to your Montana trip, remember that your travel plan will revolve around the unpredictable weather. 

Summer is the ideal time to visit, but be prepared for the occasional rain, as Montana’s weather can be unpredictable.

Familiarize yourself with Montana’s unique laws, such as restrictions on nighttime ‘folf’ (frisbee golf) to avoid any unintentional legal issues during your visit.

Expand your knowledge of Montana with these informative reads, each offering a wealth of information about the state:

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Written by:

Chris Hall
Hi, I'm Chris Hall, co-founder of Growing up among Montana's breathtaking landscapes ignited my passion for travel. While I've journeyed to many corners of the world, the allure of Montana's wild beauty always draws me back. To me, travel is about understanding the soul of a place, and Montana has a special place in my heart. It's where endless adventures meet raw nature.

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