Often called “Big Sky Country”, Montana is one of the eight Mountain States in the Western Region of the United States. Well-known for being an outdoor-centric destination in the Rocky Mountains, tourists are drawn to the state’s national parks, Glacier and Yellowstone.
As the 8th least populated state, much of Montana’s land is untouched or protected by the government. With a few big cities and plenty of small towns scattered throughout the state, many would characterize it as rugged, untamed, and astonishingly beautiful. Tourism is fueled by outdoor adventurists and nature lovers.
Boasting all four seasons, Montana is an exciting destination year-round where tourists can explore the land’s natural beauty as it shifts and changes. Whether you want to socialize in the state’s urban communities or head off the grid and go where few people ever roam, it offers plenty of opportunities to make a trip memorable.
Livin’ La Vida Montana
Visit Montana’s Top Towns and Cities
History of “The Treasure State”
Humans have lived in Montana for more than 12,000 years with the indigenous people being Asian descendants. In 1968, North America’s oldest dated human burial site was discovered in Wilsall. The site provided crucial artifacts that helped archeologists understand the Clovis people and culture.
Centuries after the Clovis people, Montana became home to Indigenous American Indians. The first Native Americans to live in the state were the Crow. Having moved down from Alberta, Canada, the Crow lived in Montana since the late 17th century. Following the Crow, many more Native Americans began to settle in the area including the Blackfoot, Chippewa, Cheyenne, and Sioux tribes.
In 1803, Montana was part of the Louisiana Purchase between the United States and France. Upon completion of the purchase, the US was given control of most of the land between the Continental Divide and the Mississippi River. Wanting to know more about the land, President Thomas Jefferson created the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Lewis and Clark were sent on their expedition the same month that the Louisiana Purchase was completed. The expedition lasted for 1,228 days until September 1806. During the expedition, the two explorers traveled along the Missouri and Columbia Rivers. Most famously, they were guided by Sacagawea who was a Lemhi Shoshone woman.
After the expedition, Montana saw the state’s first settlements built. Numerous conflicts between the Native Americans with multiple battles were fought throughout the state. Most of the conflict occurred during the 1800s, although intermittent battles would take place from 1609 to 1924. With more of the land taken from the native people, Montana expanded its settlements and began building railroads.
Eventually, during the late 19th century, Montana would become a thriving economy for cattle ranching, farming, mining, oil, and entrepreneurs. With so much open land, many of these industries are still leading the state’s economy today.
Capital City of Helena
Originally founded as a gold camp, Helena was named the capital of the Montana Territory in 1875. The gold rush and subsequent camp made it a very wealthy city. In 1888, an estimated 50 millionaires lived in the city and their wealth greatly influenced the local Victorian architecture, which has become a prominent feature.
For being a capital city, Helena is fairly compact, with 32,362 residents in 2020. However, many people are drawn to visit the city because tourists can learn about the state’s history and explore some of the region’s beautiful landscapes. Now boasting a decent urban sprawl, Helena is a place where visitors enjoy shopping and dining in some of the city’s more popular neighborhoods.
There are many historic areas that have been preserved with some of the state’s earliest history and Victorian architecture from the days of Montana’s gold rush. Some of the most impressive architecture in Helena include the Montana State Capitol, the Original Governor’s Mansion, the Historic Downtown Pedestrian Mall, and the Cathedral of St. Helena.
To experience more of the city’s past and culture, the best attractions are the Holter Museum of Art, Historical Society Museum, and Reeder’s Alley. Just outside of the city, people can get away from the urban streets by exploring the Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park, Mount Helena City Park, and the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness.
Perfect for quick trips, Helena can help visitors get settled in Montana before heading off to some of the more remote areas of the state.
Billings, “Magic City”
The largest city in Montana is Billings with a population of 117,026 in 2020, which began as a railroad town in 1882. Having grown since the late 1800s, the city is now a major center for trade and distribution. Billings’ growth is reaching hyper speeds as more businesses and people are drawn to the strong economy.
Within the city limits, there are 11 sections, which include various neighborhoods and zones. The oldest residential area is on the south side of town, while the Bottom Westend Historic District has many of the first mansions ever built in the city. South Park is a touristy area because of the city park, which hosts summertime events like festivals and food fairs.
Newer additions and neighborhoods include Shiloh Crossing and Josephine Crossing, which are a mix of residential and commercial development. However, even older neighborhoods like The Heights are undergoing new expansions.
Specific attractions in Billings are the ZooMontana, Moss Mansion, the Rimrocks, Pictograph Cave State Park, the Yellowstone Art Museum, and the DanWalt Gardens. Additionally, the high commercialization of the city means that visitors can enjoy a wide variety of shops, restaurants, bars, and microbreweries.
Big Sky Resort
An unincorporated community of 3,054 (2020), Big Sky is Montana’s biggest skiing destination with more than 5,850 acres of skiable trails and slopes. The ski resort at Big Sky is spread across four mountains and the two small towns of Bozeman and West Yellowstone. Although year-round skiing is an option, winter is the most popular time to visit the area.
Beyond skiing, visitors can enjoy many activities including snowshoeing, dog sledding, horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking, and zipline tours. Visitors should also check out Gallatin National Forest, Ousel Falls Road, and the Lee Metcalf Wilderness.
Whitefish, “Montana’s outdoor recreation playground”
Situated close to Glacier National Park, Whitefish is a small but vibrant town of 7,848 (2020), which has become a popular destination. Busy year-round, people are drawn to the scenic beauty of the area, as well as all of the activities that are in and out of town.
In Whitefish, there are plenty of coffee houses, restaurants, shops, and quality accommodations to cater to tourists. Although it has a small-town feel, there is a lot to explore including the Alpine Theatre Project, Whitefish Theatre Company, and the Great Northern Brewing Company.
In the areas just outside of town, people should check out the Whitefish Mountain Resort, Whitefish Lake, Flathead Lake, Glacier National Park, and the Hungry Horse Dam & Reservoir. Surrounded by the Rocky Mountains, Whitefish is a top destination for travelers throughout the state.
Geographically, Montana is a very diverse state that has distinct eastern and western regions. For the most part, the division between regions is split by the Continental Divide. In Western Montana, there are more than 100 named mountain ranges. In Eastern Montana, the landscape switched to the Great Plains, which cover about 60% of the state.
Although most of the attention is drawn to Montana’s section of the Rockies, the eastern portions of the state can be just as beautiful. One specific feature that is found on the Great Plains is the Badlands ecological system. Carved by streams and erosion, the Badlands are filled with massive sandstone sculptures. One of the best places to see these formations are in Makoshika State Park.
Another natural feature and one that is tied to the history of the state and the greater United States is the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. Spanning 4,900 miles, sections of the trail run through Montana and are protected by the National Park Service. Here, you can hike and visit parts of the trail and view its landmarks or artifacts.
Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks
Adding to the state’s scenic beauty are two national parks – Glacier and Yellowstone. Glacier National Park is in Northern Montana where it meets the Canadian border. There are more than 700 miles of trails in the park, as well as access to a variety of activities including backpacking, camping, wildlife watching, and cycling.
A few of the most popular destinations in Glacier National Park are the Going-to-the-Sun Road, Lake McDonald, the Grinnell Glacier, and Bowman Lake.
Montana’s other national park is Yellowstone, which was the first national park in the United States. Although almost all of Yellowstone is located in Wyoming, there is a small section of the national park within the state’s boundaries, as well as in Idaho.
As the western gateway to the park, most people visit this area of the national park to hike, ATV, and snowmobile. One interesting landmark in Montana’s portion of Yellowstone is in the small town of Gardiner, which has the original entrance to the national park.
Most of the park’s most recognizable features, including the geysers, are located in Wyoming’s section of Yellowstone. Tourists in Montana can take day trips into Wyoming to see more of Yellowstone National Park.
Recently returned to the protection of Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes is the Bison Range. Protected as a National Wildlife Refuge in 1908, the nature reserve was managed by the federal government for more than 100 years. After decades of negotiations, the refuge was returned to tribal control in 2022 and it is a part of the Flathead Indian Reservation.
The main attraction of the Bison Range is the herd of around 350 adult bison. Each year, the herd births 50-60 calves. Other mammal species that live in the park include black bears, elk, cougars, white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep, mule deer, and coyotes.
Visitors can view the wildlife and access the park by two scenic roads. There is also a visitor center with more information about the park.
Montanan Ghost Towns
Montana, like many places in the Western United States, had a gold rush. Many communities were born and thrived because of the discovery of gold in the area. However, many eventually ran dry. Montana’s ghost towns are now famous attractions where buildings and artifacts have been preserved as keepsakes of the state’s history.
There are more than 60 ghost towns throughout the state that have no or very few residents. One of the best-preserved ghost towns in Bannack in Southwest Montana. Other ghost town attractions include Elkhorn State Park, Nevada City, Garnet, and Castle Town.
Dominated by rural landscapes, Montana has miles of open land where visitors can appreciate and awe nature in its purest form. With magnificent mountain ranges and gently rolling plains, this state will take your breath away.
Plenty of outdoor activities and attractions keep tourism alive and it is certainly a must-see state for outdoor enthusiasts. Although tourism in the state is steady, Montana’s popularity is on the verge of exploding as it becomes a prime destination in the Western United States.
In addition to the aforementioned manmade and natural landmarks, the state is home to geothermal waters. There are numerous hot springs in Montana that you can visit and safely soak in (and some you can’t).