Montana’s Best Road Trip

View of a lake with rocky mountainsides rising up sharply from the basin.

Wild Goose Island Overlook. Photo by David Restivo, NPS licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Montana is a big state, but for those who don’t mind doing some driving, it’s possible (indeed, exhilarating) to do a wide-ranging tour. Expect this Tour de Montana to take the better part of two weeks. If you really want to explore any particular area, add more time.

Northwestern Montana and Glacier National Park

Start your trip in Missoula, northwestern Montana’s cultural hub and an easy place to land. From there, a trip north up the Mission Valley, home of the Flathead Reservation, brings you to Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the West. Stay in tiny Polson, bustling Bigfork, or Whitefish, the region’s recreational capital, then head east for a tour of Glacier National Park.

Your best bet (at least during the summer) is to drive through the park on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Even a relatively deliberate drive along this road can take all day, so plan to either spend at least one night in a park lodge or in one of its eastside border towns, St. Mary or East Glacier.

North-Central Montana

From Glacier National Park’s eastern edge just south of St. Mary, you can see the striking Rocky Mountain Front as you travel south along Highway 89. It’s about 140 miles from St. Mary to Great Falls, where visits to the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center and the C. M. Russell Museum will easily fill a day or two.

Central Montana

Then it’s just over 100 miles east on Highway 87 to Lewistown, which is small enough to give you the flavor of eastern Montana life. Lewistown is surrounded by places to hike, fish, or explore (including ghost towns and the Missouri River badlands).

Southeastern Montana

Head southeast to the “big” city life in Billings. Spend the night if you like (there’s a vibrant bar and brewpub scene here), or continue about 60 miles southeast from Billings on I-90 to the Little Bighorn National Monument and the spectacular Bighorn Canyon.

South-Central Montana

Turn back west on I-90, and at Laurel turn south on Highway 310 for about 10 miles, then southwest on Highway 212 for about 30 miles to Red Lodge, at the base of the Beartooth Highway. Plan to spend a day driving this winding road up to Yellowstone National Park, where you can stay as long as you like and never run out of places to explore. Though it’s only 120 miles from Red Lodge to Gardiner via the Beartooth Highway (Highway 212), it’s an all-day drive.

When it’s time to leave Yellowstone, ease your transition by staying about 25 miles north of the park at Chico Hot Springs. After a morning soak and hearty breakfast, travel north on Highway 89 for 25 miles to Livingston, which is a quirky hybrid of old and new West, with atmospheric old bars and high-end art galleries sharing Main Street.

Just 26 miles west of Livingston on I-90 is Bozeman, home of Montana State University and the Museum of the Rockies (a dinosaur lover’s must-see).

Stay on I-90 west as far as Three Forks (30 miles west of Bozeman), where at the Missouri headwaters, Lewis and Clark had to make some tough travel-planning choices. (As do you—if you’re running short on time, take I-90 west 173 miles back to Missoula.)

Southwestern Montana

To continue an exploration of Montana’s heritage, head south 61 miles on Highway 87 to Virginia and Nevada Cities, where frontier-era buildings have been preserved, and there’s a visceral sense of the ruggedness of gold-rush towns. For a true ghost town that’s remarkably well preserved, don’t miss Bannack, just south of Highway 278, west of Dillon and about 80 miles from Virginia City, on the edge of the expansive Big Hole Valley. From the Big Hole, follow Highways 278 and 43 west over Chief Joseph Pass, and stop along Highway 43 about 60 miles west of Bannack to visit the Big Hole National Battlefield, where the Nez Percé, fleeing their Oregon homeland, were attacked by the U.S. Army.

Once you reach the Bitterroot Valley, it’s an easy day’s drive (about 100 miles north along Highway 93) back to Missoula.

Excerpted from the Eighth Edition of Moon Montana.

Travel map of Mileage in Montana

Mileage in Montana

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  1. Mary Edwards says:

    Here are a few added spots to visit. Leaving Glacier, take a detour through Kalispell and go down the other side of the lake through the Seeley-Swan stopping at Holland Lake Lodge to stay overnight. Wander in to Seeley Lake (the town), feels like Tahoe 100 years ago…and with much fewer people! Don’t forget to try the Huckleberry Ice Cream!!! Backtrack back north to Kalispell to head east to Great Falls.
    While in Great Falls, you should take an extra overnight trip to Fort Benton. The history here is amazing (check out the museums) and stay at the Grand Union Hotel (lovingly restored to its former glory).
    While winding your way to Lewistown, take a detour to Ringling (a short drive from White Sulphur Sorings) made famous by Jimmy Buffet. If you’re lucky enough to be there the end of July, get a day pass at the Red Ants Pants music festival and enjoy wonderful music Montana style – in a generous rancher’s cow pasture. You won’t regret it! Plenty of food vendors to keep you satisfied (bring a folding chair!). Stop at the Two Dot bar – Montana history at its best!
    Before hitting Livingston, plan a guided fishing trip on the Yellowstone River. An experience not to be missed and a memory to be shared 🙂
    While in Bozeman, wander Main Street – tons of wonderful shops and don’t forget to check out the jewelry stores for a “Yogo” sapphire. Mined only in Montana (Princess Diana’s ring).
    On your way to Virginia City, make a stop in Ennis. Fishing here is the best and shopping is pretty good too. Oh! But before Ennis, stop by the Sacagawea Inn in Three Forks – beautiful restored hotel. While in Virginia City, get tickets (in advance on line) for the Virginia City Players.
    On your way to the Big Hole, stop in Twin Bridges at the Old Hotel for dinner (reservations recommended). If you’re into fly fishing – Winston rods are made here and then go down the street to check out Glen’s bamboo rods.
    The Big Hole is not to be done in a day. So much fishing and so many pretty drives. The views alone will keep you here-the people will keep you coming back.
    Hope you enjoy your visit 🙂 Mary

  2. Kevin P. Carney says:

    Compliments to you in presenting the Trip as wonderful.
    I’m now planning the Trip. It would be great if you can recommend B&Bs or whatever place to stay overnight.
    Thanks, Kevin