I get why I get that reaction. To be honest, my main goal in visiting Montana was to cross off one of the few states on my yet-to-be-visited list. Like many others, I figured not many people live there, there must not be much to it. Hooboy, was I wrong.
My week in Montana was a lot like falling in love with a soul mate. I was wide-eyed and giddy, and also shocked that this thing of beauty was available to me and not already taken by an earlier suitor…or, you know, millions of other tourists. I have no logical explanation for why the place isn’t swarming with tourists. I guess too many people just write it off because it seems like the middle of nowhere — but that vast openness, the Big Sky, is part of Montana’s appeal. And the only way to see it is on a road trip, because if you confine your vacation to a small radius of one of the few airports or cities, you’re going to miss a lot. I’m already scanning the calendar for the right time to go back and check out a lot of the things I didn’t see this time around, like Glacier National Park. But let me tell you about what I did see and do, because it was one of the best trips of my life.
My route was a little wacky, because my trip was broken up by a weekend bridge tournament in Idaho, so you may not want to follow my exact path, but I definitely wouldn’t want to miss any of the stops I made.
Day One: Red Lodge, Montana
A road trip is what brings most travelers to Red Lodge, home to the Beartooth Highway, “the most beautiful drive in America.” This scenic road to Yellowstone celebrates its 75th anniversary this summer, and quiet Red Lodge will be rocking throughout the summer. Because the pass is snowed under most of the year, Red Lodge really only sees tourists in the summertime, but most of the local hotels, restaurants, and shops stay open all year, so don’t feel like you have to go when the crowds go. Red Lodge is the kind of place you’d want to come and turn off your cell phone, laptop, and anything else that pulls you away from the moment and just be in the town.
The main street is lined with old-timey saloons that really welcome you to the West. It’s easy to get a feel for how the miners and prospectors of the 19th century lived — the spirit of the old west is thick throughout.
I stayed at The Pollard, a beautiful historic hotel in the heart of the town. I loved this boutique hotel, and I’ll be reviewing it in depth for About.com, so be sure to check out About Hotels to learn more about some of the historic hotels along your Montana road trip route.
Day Two: Red Lodge to Bozeman, Montana
Along the way to Bozeman is a small town called Absarokee, and a can’t-miss Montana road trip stop: Paintbrush Adventures. This can be a two-hour stop on your road trip for a quick horseback riding experience, or you can make a whole vacation of your visit. Paintbrush Adventures offers ranch vacations where you live, work, and play on the ranch, custom mountain pack trips including horseback riding, fishing, and camping, and drop camps, where they’ll drop you off with your supplies and pick you up when it’s time to go. I only had time for the two-hour trail ride, and having never ridden a horse before, that was about all I could take for my first time. Our guide was one of the ranch owners, and in addition to making sure we were comfortable on our horses, he told us all about the history of the area as we trekked along the Stillwater River and up a mountain for spectacular views of Montana’s highest peaks.
Here I am with my husband with the snowcaps behind us. Can you tell neither one of us has been on a horse before?
The views are absolutely worth the sore legs. You wouldn’t expect to get sore from basically just sitting, but it’s not as easy as the cowboys make it look. Even though I had no idea how to handle a horse, my pony knew how to handle me, and it was a great, relaxing ride.
In Bozeman, we had time for two main stops: The Museum of the Rockies was first. The rich history of this region starts long before cowboys and Indians — dinosaurs once roamed this territory, and you’ll find a great dino exhibit here. They also have a planetarium and exhibits on Yellowstone, Native Americans, early American history, and my favorite, the frog exhibit. Definitely a kid-friendly museum with lots to interest the grownups, too.
The second stop on our brief tour of Bozeman was Montana Ale Works, a hip brewpub where McKenzie had his first bison burger — he recommends it! From here, we walked around downtown and I wished I could go back in time and apply to college at MSU. It was one of the larger towns on our road trip, and I loved everything about it — large enough for an airport, all the major shopping and dining choices you’d expect in a city, and still small enough to feel cozy and friendly.
On the way to West Yellowstone, there’s a short hike in Big Sky to Ousel Falls. There’s no shortage of fantastic hikes in Montana, but this one is perfect for breaking up your time in the car. It’s just under a mile to the falls, with only a small elevation gain on your walk, so this scenic hike should take no more than an hour, but you may want to stop and bask for a while at the falls.
In West Yellowstone, check out the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center. A trip to the Rockies wouldn’t be complete without a bear sighting, and this is a safe place to see them up close.
From there, the road took us to Virginia City. ”City” is a little misleading — it’s more like a one-horse town, definitely worth a visit. The historic main street is set up like a museum of the town that was much busier a hundred years ago. Peek in the windows of the old shops and businesses, preserved as they were a century back. You won’t find many options for food here, but Cousin’s Candy Shop is a great place to stock up on sweets for the road. I stayed at another historic hotel here, the Fairweather Inn, which, as the name suggests, is open mid-May through mid-September.
Day Four: Bannack State Park to Butte, Montana
Bannack State Park was probably my favorite stop on the road trip. This is a must see, and you’re not allowed to come to my website anymore if you skip this attraction. A gold rush town, Bannack was the first Territorial Capital of Montana. The town thrived in the late 1800′s, but by the 1950′s, it was all but deserted. The state then turned the ghost town into a park, and today, over 60 buildings from the gold rush days still stand, most of which are open for exploration. Here’s a view of the town from the hillside cemetery:
From Bannack, there’s a great roadside stop on the way to Butte called Crystal Park. For a small fee, you can dig for quartz crystals here, and you’re sure to find plenty.
The best attraction in Butte is the Dumas Brothel. Active as a house of prostitution in Butte’s once-bustling red light district from 1890 to 1982, the Dumas Brothel is America’s longest-running whorehouse. And now it’s a museum! An allegedly haunted one!
Day Five: Philipsburg to Missoula, Montana
Philipsburg is where you’ll find the best souvenirs of your Montana road trip, so you don’t want to skip this stop. First, visit the Sapphire Gallery, where you can purchase a bag of Montana mine rocks for $25 and pan for sapphires. Don’t worry — they’ll show you how to find them, and if you come up empty, they’ll give you another bag. I collected over eight carats of cuttable sapphires in my bag. For an extra fee, they’ll heat treat your gems (to bring out the color) and cut them for you so they sparkle and you can have them put in jewelry. Mine just came in the mail yesterday and I can’t wait to make a ring out of the half-carat blue sapphire I had cut.
Next door to the Sapphire Gallery is the Sweet Palace. Get your fill of every kind of candy imaginable here before you hit the road again.
On the way to Missoula, you can take a drive through the National Bison Range to check out the wildlife. Get a good night’s sleep, because Missoula is a place for adventure.
Day Six: Missoula, Montana
Before you leave on your trip, secure a reservation with 10,000 Waves for a whitewater rafting trip in Missoula. I had one…but the floods had other plans for me, and it wasn’t safe to go out on the river while I was there. So I spent the day with the guys who would’ve guided me on the raft — instead, they gave me a tour of the town. Again, I found myself wishing I could go back in time to apply to college at the University of Montana. What a cool place. Kienan and Ben, our guides, took us to Out to Lunch, Downtown Missoula’s weekly performing arts festival, where we saw a local legend of sorts. I can’t find anything online about them, but apparently the Particle Movers are local celebrities. They believe it’s their duty to, well, move particles…something about the balance of nature or something…they apparently believe that music can wreak havoc with the particles, and so they go to wherever music is happening and help rearrange the particles…or something like that. Ask a local — they can probably tell the story better than I can. But sure enough, they were there, hard at work moving some invisible somethings while a live band played and local vendors sold food at the park by the river.
In the evening, take a hike up to the M overlooking the university for a breathtaking sunset. ”Hiking the M” is one of the main tourist (and local) activities in the town.
Between river running, mountain biking, hiking, and checking out the local breweries, you’re going to need to spend a couple of days in Missoula at least. It’s on the top of my list of places to revisit as soon as I can.
Next up, a week in Wyoming!