Off the Beaten Path
Montana is a big place, which can make it hard to decide exactly where to go in search of your next #MontanaMoment. Luckily, you’re even more likely to find once-in-a-lifetime experiences in the less traveled parts of the state.
“I’m going to keep coming back here for the rest of my life. It was the second day of my first trip down a 60-mile float on the incredibly scenic Smith River in Central Montana, and I was already planning on returning with my children and future grandchildren. We had already floated past an elk and a black bear meandering along the river, and now the cathedral-like beauty of the canyon had me in awe.”
Small western towns flank towering buttes and deep canyons. Sweeping prairies, mountain ranges and badlands set the stage for megafauna, historic battlefields and well-preserved remnants of America’s westward expansion. And some of the country’s most impressive rivers—like the Smith—carve out a stunning landscape as they cross paths used by explorers like Lewis and Clark. Montana gets better the farther you venture off the beaten path.
Driving from the East
Rising above Fort Smith is one of Montana’s true hidden gems: Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. Here, the huge Yellowtail Dam creates four recreational opportunities—boating, kayaking and camping between the 1,000-foot walls of Bighorn Canyon on Bighorn Lake, and fly fishing the 110 miles of the Bighorn River above its confluence with the Yellowstone.
“As the morning chill faded, I sat waiting for the dawn colors to peak and I couldn’t help but feel lucky to witness the beauty. Without photography this scene would only exist in my imagination.”
On I-94, you’re just an exit away from several pretty amazing destinations. Makoshika State Park, just outside of Glendive, is an otherworldly badlands laced with dinosaur remains and home to the world’s toughest disc golf course. And if you get off at Terry, it’s just a short drive to the Terry Badlands and the Calypso Trail, where dozens of petrified land bridges cross the canyon along the hike.
Montana’s High Plains are filled with the kinds of things, both natural and man-made, that have disappeared from most of the rest of the country—eclectic general stores like the Virgelle Mercantile, rural steakhouses people drive from miles around to frequent, places to dig dinosaur fossils for yourself, like the Two Medicine Dinosaur Center, and events like the Crow Fair and Miles City Bucking Horse Sale.
Mountains and More Mountains
Outside the northeast entrance of Yellowstone, you’ll find Red Lodge and the Beartooth Highway tucked into the highest peaks in the state. North and west of the park are some of America’s best fly fisheries along the Yellowstone, Gallatin and Madison rivers, as well as great mountain towns like Bozeman and Livingston.
A bit farther off the beaten path is Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park—Montana's first state park, and an easy choice for a day or two worth of hiking, exploring and camping. And west of the Continental Divide, Montana is dotted with hundreds of freshwater alpine lakes like Flathead Lake (the largest west of the Mississippi) and Swan Lake in the appropriately named Swan Valley.
Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley, is one of the most popular "base camps" for Montana exploration, and for good reason. Big Sky Resort, known as "The Biggest Skiing in America," is just as worthwhile a stop on Highway 191 in summer as in winter for zip line tours, mountain biking and scenic tram rides. In fact, the region is overflowing with summertime recreation opportunities, ranging from Hebgen Lake to the many hiking trails of Hyalite Canyon.
One of the best-kept secrets in the state, though, is the drive on Interstate 15 between Helena—the state capital—and Great Falls, where Lewis and Clark spent considerable time exploring the features on the Missouri River that give the town its name. Here you’ll want to stop at the Gates of the Mountains for a boat tour to see the petroglyphs left by some of the first Native Americans to live in the area, or head up to the Sun River near Augusta for some trout fishing.