Wide open plains, prairies, canyons, vast expanses of forests, and indomitable mountains – it’s no wonder that Montana is nicknamed the “Big Sky Country.” All of these massive natural spaces are exemplified in the national parks that call this – the fourth-largest US state – home. There’s the sprawling Flathead Lake, the incredible peaks and rock formations of Glacier National Park, and then, of course, the world-famous Yellowstone National Park. The towns that lead to these incredible places give visitors access to some great outdoor pursuits that make Montana a nature-lover’s dream.
Choteau is set in a vast plain just 20 miles east of the Rocky Mountains and Glacier National Park. As such, this county seat of Teton County is a good jumping off point for those looking to explore the nearby natural world. If hiking and discovering the lakes and mountains of the incredible Glacier National Park is a bit too adventurous for you, you can always take a scenic drive on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. This approximately 50-mile long road is the only one that winds its way through the park and offers dramatic mountain and valley views as it does so.
The town of Stevensville holds the title for the first permanent settlement in Montana. It was settled by Jesuit missionaries 48 years before Montana even became a US state. This history means you’ll get to see a few examples of the 19th-century houses which the earlier settlers called home. Most notably, there’s Fort Owen State Park, where the mission and fort were located, featuring the original barracks constructed in 1841. You can also visit the original St. Mary’s Mission, where you can learn all about Montana’s early history at the visitor center. For more outdoorsy pursuits, hike the Kootenai Creek Trail or the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge.
The entire town of Butte is one of only 12 towns in the United States that have been recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The uptown district of Butte is the place to go for history. This designated Historic District is the largest in the United States, consisting of an incredible 6,000 properties. Walking around this area, you’ll see many excellent examples of Victorian and Queen Anne style houses; a particularly famous one of these is the late 19th century Copper King Mansion, a beautiful, ornate building. In Butte, you can even take a tour around the 19th century Dumas Brothel! However, mining is what made Butte its fortune, so learn about this at the World Museum of Mining – a recreation of a 1890s mining town.
The county seat of Deer Lodge County, Anaconda is located over 1,600 meters above sea level, which puts it in a prime spot for exploring the mountains, lakes, forests, and valleys surrounding it. Lost Creek State Park is a good place to start. With cliffs and dramatic rock formations, there’s no shortage of picturesque vistas at this slice of nature. There’s even a short walking trail that takes less adventurous hikers to the Lost Creek Falls. Back in town, Anaconda’s Main Street is a pretty place to wander, complete with historic buildings like 1898 Hearst Free Library, the imposing Deer Lodge County Courthouse, and even the cool curving building that is Club Moderne, built in 1937.
Gold was discovered in nearby Alder Gulch in 1863 and began attracting people wanting to make their millions (or thousands). William Ennis was one of those hopefuls, setting up camp on the Madison River; the town was named after this fellow. The area surrounding Ennis is prime ranching country, with numerous sheep and cattle ranches located nearby. The rivers here brim with rainbow trout and brown trout and are popular with anglers. However, its proximity to the Yellowstone National Park makes it a great option to visit on the way.
For a Montana town that’s even closer to the famous national park itself, pick West Yellowstone. This little town is practically adjacent to Yellowstone National Park, making it a good springboard for exploring all the natural beauty that the park boasts. Here is where you will find the regular eruptions of the Old Faithful geyser, as well as the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone; even elk and bison roam this beautiful and iconic national park. Interestingly, because many of the tourists bound for the national park hail from China, much of the signage in West Yellowstone is in Mandarin; there are even three Chinese restaurants in town.
Set within the boundaries of the Flathead Indian Reservation, Polson’s position in Lake County couldn’t be apter: it’s set on the shores of Flathead Lake. This massive body of water is the largest freshwater lake – west of the Mississippi River – in the contiguous United States. The surface area of Flathead Lake alone is over 8000 square miles! Staying in Polson means days spent boating, paddling, fishing, or otherwise soaking up the natural beauty of the glassy lake and the pine forests. Even without doing anything except admiring the view, the lakeside location of Polson makes it a charming and laid back place to visit.
Located in Sweet Grass County, southeast Montana, Big Timber is titled after the creek of the same name and began to take shape in the late 19th century. Some historic buildings remain, though a fire destroyed many of the original commercial buildings in 1908. You can learn much more about the local history of the Big Timber area at the Crazy Mountain Museum – named after the nearby Crazy Mountains themselves. As for the natural surroundings, take a trip to the nearby Greycliff Prairie Dog Town State Park and maybe catch a glimpse of the cute (and protected) black-tailed prairie dog community living here.
With its pretty Downtown area, Livingston is a charming town to explore. There are many historic buildings here, but one of the most interesting has to be the Livingston Depot. Constructed in 1902, this brick built former train station now houses a museum – the Livingston Depot Center – which is dedicated to railroad history. The Yellowstone Gateway Museum is another good place to learn about the area, with temporary and permanent exhibits on show. Another place to learn about Livingston’s history is the Fly Fishing Discovery Center; the sport became popular here when eastern fly fisher Dan Bailey set up a shop in Livingston in 1938, where it still operates to this day.
The town of Big Sky is composed of three different areas of very different terrain. There’s the meadow section – set in a picturesque alpine valley – the mountain area, and lastly, the craggy canyon part. Skiing is popular here, with the Big Sky Resort offering up regular piste action, while Lone Mountain Ranch provides Nordic ski trails. In the canyon area of town, the Gallatin River offers some great opportunities for kayaking and white water rafting. The river itself is famous for its trout and attracts fly fishers from all over the world. Hiking through the Gallatin National Forest, with its numerous campsites and opportunities to see wildlife such as elk and deer, is a good option too. As a bonus, it’s just 15 miles away from Yellowstone National Park.
Libby, the county seat of Lincoln County, is a laid back town nestled within the arms of some spectacular mountainous terrain. With the jagged backdrop and the Kootenay River meandering its way through the town, it’s no wonder that Libby isn’t just a charming town to stay in; it’s also a great place to get yourself into the great outdoors. Get out and hike in the Kootenai National Forest. For those interested in an even more rugged and adventurous experience, try your hand at wilderness backpacking through the 94,000 acres of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area – the backdrop scenery for Libby itself. For something less scary, the Kootenai Falls are just outside of town; you can even walk across a suspension bridge to really soak up this force of nature.
Originally called “Stumptown” because of all the trees that had to be cleared for the Great Northern Railway (and the town itself), Whitefish is a friendly, welcoming town that comes to life in both summer and winter. Annual festivals include the Huckleberry Days Arts Festival – including a huckleberry dessert bake-off – as well as The Taste of Whitefish when local vendors and restaurants offer a taste of their specialties. Aside from the delicious sounding summer events, winter in Whitefish is all about skiing. Whitefish Mountain Resort is the place to go for a spot of snowy action. If you’re a beer fan, you’re in luck; here’s where you’ll find the Great Northern Brewing Company.