An insider’s guide to making the most of your Montana road trip.


How do you like to tour Montana? Maybe you saddle up and take a pack trip into the rugged backcountry. You might like to float along some of Montana’s rivers and streams, seeing the territory from the same vantage Lewis and Clark had more than 200 years ago. Thrill seeker? You can eyeball the Missoula Valley and its five watersheds while paragliding from the top of Mount Sentinel. You might ride the rails and take in the sights aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder. Charter a plane or helicopter. Join a bike tour. You can even walk if you’re not in a hurry. The only limits to the travel options when touring Montana are money, access and time. For me, the best way to see Montana—to really see it— is that great American classic: the road trip.

I’ve probably racked up 50,000 miles over the last 25 years without leaving the state. I’ve seen some deeply awesome scenery, witnessed some thrilling wildlife action, and met a lot of fascinating and inspiring people. Whether I’m researching a story or just exploring for fun, one thing I’ve learned is that you have to be flexible. I’m on my third vehicle in 20 years, and they’ve all been something that can get me around in mud and snow if necessary, with room for me to sleep comfortably if I’m rubber tramping. I’m not big on winter driving so I do most of my gallivanting in the warm months, roughly April through October. Of course, there are those people who do tour Montana in winter. They snowshoe in Yellowstone and climb frozen waterfalls in Hyalite Canyon. You know who I mean—people who clearly have no interest in following NFL football.

Most importantly, I make a checklist for every journey, full of items that can make a trip more fun … or even save it. Many of these things are the result of lessons learned the hard way. I’d like to share this checklist with you, along with some of the excellent spots I’ve visited that are worth whiling away several hours or days at the wheel.

Gearing Up

After you’ve recharged or gassed up, checked the tire pressure, topped off the fluids and cleaned the bugs off the windshield, double check your supply list. There’s the obvious, like extra water, emergency food, a blanket, a first aid kit and a flashlight. Now let’s Montana-size that list. By extra water, I mean a couple of gallon jugs. Vehicles break down or run out of gas, and in the vast, no-cell-signal spaces of Montana you can find yourself stranded pretty far from help. It can be hours before another vehicle goes by, especially when you get off the interstate—which I strongly recommend. A solar-powered phone charger could be a life saver, and a few extra batteries may come in handy. Sunglasses? Check. Hat? Check. Freak snowstorms are not uncommon in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall, so stash some warm clothing.

Pick up a few pocket field guides to toss in your travel bag. The National Audubon Society guides are the gold standard, and you’ll want one for trees, wildflowers, Western birds and mammals. If you plan on collecting mushrooms, my favorite ‘shroom guide is All That the Rain Promises and More… by David Arora.

Rivers and Roads

Okay, let’s drive to some water. It’s customary to start at the beginning, but I’m going to break with convention and start at the middle. And by that I mean dead center in central Montana. On the floor of the Yogo Inn in Lewistown, there’s a tile that signifies the exact geographic center of the state—as good a place to start as any. Heading northeast out of Lewistown on U.S. Route 191, you’ll cross several creeks (Montanans say “crick”). If it’s June, you’ll be seeing Montana in her peak splendor. Western larch, ponderosa pine, Rocky Mountain maple and hundreds of other species of trees and shrubs are full of that soft green that carries the promise of warm summer days to come. If it’s been a wet spring, that could also mean flooding as the snowmelt overwhelms the smaller waterways, so make sure you have alternate routes figured out before heading out. On that note, I suggest you pick up a Montana official highway map. They’re free, and they’re pretty much everywhere. You can “OK Boomer” me all you want, but when I’m out there in the middle of nowhere under a dazzling blue sky, studying the paper map spread out across my hood, sun beating down, well, I feel like I’m in a cologne commercial or something. Anyway, you’ll be glad you have it when your phone has no bars.

Highway 191 crosses the Missouri River at the eastern edge of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, a spectacular stretch of badlands, prairie, thousand-foot-deep canyons and forested ravines along the Missouri as it flows into Fort Peck Lake, one of Montana’s largest bodies of water (it actually has more miles of shoreline than California!). There’s plenty of opportunity for fishing, camping and hunting, and for those who enjoy viewing the wildlife, you won’t be disappointed. Bighorn sheep roam the CMR, as do pronghorn, deer, coyote, cougars and a herd of 4,000 prairie elk. Birders can see sharp-tailed grouse, sage grouse, mountain plovers and some 200 other species.

Just up the road near Malta is the Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge, a sprawling complex of prairie pothole wetlands situated on both the Central and Pacific flyways. The Bowdoin sees more species of migratory birds than anywhere in Montana. I hope you remembered to bring your spotting scope and binoculars, because on the 15-mile auto tour you’ll have a crack at dozens of species of grassland birds, as well as showy water birds like white-faced ibis and the magnificent tundra swan. If it’s large bodies of water you seek, you’ll find plenty to fill your joy tank at the western end of the Hi-Line. Stick to Highway 2 around the southern end of Glacier into the Flathead Valley and you’ll pass Hungry Horse Reservoir, Whitefish Lake and, of course, Flathead Lake, all popular summer destinations. Turn east at Libby for 12 miles and you’ll reach the Libby Dam at the foot of Lake Koocanusa. The remote reservoir is one of the most beautiful lakes in Montana, stretching some 90 miles north into British Columbia. I once made the 59-mile Lake Koocanusa Scenic Byway drive from the dam up the east bank to Eureka, and discovered that my 4Runner could go exactly 58 miles after the gas light came on. Another lesson learned: it can be a long way between gas stations in this huge state, so don’t pass up a chance to top off that tank.

Two hundred miles south of Libby near Missoula, there’s another confluence of two rivers, the Blackfoot and the Clark Fork, where water mixes with history. The Milltown Dam near Bonner, 7 miles upstream from Missoula, held back millions of tons of toxins and heavy metals that had collected for a century after flowing 120 miles down the Clark Fork from Butte’s mining tailings. In the late 1990s the dam was showing its age and poisons began to appear in the nearby water table. The prospect of this toxic tsunami flowing through the middle of Montana’s second largest city resulted in the removal of the dam in 2002. For the first time in 100 years, the Blackfoot River once again flowed into the Clark Fork in the area the Salish call “place of the mature bull trout.” There’s a nice state park there with a walkway that takes you to the confluence, the old dam’s footings still visible on a bluff across the Clark Fork.

Geology and Display

For geological wonders, the central and eastern areas of the state are studded with spectacular treasures. Hidden in the rolling farmland about 90 miles north of Great Falls is an area known as Rock City, a jaw-dropping mile of canyon where the Two Medicine River joins Birch Creek to become the Marias River. Its spires, hoodoos, cliffs and sandstone formations wouldn’t look out of place in the Southwestern desert. The north bank of the river marks the boundary of the Blackfeet Nation, and the tribe has considered Rock City a sacred area for centuries.

Out along the eastern border of the state you’ll find Makoshika State Park (say “muh-KO-shi-ka”), a dramatic badlands landscape riddled with fossils of T-rex, Triceratops and other dinosaurs, as well as significant indigenous archeological sites. The otherworldly rock formations and endless hiking trails make this a popular destination for eastern Montanans, although there are usually plenty of open spots in its 28-site campground, which includes a large yurt and a tipi. Continuing south, you’ll pass through Wibaux (great brewery, weird lava rock church), to the charming little ranch town of Ekalaka in the very southeast corner of the state. But don’t skip the main attraction. Seven miles north of Ekalaka lies Medicine Rocks State Park, which features some of the most mind-blowing sandstone structures in the West. When the great inland sea that covered Montana receded 65 million years ago, it left strata of sand and volcanic material that compacted into rock. Over the ensuing millennia, rain, cold, wind and snow have carved out a bizarre grouping of enormous sandstone structures. These flatland monoliths—some as big as a Marriott—resemble something that could have been sculpted by Dr. Seuss and Henry Moore after the gummies kicked in. Their swooping curves and tunnels, full of caves, arches and scooped-out divots create a hauntingly beautiful symphony of tones when the late afternoon wind blows across the prairie.

Historical Hot Spots

Montana’s history is endlessly fascinating, and you’ll find significant sites in every part of the state. Way up in the northeast corner, the area surrounding the North Dakota border once known as MonDak is rich in state history, and the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers has attracted human settlement for thousands of years. There’s a terrific historical museum in the little town of Culbertson where you can easily spend half a day, and the MonDak Heritage Center in Sidney will keep you occupied for the other half. Fort Union, just across the border on the Missouri, is a must-see. The splendidly restored National Historic Monument was originally built by the American Fur Company in 1828, and the imposing structure was the most important trading post in the northern plains for at least 50 years. It served as an economic center where several tribes like the Assiniboine, Blackfeet, Mandan and Hidatsa traded buffalo robes and other hides and pelts for clothing, beads, pipes, cookware and guns. It’s a fascinating stop, as is nearby Fort Buford, where Sitting Bull surrendered in 1881.

It’s All About the Scenery

For pure driving pleasure with maximum eye candy per mile, go dead south from our starting point in Lewistown. Just this side of the Wyoming border is the charming, historic mining town of Red Lodge. From there you can take the Beartooth All American Road, an incredible, serpentine stretch of Highway 212 that climbs to the Beartooth Pass, elevation 10,947 feet. At the top of the pass, a 360-degree view reveals 20 peaks higher than 12,000 feet across five mountain ranges, including Granite Peak, the state’s tallest at 12,799 feet. The road runs 68 miles through Wyoming and back into Montana to the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park. The Beartooth has been called the No. 1 ride for motorcyclists, and many agree that it’s the most beautiful drive in America. The alpine forests and jewel-like glacial lakes are surrounded in summer by fields of wildflowers, and you can spot all kinds of wildlife from marmots, deer and elk to shaggy white mountain goats, who like to hang out near the top of the pass and lick minerals off the exposed rock.

My wife and I left Red Lodge one morning last summer and got within a quarter mile of the top of the Beartooth on our way to Yellowstone, but a sudden snowstorm turned us back. We drove toward Cody with thoughts of driving in through the East Entrance of the park, but happened upon an alternate route, the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway. To our amazement, it rivaled the Beartooth with its dramatic scenery, topping out at 7,874 feet at Dead Indian Pass. Unlike the Beartooth, Chief Joseph Byway is open year-round, and its stunning vistas of towering peaks, massive cliffs and rugged valleys make it a worthwhile drive any time of year.

When you’re road tripping through the diverse landscape of a place as pretty as Montana, it’s hard to go wrong. Just remember that Montana’s natural features are bigger than they seem on the map, distances are farther, and services are scarcer in the wide open spaces, especially east of the divide. But if you’re well prepared and thirsty for new experiences, Montana’s highways and byways will lead you to a lifetime of discoveries and memories, giving you lots of tales to tell when you reach the end of the road.

Ghost Town Haunts

A fun way to mix history with a bit of creepiness is a tour of Montana’s ghost towns. You can take a drive down the gorgeous Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula to Chief Joseph Pass at the Idaho border, and from there it’s only an hour’s drive to Bannack State Park, arguably Montana’s best known ghost town. It’s remarkably well preserved, supposedly haunted out the wazoo, and its proximity to I-15 and the town of Dillon make it a popular stop.

There are more than 100 ghost towns in Montana, most west of the Continental Divide where the mining action pulled in people from all over the world. My grandfather and namesake, Ednor A. Therriault, worked as a gold miner in Garnet, driving an assay truck during the settlement’s last gold boom in the 1930s. You can stay overnight in Garnet in a cabin rented through the BLM. Like Bannack, Garnet is well maintained, and also purportedly haunted. I spent a night there alone one February, the only living soul for miles around. I trudged through 4 feet of snow at midnight, exhorting the spooks and spirits to make their presence known. I was skunked. Perhaps the only time you really see a ghost is when you’re not looking for one.

Road Trip Playlist

Much of Montana, especially east of the Divide, is bereft of cell coverage, so it’s a good idea to download your playlists and podcasts while you’re connected. Here’s a collection of music to keep you motorvatin’, and a few interesting podcasts to occupy your mind on those long, lonely stretches.


“Blue Highway” by Rosie Flores
“On the Road Again” by Willie Nelson (Inclusion on every road trip playlist is a federal mandate).
“We’re on the Road” by Robbie Fulks (much funnier than Willie’s song)
“Western Skies” by Blue Rodeo
“Radar Love” by Golden Earring
“Detroit Rock City” by KISS
(Maybe skip the car crash at the end.)
“40 Miles of Bad Road” by Duane Eddy
“Three Chords and the Truth” by Sara Evans
“Going Up the Country” by Canned Heat
“Maybellene” by Chuck Berry
(He invented the word “motorvatin’.”)
“Highway 70 Blues” by the Bottle Rockets
“Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show
“Mercury Blues” by David Lindley
“Six Days on the Road” by Steve Earle
“Hot Rod Lincoln” by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen
“Drive My Car” by the Beatles
“Going Mobile” by the Who
“40 Miles to Vegas” by Southern Culture on the Skids
“White Line Fever” by Merle Haggard
“No Particular Place to Go” by Chuck Berry
“Wide Open Spaces” by the Chicks
“I’ve Been Everywhere” by Johnny Cash (If you’re in Great Falls maybe you’ll be lucky enough to see local Cash tribute artist Merle Travis Peterson performing it.)


Words Out West: Montana author Jay Kettering showcases Montana poets, writers and musicians, from poet laureate Chris La Tray to songwriter Margi Cates.  Listen ›

The State of Montana: Author Russell Rowland discusses Montana’s cultural and political landscape with Big Sky movers and shakers like ex-governor Marc Racicot and filmmaker Lynn-Wood Fields.  Listen ›

Montana Outdoor Podcast: This in-state treasure is hosted by Downrigger Dale.  Listen ›

Death in the West: The first two seasons of this Montana-produced true crime podcast examine the murder of union organizer Frank Little in Butte, and the disappearance of Richard McCoy, a plane-jacker who was inspired by D.B. Cooper.  Listen ›

Fly on the Wall: SNL alums David Spade and Dana Carvey interview past and present SNL cast members, taking hilarious deep dives into the creative process and the DNA of comedy.  Listen ›

Disgraceland: Jake Brennan hosts this show featuring big-name music stars involved in serious crimes, even murder.  Listen ›

Say More: Amy Poehler plays Dr? Sheila (the question mark is a legal requirement), a clueless couples therapist on this wildly funny and largely improvised new podcast.  Listen ›

Ednor Therriault is a freelance writer whose love of Montana history and culture has led to eight books, including Montana Curiosities and Haunted Montana. His latest release, Big Sky, Big Parks, is an entertaining travel companion to Yellowstone and Glacier national parks and all that Montana in between. He also writes music and performs as Bob Wire. Therriault lives in Missoula with his wife Shannon.

Halle Hauer is a Bozeman-based graphic designer and illustrator, drawing inspiration from the stunning scenery and diverse activities abundant in Montana.