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Western Montana – Ultimate 7-day Road Trip

by Valerie Vanr
Flathead River Valley Western Montana Road Trip

Western Montana has lots to offer the road tripper. There are many beautiful towns to explore between Whitefish and West Yellowstone plus Ghost Towns too! Flathead Lake, Missouri Headwaters State Park and Earthquake Lake are perfect places to be active in the great outdoors. Here are 7 towns and 8 things to see to make your western Montana road trip the ultimate!

7-Day Western Montana Road Trip Itinerary

This is a base itinerary for a leisurely road trip through western Montana. Simply enjoy the drive or pack your days full of things to do and places to see.

  • Day 1 Drive from Whitefish to Missoula
  • Day 2 Helena
  • Day 3 Bozeman
  • Day 4 Explore around Bozeman
  • Day 5 Butte
  • Day 6 West Yellowstone
  • Day 7 Explore around West Yellowstone

Western Montana Road Trip Map

Western Montana map showing road trip route
Western Montana Road Trip Map

7 Cool Western Montana Towns

Western Montana has many quaint towns to explore.  Here are seven of the best.

Whitefish

Downtown restaurant Whitefish Western Montana
Downtown Whitefish has many restaurants to suit all appetites.
Vegetable stand farmers market Whitefish Western Montana
Visit a farmers market for local produce, music and food truck fare.

This beautiful small town, on the shores of Whitefish Lake, is popular year-round. The cozy downtown hosts farmers markets, often with food trucks and live music. Explore the array of shops, coffee houses and restaurants. Western Montana’s craft beverages are available at the local brew pubs and distilleries. Opportunities for skiing, snowboarding, hiking, biking and boating are all close by.

Missoula

Beautiful Missoula is the second largest city in Montana.  Explore the downtown which has many restaurants and brewpubs to satisfy any craving.  The Clark Fork River flows beside the vibrant downtown.

View down Clark Fork River Missoula Western Montana
Clark Fork River runs along downtown Missoula

You can walk or cycle the Riverfront Trail which lines both sides of the river in the downtown area. A number of parks and city sights are along the route.

Caras Park

There are often events under the pavilion in Caras Park. Prior to 1960 the park was an island separated from downtown by a braid of the river.  It had a pavilion, skating rink, trails and a band shell. The braid was filled in the early 60’s.

Statue and pavilion behind Caras Park Missoula
Caras Park is a popular place to enjoy social events.

Carousel for Missoula

Ride the beautiful antique carousel with its hand-carved and colorful horses. Hundreds of volunteers rebuilt it over 4 years putting in over 100,000 hours of labor.

Riders on antique Carousel Missoula
The Carousel for Missoula was restored by volunteers over 4 years.

Old Milwaukee Depot

This beautiful brick passenger depot, built in 1910, is the headquarters of the Boone and Crocket Club. The club is the oldest wildlife conservation organization in North America and was founded in 1887 by Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell.

Red brick building Old Milwaukee Depot Missoula
The beautiful red brick train depot was built in 1910.

Brennan’s Wave

This is a man-made standing wave for kayakers.  The Clark Fork River is popular with lovers of “white water”.

People on rocks by Brennan's Wave Missoula
This man-made standing wave is great for kayakers and river surfers.

Missoula has a museum for everyone. At Smokejumper Visitor Center learn about the demanding and important job of smokejumpers who parachute into the backcountry to fight wild fires. You’ll discover the history and culture of western Montana at Fort Missoula. For art lovers, see the spirit of the American West in both traditional and contemporary works at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture and the Missoula Art Museum.

Helena

Pedestrian only downtown Helena Western Montana
Downtown Helena is a “pedestrian-only” area.

Last Chance Gulch is Helena’s main street. It is lined with historic buildings dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Gold was discovered in this gulch in 1864. $19 million worth of gold was mined in just four years, making it the second biggest placer gold deposit in Montana. The town grew rapidly, becoming the capital of the Montana Territory in 1875 and ultimately the state capital. The fire tower, the stunning Cathedral of Saint Helena and the Montana Capitol highlight aspects of Helena’s history.

Fire Tower

Person with Fire Tower in background Helena
Fire Tower Park is a great place to get a panoramic view of Helena.

Fire was a constant danger to Helena’s wooden buildings in the 19th century. The fire tower in Fire Tower Park was built in 1874. The first tower was destroyed by fire in 1869, only a year after being built. Today, the hilltop park is a great place to get a bird’s eye view of the city. The twin spires of the Cathedral of Saint Helena are visible to the north.

Cathedral of Saint Helena

Exterior of twin spired Cathedral of Saint Helena
The top of the crosses on the spires of the Cathedral of Saint Helena are 242 feet from the ground.

The twin spires are 230 feet high and have 12-foot gold-leafed crosses on top. Look for the 29 statues of saints and other biblical figures on the cathedral’s exterior. It was constructed over 18 years, beginning in 1908.  The first mass was held in 1914, even though it was still under construction.  The last of 59 stained-glass windows was installed in 1926.  Go inside to see their true splendor. The cathedral and the State Capitol building are both on the National Register of Historic Places.

State Capitol

Front view of Montana State Capitol
Beautiful copper-domed, sandstone capitol building

The sandstone and granite building, with its copper covered dome, was constructed between 1899 and 1902.  The capitol is the center of a 62-acre campus with state monuments and memorials throughout this beautiful green space.

Livingston

Person standing in road with buildings in background
Beautiful buildings from the early 20th century line the downtown Livingston streets

This small town on the Yellowstone River has a charming downtown with many building storefronts as they were in the early 20th century. The Livingston Depot is the restored 1902 Northern Pacific Railroad station which houses a railroad museum today. Enjoy a picnic in the park beside the depot.

Livingston Depot building, railroad museum
The Livingston Depot railroad museum is in a restored Northern Pacific station

Bozeman

One of the fastest growing cities in the US, Bozeman is the perfect base as you explore the great outdoors.  World-renowned fly fishing areas, hiking, rock climbing and skiing areas are all nearby. Yellowstone National Park is less than 100 miles away. 

We decided to spend our morning hiking Drinking Horse Mountain, northeast of Bozeman. This moderate, 2.4-mile, round trip hike provides beautiful 360-degree views of Bridger Canyon and the Gallatin Valley.

Brider Canyon vista Western Montana
Beautiful Bridger Canyon is visible from the top of Drinking Horse Mountain
Person on trail at Drinking Horse Mountain
Drinking Horse Mountain trail is hard-packed gravel and relatively wide but the best part is the incredible scenery!

To learn more about the natural, geological and cultural history of the area, visit the Museum of the Rockies. It is part of Montana State University and a Smithsonian affiliate.

Dinosaur sculpture outside Museum of the Rockies
Museum of the Rockies is famous for its extensive fossil collection.

Philipsburg

Philipsburg is Montana’s sapphire town.  Pan for these gems at several shops in town.  Buy a bucket of gravel then wash and sort it to find your sapphires.  You can also visit Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine 20 miles south of town.  If “mining” your own gems doesn’t appeal to you, several stores in town sell beautiful sapphires and sapphire jewelry.  Be sure to wander the pretty downtown and check out the local shops.

Left side Gravel bin and buckets right side Sapphire Gallery shopfront
Pan for your own sapphires from a bucket of gravel or visit a local sapphire gallery and save yourself some work.

Granite County Museum provides some history of silver mining in the area.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the area around Philipsburg had silver, manganese, sapphire, and even gold mines. The towns of Granite, Tower, Rumsey, Black Pine and others housed thousands of hard working miners. Today you see only broken shacks and tailing piles.

Sayre Building Philipsburg Western Montana
The colorful Sayre building housed the First National Bank until 1893. Over the years it has held a number of general mercantile businesses.

West Yellowstone

This small town services the housing and food needs of thousands of Yellowstone National Park visitors each year as it has done since the railroad arrived in 1908.

Learn about West Yellowstone and the national park at these 3 attractions.

Museum of the Yellowstone

The museum highlights the history of the town and travel to the park. It is in the restored Union Pacific Railroad Depot and part of the Oregon Short Line Terminus Historic District.

Yellowstone Giant Screen Theater

This IMAX theatre offers new film releases, in both IMAX and regular format. See the 1994 IMAX documentary “Yellowstone” which shows Yellowstone National Park today and as it was a hundred and 100,000 years ago.

Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center

This not-for-profit wildlife park and educational facility provides sanctuary to grizzly bears and gray wolves which are unable to survive in the wild.

8 Things to See in Western Montana

As well as the great towns, here are more fantastic things to see on your western Montana road trip.

Flathead Lake

Dock extending into Flathead Lake
Wild Horse Island on Flathead Lake is a day-use state park

This is a must-see for water enthusiasts. The lake is 27 miles long, 15 miles wide and 300 feet deep.  It is the largest natural freshwater lake in the western US. There are many boat launches making it perfect for fishing, kayaking, boating or sailing.  Swimmable beaches line much of the lake’s shoreline. There are a number of islands to explore. Wild Horse Island is a day-use state park, home to wild horses, bighorn sheep, coyotes, deer and a variety of birds.

Aerial view blue-green waters of Flathead Lake
The clear blue waters of Flathead Lake let us glympse below the surface

Miracle of America Museum

Left boat right truck and trailer carrying cars
Miracle of America Museum

This is a great place to learn about the culture of the US through its collection of  340,000 artifacts. You can find almost anything here, from full-size planes to a 1912 school house and even bumper sticker collections. There are all types of vehicles and you can climb into most of them. It is the perfect place for the kids to burn off some of that pent-up road trip energy.

National Bison Range

This 18,800-acre wildlife refuge is the main bison research center in the US. It is home to many species of animals and over 200 species of birds. You could see black bears, elk and deer as well as bison.  Check in at the visitor center to learn about the history of the area, both natural and cultural.  Staff will let you know where wildlife has been seen so that you can watch for them as you tour the refuge.

People in front of visitor center's bison model
Learn about the efforts underway to ensure the survival of the bison, almost hunted to extinction in the 1800s.
Bison on hill National Bison Range
Part of the herd of bison at the National Bison Range

The best way to tour is to drive the range’s well-graded and maintained gravel roads.  Try all of these routes or whichever you have time for.

  • West loop – 1-mile loop, close to the visitor center.
  • Prairie Drive – 14-mile round trip, with two-way traffic, along the flats of Mission Creek.
  • Red Sleep Mountain Drive – 10-mile one-way loop which gains 2,000 feet in altitude with many switchbacks and 10% grades along the way.  Allow 1.5 to 2 hours.
Switchbacks on road in National Bison Range
Red Sleep Mountain Drive is a 10-mile 1-way loop with many switchbacks.

The range was established in 1908 to help with efforts to save the bison which had been hunted to near extinction in the 19th century. There had been 10’s of millions of bison in North America up to that time. Today the herd on the range is maintained at between 350 and 500 animals ensuring that the habitat can properly support them.  Surplus animals are donated or sold to parks and other wildlife refuges. The National Bison Range is one of the last intact, publicly-owned, intermountain native grasslands in the US and a diverse mixture of grassland, douglas fir and ponderosa pine forest.

Montana Ghost Towns

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, thousands of miners, often with their wives and children, came to western Montana to work its many mines.  Towns sprang up and boomed in these mining areas.  When the mines closed, miners moved on to the next opportunity, often leaving the towns abandoned. 

Today, the conditions of these deserted towns vary. Some towns are completely reclaimed by nature, with nothing remaining but broken shacks and building skeletons.  However other towns have been preserved through the stewardship of concerned Montana citizens.  Due to their generosity, we can explore some of these frontier towns and see what life was like in the early 1900’s.

Ore carts displayed beside street

Click here to learn more about our visit to the western Montana Ghost Towns of Coloma, Garnet, Elkhorn, Granite, Coolidge, Bannack and Virginia City/Nevada City.

Old Montana Prison Complex

This complex was built by convict labor. It operated from 1861 to 1979. The walls are 24 feet high and are buried 4 feet deep. Prisoners couldn’t tunnel out. You can see the cells, the shower chambers, guard towers and more.

Exterior wall Old Montana Prison
The walls of the prison are 24 feet high and 4 feet are below ground to discourage tunneling.

Today the complex houses five museums: Old Montana Prison, Powell County Museum, Frontier Montana Museum, Yesterday’s Playthings and the Montana Auto Museum. Admission covers all museums. The auto museum is ranked one of the 10 best in the country. It’s a great place to learn about early frontier life in western Montana.

Missouri Headwaters State Park

Spot where Madison and Jefferson Rivers merge
The Madison and Jefferson Rivers merge here and a short distance away merge with the Gallatin to form the Missouri River.

In this 532-acre state park the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin Rivers merge becoming the Missouri River, the longest river in the US. Enjoy fishing or boating on the beautiful clear waters. Many species of birds and animals come to this easily available, clean water source.  There are hiking trails throughout the state park.

Boat and people shore of Missouri River
This beautiful still section of the Missouri River is perfect for boating and fishing.

Interpretive displays discuss the presence of Native American tribes in these areas for over a thousand years.  The site was also significant as a stopping point for the Lewis & Clark Expedition.  After exploring the 2,300 miles of the Missouri River, the expedition stopped here for 3 days in late 1805.

Today, the Missouri headwaters continue to offer a great place to explore nature and replenish the body and the soul.

Couple posing on hilltop over Gallatin River Western Montana
Missouri Headwaters State Park has many trails along the rivers which merge to form the Missouri.

Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park

Montana’s first state park has one of the largest known caverns in the northwest US. Guided tours allow you to visit these caverns. There are trails to hike or bike, interpretive displays and a gift shop. Immerse yourself in the beautiful western Montana countryside by staying in the large campground.

Earthquake Lake

Person in front of Earthquake Lake
Earthquake Lake with the visitor center and the naked canyonside in the background
Section of hillside without trees debris pile at base
The canyonside still shows where the material for the earthen dam which Earthquake Lake came from.

Earthquake Lake Visitor Center tells the geologic story of the Hebgen Lake Earthquake. It presents the facts behind the 7.5 magnitude quake and the changes triggered by the 35 seconds of intense shaking at midnight on August 17, 1959. Over 250 people were trapped in Madison Canyon. Some injured and needing medical attention and all needing to be rescued. When calm returned, 28 people had been killed. Their names are inscribed on a plaque at Memorial Boulder on the trail above the visitor center.

Looking southeast you’ll see the canyon wall where rock, dirt and trees once were. The massive landslide was a 225-foot-thick mountain of shattered rock, boulders and splintered trees. Earthquake Lake formed behind this natural dam on the Madison River. The lake is 5 miles long, one-third of a mile wide, and 190 feet deep. Many people fish the lake, both from boats and the shore, but watch your lines on the underwater debris.

Information panel foreground Earthquake Lake background
Earthquake Lake from visitor center. Interpretive signs are found throughout the canyon describing the story of the night of August 17/18, 1959.

Head east on Highway 287 and stop at some of the interpretive spots along the way. You’ll learn what happened in some of these spots during the hours shortly after the quake and the human stories of fear, survival, loss and heroism.

Western Montana Attractions and Map

People enjoying beverage in Whitefish bar
There are lots of downtown Whitefish restaurants and pubs where you can enjoy some dinner and beverages.


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