Western Montana has many beautiful and interesting places 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.
We’ve created a 5-day road trip to make it easy to see 14 great places in Western Montana!
Table of Contents
Western Montana Road Trip Itinerary
This is a base itinerary for a leisurely road trip through western Montana. Simply enjoy the drive or fill your days!.
- Day 1. Whitefish to Missoula via National Bison Range
- Day 2. Missoula to Helena via Philipsburg
- Day 3. Helena to Bozeman via Livingston
- Day 4. Explore Missouri Headwaters State Park and Lewis & Clark Caverns
- Day 5. Bozeman to West Yellowstone via Earthquake Lake
Western Montana Attractions Map
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.
A must-see for water enthusiasts, Flathead Lake is 27 miles long, 15 miles wide and 300 feet deep. It is the largest natural freshwater lake in the western US. Its many boat launches make 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, a day-use state park, is home to wild horses, bighorn sheep, coyotes, deer and a variety of birds.
Miracle of America Museum
Learn about the culture of the US through the museum’s collection of 340,000 artifacts. Find anything here, from full-size planes to a 1912 school house and even bumper sticker collections. Climb into all sizes and types of vehicles. 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. 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. Find out where wildlife has been seen recently and watch for them on a driving tour of the refuge.
Drive the range’s well-graded and maintained gravel roads. Try all the routes or whichever there is 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.
The range was established in 1908 to help with efforts to save the bison. Prior to 1800, 10’s of millions of bison could be found in North America. By the end of the 19th century they were hunted to near extinction. 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, inter-mountain, native grasslands in the US and a diverse mixture of grassland, Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine forest.
Beautiful Missoula is the second largest city in Montana. Downtown Missoula has restaurants and brewpubs to satisfy any craving. The Clark Fork River flows beside the vibrant downtown and is popular with lovers of “white water”.
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. 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.
The beautiful antique Carousel for Missoula‘s horses are hand-carved. Hundreds of volunteers rebuilt the carousel over 4 years putting in over 100,000 hours of labor.
The beautiful Old Milwaukee Depot, a former passenger rail depot, was built in 1910. It is the headquarters of the Boone and Crocket Club, the oldest wildlife conservation organization in North America. The organization was founded in 1887 by Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell.
Missoula has a museum for everyone. Learn about the demanding and important job of smokejumpers, at Smokejumper Visitor Center. These brave people parachute into the backcountry to fight wild fires. 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.
Philipsburg is Western 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 sapphires. Visit Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine 20 miles south of town. If “mining” your own gems doesn’t appeal, several stores in town sell beautiful sapphires and sapphire jewelry. Be sure to wander the pretty downtown and check out the local shops.
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 local towns of Granite, Tower, Rumsey, Black Pine and others housed thousands of hard working miners. Today you see only broken shacks and tailing piles.
All through western Montana, like near Philipsburg, mines opened and their towns prospered until the ore was gone. The mines closed and the miners moved on, leaving the towns abandoned. Many of these towns can be visited. To learn more about these western Montana towns including Granite, check out our Montana Ghost Towns article.
Old Montana Prison & Auto Museum 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.
Today the complex houses five museums: Old Prison Museum, Powell County Museum, Frontier Montana, Yesterday’s Playthings and the 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.
Last Chance Gulch, Helena’s main street, 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.
Fire was a constant danger to Helena’s wooden buildings in the 19th century. The 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 Cathedral of Saint Helena‘s 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. Construction of the cathedral began 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 sandstone and granite State Capitol 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 a beautiful green space. The cathedral and the State Capitol building are both on the National Register of Historic Places.
This small town on the Yellowstone River has a charming downtown with many 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.
One of the fastest growing cities in the US, Bozeman is the perfect base for some exploration of 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 spent a morning hiking Drinking Horse Mountain, northeast of Bozeman. It’s moderate, 2.4-mile, round-trip hike with beautiful 360-degree views of Bridger Canyon and the Gallatin Valley.
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.
Missouri Headwaters State Park
This 532-acre state park marks the point where the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin Rivers merge becoming the Missouri River, the longest river in the US. Many species of birds and animals come to this clean, accessible, water source. The park is a great place to explore nature. Enjoy fishing or boating on the beautiful clear waters. Hiking trails are found throughout.
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.
Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park
Montana’s first state park has one of the largest known caverns in the northwest US. Take a guided tour to visit the caverns. There are trails to hike or bike, interpretive displays and a gift shop. For information about park amenities, tour availability and even camping in the park campground, check the Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park webpage.
Earthquake Lake Visitor Center presents the story and facts of the 7.5 magnitude Hebgen Lake Earthquake. It explains the changes triggered by 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 from the visitor center, 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 lines may tangle on the underwater debris.
Head east on Highway 287 and stop at some of the interpretive spots along the way. 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.
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.
The Museum of the Yellowstone highlights the town through time and historic methods of travel to the park. It is in the restored Union Pacific Railroad Depot and part of the Oregon Short Line Terminus Historic District. The Yellowstone Giant Screen Theater offers new film releases, in both IMAX and regular format. See the 1994 IMAX documentary “Yellowstone” which shows Yellowstone National Park now and as it was a hundred and 100,000 years ago.
The Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center is a not-for-profit wildlife park and educational facility. It provides sanctuary to grizzly bears and gray wolves which are unable to survive in the wild.
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