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14 Best Places to Visit in Western Montana

by Valerie Vanr

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.

On our 5-day road trip we introduce you to the best places in Western Montana!

14 Things To Do in Western Montana

Visit all 14 of these great cities and places on our 5-day road trip:

  1. Whitefish
  2. Flathead Lake
  3. Miracle of America Museum
  4. Bison Range
  5. Missoula
  6. Philipsburg
  7. Old Montana Prison & Auto Museum Complex
  8. Helena
  9. Livingston
  10. Bozeman
  11. Missouri Headwaters State Park
  12. Lewis & Clark Caverns
  13. Earthquake Lake
  14. West Yellowstone

Western Montana Attractions Map

Follow our road trip map to visit all of the great places to see in Western Montana.

Western Montana map starred attractions trip route
Click on the Western Montana map for an interactive version.

Western Montana Road Trip Itinerary

This 5 Day itinerary covers all of the Best Things To Do in Western Montana.

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.

Flathead Lake

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

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.

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

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.

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

Bison Range

This 18,800-acre wildlife refuge is managed by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. 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.

People in front of visitor center's bison model
We learned 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 Bison Range

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.
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. 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 Bison Range is one of the last intact, inter-mountain, native grasslands in the US and a diverse mixture of grassland, Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine forest. In 2020, the US Congress restored the Bison Range to the care, stewardship and management of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Missoula

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”.

View down Clark Fork River Missoula Western Montana
The white water on the right side of the Clark Fork River is a man-made standing wave known as Brennan’s Wave.

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.

Statue and pavilion behind Caras Park Missoula
Caras Park is a popular place to enjoy social events.
Riders on antique Carousel Missoula
The Carousel for Missoula was restored by volunteers over 4 years.

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

Rusted ore cars prairie hills background

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.

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

Helena

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.

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

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.

Exterior of twin spired Cathedral of Saint Helena
The top of the crosses atop each spire of the Cathedral of Saint Helena is 242 feet from the ground.
Triple panel Stained-glass window Cathedral of Saint Helena
Beautiful stained-glass window

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.

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

Livingston

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.

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

Brider Canyon vista Western Montana
Beautiful Bridger Canyon is visible from the top of Drinking Horse Mountain
Person on trail at Drinking Horse Mountain
Val liked the hard-packed gravel of Drinking Horse Mountain trail 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.

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.

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.
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.

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. We only tried a couple but enjoyed them all.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

For more great Montana destinations, check out our feature article, 5 Best Montana Road Trips – The Ultimate Guide.

Grassland river valley mountains behind


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