Ranking as the fourth-largest state in America, Montana certainly lives up to its unofficial nickname of Big Sky Country—everything is grander, wider, taller and more spectacular around these parts. And with a population of only a little over one million people, Montana also ranks as the state with the third-lowest population density. The result is lots and lots of wide-open space, with diverse landscapes that still feel as wild and untamed as they did before Lewis and Clark crossed through in 1805: alpine peaks dotted with mountain goats and bighorn sheep, thick pine forests, sandstone cliffs and glacier-fed lakes and rivers teeming with trout. With all that free room to roam, the Treasure State attracts adventurers who never tire of the opportunities to fly-fish, kayak, ski, snowshoe, mountain-climb or whitewater raft around every turn. Here, four cities you can visit to start your adventure in Montana.
Billings has been nicknamed “Montana’s Trailhead,” and all roads do seem to lead to and from the state’s biggest city, which started in the 1880s as a railroad boomtown—and then just kept booming.
History buffs will find much to love in Billings, from the Native American rock paintings at Pictograph Cave State Park to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, where Custer made his last stand. And Pompey’s Pillar National Monument, a half-hour outside the city, is the only place in the entire country where you can still see physical evidence of the Lewis and Clark Expedition: William Clark scrawled his name and the date on the park’s namesake sandstone formation. That pioneering spirit is still alive and well in the rugged territory of Big Sky Country.
Don’t dismiss Bozeman as simply a gateway to Southern Montana’s many natural wonders. Sure, within a quick drive from town, you’ll have access to the ski slopes of Big Sky Resort and the hot springs, wildlife-rich valleys and swimming holes of Yellowstone National Park. But you’ll also want to spend some time exploring this funky college town, which is home to the state’s largest university, Montana State. There’s a thrumming energy here that calls to mind spots like Boulder, Colorado, or Eugene, Oregon, before they garnered national renown.
Then again, that small-town vibe may be changing soon: For the past four years, Bozeman has ranked as the country’s fastest-growing micropolitan area—a fancy way of describing a small city with between 10,000 and 50,000 residents. Exciting new hotels, breweries and art centers are cropping up, joining area institutions like the Museum of the Rockies, which houses one of the largest collections of North American dinosaur remains in the world, and the modest American Computer & Robotics Museum, which is among the oldest museums dedicated to the history of computers.
If you close your eyes and try to imagine Montana, the scenery outside of Kalispell is the mental picture you’ll most likely conjure. The northwestern corner of the state boasts the kind of blockbuster views that show up on screensavers. Glacier National Park’s 1,538 square miles of wilderness are home to shark-tooth peaks, hidden glacial lakes and valleys that burst to life in the summer with purple asters, Glacier lilies and bear grass. Nearby, Flathead Lake stretches for nearly 200 square miles and even includes a tiny island where wild horses roam.
Back in town, Kalispell serves as a comfortable basecamp, with buildings dating back to the late 1890s, such as the Conrad Mansion Museum (the home of the town’s pioneering founder) and the Hockaday Museum of Art (which focuses on the works of Montana artists). After shopping for cowboy boots and hats at Western Outdoor and bikes at the century-old Wheaton’s Cycle, stop into one of the city’s breweries to indulge in a favorite Kalispell pastime—beer has been brewed in this city since way back in 1894, when the defunct Kalispell Malting and Brewing Company opened on Main Street.
In 1916, Jeannette Rankin became the first woman to be elected to federal office in U.S. history—and she didn’t come from some historically progressive hub like New York or Boston. Rather, Rankin was from the rough-and-tumble frontier town of Missoula. A century later, this laid-back city on the Clark Fork River is still a surprising bastion of progressivism, home to artists, craft brewers and more than 10,000 University of Montana students.
Riverfront walking trails link a series of urban green spaces, skate parks and murals. On the weekends, you’ll find local farmers selling huckleberries, sheep’s milk cheese and foraged morel mushrooms at the greenmarket. In 2017, the valley welcomed the KettleHouse Amphitheater, an impossibly scenic concert venue on the banks of the Blackfoot River which has hosted the likes of Bon Iver, Sheryl Crow and Jason Isbell. Farther afield, Western Montana’s rugged collection of mountain ranges hide countless treasures. If you know where to look, you’ll find mining ghost towns, hot springs and rivers ripe for rafting.