5 Road Trips on Scenic Montana Back Roads

Beartooth Highway; National Scenic Byways All-American Road

by Susie Wall

The best way to get to know the real Montana is to veer off the interstate and drive the road less traveled, where stunning natural areas, fascinating historic sites and picturesque small towns are just waiting to be explored. Gas up the car, pack some snacks and hit the road on one of these five road trips around the state. 

Helena  Great Falls

Total distance: 215 miles with the side trip to Gates of the Mountains

Gates of the Mountains boat tours, Missouri River, near Helena

Immerse yourself in Helena’s history in the historic mansion district at The Sanders Bed and Breakfast built in 1875. Feast on their gingerbread waffles and fresh coffee. Before leaving the area, take a side trip to catch the Gates of the Mountains morning boat tour. The extra time is well worth it for a chance to view the Missouri River as it was seen by the Lewis and Clark Expedition aboard the open-air boat.

Then take off on your own expedition turning south on US-287 South, sandwiched between Canyon Ferry Lake and Helena National Forest. Follow US-12 East out of the little town of Townsend and then catch US-89 North for a respite in White Sulphur Springs. For only $10 you can soak in the three pools at the Spa Hot Springs Hotel as long as you wish.

Provided by Sip ‘n Dip Lounge

Stay on US-89 to pass through the Little Belt Mountains. Stretch your legs at Memorial Falls with a hike up the rocky trail 1,600 feet to the first waterfall or push on for another 800 feet to the second falls. Back on the road you’ll go through the historic mining town of Neihart, then press on to Belt for pizza at Belt Creek Brew Pub and a pint of Get Lost Ale at Harvest Moon Brewing Company.

Outside of Belt, catch US-87 North and head into Great Falls. For a unique Montana experience, make a reservation at O’Haire Motor Inn to end the night at the inn’s famous Sip ‘N Dip lounge. Watch mermaids and mermen frolic in the pool through the large window behind the bar as you sip brightly colored rum concoctions.


Dillon Bozeman

Total distance: 123 miles

Stagecoach team and driver with log buidling during Living History weekend

You could easily cruise down interstates to travel between the college towns of Dillon and Bozeman, but why miss all the fun of exploring the back roads? Start in Dillon, home of University of Montana Western, at your room in The Andrus Hotel. To fuel up for a morning of shopping, grab a chai latte and a croissant at Muffaletta’s Café then walk over to peruse some Montana fashions at the Patagonia Outlet and Atomic 79 Boots and Western Gear.

Say goodbye to Dillon and turn your wheels to MT-41 North to tour the lovely Beaverhead River Valley. A sharp turn southwest at MT-287 South will lead you back in time to the historic towns of Virginia City and Nevada City where you could easily spend a whole day booing the villain in a wild west gunfight, panning for gold and taking a tour on the Alder Gulch Shortline Railroad. 

Flyfishing, Madison River, near Ennis; Southwest Montana

A quick trip east brings you to the outdoor mecca of Ennis. A guide will give you the best tricks to fly-fishing the Madison River. Over at Wille’s Distillery, regale the friendly barkeep with tales of the one that didn’t get away while enjoying a taste of small-batch whiskeys.

All that physical activity begs for a soak up north at Norris Hot Springs before cruising into Bozeman on MT-84 East. Book a room downtown at the eclectic LARK Hotel, the perfect jumping off point for a stroll along historic Main Street. Recap your journey over a glass of Bozone Amber at Montana Ale Works and a Montana-sized ribeye at Copper Whiskey Bar and Grill. 


Bigfork East Glacier Park

Total distance: 94 miles

Awake at the Swan River Inn and take the time to savor the view from your room as the morning sun reflects off the waters of Bigfork Bay on Flathead Lake. For breakfast, visit the Pocketstone Café to plan the day’s route over a plate of blueberry pancakes, then stroll Bigfork’s small downtown with its many art galleries and boutique shops. MT-35 West leads you away from Bigfork past rolling farm fields buffered by the towering Swan Mountains. Check your gas tank and get some snacks at Woody’s Country Store at the turn off on MT-206 as the mountains of Glacier National Park loom into view.

At the junction of US-2, turn right toward the national park and take advantage of the many activities offered along the road. Question your knowledge of the physical world at the Montana Vortex and House of Mystery, play a round of mini-golf at the Amazing Fun Center, and indulge in a giant slice of pie at The Huckleberry Patch. As you continue on the highway past the national park entrance, keep your binoculars handy to spot bears munching on the hillsides and watch for moose crossing the road.

After climbing to 5,200 feet across Marias Pass, pull into your destination of East Glacier Park. The town splits at US-2 and MT-49 so take a left on the state highway and check into the cozy family-run Mountain Pine Motel. Walk across the street to shop for a hand-carved souvenir at the Spiral Spoon and grab dinner at The Whistle Stop. 


Red Lodge Billings

Total distance: 72 miles

The Pollard Hotel in Red Lodge has all you need to prepare for the day’s adventures. Get a workout in at the hotel’s expansive gym which features cardio and strength rooms and a racquetball court, then satisfy your growling stomach with a plate of house-made rosemary biscuits covered in sausage gravy at Marli’s Restaurant. Spend the morning exploring the shops and galleries on Broadway Avenue. Before heading out of town, be sure to visit the Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary where rescued animals native to the area such red fox, black bear and porcupine are more active during the cool mornings.

Follow MT-308 East out of town when you’re ready to depart. The drive offers amazing views of the area as it climbs high above Red Lodge then swoops down past hills dense with sagebrush. Turn left at the junction with MT-72 and go north toward I-90. Take the time to explore the lovely little farming communities of Belfry and Bridger and enjoy the views of Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone River.

Once in Billings, take advantage of the fact that you still have much of the day left and check out a few of the many activities in town. Look and listen for grey wolves at ZooMontana as they hide in the dense brush signaling their location with spine-tingling howls. Admire works by Montana artists at the Yellowstone Art Museum, then head downtown to your room at the luxurious Northern Hotel. Once settled, step outside and hop on the Billings Brew Trail to visit any combination of six breweries, two distilleries and one cider house, all within a comfortable mile and a half walk.


Missoula Hamilton

Total distance:  47 miles

Built on the site of the historic Mercantile Building, The Residence Inn in Missoula provides you with modern amenities in the heart of downtown. Take advantage of the hotel’s complimentary breakfast or walk across the street to The Catalyst Café and Espresso Bar for Huevos Rancheros and a cup of high-octane caffeine that’s sure to get you going. After breakfast, cross town and catch US-93. This stretch of highway pointing south of Missoula bisects the Bitterroot Valley, or “The ‘Root” as it’s known to the locals, and features an array of charming small towns, historical sites and outdoor adventures.  

Traveler’s Rest State Park, Lolo, Glacier Country

Stop at Travelers’ Rest State Park in Lolo to learn about this area’s significance to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The history lesson continues down the road in Stevensville, recognized as the first permanent settlement of non-indigenous people in Montana. Learn about this history at St. Mary’s Mission founded in 1841 by Father Antonio Ravalli. Stevensville is also home to one of the best birding sites in Montana, Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. Follow the boarded walkway for a chance to see great horned owls perched in the ponderosa pines and bald eagles fishing over the Bitterroot River.

Cruise on down to Hamilton to take a hike in nearby Blodgett Canyon. A short 1.5-mile walk leads to the canyon overlook affording spectacular views, or choose a longer hike to experience the canyon up close. Rest up from your trek in your room at The Bitterroot River Inn before going downtown to sample Hamilton’s wealth of craft beverages. Sip Westslope Distillery’s take on rum using Montana sugar beets and honey, taste the flavor of Bitterroot apples in liquid form at Backroad Cider, and wrap your hands around a burger and a pint of Huckleberry Honey Ale at Bitter Root Brewing. 


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