With its breathtaking beauty and wide-open spaces, Montana is the place for summer adventure. Whether you’re into hiking, mountain biking, paddling, climbing or fishing – or pretty much anything else that you can think of to do outdoors – there’s something for every taste of adventure waiting just around the bend.
If you only take one trip this summer, our advice to you is to make it count in Montana. Here’s how “The Treasure State” caters perfectly to whatever outdoor endeavor you might be in the mood for.
Take a Hike
Ironically named, the 26-mile Beaten Path (East Rosebud Trail) is a prized section of hiking trail as wild and beautiful as any in the state – and that’s really saying a lot for a place as naturally gorgeous as Montana. It traverses one of the most picturesque bits of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness between the historic mining berg of Cooke City and the Beartooth Front at East Rosebud Lake, and winds below towering cliffs, beside cascading waterfalls, and alongside alpine lakes thick with trout.
It’s well worth spending a couple of nights to take in the scenery, fish the lakes and relax among the spires. Most people travel the route from Cooke to East Rosebud – it’s mostly downhill this direction – but hikers who travel the opposite direction are treated to even more spectacular views as they ascend into the maw of the Beartooths.
Get After It on a Mountain Bike
There are certain places that are downright magical to pedal a mountain bike, and the Lionhead area of southwest Montana is one of them. It’s located near West Yellowstone, and encompasses nearly 90 miles of high, wild singletrack. Trails like Sheep Creek and Lionhead Trail (part of the Continental Divide Trail) top out at over 10,000 feet, and come replete with challenging rock gardens, switchbacks and fast downhills – Lionhead doesn’t pull any punches.
And if you ride the infamous Sheep Creek or Mile Creek sections, be sure your bear spray is mounted in a handy spot – grizzlies are seen on the trails from time to time. Here, that raw, untamed nature is the entire point: You’re riding at the doorstep of Yellowstone National Park, in the hinterlands of mainstream mountain biking, and at the forefront of adventure. Enjoy.
In the town of Helena, there are more than 80 miles of singletrack extending from right downtown into the surrounding South Hills trail system – a mix of city and Forest Service land that Helena residents have polished into an enviable town resource. Hundreds of additional miles of trail await nearby.
Relatively mild climate and low elevation means the trails are rideable earlier and later in the season than other parts of Montana, and a diehard community of riders keep the trails well maintained. The landscape is varied, from rolling meadows to technical rock steps, and there are trails for all ability levels. Not feeling like a climb today? Take the free Trail Rider shuttle from town, up to one of several area trailheads. The shuttle runs five days a week all summer.
After shredding singletrack all day, ride straight to one of four breweries downtown to whet your whistle. Sounds like a perfect day of riding to us.
Cast Your Fishing Line
The Missouri River (or “Mighty Mo,” as the locals might say) near Craig, Montana, is a renowned fishery, nearly as full of trout as it is history – to the tune of 6,000 rainbows and 500 brown per mile. Needless to say, that’s a whole lot of fish. Lewis and Clark navigated this stretch of river in 1805; in the 1850s, mountain men canoed their furs downstream from mountain hunts. The Missouri has always been an important river, and it still is for fly fishermen. With only about 50 permanent residents in Craig – many of them fishing guides – this quiet, charming little town exquisitely caters to true fishermen and fisherwomen.
Downstream of Holter Dam, this is a nutrient-rich tailwater fishery, where the fish grow large and wily. The landscape here is less Norman MacLean and more Ivan Doig – rolling green hills, craggy buttes and deep coulees – and camping is largely free, and typically on a first-come-first-served basis. What are you waiting for? Rent a room or set up camp, crack a cold beverage and start casting. You won’t be disappointed.
Get Into Some Rock Climbing
When it comes to rock climbing areas in Montana, few can top Kootenai Canyon, located just outside of Stevensville in the beautiful Bitterroot Valley. With a quick and scenic 1-mile hike into the canyon, climbers gain access to dozens of routes from 5.6 to 5.13 in difficulty – truly something for everyone. Toprope climbs, bolted sport routes, classic trad testpieces and techy bouldering problems rise on both sides of the canyon.
Cascading through the middle of it all, Kootenai Creek offers an excellent opportunity to cool off and relax between pitches. There’s no camping allowed at the trailhead, but campsites abound nearby, or head into Stevensville for cold malty refreshment at Blacksmith Brewing.
Backpack (or Bikepack) the CDT
Whether you’re thru hiking the entire 3,600 miles, or merely want a beautiful day hike, the Continental Divide Trail is an insanely cool route, with tons of great trail. Pretty much anywhere along the Montana CDT you’ll find stellar views and interesting terrain.
The sections south of Butte are buffed, flowing and perfect for day hiking or mountain biking – This is where the famously grueling Butte 100 bike race is held. Fascinating granite outcrops define this area and the wildflower meadows are prolific. But for a solitary wilderness experience, don’t miss the 65-or-so miles of trail that traverse the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness. This area is off the beaten path, far from population centers, and sees little traffic, so you’ll probably have the alpine lakes, expansive views and engaging terrain all to yourself. Bring a fishing rod and spend a few days on digital detox.
Float the Yellowstone River
There’s nothing that screams “Summer Vacation” like floating down a river. And, in this case, that river is the longest undammed free-flowing river in the Lower 48, winding through aptly-named Paradise Valley. Originating in Yellowstone National Park, the Yellowstone River spurts out of the Park at the gateway town of Gardiner, and continues a 670-mile journey to its confluence with the Missouri, all the way in North Dakota. We’re not saying you have to float the entire length … but you certainly could.
The sections of river immediately below Gardiner and through Yankee Jim Canyon are whitewater, but the rest is a pretty mellow float under normal summer flows. Beach your watercraft – raft, canoe or driftboat – in Emigrant for lunch and a beer at Follow ‘Yer Nose BBQ, and be sure to cast a line at some point. It doesn’t get any better than fly fishing the Yellowstone – anglers come from all over the world to try their hand. Of course, you could just relax and watch the Gallatin and Absaroka Mountains pass slowly by as well. Float on!
Hike/Bike/Camp All in the Same Excursion
If you’re a fan of Jurassic Park, big skies, fun trails and incredible badlands landscapes, Makoshika State Park, near Glendive (in the under-the-radar eastern plains), is calling you. At more than 11,000 acres, this is Montana’s largest state park, and is chock-full of wildly eroded geologic oddities, fossil remains of dinos such as Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops (plus eight other species), miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking, camp sites and even an archery range – you brought your bow, right?
Remember to pack water and plan to hike early. If it gets too toasty, the Yellowstone River is nearby – jump in, wet a line or even head into Glendive for some small-town hospitality.
For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!