Endless Adventure in Big Sky Country

This piece was produced with support from Visit Montana.

Sometimes, there just aren’t words. St. Mary Lake. Photo: Courtesy of Tevin Trinh/Unsplash

There’s a reason Montana is known as “Big Sky Country,” and it’s not just that the sky looks bigger here (although it does). At more than 147,000 square miles, the fourth largest state in the U.S. is also one of its most naturally diverse. In short, it’s an outdoor adventurer’s paradise.

To help you find your perfect slice this summer, we’ve broken the state down into regions where you’ll find adventures of any magnitude—from day hikes and mountain bike trails to multi-day horse-packing and canyon paddling trips—along with the towns, parks, breweries and hot springs to make your trip complete.

No matter where you end up in Big Sky Country, there’ll be plenty to see and do.

Glacier Country

Endless beauty at Glacier National Park. Photo: Courtesy of Colin/Unsplash

Glacier National Park is obvious (and an absolute must-visit), but there’s more to northwest Montana than just the park. Lake Kookanusa is about 1.5 hours northwest of Whitefish, and this massive body of water (90 miles long) hosts plenty of watersports and fishing opportunities, unique inland sand dunes for ATV adventures, excellent rock climbing, beautiful (and uncrowded in the spring) road cycling and plenty of camping. And keep in mind that many parts of the lake are only accessible by boat, so you’ll have to plan accordingly, but the wildlife in the area is rich – you’re likely to see otters, swans and maybe even a bear or two.

A visit to Lake Kookanusa is a must. Photo: Courtesy of Jim Thoburn/Flickr

Stone Hill is an underappreciated rock-climbing destination with over 300 routes ranging from 5.6 to 5.13 in difficulty. Most are single pitch, and many have exceptional position above the lake. Hire Glacier Adventure Guides to show you around, or pick up the guidebook “The Complete Stonehill Climber’s Guide” at Rocky Mountain Outfitter in Kalispell.

Want to put some miles on your road bike? This is one of the best areas in Big Sky Country. For a challenge, ride the 83-mile Lake Kookanusa loop from Libby. With huge views, long hills and lots of variety, it’s tough to beat.

The small, authentic Montana towns of Eureka to the north and Libby to the south provide all the amenities you’ll need (including beer at Eureka’s H.A. Brewing).

Southwest Montana

There’s so much to explore in and around the charming town of Anaconda. Photo: Courtesy of Bob Allen

Southwest Montana has a lot to see, so load up the van or dual-sport adventure motorcycle with your recreation toys and follow the beautiful Pintler Veterans’ Memorial Scenic Highway (Highway 1) out of Anaconda. Built in 1915, the route was Montana’s first paved highway, but today it’s a slower, more relaxed alternative to interstate driving – not to mention breathtaking views at every turn.

Take a swing at Anaconda’s Jack Nicklaus-designed Old Works Golf Course, and soak in the history of this former mining town—not to mention nearby Fairmont Hot Springs Resort. The electrification of America was made possible by the town’s enormous smelter, which processed copper from Butte’s mines. Mining relics are woven into the course, making this a unique golf experience.

Sit back and relax at the Fairmont Hot Springs Resort. Photo: Courtesy of Fairmont Hot Springs Resort

From Anaconda, climb 14 miles into the mountains for camping and fishing at beautiful Georgetown Lake. There are campgrounds and dispersed camping available, but also plenty of cabin rentals and Airbnb options if you want more modern accommodations. Once you’re settled, enjoy blue ribbon trout and salmon fishing with Blackfoot River Outfitters, paddling, watersports and wildlife viewing—or just relax and take in expansive views of the Pintler, Sapphire and Flint ranges.

The endless views will take your breath away. Photo: Courtesy of The Greater Southwestern Exploration Company/Flickr

For a more adrenaline-fueled experience, family-owned Discovery Ski Area is just up the road, and boasts lift-served downhill mountain bike trails complete with wall rides, bridges, jumps, logs and drops. Bring your own ride, or rent a bike from their fleet.

Philipsburg is one of the less-trafficked recreation hubs in Big Sky Country, and still has the flavor of an authentic mining and ranching community. Be sure not to miss a celebratory stop at the Phillipsburg Brewing Co. (Tramway Rye Pale Ale is delish) and the famous Sweet Palace where you’ll be taken back to your childhood with over 1,000 different candy selections – including 72 flavors of saltwater taffy that are pulled, cut and wrapped right in front of your eyes.

Central Montana

The majestic Rocky Mountain Front. Photo: Courtesy of Visit Montana/Alan Majchrowicz

Montana is known for its cowboy culture—always will be. Nowhere is this more apparent than in central Montana, where the dramatic Rocky Mountain Front borders the plains, and working ranches spread east across the prairie.

It’s also the best place to access the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex (just call it “the Bob”) – the third-largest wilderness area in the lower 48 with over 1.5 million acres of mountains, rivers and wildlife.

Indulge your inner cowboy or cowgirl and take a week-long horse packtrip with one of the local outfitters, like Mills Wilderness Adventures in Augusta—a real-deal ranching town.

The night sky is tough to beat in Montana. Photo: Courtesy of Visit Montana

The horses will carry the load, so you can focus on the unbelievable fly fishing at remote mountain lakes and streams, swimming, photography or whatever else you’re into. Plus, you’ll have an excuse to buy that cowboy hat you’ve secretly always wanted.

If horses aren’t your thing, hire a guide from Dropstone Outfitting in Choteau and carry your own supplies on a wilderness backpacking adventure. While in Choteau, you should bunk up at family owned and operated Benchmark Wilderness Guest Ranch where you’ll indulge in home-cooked meals and soak in the gorgeous scenery—it’s truly a breath of fresh air.

And finally, if you want to get your climb on, Blackleaf Canyon has some of the most exciting multi-pitch rock climbs in Montana, some up to 600 feet tall. There’s beautiful dispersed camping nearby, and day hikes into the Bob can put you on top of some amazing views.

Yellowstone Country

This is not an uncommon sight on the Yellowstone River. Photo: Courtesy of Mattia Panciroli/Flickr

Bozeman and Big Sky are well-known epicenters for adventure, and for good reason: there’s an awful lot to do. If fly fishing is your thing—or if you’ve ever wanted to emulate Brad Pitt’s character in “A River Runs Through It”—this is your zone. The Yellowstone, Madison, Gallatin and Boulder rivers are Meccas for fly-casters, and local guides will get you into fish, guaranteed. Check out Montana Angler for day trips, lodge-based fishing, or overnight river adventures.

The Gallatin River is a gorgeous place to cast. Photo: Courtesy of Bob Allen

Want to get into the wilds for a few days of backpacking? There’s no shortage of trails. Head into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness south of the charming town of Livingston to experience remote alpine lakes, gorgeous views and great camping.

Once known as the “Original Gateway City to Yellowstone National Park,” Livingston is the perfect spot to set up basecamp and figure out your next outdoor pursuit. From horseback riding, to fly fishing, to river rafting, this historic train town is where you want to be to plan your next adventure. (Or you can just stay right in town and soak in the local flavor and history at the museums and art galleries.) Stop into Timber Trails shop to pick up a guidebook and last-minute gear—they’ll point you in the right direction. Afterward, soak your tired muscles in the newly opened Yellowstone Hot Springs, north of Gardiner.

Get your adrenaline fix at Big Sky Resort. Photo: Courtesy of Bob Allen

Spend a day or two at Big Sky Resort for ziplining (it’s seriously fun), downhill and cross-country mountain biking and scenic tram tours to the 11,000-foot summit of Lone Peak, no sweat required. Quench your thirst at Beehive Basin Brewery, and sample a wide variety of restaurants. Big Sky is full service.

Missouri River Country

Endless terrain to trek. Upper Missouri River, Montana. Photo: Courtesy Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management

Public land, conservation, mountain biking and yurts are all hot right now. Why not combine them into a unique adventure in one of Montana’s singular landscapes?

The prairies, buttes and coulees of Montana’s Missouri River region offer a unique beauty that’s visually distinct from the mountainous west. There are miles of trails open to hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking. Plus two yurt complexes are available to rent, and it is possible to connect the two by miles of trail—making for a self-sufficient mountain biking experience in Montana.

Limitless space to go mountain biking. Photo: David Tucker

If floating downriver like Huck Finn sounds more your speed, don’t pass up the Lewis and Clark Canoe Trail. Three-to-six-day guided and catered canoe trips down the Mighty Mo’ retrace the historic journey of Lewis and Clark. And don’t miss the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge, where elk, bighorn sheep, and dozens of species of birds are common, and you can hike for days.

Malta, Montana, is a legit ranching town, where elk antlers are standard home decorations, and beef is what’s for dinner. But that doesn’t mean the locals don’t like good beer—grab an post-adventure beverage at Blue Ridge Brewing.

Southeast Montana

Take a deep breath, and just take it all in. Bighorn Canyon. Photo: Courtesy of Visit Montana

Southeast Montana is a world of its own, with its vast wilderness and magnificent allure.

Bighorn Canyon Recreation Area seems to appear out of nowhere on the plains, with a lake 60 miles long that stretches through Wyoming and Montana, 55 miles of which are held within spectacular Bighorn Canyon (the third largest canyon in the country).

Here, soaring red rock cliffs make you feel like you could be in the Grand Canyon. It’s a perfect place for kayaking, fishing, wildlife viewing, photography and hiking. The recreation Area is composed of 70,000-plus acres, which straddle the northern Wyoming and southern Montana borders. Load up your kayak with a week’s worth of food and camping gear, paddle into remote, private inlets, and enjoy some digital detox. Guided kayak trips are available through the park service.

Free-roaming wild horses in the Pryor Mountains. Photo: Courtesy of The Bureau of Land Management/Flickr

Nearby, the Pryor Range is a small island mountain range with a famous wild horse herd, and an ice cave that stays frozen all summer long. With a short hike to reach the cave, it’s an excellent place to cool off on a hot day.

Fort Smith, Montana, is your home base of Bighorn Canyon and Pryor Mountain adventures. With a population of 161 people it’s delightful, expansive, and most definitely true to itself. You’ll certainly leave this place with an authentic sense of real Montana.

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