Montana is the 4th largest state in the United States. But not many people live here. With a population of slightly more than one million, Montana is about equal in size to San Jose, California. So there’s plenty of room to roam in both rural places and cities.
Billings and Missoula are the state’s largest cities. Other cities with a significant population are Great Falls, Bozeman, Helena, Butte, and Kalispell.
Most residents are of European descent with the earliest explorers and settlers arriving in the state after the year 1800. German, Irish, English, and Norwegian heritage are common. Many Indigenous Peoples, first to arrive and cherish lands of the western hemisphere, as far back as 10,000 years ago, are at home here, as well.
A good share of visitors in Montana are attracted by the wonders and scenery found in Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park. About four million visitors tour Yellowstone each year, and more than three million visitors go to Glacier. But the state has much more to offer those who take time to explore and experience lesser know attractions.
Savvy visitors seek out and enjoy the state’s many interesting historical places and landmarks. They find many wonderful museums in cities, big and small. In the great outdoors, fishing, hiking, camping, boating, skiing, and horseback riding are popular activities. Cultural events galore appeal to visitors, too. It’s an ideal and fun place to vacation.
Eastern Montana is an area of vast rolling plains. Grasslands with few trees dominate the landscape. Huge wheat farms and cattle ranches are common.
In central Montana, the plains are dotted with small mountain ranges.Cattle ranching and farming are a way of life. Mule deer and antelope roam the prairies throughout this region.
Western Montana is a region of magnificent mountains. Welcome to the Rocky Mountains. The Absaroka Range near Livingston is covered with snow much of the year and peaks reach over 11,000 feet in elevation. The wild and pristine landscape is home to mountain lions and grizzly bears.
Rainfall is low in most areas, often less than 13 inches, annually. Temperatures in western mountain valleys are generally moderate the year-round. In eastern areas, on the plains, days can be very hot in the summer and very cold in winter.
Major cities and towns
Major cities: •Billings, pop. 109,550 •Missoula, pop. 74,428 •Bozeman, pop. 45,596 •Helena, pop. 31,429 •Great Falls, pop. 58,701 •Butte, pop. 34,284
•Glendive, pop. 5,332 •Kalispell, pop. 22,761 •Miles City, pop. 8,647 •Lewistown, pop. 5,870 •Havre, pop. 9.846 •Dillon, pop. 4,257
Montana has five distinctive travel regions. Each region offers abundant opportunities for fun and enjoyment. The flavor varies a lot from region to region. Learn about all the regions by reading the Web pages in Montana Traveler and find things to see and do that fit your interests and tastes.
The southeast and south-central region is Yellowstone. Early explorers noticed prominent yellow sandstone bluffs bordering what is now known as the Yellowstone River. Soon, the name Yellowstone became associated with this region. Visitors enjoy vast prairies and, in the western section, towering mountains.
Some cities are Billings, Glendive, Miles City, Red Lodge, and Livingston. Billings (pop. 109,550 ) is the chief city along I-90 and the upper Yellowstone Valley. Billings is a trade, medical, and entertainment center for a vast area including northwest Wyoming. Billings is a good base from which to make forays to Yellowstone National Park and the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument. Cody, Wyoming, a major tourist center, is southwest of Billings.
‘It’s easy to say that the southwest region is Wonderland. As the Union Pacific and Northern Pacific Railroads pushed new tracks west in the late 1800s, railway executives wanted Americans to see and develop virgin lands. To create interest and excitement, savvy railroad managers promoted this region and areas beyond as “Wonderland.” Today tourists flock to this region for outdoor activities, cultural events, and more. Fun is everywhere.
Some cities are Missoula, Bozeman, Dillon, Hamilton, and Butte. Bozeman and Missoula are the major cities in Wonderland. Bozeman (pop. 45,596) is located in the Gallatin Valley, surrounded by magnificent mountain ranges. The Gallatin Range and the Madison Range, south of Bozeman, rise more than 10,000 feet and have peaks covered with snow much of the year. Missoula (pop. 74,428) is home to the University of Montana and the mighty Grizzlies.
The central region is Ranchland. Rural landscapes here are exceptionally beautiful. Cattle on the range out number people in this region by a gazillion or so it seems. Important cities are Helena, Lewistown, Roundup, and Townsend. Helena (pop. 31,429) is a friendly town with lots to offer visitors. Helena is the state capital and a major tourist center. The main part of town lies at the foot of the mountains in the beautiful Helena Valley. Lewistown, in central Montana, is a quaint small town, supported by ranching. The outdoors near Lewistown is a huge attraction.
The northeast and north-central region is Discoveryland. This is an area of vast prairies, with a very low population. Lewis & Clark and other early explorers followed the mighty Missouri River across this region on their journey west.
Some cities are Great Falls, Glasgow, Havre, and Shelby. Great Falls (pop. 58,701) is the largest city. Many people who live in Discoveryland shop in Great Falls. Holiday Village, the mall in Great Falls, has over 80 stores. Great Falls has exceptional museums that attract thousands of visitors.
The northwest region is The Wilderness, an area of wild and pristine landscape. If one imagines what a wilderness is like, this is the place. Some cities are Kalispell, Whitefish, Columbia Falls, Bigfork, and Polson. Kalispell (pop. 22,761) is the largest city in the region. Glacier National Park and Flathead Lake are huge attractions in this area. In Glacier, visitors see some of the most spectacular landscape in North America.
Travel tip When traveling, time usually is precious and limited. This is especially important to think about in Montana as “things” including attractions and cities are far apart. As for cities, a visit to one or two of the larger cities may be all that time allows. The choice of which cities to visit may come down to why a person is in the state in the first place. In any case, Missoula and Bozeman are likely tops for many visitors.
How far is Missoula or Helena? Distances between major cities can be as much as 100 miles or more. Plan ahead with the DOT’s distance calculator.
Travel tip Be prepared for large temperature changes even in the same day. This is true for the summer months too. Many areas are at a high elevation and the state is far north. Think chilly or cold. The best advice is to take along clothing to “layer up” when conditions change. During the summer a wool sweater and a spring- or fall-like jacket of medium-weight is a good choice.
Travel tip Google Maps is an essential tool for travelers. Google Maps offers a quick and convenient way to find and locate all kinds of services.
Highlights for your visit to Montana:
- Scenic Area: Gates of the Mountains near Helena
- Scenic Mountain Routes: Beartooth Highway (U.S. Highway 212 south from Red Lodge toward the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park); Going-to-the-Sun Road (near Kalispell in Glacier National Park)
- Natural Site: Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park
- Lake: Flathead Lake near Kalispell
- Museums: Montana Historical Society Museum in Helena; Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyo.
- Restaurants: Bistecca at the Granary in Billings; Blackbird Kitchen in Bozeman; On Broadway in Helena; The Pearl Café in Missoula; Dante’s Creative Cuisine in Great Falls; Uptown Café in Butte
- Western Store: Hoglund’s Work and Western Wear in Great Falls
- Sports Store: Scheels sports store in Billings
- Scenic Drives: I-15, Helena to Great Falls; Montana Route 540 (near Livingston); Montana State Highway 78, Columbus to Red Lodge
- Small Towns: Bigfork; Red Lodge; Livingston; Lewistown
- Historical Site: Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument near Hardin
- National Parks: Yellowstone National Park; Glacier National Park
- Nightlife: Missoula
- Scenic mountains: Absaroka Mountains, drive from Belfry, Mont. to Cody, Wyo., along Montana State Highway 72 and continuing south on Wyoming State Highway 120; Bitterroot Mountains, drive south from Missoula to Hamilton, along U.S. Highway 93.
- Wildlife: Grizzly bears in captivity at West Yellowstone (a small town at west entrance to Yellowstone National Park) and a grizzly bear sanctuary near Bozeman; vast herds of buffalo in the Hayden Valley, Yellowstone National Park
- Lodging: Grand Union Hotel in Fort Benton; Sage Lodge near Livingston
- Ski Areas: Red Lodge Mountain; Whitefish Mountain Resort
- Events: Montana State Fair in Great Falls; Home of Champions Rodeo in Red Lodge
- Outdoor Recreation: Fly-fishing Madison River near Ennis; hiking in Glacier National Park
|Web Sites of Special Interest|
|Yellowstone National Park||Glacier National Park|
|Guest Ranches||State Parks|
Choose a season to visit
Travel in Montana is a different kind of experience. The state is unlike other places people normally go when on vacation. First, the outdoors is spectacular, beautiful and unspoiled landscapes are everywhere. Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks are America’s best. Millions visit the parks annually.
Travel opportunities vary with the seasons. Most people come in the summer. Beyond the national parks, cultural events, local celebrations, and museums offered by rural towns and larger cities are big attractions. Hiking, bicycling, skiing, and fly-fishing are popular.
During the winter months, several ski resorts in the western mountains draw many visitors. Since the ski resorts are usually near small town such as Red Lodge and Whitefish, you don’t have to compete as much for space on the slopes as is the case in Vail and Aspen in Colorado.
Montana has a very nice autumn season. Days are still warm, even while temperatures drop lower a lot overnight. Large crowds of tourists, common during the summer months have gone home, back to school or work in distant places. In September and October, there’s more freedom to enjoy the lifestyle and pace that’s traditional Montana.
Local weather for selected Montana cities
Billings MT forecast
Travel tip When driving a good map is handy even if you think you know the way. It’s also helpful for planning alternate routes which may turn out to be more scenic and less traveled than roads drivers usually take. Plan your trip using the official Montana state highway map.
Get in the mood for Montana travel
Listen and watch “Montana on My Mind” performed by Scioto River Band (Columbus, Ohio) and sang by Catherine “Cat” Leigh. Version re-mastered by Abbey Road Studios, London, England.
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Absaroka Mountain, Mont.
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