Montana’s small towns are not of the cookie-cutter variety so often found in other states. Why is this? Simply put, most small towns in Montana have retained their heritage and historical roots. Urbanization and rapid population growth have not arrived, at least not yet.
Livingston (pop. 7,784) fits this picture very nicely. Someone who left Livingston for greener pastures 50 years ago and came back to visit in 2020 would feel right at home. A good thing in a fast-paced world for sure.
It is worth contrasting Livingston with Bozeman, a city a few miles to the west on IH 90. So much about Bozeman is fast paced, while Livingston is more about take your time and enjoy life.
In history, Livingston was a hub for the railroads as they pushed rails to the West Coast. Due to industrial activity associated with the railroads, the city flourished. The city was also a destination city for many who wanted to experience the wonders of Yellowstone. Not much has changed, but the railroad industry has moved on.
Many beautiful buildings were built in the downtown area in the early 1900s, and they remain today, used for commerce and cultural activities. Go to the Murray Hotel for starters. The Murray was built in 1904. The building and its amenities retain a historical flavor, from the time when first built. The public library in Livingston is a Carnegie Library. Check it out.
Livingston is located in the upper Yellowstone Valley. Yellowstone National Park is 56 miles south of Livingston on U.S. Highway 89. The wild and pristine Yellowstone River flows near the city. The Absaroka Mountains tower over Main Street looking to the south of the downtown. A picture postcard setting for sure.
Livingstone is proud of its rich history. The artifacts and exhibits housed in the Yellowstone Gateway Museum showcase and tell the story of the city’s rich industrial, ranching, and cultural beginnings. Learn about Native Americans, Lewis & Clark, and the pioneers. This museum is a genuine treasure.
Livingston is not overrun by chain hotels and restaurants. In Livingston, visitors experience homegrown businesses, lodging, art galleries and small shops such as the Elk River Books. Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop is a first stop for many, even if wading in the trout-filled Yellowstone near town is not of interest.
For upscale dining, go to Second Street Bistro in the Murray Hotel. Beef, chicken, lamb, and produce are locally sourced, says the manager of the restaurant. On the menu: Bistro sirloin and fries pan-seared Yellowstone grasslands flat-iron, herbed french fries, red wine demi pan sauce, whole grain dijon mustard. $28. Gil’s Goods is another eatery adjoining the Murray. Great breakfasts, pizzas, and sandwiches served at Gil’s.
Livingston ranks high among the many small towns in Montana. Enjoy!
The city of Kalispell (pop. 23,938) and the region around the city are a major tourist destination in northwest Montana. Glacier National Park, a few miles to the east of Kalispell, draws more than 3,000,000 visitors annually. Many arrive during peak season, June thru September.
It is not only Glacier Park that attracts. Vast wilderness areas near Kalispell offer limitless opportunities for outdoor recreation. Fishing, hiking, and boating to name a few. Outdoor recreation is king in the area around Kalispell.
Many tourists arrive in Kalispell at Glacier International Airport. Many others arrive by auto, train, or tour bus. No interstate highways reach Kalispell. Two main U.S. highways connect Kalispell with the rest of Civilization. U.S. Highway 93 runs north-south from the Canadian border to Missoula and U.S. Highway 2 runs east-west connecting Kalispell with Spokane to the west and Havre and other cities to the east.
Many hotels and other types of lodging are available in Kalispell and the surrounding towns and rural areas. Due to the influx of so many visitors, an amazing variety of places to stay can be found here. Cabins, resorts, bed & breakfasts, lodges, and more. As for traditional lodging, the historic Kalispell Grand Hotel may be a better choice than most of the chain hotels in town. The Kalispell Grand offers a continental breakfast, massage studio, and art gallery to make your stay more enjoyable. (406) 755-8100.
Flathead Lake is a few miles south of Kalispell. Fishing and boating on Flathead Lake are a common activity. Five State Parks offer facilities for outdoor activities near the shores of Flathead Lake. Wayfarers/Flathead Lake, close to the village of Bigfork, draws many visitors: Picnicking, fishing, camping, boating, and swimming are a few of the activities allowed at this state park.
A couple of nice attractions are found in the city of Kalispell. The Conrad Mansion Museum, built in 1895, is a window into early pioneer days of Kalispell. Mr. Conrad, a rich businessman, built the house with income from hauling freight and other business activities. The museum features many exhibits and well-manicured gardens enhance beauty of the grounds.
For history buffs, the Northwest Montana History Museum is a must see. The museum showcases the history of early frontier days. A neat glimpse of the old central school in Kalispell is a special attraction in the museum. Artifacts and displays of Native American culture are also interesting.
For upscale dining in Kalispell, try Jagz Fine Dining. A full pound center cut ribeye, char-grilled and topped with bourbon onion sauce goes for $32.95. The Desoto Grill is wildly popular too. The Desoto Grill serves BBQ, sandwiches, desserts, and beer. A smoked chicken sandwich, $12.25. Banana pudding, $4.75. Yum!
Natural beauty is the hallmark of the region around Kalispell. Mountains, pristine lakes, and wild rivers add to the splendor. This part of the country is hard to match anywhere else in the United States. The Visitor Information Center,15 Depot Park in Kalispell, is ready to give good advice and help make your stay more enjoyable. Phone: (888) 888-2308.
Lewistown (pop. 5,870) is a small ranching, farming, and commercial community located in the geographic center of Montana. The nearest large city is Great Falls, 105 miles to the northwest on U. S. Highway 87. Vast plains and small mountain ranges are common features of the landscape near Lewistown.
Lewistown is a very stable community with a population that remains essentially unchanged over the past 100 years. In 1920 Lewistown had a population of 6,120, in 1940, 5,874, and, in the most recent census, 5,910. Few communities in the entire United States enjoy such stability. A good thing.
Lewistown is blessed by natural beauty. Nearby low mountain ranges, the Big Snowy Mountains and Judith Mountains, offer recreational opportunities galore. Wildlife are abundant in the countryside: mule deer, antelope, porcupine, and many other species are common.
Lewistown is a special place to visit. Beautiful historic buildings from the town’s early beginning still stand on main street. And many friendly merchants are found on main street selling clothing, gifts, antiques, artwork, sporting goods and much more. Moccasin Mountain Art and Gifts is a first stop for many visitors.
Bring a camera and shoot lots of pictures. This a town to remember years after your visit. Government buildings are often impressive in most cities. In Lewistown, the Fergus County Courthouse is an amazing architectural structure. Down the street is Lewistown’s public library, built in the early part of the last century by funds from the famous industrialist Andrew Carnegie.
Lodging is somewhat limited in Lewistown, but the city can usually handle the low number of visitors who arrive. The Yogo Inn is a good choice. In addition to well-appointed rooms, the inn has superb dining in Stetson’s Restaurant and beverages for every liking in the Golden Spike Lounge. Big Spring Brewery at the east edge of town is exceedingly popular: Command Bomber IPA, anyone?
For a quiet experience close to nature, stay at the Pheasant Tales Bed and Bistro, a lodge located about four miles south of Lewistown. Wildlife in the area and mountains views are only a coupe of reasons why guests stay at this wonderful lodge. Guests are offered evening meals, with advance reservations. (406) 538-2124.
Lewistown ranks high among the best small towns in Montana, along with Red Lodge, Livingston, and Bigfork. All four of these towns have so much homey charm and historical interest, plus all are situated in beautiful natural settings with mountain environments close by.
Great Falls (pop. 58,701) get its name from five magnificent waterfalls that existed during historic times on the Missouri River near the City of Great Falls. Over many years, dams were built on the river and three of the falls largely disappeared from the natural landscape. Only Crooked Falls and Rainbow Falls remain untouched. Nevertheless, much beauty can be seen in the area around the dams and along the Missouri River more generally.
Interstate Highway, IH-15, is a main north-south road that runs through Great Falls and connects the city with Canada to the north and Helena, Butte, and Salt Like City to the south. Another major road, Montana State Highway 200, runs east-west through Great Falls and is the main artery across a huge swath of central Montana, running from North Dakota in the east to Idaho in the west.
Great Falls is headquarters for a vast region. And an amazing city. To the east and north of the city are endless plains, to the west the Rocky Mountains. Fun in the outdoors beckons in the city and the vast largely unpopulated hinterlands spreading out in every direction.
Giant Springs State Park, one of state’s best parks, is almost inside Great Falls city limits. Giant Springs is a great place for hiking, bicycling, picnicking, fishing, and bird watching all the while experiencing wonderful scenery along the Missouri River. The park is famous for its underground spring that pumps millions of gallons of water into the Missouri River every day. A segment of River’s Edge Trail passes through the park. All of this can be had with an urban environment close by.
Great Falls has two major museums: C.M. Russell Museum tells the story of an early artist during Montana’s frontier days. Many originals of Russell’s art are on display. The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretative Center in Great Falls is a classic. Exhibits at the museum explain the discovery of the region by Lewis & Clark at the beginning of the 19th century.
If you stay overnight or for a few days, the historic Hotel Arvon is a good choice. The Celtic Cowboy, a pub and restaurant adjoining the hotel, is amazing for its old-world charm. Lots of craft beers to drink here. Think Irish. Dante’s Creative Cuisine in the downtown area is tops for evening dining.
Great Falls is not the first thing tourists think about when they plan a trip to Montana. Many should reconsider, less an opportunity is missed to enjoy so much offered in and around Great Falls.
Helena (pop. 31,429) is Montana’s state capital. The city is quite small, so it is easy to get around, even for first-time visitors. Tourists generally do not flock to Helena like they do other hot spots such as Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks and cities and towns near the parks.
Helena is defined by Last Chance Gulch, the main street through downtown. Why go there? Last Chance Gulch is lined with many historical building dating back to the late 1800s. Architects and common folks will marvel at the beauty of these old buildings, many built with stone.
On the Gulch or near the Gulch, on side streets, are some of the city’s best restaurants and hotels. For upscale dining, try On Broadway and Lucca’s. More casual dining is found at Bert and Ernie’s. The Parrot Confectionery, on Last Chance Gulch, is a must-visit old-time establishment, serving malts, mild shakes, chili, and other delights. Plus, the Parrot makes home-made chocolate candies that are in a word, the best.
Two hotels stand out on or near Last Chance Gulch: DoubleTree by Hilton Helena and the Great Northern Best Western Hotel. Both hotels have or are near excellent dining for guests and the public.
As for attractions, the Montana Historical Museum near the state capitol is outstanding. The museum has displays and artifacts covering the early days of Montana’s history. The museum also includes a wonderful art gallery which has many original pieces by famous artist C.M. Russell. The museum is open 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. weekdays and Saturday, closed on Sundays and holidays.
The state capitol is open to the public. The building is magnificent, a genuine treasure for such a small town. The capitol is open 7:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. weekdays and 9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. weekends.
Missoula (pop, 74,428) is home to the University of Montana. College towns tend to have a distinctive vibe, different from regular cities. Missoula does not completely fit this picture, since the city and the surrounding towns have some industry, especially related to forestry. And Missoula draws lots of tourists.
One major interstate highway, IH 94 going east, connects Missoula with Billings and states in the Midwest. Going west from Missoula, IH 94 leads to Spokane and Seattle. Many flights arrive daily at Missoula International Airport. Missoula is far away from other centers of population. It’s a drive of 200 miles to Spokane, and Billings is 342 miles to the east.
Missoula is a destination for outdoor activities. The Bitterroot River Valley and surrounding mountains south of town offer almost limitless opportunities for hiking, bicycling, fishing, and other outdoor recreation. For beautiful scenery, a drive south of Missoula in the Bitterroot Valley is special. The Bitterroot Mountains, carved by glaciers during the Ice Ages, are spectacular to see and experience.
Missoula has a shopping mall with lots of national chair stores. Beyond that shopping is spread throughout the city. Many stores are owned by local businesses, especially restaurants and shops that cater to needs of people who seek fun in the outdoors.
Since Missoula is mainly an education center and a commercial hub, few big attractions are in the city. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation appeals to a few folks. A carousel will surely keep the kids happy if they are traveling along. The downtown has a historical importance, with a few places listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Given the mix of people who live in and visit Missoula, it is obvious why the city is noted for its excellent dining and drinking places. The Shack just off Higgins Street downtown snags many customers. Bernice’s Bakery is always a good choice. Every visitor should stop at Worden’s Market and Deli. Many young adults hang out at the Iron Horse Bar & Grill. For upscale dining, try the Pearl Café. The décor at the Pearl has an intimate feeling that appeals to many who pay big bucks for dinner.
Bayern Brewing is more than a place, it’s a destination for many. Many beer labels sold here. Dancing Trout, Dump Truck, and Face Plant show this guys have an imagination when choosing names for Bayern Brewing beers. A part of the brewery, Edelweiss Bistro serves food sourced from local farms and ranches. Order a Weisswurst, two poached white sausages served Bier Hall-style with a pretzel and Händlmaier’s Sweet Bavarian mustard. $9. Yum!
Bozeman (pop.48,532) is a small city with a big city attitude. The city sort of feels like it would fit nicely anywhere in the Rocky Mountain region. Say as a neighboring city to Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Main Street in the downtown area is always busy. A beehive for sure.
From Bozeman, travelers can easily reach many popular vacation hot spots in southwest Montana. The north entrance to Yellowstone, near the small town of Gardiner, is south of Livingston on U.S. Highway 89. And the west entrance to Yellowstone, near the small town of West Yellowstone, is directly south of Bozeman on U.S. Highway 191.
One major interstate highway, IH 94, going east, connects Bozeman with Billings and states in the Midwest. Going west from Bozeman, IH 94 leads to Missoula, Spokane and Seattle. Many flights arrive daily at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport.
Bozeman is an education center and a vacation hub. Montana State University is headquartered in Bozeman. The city has limited shopping in a traditional way. But many stores supply visitors with all sorts of goods for having fun in the outdoors.
Is Bozeman a party town? Maybe. Many bars and good restaurants are ready to serve visitors. Some great dining choices here, even extra nice places like Plonk Wine which, you may have guessed, has imported wines from Europe that can set you back $400 a bottle.
Bozeman offers plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities. At the top of the list is fly-fishing for trout in the Gallatin and Madison Rivers. During winter months, many ski bums head for Bridger Bowl near Bozeman. Hiking, bicycling, and whitewater rafting are other major activities enjoyed by many outdoor enthusiasts.
Two attractions standout in the Bozeman, leaving aside Yellowstone. The Museum of the Rockies with its splendid dinosaur collection is a must see. If wildlife is of interest, Montana Grizzly Encounter is a few miles east of Bozeman.
Lots of traffic on Bozeman streets at most hours of the day. Parking spots are hard to find especially on Main Street downtown. City leaders have noticed. Parking lots on streets to the north and south of Main Street are ready to serve drivers.
Bozeman tends to cater to visitors who have fatter wallets than most. But some of the outdoors stuff is FREE.
Billings (pop. 109,550) is called Montana’s Trailhead. From Billings, travelers can easily reach many destinations in south-central Montana and the Bighorn Basin in northwest Wyoming. The northeast entrance to Yellowstone National park is a short drive from Billings.
One major interstate highway, IH 94, connects Billings with points to the east including Bismarck and Minneapolis. A second interstate highway, IH 25, connects Billings with cities in central Wyoming and south to Denver. Going west from Billings yet another interstate highway, IH 90, connects with Missoula, Spokane, and Seattle. Many flights arrive at Billings Logan International Airport each day.
Billings is a major trade, medical, and entertainment center. And the city is a shopping hub for a huge geographic area. Great dining choices here, even yummy German cuisine at the Oktoberfest German Restaurant in west Billings.
Billings offers plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities, and major attractions are nearby. At the top of the list are the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area southwest of Billings and, for history buffs, the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument located a few miles southeast of Billings. Visitors to Billings often stop by Zoo Montana to learn about and experience nature, without having to take a trip into the wild.
Bed & Breakfasts are popular some people. Campgrounds are often the choice of RVers. More recently, vacation rentals are all the rage.
Commercial travel Web sites can help find and book lodging. In some cases, you can also book lodging with the proprietor or a local vendor. If you dial up a phone number with the area code (406) you are likely reach a local business.