There’s a lot of ground to cover in Montana, and almost all of it is stunningly beautiful, so it lends itself to an old-fashioned road trip—there are even outfits that organize summer bike trips for a family that’s ready for a more active adventure. Montana is home to two of the country’s most celebrated national parks, each of which justifies its own trip, but this route focuses on some of the state’s historic landmarks, like the remnants of Louis & Clark’s famous expedition and the site of Custer’s last stand (more on Glacier and Yellowstone, and other national parks, coming soon). This particular route could be scaled up or down depending on how many stops you make, and it’s also peppered with a combination of gorgeous campsites and surprisingly cool hotels, so there are places to stay regardless of your style.
Conveniently located along I90, Billings is an easy jumping off point for local landmarks.
Little Bighorn Battlefield
First, drive an hour southeast to Crow Agency, the tiny town that’s home to the Little Bighorn Battlefield. In addition to offering gorgeous lookouts over the Montana prairie, there’s a national cemetery, an old-fashioned monument, and knowledgeable rangers in the information center.
On the way back to Billings, stop by Pompey’s Pillar, a rock outcropping overlooking the Yellowstone River that bears the still-visible etching of William Clark’s signature (supposedly the only physical evidence of the Core of Discovery’s journey that’s still visible today). It’s a lovely place to explore in general—if the historical bend isn’t your thing, there’s plenty of places to fish along the Yellowstone River and an excellent campsite. If you’re not camping, it’s just a short 30-minute drive back to Billings.
A little more than two hours west of Billings (along a monumental mountain-lined drive), Bozeman is one of the more beautiful college towns you’ll come across. In the winter months it’s home base for skiers at Big Sky, and in the summer you can book raft outfits—we like Montana Whitewater—for trips along the Yellowstone River.
The Lark, a modern retro-fitted motel that offers cool, kid-friendly rooms (bunk beds!) and often hosts food trucks in its parking lot.
A little farther south, you can hike up to Clark’s Lookout, literally putting yourselves in the explorers shoes as you survey the view of the Beaverhead River and the mountains beyond it.
Butte was one of the richest towns in the country back in the 1920s, when the copper mine first came into production (and when copper prices were extraordinarily high). The copper mines crashed in the 1950s, but not before creating a town that’s home to curious old brick mansions and the creepily interesting “anaconda pit,” a former mine and superfund site that can be viewed from an observation tower. For an interesting look into the history of Butte, Empty Mansions tells the story of an heir to one of three infamous Copper Barons.
Beaverhead Rock State Park
A few miles west of Bozeman along I90, it’s worth taking a detour south for a few key state parks that pay homage to the Lewis & Clark expedition. First, stop at Beaverhead Rock State Park to check out its eponymous rock formation; Sacajawea recognized it as a place where the group could find a tribe of Native Americans to trade with in 1805.
On the way back up to I90, take a little detour to Bannack, a ghost town that was abandoned back in the 1950s, once all remnants of the gold rush had officially evaporated. Brave littles love this place, as most of the 60+ remaining structures are safe to explore.
Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine
Another worthy detour on the way to Missoula takes you through Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine. The quirky little outpost is hidden in the mountains: you’ll buy a bucket of their sapphire gravel and sort through it, looking for the tiny gems, which come in every color from pink to blue. Every year, a few lucky visitors find gems that are big enough to be cut into rings and necklaces.
In A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean writes that “The world is full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the further one gets from Missoula, Montana.” It’s worth devoting at least a day to the college mountain town, having dinner at Scotty’s Table, which is located in the basement of the Wilma, in the old swimming pool. The building is a major Missoula landmark: While it’s never been corroborated, locals say that local hero David Lynch based Blue Velvet on it.
Paw’s Up is just outside of town, but the wide open property and awesome glamping situation are more than worth the inconvenience.
National Bison Range
The first stop on your way North after Missoula is the National Bison Range (established by Theodore Roosevelt at a time when numbers were dangerously low), where you can watch the now-robust herds of bison grazing from the road. In the spring, visitors can see the newborn calves with their mothers, and there are also some big horn sheep on the property.
Missoula is headquarters for several raft outfits (try 10,000 Waves: The Blackfork has a nice lazy innertube setup for the under-ten set, but families with older kids might like the Alberton Gorge, which has some serious rapids and breathtaking views. Horse-packing trips into the Bob Marshall wilderness (Bob Marshall Wilderness Outfitters does a great one) also start here, though they’re entirely worthy of their own trip.
45 minutes north of Bigfork (and a full two hours north of Missoula), Whitefish is a resort town with a lovely ski mountain and plenty of water sports on its namesake lake. Significantly, it’s also the gateway to Glacier National Park, so it’s a good place to rest up before driving through.
The Lodge at Whitefish Lake is right up on the lake (with lots of rentals for getting into the water)—the dining room, incidentally, is one of the town’s best restaurants.
Glacier National Park
Devote a full day to driving through the park itself—in fact, it’s hard not to, as driving through a cross-section inspires so many spots for exploring and getting out of the car that it’s all but impossible to make it through straight. Many Glacier and Lake McDonald Lodge are epic places to stop for views and snacks.
Read & Watch
A note to first-time family road-trippers: Audiobooks—see below for our family-friendly rec, Hank the Cowdog—are a total game-changer. But there is also plenty to read and watch before you embark on your Montana adventure, to help put you in a Western state of mind.
The Girl Who Loved Wild
Horses by Paul Goble Amazon, $7.74
Hank the Cowdog
by John R. Erickson Amazon, $28.19
by Anna L. Waldo Amazon, $8.97
The Last Stand by
Nathaniel Philbrick Amazon, $12.61
Empty Mansions by
Bill Dedman & Paul
Clark Newell, Jr. Amazon, $10.11
Fourth of July Creek
by Smith Henderson Amazon, $9.99