Montana is filled with breathtaking places that you may have visited, or have dreamed of traveling to, like Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, Flathead Lake, Bozeman, Livingston and countless others. But if you’re hoping to experience some of its lesser-known gems, consider visiting one of the spots you’ve probably never heard about.
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Makoshika State Park, Glendive
“Makoshika” is a Sioux Indian word which translates to “Land of Bad Spirits,” a rather apt them for the mysterious badlands found in Makoshika State Park, which lies just outside the town of Glendive in the southeast region of the state. This is the largest state park in Montana, and offers the chance to hike, camp, bird watch and even search for dinosaur bones. Though many of its features are best explored by walking the trails, you can also drive the scenic road in view the unusual sandstone formations, carved over millennia from the elements.
Once the largest town in the inland northwest, with a population of roughly 10,000 in 1864, there was more than $90 million worth of gold pulled from Virginia City and the surrounding area between 1863 and 1875, making it a very popular place at the time. Though the town nearly died, preservation began in the 1960s in order to keep the Old West town authentic and free of commercialism. Today, there are just over 100 residents, but it houses more than 100 historic buildings, complete with period furnishings and artifacts. Enjoy old-fashioned activities like riding a narrow gauge railroad or hopping aboard an old-fashioned stagecoach, as well as attractions like the famous Virginia City Players who perform vaudeville and melodrama in the opera house, the most popular form of entertainment, before movies and television.
Calypso Trail, Terry Badlands Wilderness Study Area
The Calypso Trail is a 5.5-mile old bootlegging road that winds its way north of the town of Terry, providing access to the erosion-carved clay and sandstone of the Terry Badlands Wilderness Study Area. This is some of the state’s most impressive badlands scenery, with the rocks eroded by wind and water transformed into pinnacles, arches, spires, bridges and flat tabletops. While you won’t find any services here, the views are absolutely enchanting.
Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park, Whitehall
Located in the southwestern region of the state near Whitehall, Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park is the very first and the best-known state park in all of Montana. It boasts one of the most elaborate limestone caverns in the Northwest, with the caves lined with stalagmites, helictites, stalactites and columns that are viewed under the glow of electric lights. They’re also a great place to cool off in the summer, offering a natural respite from the hot rays of the sun. Guided tours are available between May 1 and September 30, and the park also hosts campgrounds, cabin rentals, hiking trails, a visitor center, picnic areas and an amphitheater.
Smokejumper Visitor Center, Missoula
The Smokejumper Visitor Center is home to the largest smokejumper base in the nation. It provides a glimpse into what it’s like to do one of the world’s most dangerous jobs – smokejumpers are firefighters that parachute into remote areas that aren’t easily accessible. You can take a free tour of the facility which includes a visit to the Smokejumper loft, the ready room, and the National Smokejumper memorial, as well as explore the gift shop and museum, which includes a fire lookout tower originally built in 1930. In the summer, the Smokejumper aircraft are here, and you might even get to see the Smokejumpers dispatched to a fire. During the month of May, you may be able to watch them take practice jumps while preparing for the fire season.
This historic town was at its peak as a mining town in the late 1800s. Today, it offers multiple attractions, from mining for sapphires to plays and vaudeville-style shows at the 1891 Opera House Theatre to the Granite County Museum, which provides an excellent overview of silver mining operations. It features exhibits on pioneer and homestead era history, old photos and real mining equipment as well as a miner’s cabin and a realistic simulation of an actual mine.
St. Ignatius and the St. Ignatius Mission
This little town lies at the base of the Mission Mountains in the heart of the Flathead Indian Reservation. It’s renowned for its world-class rock and ice climbing as well as being home to the magnificent St. Ignatius Mission. Built in 1891, its highlight are the 58 murals that were hand-painted by Brother Joseph Carignano. The colorful murals are still in remarkable condition and cover all of its walls and the ceiling. A museum displaying Indian artifacts sits adjacent to it, with its gift shop offering religious items for purchase.
Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, Fort Smith
Surely one of the state’s best-kept secrets, the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is located 80 miles south of Billings and has been compared to the Grand Canyon. It spans 70 miles of canyon walls, some of which are over 1,000 feet high. Visitors can enjoy unrivaled opportunities for outdoor adventure, including swimming and fishing at Bighorn Lake, and becoming immersed in a striking natural landscape, with a great diversity of wildlife, ecosystems and over 10,000 years of human history.
The entire town of Fort Benton is a National Historic Landmark due to its incredibly rich history. The “birthplace of Montana,” it was founded on the courage and hard labor of the thousands that came to explore and seek a better future. You’ll see its history on display throughout, particularly in the Heritage Complex which sits on the banks of the Missouri River, where the old fort shares space with a variety of other museums. Take a stroll along the historic steamboat levee= to see outdoor art displays, while historic district is home to theaters, shops, art galleries and outstanding eateries.
Medicine Rocks State Park
Medicine Rocks State Park sits between Baker and Ekalaka in southeast Montana. It hosts bizarre pillars that rise straight out of the flat prairie, creating an unusual yet mesmerizing sight. Centuries of wind sculpted the sandstone into what looks a bit like Swiss cheese. You can also view the signatures carved into the rock by pioneers and emigrants as they passed by the famous monument decades ago.