Montana and Crowded: two words that don’t often go together. But as we wrote in our Montana Vacation Planning Guide, while a moderate five million people visited Montana for tourism in 2019, an astounding three million visited Glacier National Park and an even more staggering four million people visited Yellowstone National Park.
So while Montana is a huge state with a sparse population and represents only a tiny fraction of the 2.4 billion tourism visits in the US each year, certain locations – especially the two famous national parks – do get crowded during the summer months.
So we approached the six regional tourism marketing associations in Montana, experts in their regions, to ask for one adventure without the “Montana crowds”. Here are their answers.
Ghost Towns and Gold Mines
The discovery of gold, boom and bust towns, rugged and sometimes lawless life in the late 1800s: all sound like a good movie plot. Put yourself in that movie and experience this area on a gorgeous scenic drive through the Judith Mountains, an island mountain range in Central Montana.
- Begin your drive near the ghost town of Gilt Edge sixteen miles east of Lewistown, just off US Hwy 87. At the Gilt Edge sign turn north onto a gravel road. Gold was discovered here on the east slope of the Judith Mountains in 1883 and mining continued until 1991.
- From Gilt Edge drive to Fort Maginnis, a former military fort and now a ghost town. The fort was established in 1880 to protect the growing number of settlers coming to Montana from Native American tribes. Most of the original buildings were moved to Lewistown although the cemetery remains.
- Backtrack a bit and continue through Maiden Canyon where you’ll find the ghost town of Maiden. This gold mining area began as a tent camp in 1879 and was fully developed by 1881. Nearly 20 structures remain in the Maiden townsite and vary from ruins to remodeled buildings serving as present-day homes and cabins.
- When you reach US Hwy 191, turn north, travel to the town of Hilger and follow signs to the ghost town of Kendall. Stone building foundations, a bandstand and a boulder used in drilling contests still remain. Gold mining began in Kendall in 1901 and there have been several efforts to mine the area, most recently ending in 1996. In 1967 the townsite was donated to the Boy Scouts who have a nearby camp.
Llama Trekking in Bigfork
Western Montana’s Glacier Country is known for authentic Montana experiences and adventures, rugged mountains, pristine waters, and bustling downtown main streets. With places to explore like Glacier National Park, Flathead Lake, the Bob Marshall Wilderness, two Indian reservations—the Flathead and Blackfeet—and blue-ribbon trout streams, including the Blackfoot, Bitterroot, and Clark Fork rivers, you’ll be planning your next visit before your first one is over.
One of our favorite off-the-beaten track adventures is llama trekking: an experience for travelers young and old and of all fitness levels. Our friends at Swan Mountain Llama Trekking take groups for half-day to multi-day treks with each guest assigned to their own gear-toting llama. Whether your trek ends in a lunch overlooking a waterfall or lasts for days and ventures into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the experience is one you’ll never forget. Your trek will start in Swan Lake, just south of Bigfork on Flathead Lake. In Bigfork, a quintessential storybook village chock full of shops and galleries, stay at the Bridge Street Cottages on the Swan River and a stroll away from downtown. Down the road, Flathead Lake Brewing Company offers views of Flathead Lake, locally crafted beer and pub nosh, and Pocketstone Café offers a comfort-food breakfast and warm western hospitality.
Daniels County Museum and Pioneer Town
Located on 20 acres just west of Scobey in the northeastern corner of Montana is the Daniels County Museum and Pioneer Town. Thirty-five historic buildings have been restored to depict a prairie town in the early 1900s. The museum has a collection of antique cars, tractors, and machinery.
The annual Pioneer Days celebration is always held the last weekend in June. During Pioneer Days, you can start your day with a Threshman’s breakfast of pancakes and sausage in the old cook cars that served workers during the harvest. Spend the rest of your day touring the many restored buildings including a blacksmith shop, general store, churches, and one-room country school, to name just a few. The afternoon features a parade with antique cars, trucks, and tractors.
The Rex Theatre is home to the Dirty Shame Show where the Dirty Shame Belles perform their high-energy dance routines to musical numbers performed by the Dirty Shame Dixieland Band. In between the dancing and music is a variety show, featuring comedy skits and sing-alongs.
Makoshika State Park
The adventures in Southeast Montana are just as varied as the landscape. Badlands, prairies, flowing rivers and canyons all make up different parts of the geography. Many undiscovered treasures are just waiting to be uncovered at places like Makoshika State Park. The largest of its kind in the state, the park’s name comes from a Lakota phrase meaning “bad land” or “bad earth”. At more than 11,000 acres, this park is big and has a big history.
Millions of years ago, the park was a tropical rain forest and home to dinosaurs. Today, the area regularly produces fossils from the animals. Choose a short hike like the Cap Rock Trail (featuring a natural bridge) or set off for some of the switchbacks on the Graveyard Coulee Trail to discover all the features of the park. Bring your tents or RV and camp among the badland formations, while making sure to take advantage of the visitor center, disc golf course and events at the amphitheater. Avoid the crowds, and enjoy all that’s out here in Southeast Montana.
10 State Parks
Nestled between Glacier and Yellowstone National Park, Southwest Montana is home to 10 of Montana’s beautiful State Parks. Montana has an incredible network of over 55 State Parks that span from the northeast corner to the southwest, offering visitors a diverse range of experiences. The history and unique landscapes of these parks establish them as the perfect addition to any Montana bucket list. Whether you prefer to spend your time on the water, watching wildlife, digging deeper into Montana’s history, or simply relaxing in nature there is a park that will fit your ideal vacation.
Until you explore the region’s lakes, caverns, and waterfalls for yourself, it may be difficult to believe just how much there is to see and do. (Note: Number one on the list, Bannack Ghost Town, is on our Top 10 Activities To Do in Montana!)
The Beaten Path Backpacking Trail
Yellowstone Country is full of adventure. Throughout every corner of the region, you’ll find incredible mountain peaks, stunning lakes, and some of the best skiing in the lower 48. But for backpackers, one trail stands out above the rest, The Beaten Path.
This epic traverse spans 26 miles over the Beartooth Mountains from Cooke City, to East Rosebud Lake, just outside of Red Lodge. You’ll pass over 14 amazing lakes, massive waterfalls, and plenty of wildlife (keep in mind, this is bear country!) You can approach the hike from either direction, although you’ll have less uphill starting from Cooke City. The highest part of the trip takes you over a 10,000-foot elevation, with the majority after that downhill. Some say the East Rosebud end terrain is the prettiest, so they prefer to save the best for last. Camping is available all along the way. Shuttling your cars can take some time, so often people get two hiking groups together, one going north to south and one south to north, where they can meet up halfway and then swap cars at the trailhead. For one of the best backpacking trips in Montana, consider The Beaten Path!
So … Is Montana Crowded?
No! Come to visit Yellowstone (see our Yellowstone Vacation Planning Guide) or Glacier National Parks but make sure to spend time in the vast expanses available elsewhere in Montana.