At Travel Montana, we believe Montana is one of the top destinations worldwide for outdoor vacations. But once you have decided to visit the state, you still need to plan your vacation. This guide will walk you through the planning process.
National Park or Not?
12.6 million people visited Montana in 2019, according to the Institute for Tourism & Recreation Research at the University of Montana. But of that amount, only five million were in the state for vacation. In the same year, an astounding three million or 60% of those visitors went to Glacier National Park, according to the National Park Service, and four million or 80% visited Yellowstone National Park (which lies only partially in Montana).
In other words, if you are planning a vacation to Montana, most people do so to visit one of the two famous national parks in the state. And since the average length of stay for vacationers to Montana was only 5.7 days in 2019, most visitors simply did not have time for much else.
Which is both a shame and an opportunity as it leaves most of the 146,040 square miles of the state unvisited. So your first decision is whether to base your vacation plans around visiting Yellowstone or Glacier.
Our recommendation? Pick one of the two parks, include it in your vacation plans, and leave yourself enough time to visit other, less visited areas of the state. Then come back and do the same thing with the other park.
Select Your Outdoor Activity
Pretty much everyone who visits Montana does so with the outdoors in mind. The next step, therefore, is to determine which outdoor activities to include. This will affect both where you travel and when you go. Even if you are not an expert outdoors person or not super fit, there are plenty of great options for you in Montana.
In the winter, you have 15 downhill ski resorts and another 14 groomed cross country ski areas in Montana. Unlike cross country skiing, snowshoeing can take place pretty much anywhere there is snow and is a great activity for beginners.
In the summer, walking (on flat trails) or hiking (on hilly trails) is probably the most common activity for visitors to Montana. AllTrails lists 929 hiking trails in the state, so there is a lot from which to choose. River rafting is another great activity for visitors who do not necessarily have experience. Those with experience or a specific interest can also rock climb, backpack, bicycle, kayak, canoe, and more.
For those not looking to be active, there are scenic drives, photography, and wildlife viewing.
Our recommendation? Even if you are not an outdoors expert, plan at least one hike to get into the woods and see the real Montana!
Small Towns or Small Cities?
There are no big cities in Montana, with Billings at 110,000 the largest in the state. But that still leaves you with a wide selection.
The larger cities have the best airports and are often the starting points for visitors. They also have great restaurants and breweries, excellent hotels, and interesting museums. Missoula and Bozeman are also noted university towns.
But it is the smaller towns in Montana that provide the state with the charm for which it is known. Time will slow down when you visit great small towns such as Whitefish, Red Lodge, Hamilton, and Dillon.
Our recommendation? Definitely plan at least part of your stay to visit several of the extremely cute small towns in the state. In fact, we love simply driving from one destination to the next on backroads and seeing what we find along the way!
Montana has chain hotels, independent hotels, resorts, and B&Bs like you would expect from a popular tourism destination. But those lodgings are sometimes far apart and can be booked up in the summer. You can find B&Bs on the Montana Bed & Breakfast Association website and can of course book hotels in advance on a multitude of hotel booking sites.
Additional options including camping or renting a recreational vehicle (RV), both of which are excellent ideas. In addition to the two famous national parks, 20 of Montana’s state parks have over 500 camping sites and there are many other private campgrounds available. You can book a total of 301 campgrounds, including the state parks, on ReserveAmerica.com.
Our recommendation? If you are traveling during the busier summer season, we suggest booking your lodging in advance, avoiding chain hotels located along the highways, and going out of your way to find unique, local accommodations. Even campsites can fill and the last thing you want to do is arrive at a campground late in the day only to be turned away.
Best Time to Travel
47% of travelers to Montana came during the months of July, August, and September. In popular Glacier National Park, 54% of visitors came during the months of July and August alone. So, clearly, if you come during the summer months and visit the popular attractions, you will be competing with many other tourists.
In terms of weather, to pick Missoula as an example, the average high temperature in Missoula is around 85 degrees in July and August. That can be hot if you are doing outdoor activities. In May the average high temperature is 67 degrees, in June 75 degrees, and in September 73 degrees – all very pleasant daytime highs. It can rain (or snow) year round in Montana but July through October have the least chance of precipitation. December is the snowiest month but February and March tend to have the best skiing thanks to warmer temperatures and a good snowpack.
Our recommendation? You might be stuck with the summer holiday due to school vacations. So be it. But if you are not, the absolute best time to visit Montana is in September after Labor Day.
Factor in Events and Festivals
Food festivals, music festivals, and film festivals. Rodeos and parades. Mountain man rendezvous. There are festivals all over the state at all times of the year. The problem is figuring out which festivals you might want to attend and where to get the information.
GatherBoard, a Montana events list software platform, has a Montana Events website that does a good job listing events in the larger cities. FindFestival has a pretty good, searchable listing of events in Montana. But there are undoubtedly many more.
Our recommendation? Unless you are planning to attend Montana for a specific event, our advice is to plan your vacation first and then spend a few hours checking event listing and local newspaper websites to see what is happening in the areas you will be visiting. The worst thing is to find out you missed a festival by one day because you didn’t know it was happening!
How to Get There and Get Around
First of all, if you fly to Montana you are going to love the airports. They are small, uncrowded, and efficient. Montana has 13 airports with commercial flights but four of them handle 85% of air traffic: Bozeman (serving Yellowstone), Billings, Missoula, and Kalispell (serving Glacier). A total of ten commercial airlines serve Montana, including American, Delta, and United. Ultimately, if you are flying to Montana, you will very likely need to connect in a nearby hub such as Denver, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, or Seattle.
Once you are there, you will almost certainly need a car. Spaces are vast and even getting around the larger cities generally requires a car.
Our recommendation? If you are flying to Montana, start looking at airfares early as prices can be a couple hundred dollars more than you are used to paying for domestic flights. However, if you are within ten or even 15 hours drive, consider making it a road trip. The drive through neighboring states such as North and South Dakota, Wyoming, and Idaho is fast and easy. Plus, these states have their own great sites.
Why Take Multi-Day Guided Tour?
The reality can be that planning a vacation to Montana and Yellowstone is more difficult than you might expect. The popularity of the national parks in the summer makes it hard to book hotels in advance, and it can be challenging to navigate the crowds. Montana is a massive area of wide open spaces to cover. Guided tours reduce your planning time, by a lot, and produce better results.
You can rely on our expert guides to figure out the best logistics, make sure everyone’s needs are being met, and therefore take the stress out of the vacation. You can relax, stay safe, and explore more. Everyone gets to be in it—and enjoying it.
Our recommendation? Read more a more in-depth explanation of the pros and cons of taking a guided tour versus planning it yourself when traveling to Montana via this “Why Take a Guided Tour” summary, then you can decide for yourself if the value of a vacation with a company such as Travel Montana will be high and the experience outstanding so that it would be worth any extra cost, or not.
Enjoy Your Montana Vacation!
We at Travel Montana believe our state is one of the top vacation destinations in the world. We hope this guide helps you plan your vacation!
Main Image Credit: Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development