10 Memorable Ways to Explore Each of Montana's Tourism Regions
Southwest Montana is an outdoor-lover’s paradise. Boasting many of the Big Sky Country’s best outdoor activities, the southwestern corner of the state is home to a collection of eclectic towns brimming with personality, mountains just begging to be explored, and wild-running, iconic rivers ready to be fished and floated. Here are 10 of the best activities to get you started.
A spectacular rocky section of the Missouri River Canyon located just north of Helena, Gates of the Mountains are bracketed by stunning 1,200-foot cliffs and a stark landscape. The location earned its name from explorer Meriwether Lewis who noted when floating through in 1805, the canyon was comprised by "...the most remarkable cliffs what we have yet seen." While tour boat rides are available, do yourself a favor and rent a canoe or kayak. A more leisurely tour of the canyon allows full appreciation of the landscape—and be sure to keep an eye open for bighorn sheep on the canyon walls.
Ready to be transported to the Wild West? Walk the dusty streets of Bannack Ghost Town State Park, and you might think you can hear hoofbeats echoing in the distance. The site of Montana’s first major gold discovery in July of 1862, the state park is now a registered historic landmark and has been well preserved. Stay at the park’s campgrounds or go for the full experience and rent a teepee at Vigilante Campground where you can rest your head.
Helena, the state’s capital, is home to a variety of outdoor-lovers who frequent the area’s stellar trail system. Mountain bike enthusiasts can find themselves at home on Mt. Helena Ridge, a moderate/difficult-rated ride located 5.5 miles from downtown. Miles of singletrack and stunning views await those willing to brave the initial climb (the trail does mellow eventually). Many additional trails bridge off from Mt. Helena, and riders can choose to extend their ride if desired.
It’s hard to travel anywhere in Montana without coming across the footsteps of the explorers Lewis and Clark. In 1805, their expedition crossed the land that would eventually become Montana, and many travelers like to retrace the famed expedition’s trail. From Lewis & Clark Pass off Highway 200 to Missouri Headwaters State Park, follow in their footsteps, taking in history while enjoying the stunning surroundings.
The Big Hole River flows for 160 miles from humble beginnings in the Beaverhead Mountains to a confluence with the Beaverhead River in the town of Twin Bridges. The free-flowing river is home to more than 3,000 trout per mile and incredible insect hatches, creating a fishery that many fly anglers dream about. Both brown and rainbow trout can be caught in its tannin-tinted waters, as well as the occasional grayling. Bracketed by stunning scenery, the Big Hole can be fished with a guide or on your own.
Stand-up paddleboarding is a fun activity on just about any body of water—but on a mountain lake at nearly 6,000 feet of elevation, it becomes an incredibly memorable experience. The 3,700-acre Georgetown Lake is located near Anaconda, about two hours west of Helena, and it is surrounded by the Flint Creek Range to the north and the Pintlers Range to the south. It’s a popular spot for all kinds of boating, fishing, camping and windsurfing, as the winds can pick up in the afternoon. But come in the morning for a calm lake and the chance to see wildlife—like moose—feeding in the area.
This trail runs along the ridge crest of the Big Belt Mountains, offering striking views of the surrounding ranges and classic Western mountain hiking. Bring along sturdy boots and plenty of water on the 6.7-mile hike—the trail is rated as moderate but there is little fresh water to be found once on the trail. Camping sites are easy to access along the way, making this an easy, attainable choice for a relaxed yet active weekend excursion.
The town of Ennis is a quaint Western town, brimming with fly-fishing lore and charming storefronts. Browse through the town, then connect with a local outfitter or guest ranch and spent the afternoon riding your Quarter Horse through the lush farmlands and rolling fields of the Madison Valley. There’s not a better way to see Montana than from the back of a horse. For the complete experience, take on a full-day ride and eat your lunch in the saddle like the cowboys of old.
Tucked into the far southwest corner of Montana near the Idaho border, Red Rock Lakes National Refuge boasts a wildly diverse landscape. From the large wetland system to grassland, scrubby sagebrush, steppe, and forest, this is the ideal backdrop for hiking, fishing, photography, and bird watching. The last known breeding ground for trumpeter swans, the refuge is also home to many other species of birds and other wildlife.
After any outdoor adventure, a good hot springs soak is hard to beat. Located in the Madison River Valley, Norris Hot Springs has the nickname "Water of the Gods"—and for good reason. The series of artesian springs has an average temperature of 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and is cooled to a comfortable sub-100 degrees in the summer, and as warm as 106 degrees in the winter. The hot mineral water offers a muscle-relaxing soak after a busy day’s adventuring, and the local beer doesn’t hurt either.