Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks are undeniably awesome, but locals know that the state’s ten national forests are just as much fun to explore. On this western Montana road trip, you can easily access five of them by car, with nearly endless opportunities to fly-fish, horseback ride, whitewater raft, hike, mountain bike, and possibly even surf along the way. Added bonus: The loop also passes the oldest continually operating bar in Montana (est. 1877), the National Bison Range, and the site of the 1877 Battle of the Big Hole.
Before setting out into the surrounding Lolo National Forest, hike the 1.8-mile Mount Sentinel Trail, which starts in town and leads to the giant M overlooking the University of Montana campus. Or marvel at the surfers at Brennan’s Wave, a human-made hydraulic on the Clark Fork River, which bisects the city. Want to give it a whirl? Rent a board and take a river surfing lesson from Strongwater Mountain Surf Company. Or sign up for the “Historic Town Float,” from Bearpaw River Expeditions, which starts in Milltown and ends in time to shop at the (summer-only) Saturday Farmer’s Market back in Missoula. For a trip back in time, drive an hour east to Garnet Ghost Town, a historic mining town with 30 preserved buildings.
Situated within striking distance of both Lolo and Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forests, this former mining town is at the base of Discovery, a ski area with lift-accessed mountain biking. Rock Creek, a world-famous blue-ribbon trout stream, also runs near town. Missoula-based Blackfoot River Outfitters has a satellite store here with the necessary gear, permitting, and guides. If you want to see old Montana, don’t miss the basement display in the Granite County Museum and Cultural Center in Philipsburg, with its collection of cowboy chaps, artifacts found in a typical western Montana homestead, and a mine car from Contact Mining.
EAT & STAY: Have ribs your way at UpNSmokin BBQ House, then head next door for taffy and fudge at The Sweet Palace. The Franklin Mountain Cabin, a beautiful, modern two-bedroom cabin, sits two miles from downtown and a short drive from Rock Creek, Georgetown Lake, and Discovery Ski Area.
This stunning 121-mile-long corridor between Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Bitterroot National Forests follows the Big Hole and Bitterroot Rivers most of the way. With the appropriate fishing licenses, visitors can drop a line in almost anywhere. The wide-open valley at Big Hole National Battlefield, west of Wisdom, honors those who died during a fierce battle in 1877. Off U.S. 93 between Chief Joseph Pass and Lolo, there are 40 access points into the Bitterroot National Forest and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness beyond. Trailheads are well marked with brown road signs—pick one and go.
EAT & STAY: In Wisdom, The Crossing Bar & Grill has excellent bacon and blue cheese burgers and vanilla shakes. Time After Time B&B in Victor sits on ten acres and has a new, rustic cabin plus three bedrooms in the main house.
The largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, Flathead Lake is home to Wild Horse Island State Park, where, true to its name, horses still roam. Book a boat tour with Montana Journeys to explore the 2,160-acre island’s rolling hills. Back on land, drive the eastern shoreline, lined with cherry orchards on one side and the Flathead National Forest on the other, before heading to your final destination, Jewel Basin, a 15,349- acre area south of Glacier National Park with 27 alpine lakes and 35 miles of trails.