Montana. The mere mention evokes images of massive snow-capped peaks, shimmering rivers and a bounty of untrammeled wilderness. And it’s true. Much of Montana remains a rugged and remote landscape where, as the state’s travel bureau puts it with beckoning irony, you can “Get Lost” under the big sky. Those vast places embody the mystical untamed frontier eloquently captured in the prose and artistry of native sons or iconic immigrants A.B. Guthrie, Ivan Doig, C.M. Russell, James Welch and Norman Maclean – places where you can still encounter a grizzly bear, wolf or moose on a backcountry trail.
Yet that’s only half the story, for Montana is also a palette of colorful contrasts.
It’s a tapestry of wide-open prairies stretching to endless horizons on one end and rain forests shrouded in fog and mystery on the other.
It’s real cowboys and Indians living and working next to telecommuting venture capitalists, movie stars, writers, artists, architects, engineers and professors.
It’s Ford and Dodge half-tons sharing the same dusty backroads and asphalt city streets as Subarus and Priuses.
It’s trendy food trucks and five-star culinary adventures next to peanut-shells-on-the-floor honky-tonks and authentic western diners.
It’s an increasingly gentrified landscape where iconic dawn-to-dusk ranchers gaze across barbed wire to plotted ranchettes.
It’s rodeos and roundups, blue-ribbon fishing and black-diamond skiing.
It’s boutique and antiques, ranch supplies and feed stores.
It’s trendy communities where people come to be seen (think Kardashians) and remote outposts where they come not to be seen (think Unabomber).
Where to begin? Initially, we’ve outlined 48-hour tours in three destinations you’d expect (Bozeman, Billings and Big Sky) and one you might not (Butte). Many more are coming. In each itinerary we’ve included our top points of interest along with our favorite places to eat and imbibe.
Now that you’re here, we suggest you unplug yourself (cell range can be spotty anyway) and discover why another of Montana’s favorite sons, William Kittredge, dubbed Montana “The Last Best Place.”
As the old yarn goes, there are two seasons in Montana: winter and road construction. While true, most businesses in Montana build their budgets around three distinct seasons: the always-profitable summer, the increasingly popular winter, and the two hold-your-breath shoulder seasons of spring and fall.
Most people explore Montana in the summer, but each season has its secrets. Anglers covet the onset of warm autumn days and crisp evenings that signal prolific hatches and catches. Wildlife watchers know spring is when critters and their babies browse the valleys during green-up before moving into the high country once the snows melt. Alpine and Nordic skiers count the days until winter’s first snowflakes fall. Despite Montana’s reputation for ferocious winters, its high altitude, dry air and preponderance of sunshine mean there’s really no inhospitable time to be here.
In our view, the “shoulder seasons” in Montana are vastly underrated. Spring weather can be fickle, but in an effort to coax visitors, many iconic Montana hotels and inns offer specials in March and April. The same is true for autumn, when the state typically boasts spectacular weather through the first week of November. When winter finally does arrive, it can do so with a vengeance. But as those in the agriculture and outdoor industries already know, Montana’s climate has taken a turn for the balmy in the past quarter-century and the days of legendary blizzards seem distant indeed.
It takes 11 hours to drive from the western to the eastern border of Montana. That should tell you the state can’t be done in a weekend.
If a weekend is all you have, plan to focus on one city or place. Set up base camp in Kalispell, Whitefish, Bigfork or Columbia Falls if the target is Glacier National Park. Fishing southwest Montana’s blue-ribbon trout streams or exploring Yellowstone National Park’s geyser regions? Bozeman is the place. Missoula is ideal for fishing, rafting, mountain biking, historical touring and general sight-seeing. Use Billings as your anchor for the Beartooth country and the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone — America’s Serengeti. Butte, Anaconda and Philipsburg offer a glimpses into Montana’s mining past.
Montana has two distinct high seasons and two distinct low — or “shoulder” — seasons.
Summer is easily Montana’s busiest tourist season. The mountains, valleys and rivers swell with visitors from all over the world. Expect highways full of campers and motorhomes, especially in the mountainous western part of the state.
Communities near Yellowstone and Glacier national parks teem with people. West Yellowstone, Gardiner and West Glacier are especially busy. Same goes for resort towns such as Big Sky, Whitefish and Bigfork on Flathead Lake. The mai streets of Bozeman and Missoula boast a steady stream of traffic between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Winter is busy in the ski resort communities: Most notably Big Sky and Whitefish, as well as West Yellowstone, which calls itself the Snowmobile Capital of the World.
Don’t ignore the shoulder seasons of spring and fall, though. While many restaurants and lodging options shut down for the winter or simply take breathers between the two primary seasons, spring and fall are great times for solitude. And they come with perks: Wildlife watching and fly fishing can be especially bountiful in both seasons.
Montana’s weather is notoriously fickle, even as a warming climate takes some of the edge of its once-hostile winters.
Naturally, climate diversity reigns in such a large state. The Northwest corner, where the state’s elevation is lowest, features temperate rain forests and relatively mild climes. The northern tier along U.S. Highway 2, also known as the “Hi-Line”, is mostly flat and notorious for its dramatic weather extremes — hot in the summer, wicked cold in the winter; the state’s record highs, 117 degrees, were recorded in far northeastern Montana. Southeast Montana tends to be arid and arrives at “green up” earlier in the spring than all the state’s other regions. The famed recreation hubs of Bozeman and Missoula have the classic Montana weather: Blissful and sunny in the summer, snowy and cold in the winter.
Those notoriously cold winters of minus-30 for weeks on end? Not what they’re cracked up to be, even if the lowest temp ever recorded in the lower 48 states (70 below zero) belongs to Montana, at Rogers Pass. First, the climate is warming. Few in Montana debate that reality. Second, much of Montana is sunny, dry and at high elevation. A 35-degree day in Bozeman or Billings feels dramatically different than 35 degrees in Seattle, Detroit, New York or Atlanta; it isn’t unusual to see folks walking around in a light jacket or long-sleeved shirt in January on such days.
Among the seven largest cities, Billings has the warmest average temperatures and can be searing hot come summer. Trees in the Magic City begin to bud in early April, a week or so before Missoula and Kalispell, two to three weeks before Bozeman and almost a month ahead of Butte.
And changes can be dramatically different within short distances: It is not uncommon leave our home outside of Belgrade in rain and arrive in several inches of snow eight miles later in Bozeman.
Montana’s fickle weather means being prepared for anything, at any time. It has snowed in every month of the year in Montana. It can also be blistering hot.
Clothing rule of thumb: Bring enough layering to ensure warmth. You can always peel clothes away.
Another must: Sunscreen. Don’t be deceived by Montana’s relatively cool temperatures compared to the rest of the country. Much of the state is above 4,000 feet and the sun is intense. You don’t want your vacation ruined by a bad sunburn.
If you plan to do any outdoor recreation in and around Glacier and Yellowstone national parks as well as the Absaroka-Beartooth, Lee Metcalf, Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Great Bear wilderness areas, spend $50 on a can of bear spray and practice using it. Grizzly bears are a great conservation success story in Montana, but more bears roaming more landscapes means more opportunity for human-bear interaction.
Bring mosquito repellent. Most people don’t think of mosquitoes when they think of Montana, but they’re here, sometimes in the oddest of places. The highest elevations of the Beartooth Mountains can teem with them. The southwest corner of Yellowstone also is notorious. They can be found anywhere around standing water, their intensity dependent largely upon how much moisture was received during the spring. Lest anyone doubt, the little town of Saco, on the Hi-Line, was once dubbed by National Geographic as The Mosquito Capital of the World — yes, worse than Alaska and Africa.
What you’ll spend in Montana will depend on when you’re here and where you go.
The cost of lodging and rental cars in Bozeman, for example, can seem outlandish in the summer and winter, when tourists flock to the area to explore Yellowstone National Park, Big Sky and the area’s blue-ribbon trout streams. Ditto for Missoula and Kalispell/Whitefish, thanks to its proximity to Glacier National Park. Prices tend to fall during the shoulder seasons of spring and fall.
Conversely, in Billings and Butte rates tend to stay consistent throughout the year. Many hotels and restaurants will offer specials during the shoulder seasons to spark business. In general, expect to pay more for goods and services in tourist-oriented western Montana than work-a-day eastern Montana.
If you’re driving, fuel in Montana generally are lower than the nation’s average, reaching as low as $1.69 per gallon in the winter of 2015-16. Expect to pay higher prices in the more remote communities.
One perk of visiting Montana: No sales tax. Three communities — Whitefish, West Yellowstone and Big Sky — have resort taxes.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $US.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $200 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double
$ => $1-15 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$ => $16-40 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $41 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$ => Tickets $26 per person
Fly the Friendly Skies
Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh.
But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.
Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.
That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings.
Have Car, Will Travel
Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping.
There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell ‘em what you want to pay and they hook you up with a car rental company who can fit the bill. There are some great deals here, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental.
Zipcar is another choice for rentals. Available in many major cities and college towns in the U.S., Zipcar is a great alternative for super-short term rentals. Picture this scenario: you are in a big city with terrific public transportation, so you don’t need a car. But then you hear about an amazing restaurant 20 miles away in the suburbs. You can’t go home without trying it. A taxi would cost a fortune. You’d have to wait a long time to get a return taxi. Open the Zipcar app; search for a nearby Zipcar locale. You need to apply for membership and download the app in advance. Memberships cost about $7 a month; rentals are about $8 to10 per hour; gas and insurance are included. Foreign drivers can apply and you don’t need to pay a monthly fee if you’re an occasional driver (from $25 per year for a membership).
Ride-sharing companies, Uber and Lyft, are also ubiquitous in major cities. Through a smart phone app, you can line up rides all over town. It’s convenient because no money changes hands (payment is made through the app) and it’s usually cheaper than a taxi. Another bonus? After requesting a ride, you can see where the driver is on a map, so you know that they are on their way and how long it will be. Try that with a cab.
Money Saving Tip: Costco, because of its behemoth size and price negotiating power, offers great low prices for most major car rental companies. Yes, you need to purchase an annual Costco membership first, but it more than pays for itself with what you’ll save with a typical week’s car rental (i.e. searches turn up a mid-size car through Costco for $225 and a comparable car through another aggregator for $325.)
Did You Know: Budget Car Rental offers drivers residing at the same address (i.e. unmarried partners or BFFs) complimentary extra driver coverage. Other car rental companies charge upwards of $10/day. By the way, when renting in California, there are no additional driver fees by law.
Hopefully, your trip to (or within) the U.S. goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:
Trip Cancellation: About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.
Medical: Health services in the U.S. are expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000.
Trip Interruption: For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to get off the cruise ship or abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay: Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage: Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.
Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling to a hurricane-prone area during hurricane season, for example, you’ll probably want some coverage “just in case” … no matter what.
Your English language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.
How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework; check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregator sites like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.
Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).
If you have pre-existing health conditions: Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance: If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.
The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb and Homeaway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.
For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.
U.S. dollars come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills. They are all the same size and color, so non-Americans have an understandably tricky time telling them apart. The $2 bill is in circulation but rarely seen.
Coins in wide circulation include the penny (one cent), nickel (five cents), dime (ten cents) and quarter (25 cents). The 50-cent and one-dollar coins are seen occasionally.
Smaller businesses may not accept $50 or $100 bills, so have twenties or smaller bills in hand. ATMs usually dispense $20 bills.
Tipping is a cost you must build into the budget for any U.S. travel experience, whether urban or rural. Tipping is most relevant to dining out and hotel stays, but other costs should also be taken in to consideration. General guidelines include:
For excellent service, plan to tip 20% on the total bill, before taxes. For less-than-stellar service, 10-15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. In many states, servers work for below minimum wage and live mostly on tips, so consider the ramifications of your tipping decisions.
To complicate matters, many restaurants in the major metropolitan areas — New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco — are moving to a no-tipping model in which service is included. The verdict isn’t yet in on whether this new model will stick, so be sure you understand the tipping policy at each restaurant you visit.
Oh, and one more complication: Sometimes a tip is automatically included, usually for groups of six or more people. But at least it will be itemized in plain sight on the bill, if you look closely for it.
Most bell staff receive $1 to $2 per bag they assist with; if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, expect to tip $5 to $10.
Tips for housekeeping are also good form. The rule of thumb is $2 to $3 per day and about $5 per day in higher-end properties.
At properties with concierge services, consider tipping concierge staff who assist you in planning activities, making reservations or acquiring tickets around $10 to $20 per day. Concierge staff do not normally expect a tip for simply orienting you with driving directions or public transportation info. Car valet staff expect $2 when returning your car. Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) usually see 20% tips on their services, whether performed at the spa or in your room.
Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between $10 and $40 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, bug repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you’re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery and drug stores will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above.
Sales Taxes, Lodging Taxes & Resort Fees
In Montana, there is no sales tax. Three communities — Whitefish, West Yellowstone and Big Sky — charge a resort tax.
Montana has a 4% “bed tax” on overnight stays that goes toward promoting tourism and supporting state parks, historic sites and other programs. This tax applies whether you are staying at a private vacation rental, a bed-and-breakfast, or a full-fledged hotel. Taxes are not usually stated up front in the advertised room rate. Neither are the mandatory nightly “resort fees” being charged by an increasing number of hotels. Sometimes this fee covers internet access, parking, and a few incidentals, while at other times it’s merely a surcharge for amenities that should be free. Beware that third-party booking agents, especially online, often don’t include resort fees in their reservation charges, so you may be unhappily surprised by the final bill when you check out.
For all its girth, Montana isn’t as easy to access via air as its Rocky Mountain neighbors (other than Wyoming). No airport is served by all the major carriers, and only Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport has direct flights to and from many of the country’s major markets – some of it seasonal.
By Plane: In general, Delta (SkyWest), United (also SkyWest) and Alaska (Horizon) provide consistent daily service to Bozeman, Billings, Missoula, Helena, Great Falls and Kalispell. SkyWest also flies into Butte twice a day and West Yellowstone seasonally. If you’re planning to visit Montana’s remote northwest corner, Spokane, Wash., might be the best airport choice.
Except for Bozeman, all of Montana’s airports receive service via hubs.
Bozeman, thanks to Big Sky and its proximity to Yellowstone National Park, is a notable exception with its direct flights to New York, Newark, Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston and Portland. Not surprisingly, Bozeman recently surpassed Billings as the state’s busiest airport even though the town is less than half the size. From Billings, you can fly over the vast expanses of eastern Montana on Cape Air for $49 one way to and from Havre, Wolf Point, Sidney, Glendive and Glasgow.
By Train: Amtrak is another way to access Montana, though trains only serve the “Hi-Line” along Montana’s northern tier and only with one train a day each way. In addition, when the Bakken energy boom in western North Dakota was going full tilt, delays of three or four hours were routine. That said, there might not be a more spectacular stretch of rails in America than from Browning west to the Idaho border, especially along Glacier National Park’s avalanche-prone southern flank. As of early 2016, there was talk of adding a southern Amtrak route that would include Billings, Bozeman, Helena and Missoula.
By Automobile: Montana is so high, wide and handsome, as author Joseph Kinsey Howard once wrote, that it takes 11 hours to drive from east to west, or vice versa. The state has three interstate highways, all relatively lightly traveled. Interstate 15 from Monida Pass on the south to the Canadian border bisects Butte, Helena and Great Falls. I-90 enters from Wyoming and leaves at Mullan Pass on the Idaho border, touching Billings, Bozeman, Butte and Missoula along the way. I-94 splits from I-90 at Billings and makes a lonely journey to North Dakota along the Yellowstone River through Montana’s “Big Open”.
Speed limits on interstates typically are 75 mph in the mountainous regions and 80 mph in the open country east of Livingston. With traffic so light, it’s easy to be seduced into being cavalier about driving in Montana. Don’t be. There’s a reason we have the highest fatality rate in the nation – some of it related to our having the worst drivers in the country, according to an auto insurance website.
Montanans routinely ignore, and our neighbors from Idaho, Washington and Utah are even speedier on our highways. In such wide-open spaces, deaths related to fatigue and alcohol are high, as reflected in the number of one-vehicle rollovers. And of course, there’s the wildlife. Deer, elk and the occasional moose are a clear and present danger on Montana’s highways and byways, especially and at dusk and later, and especially in river valleys. You’ll see a lot of front bumper guards on vehicles all across Montana.
By Bicycle: If you’re a road cyclist, unfortunately Montana lags behind even its next-door neighbors in terms of bicycle friendliness. The majority of the state’s two-lane highways have the harrowing combination of narrow shoulders, rumble strips and 70 mph speed limits. Montana could take a lesson from neighboring Wyoming, to be sure. But there are two roads for the cyclist’s bucket list: the Beartooth All-American Highway between Red Lodge and Cooke City in southwest Montana, and the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park.