Montana is the fourth largest state in area, just behind California, yet in population it is the 44th largest, directly between the tiny states of Rhode Island and Delaware. That means a lot of open spaces under the Big Sky.
Montana is especially well known, rightly, for its outdoors attractions. It is a wonderful destination for hiking, boating, trout fishing, cross country skiing, and scenic drives.
Here are a few reasons to come to Montana:
Alberta Bair Theater, Billings
Since its opening in 1987, the Alberta Bair Theater has made Billings a routine stop for touring national and international performers and attractions in the arts. A big part of the mission it has set for itself is to expose the young to a wide variety of arts; over the years it has hosted over ten thousand area schoolchildren.
The Alberta Bair has presented classical, popular, jazz, and country music, operas, ballets, modern and ethnic dance, comedy shows, dramatic plays, and musical theater. It has arguably become Montana’s greatest arts treasure.
Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman
Located in the college town of Bozeman, on the campus of Montana State University, is the region’s largest natural history museum at 94,000 square feet.
See “Landforms/Lifeforms” to learn 4 billion years of earth’s history, “One Day 80 Million Years Ago” to see dinosaur nesting colonies, “Montana’s Native Americans” to learn about those who inhabited the area before the arrival of the White Man, and “West of Wonder” to learn about the Lewis and Clark expedition and its importance to the advance of the natural sciences.
Another part of the museum is the Taylor Planetarium, the only Digistar planetarium in the Northern Rockies. During the summer you can also explore the Living History Farm on 11 acres adjacent to the museum.
The museum is open 8 AM to 8 PM seven days a week from June through August. From September to May, it is open Monday through Friday from 9 AM to 5 PM, Sunday 12:30 PM to 5 PM, and closed Saturday. Admission is $13 for adults, $12 for seniors, and $9 for ages 18 and under.
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Crow Agency
Within the Crow Indian Reservation, 3 miles from Crow Agency and 15 miles from the town of Hardin, Montana, is the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn.
The battle occurred on June 25-26, 1876, during the late stages of the United States Army’s ongoing efforts to pacify what was left of the Native American population and force them to live on reservations. Ultimately the Native Americans had no hope of prevailing, but on scattered occasions they could certainly slow down the process and make the Americans pay a price for what they were doing. This battle was one such occasion.
Led by Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, the Seventh Cavalry intended a surprise attack on a Sioux village. The surprise, though, was that they soon found themselves facing a force of Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors perhaps six times their size (this, and many details of the battle, remain very much in dispute). Custer and his men were annihilated.
Today, for $10 per vehicle or $5 per pedestrian, you can visit the site of the battlefield, see the numerous memorials to the dead (white and Native American), wander the area, and ponder the slaughter that occurred here over 130 years ago, and the bloody clash of cultures of which it was just a small part.
Garnet Ghost Town, Drummond
Several decades after the mining boom got underway in Montana, the town of Garnet was founded at an elevation of 6,000 feet at the head of First Chance Creek in 1895. Soon the isolated community had a population of over 1,000, almost all of whom were devoted in one way or another to the town’s reason for existence: mining.
The Garnet area never had a big strike, but miners did achieve a modest level of success for a time, extracting 60,000 ounces of gold, 50,000 ounces of silver, and 60,000 ounces of copper. In 1912, nearly half the town burned down. It was never rebuilt, with the population dropping as more and more veins reached dead ends and it was clear mining was not a promising activity for the future. The town limped along until the 1940s, but with the death of Frank Davey the mercantile owner, and the closing of his store, there was really nothing left to call a town.
Today Garnet, or what used to be Garnet, is preserved as a non-commercial ghost town. Among the surviving buildings are the aforementioned mercantile of Davey, Kelly’s Bar, Dahl’s Saloon, and the J.R. Wells Hotel. Visitors are free to wander the town. There is a Visitor Center, interpretive signs, and self-guided trails.
Adding to the atmosphere is the difficulty of access to Garnet. The ghost town is about 45 miles east of Missoula, and a 21 mile drive from Drummond, the nearest functioning town. About half of the drive from Drummond is up a gravel road, which is not recommended for trailers or motorhomes, and is closed to wheeled vehicles entirely for several months a year.
Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park would get many people’s vote for the most spectacular of all the National Parks, even over the rightly celebrated Yellowstone National Park. (Though Yellowstone borders Montana, and a trip to Montana could certainly include visits to both National Parks.)
Glacier is one million acres of alpine meadows, forests, over 800 lakes, and over 200 waterfalls. It encompasses two sub-ranges of the Rocky Mountains, formed by glaciers millions of years ago. Its 260 species of birds and 70 species of mammals include grizzly bears, wolves, deer, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep.
Glacier borders Canada and its Waterton Lakes National Park to the north, the Flathead River to the west, and the massive Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex to the south, one of the most remote and primitive areas left in the continental United States.
Take the aptly named Going-to-the-Sun Road through Glacier for some awesome views. Enjoy 700 miles of hiking trails. Take a bracing dip in one of the crystal clear lakes. Enjoy some fishing, canoeing, or just relaxing in nature.
Glacier gets by far the bulk of its visitors between June and September each year. The weather then is mostly warm and pleasant, but even in the summer it can be erratic, with cold temperatures at night or in the higher elevations, and occasional fierce thunderstorms and hailstorms.
Conditions are primitive in the off-season, with many of the hiking trails snow covered and inaccessible, campgrounds closed or not providing restrooms or running water, and many areas unsafe due to the risk of avalanches. The weather can be severe and unpredictable. A world record temperature variation (100 degrees difference between the high point and the low point in a 24 hour period) occurred in 1916 in Browning, just outside the park.
Havre Beneath the Streets, Havre
When the railroads were built across the nation, Havre was a key location on the northern route, strategically placed midway between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Seattle. Up through the 1990s, in fact, railroads directly or indirectly provided the bulk of the jobs and economic activity of Havre.
Early in the history of the town, many of the railroad workers lived in flimsy wooden shacks. In 1904, most of these, and much of Havre, was wiped out in a fire. A certain number of below ground structures had been built by then, mostly to house illicit businesses and Chinese immigrants. As Havre slowly rebuilt above ground, its underground rapidly expanded, now with an elaborate system of passageways connecting the structures to each another.
Today much of the underground portion of Havre remains, and functions as a tourist attraction. Tours take visitors through opium dens, Chinese laundries, brothels, and Prohibition-era speakeasies.
Also of interest in Havre is its Railroad Museum with hundreds of artifacts from the 19th and 20th century. On the outskirts of town is the Wahkpa Chu’gn buffalo jump, which is a bluff over which Native American hunters would stampede whole herds of bison to their death.
Havre is in the north central part of the state, not far from the Canadian border.
Last Chance Tour Train, Helena
From May to September, Monday through Saturday, enjoy a train tour of Helena, old and new, aboard the Last Chance. There are multiple tours available per day; tickets cost $7.50, or $6 for 12 and under.
Among the sights you’ll see are:
* The Cathedral of St. Helena, with its 230 foot high spires.
* The old Governor’s Home and the new Governor’s Home.
* Last Chance Gulch, the main drag of downtown Helena, with its eclectic buildings embellished with giant thumbprints, gargoyles, and lizards.
* Helena’s mansion district where the mining magnates settled.
* The Old Fire Tower from 1876.
* The preserved Pioneer Cabin, built in 1864.
* Reeder’s Alley, a restored gold rush era miners’ village.
* The State Capitol, with its huge copper dome.
PaleoWorld Research Foundation, Jordan
PaleoWorld is not your typical tourist attraction. It is an actual scientific research expedition that allows members of the public to participate.
For two months every summer starting in June, expeditions explore the fossil-rich Hell Creek Formation of the Badlands of eastern Montana. Participants enjoy a full hands-on experience as “associate researchers.” Over the years, discoveries have included triceratops fossils, hadrosaur fossils, and even tyrannosaurus rex fossils.
You can join for the duration of the expedition, for a single day experience, or for anything in between. The cost per day is $135 for adults, and $75 for ages 15 and under.
Hockaday Museum of Art, Kalispell
A nice companion activity to a visit to Glacier National Park is a stop in this Kalispell art museum, housed in the century old Carnegie Library Building, listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The museum’s primary focus is the art and culture of Montana, and especially Glacier National Park.
The works of painters, photographers, sculptors, authors, and craftsmen depict the local Native American culture, the Great Northern Railroad, and the Glacier National Park area, from even before it was a National Park.
Docents lead gallery tours twice weekly. Children are able to experience art through hands-on activities in the Discovery Gallery. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday 10 AM to 5 PM year round.
The fourth weekend of July brings the annual “Arts in the Park” at Kalispell’s Depot Park, the largest arts, entertainment, and food festival in western Montana, to benefit the museum.
Miracle of America Museum, Polson
The largest museum in Western Montana with over 100,000 items, the Miracle of America Museum and Pioneer Village bills itself as telling the story of America “from the walking plow to walking on the moon.”
The museum portion contains Indian artifacts; vintage cars, bicycles, tractors, and boats; three steam engines, antique tools, and much more.
The Pioneer Village consists of 26 buildings, including a one-room schoolhouse, blacksmith’s shop, general store, log cabin, and town jail. The third weekend each July is designated Living History Days, as locals dress up in period costumes and demonstrate the use of all the old time implements.
Miracle of America is open year round, 8 AM to 8 PM in the summer and reduced hours the rest of the year.
Polson is located at the south end of Flathead Lake, 70 miles due north of Missoula.
Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, West Yellowstone
Near the Montana entrance to Yellowstone National Park is the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, an educational opportunity to get to know two of the region’s legendary predator species.
Bears can be seen foraging for food (one of the Center’s programs for kids is for children to help staff hide their food), and playing with each other in the pond. The two wolf packs can be observed especially well through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Naturalist Cabin.
Educational programs at the Center include “Safety in Bear Country,” Yellowstone Park Ranger talks, the interactive “Explore Bears: Imagination & Reality,” a daily “Pack Chat,” and other live and video presentations.
The Center is expanding to include additional animals. Already you can see a Karelian bear dog, and Birds-of-Prey demonstrations.
The Center is open 365 days a year, daylight hours. Admission is $10.50 for adults, $9.75 for seniors, and $5.50 for children 5-12, and is good for two consecutive days.
“Montana Official State Travel Site.” Visitmt.com.
“Montana Tourism.” Montana Beautiful.
“Montana Tourist Attractions.” Tourist Attractions USA.
“Montana Tourist Attractions.” We Go Places.