Our favorite gems from the Treasure State.
BUNK AT A RANCH
Embrace your inner cowboy by living the ranch life for a week. Options range from family-owned working spreads to all-inclusive luxury retreats. Champing at the bit for serious saddle time? At the Rocking Z Guest Ranch near Helena, guests can horseback ride for up to eight hours a day. At Montana’s two National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World—the luxury Ranch at Rock Creek near Helena and the historic Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky—choose from a best-of-Montana menu of activities, such as fly-fishing, outdoor photography, white-water rafting, and mountain biking.
SOAR THROUGH THE AIR
Get a bird’s-eye view of Big Sky Country on a high-flying zip-line tour. The longest (more than a mile) aerial romp through and over the trees is the seven-zip ride at Whitefish Mountain Resort. Riders have to weigh at least 60 pounds and be ready to handle speeds of more than 50 miles an hour. Heights along the route range from a tame 20 feet to a thrill-seeking 300 feet in the air. To glide closer to the ground (30 to 60 feet high), try the Nature Zipline at Big Sky Resort. Kids as light as 45 pounds can ride, but everyone does have to hike (about 20 minutes) up Lone Mountain to the starting point.
ATTEND AN ONLY-IN-MONTANA FESTIVAL
Watch bronc-riding cowboys, ride a 70-foot-tall Ferris wheel, and see miniature horses, handcrafted quilts, and dozens of other livestock and 4-H exhibits at the 86th Montana State Fair, July 28 to August 5 in Great Falls. Diving dogs, a demolition derby, and the Missoula Stampede rodeo are a few of the featured events at the Western Montana Fair, August 8 to 13, a Missoula tradition since 1879. Celebrate rural life at the country-cool Red Ants Pants Music Festival (July 27 to 30), staged in a cow pasture near White Sulphur Springs.
FLOAT YOUR BOAT
Experience Montana lake or river life at any speed—from leisurely pontoon cruising to wild white-water rafting and everything in between. Family-friendly Kim’s Marina on Canyon Ferry Lake (near Helena) rents boats, kayaks, and other watercrafts. Madison River Tubing Trips takes the hassle out of family river floats. Trips are open to kids as young as three and include tubes, life jackets, and round-trip shuttle service from Bozeman. Dial up the adventure quotient for older kids with a guided three-, four-, or six-day canoe-camping trip in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
GO WILD FOR HUCKLEBERRY
Summer in western Montana is flavored with the tangy taste of fresh huckleberries. Similar to blueberries—and a favorite snack of bears—the black-purple berries grow wild in the mountains, particularly in and around Flathead and Kootenai National Forests and Glacier National Park. Prime huckleberry harvest season typically is mid-July through mid-August. When hiking, carry a gallon-size, zipper-top plastic bag just in case you strike huckleberry gold: a berry-laden shrub. Even if you don’t pick your own, you can still get your fill of huckleberry flavor at local farm stands and restaurants. Seasonal summer menus regularly include items—such as pancakes, pie, ice cream, and jam—made with the homegrown berries.
HIKE TO A WATERFALL
If hiking with kids in tow, choose a short trail leading to tall falls. In Glacier National Park, the handicap-accessible Running Eagle (or Trick Falls) Trail is only three-tenths of a mile (one-way) and ends at a waterfall gushing from the middle of the rocks. In early summer, the cascades essentially disappear (hence the nickname “Trick Falls”) behind an upper waterfall created by the spring runoff. Near Big Sky, the 1.6-mile (out and back) Ousel Falls Park Trail follows a fork of the Gallatin River through an alpine gorge. Pass smaller cascades and watch for wildflowers and birds en route to the roaring 35-foot falls.
CAMP UNDER THE STARS
Add more outdoors to your vacation by overnighting at a lakeside campground. At Lake Mary Ronan State Park near Dayton, campers can fish from the dock or shoreline, swim, and hike wooded trails. Finley Point campground at Flathead Lake State Park is a solid choice for first-time campers. Most sites include fire rings and picnic tables, and the close proximity to Polson (seven miles to the south) makes for an easy drive to the Cove Deli and Pizza for a scoop of Montana Moose Moss—mint ice cream, chocolate swirls, and mini-peppermint patties.
PICK A PARK
With 54 state parks there’s plenty of room for families to roam, learn, and play all across Montana. In the northeast corner of the state, take a beach day at 280-acre Brush Lake. In the southeast, see wind-carved sandstone pillars and spot mule deer and antelope at remote Medicine Rocks State Park. Near the geographic center of the state, boat, swim, picnic, and fish for rainbow trout at Ackley Lake. On the way to Yellow Bay in northwestern Montana’s Flathead Lake State Park, buy fresh Flathead cherries (typically available late July to mid-August) from one of the area’s many roadside stands.
SEE WILD BISON
A herd of about 350 plains bison roams the National Bison Range near Charlo. Follow the steep and winding Red Sleep Mountain Drive (open mid-May to early October) to spot the bison and other wild things—such as bighorn sheep, Rocky Mountain elk, mule deer, and even an occasional grizzly bear. Arrive by dawn or dusk for the best viewing opportunities, and allow about two hours to drive the one-way, 19-mile loop. April to November, the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation welcomes visitors for full- and half-day Peoples Creek-Yellowstone Herd tours. (Reservations required.) The guided walking tour offers an up-close look at the bison and at life for the indigenous Nakoda and A’aninin (Assiniboine and Gros Ventre) peoples.
RIDE THE RAILS
Bring Montana’s rich railroad history to life with a whistle-stop tour of top train attractions. Retrace the path taken by explorers, prospectors, and pioneers by riding the Amtrak Empire Builder from Cut Bank west to Libby. The stunningly scenic route skirts the edges of Glacier National Park, passes through Blackfeet Nation, and crosses the Continental Divide. At the train stop in Essex, stay at the historic Izaak Walton Inn, originally built as lodging for Great Northern Railroad crews. For an extra special train treat, overnight in one of the inn’s classic cabooses or luxury rail cars. Chug across central Montana near Lewiston on the Charlie Russell Chew Choo dinner train (offered on select weekend dates from June to early October). The 56-mile (round-trip) excursion includes a full prime rib dinner, wildlife watching, and rip-roaring entertainment by local musicians and cowboys.
Credit - Maryellen Kennedy Duckett | National Geographic