Explore Big Sky country with Montana’s best road trips

Road trips in Montana really take you places. Massive mountains, glacier lakes, and wild rivers unfurl outside the window on the state’s wide-open roads, each diving into a state of exploration and pure natural wonder. And with plenty of Western scenery and outstretched landscapes along the way, road-tripping across Montana proves it’s all about the journey between destinations.

Several roadside vistas encourage pulling off the designated route, and even more small towns, campgrounds, and unique Montana adventures facilitate longer layovers. Come as you are for a Montana road trip, with every type of vehicle able to access the atlas of Scenic Byways and All-American Roads across the state.

The Going-to-the-Sun Road is a scenic mountain road wraps around and between the Rocky Mountains in Glacier National Park in MontanaFollow Going-to-the-Sun Road for some of the country’s most spectacular scenery © Getty Images/iStockphoto

1. Going-to-the-Sun Road, Glacier National Park

Best introduction to Montana driving

Apgar Village – St. Mary Lake; 50 miles

Breathless words like “oh my gosh” and “holy moly” often accompany any drive on the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road, the only route spanning the width of Glacier National Park in northwest Montana. Narrow shoulders, winding curves, and rushing waterfalls beneath the road add an adventurous nature to the drive, but the mythical mountains rising into the sky will make you glad you called shotgun.

Drivers start heading to the sun at either Apgar Village near Lake McDonald or St. Mary Lake on the park’s east and west sides. The whole route could take 90 minutes without stopping, but you’ll want to budget all day to visit several roadside attractions, including Logan Pass Visitor Center – at an elevation 6646 feet, this is the highest point in the park accessible by vehicle.

Planning Tip: The Going-to-the-Sun Road is open seasonally, typically fully accessible between early June through September. A new Vehicle Reservation System coincides roughly with the same span, requiring personal vehicle permits. The fare-free GTSR Shuttle offers a valuable option if you can’t get a permit.

2. Beartooth Highway

Best way to get to or from Yellowstone National Park

Red Lodge – Cooke City; 68 miles

Eyepopping views of big mountains and glacier-carved valleys line every mile of the Beartooth Highway in southern Montana. This All-American Road dips into Wyoming on its journey from Red Lodge to the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park, topping out at Beartooth Pass (10,947ft) and showcasing Montana’s tallest peaks – the startling Beartooth Mountains.

Custer Gallatin National Forest surrounds the entire drive, including parking lot access to the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Alongside a thriving habitat for bears, moose, and elk, these adventure playgrounds offer a lifetime of hiking trails and connections with nature. This adventure smorgasbord includes a unique chance to hit the slopes at Beartooth Basin Summer Ski Area.

Planning Tip: Time your adventures right; the roadway is only open between Memorial Day (early May) and October 15th. No matter the time of year, bring warm clothes for the colder temperatures and exposure along the highway’s high elevation.

3. Pintler Veterans’ Memorial Scenic Highway

Best alternative route for driving between Yellowstone and Glacier

Drummond – Anaconda ; 64 miles

The Pintler Veterans’ Memorial Scenic Highway, also known as the Anaconda-Pintler Scenic Route, is a must-do diversion from Interstate 90 between Butte and Missoula. It’s also an excellent side adventure for those traveling between Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park, located approximately halfway along the route between these much more crowded destinations.

The speed limit is slower on the 64-mile two-lane scenic highway, but what really slows down traffic are the historic towns and outdoor recreation opportunities lining the route. Two quintessential pullovers include Anaconda and Phillipsburg, offering similar historic aesthetics but completely different ways to experience the past.

Mine for Montana Sapphires in Phillipsburg and enjoy black slag bunkers at Old Works Golf Course in Anaconda, always in sight of the historic Anaconda Smelter Stack. Both towns have hotels and lodging, although Fairmont Hot Springs Resort near Anaconda offers the most relaxing stay. Head to the hard-to-miss Georgetown Lake about halfway along the route for outdoor adventures. 

A man takes photos of fall foliage along the shore of Seeley Lake in MontanaTake the Seeley-Swan Scenic Byway to see some of western Montana’s most beautiful landscapes © Cavan Images RF / Getty Images

4. Seeley-Swan Scenic Byway (Highway 83)

Best road trip into lake country

Clearwater – Swan Lake; 84 miles

If you enjoy massive mountains reflecting off glass-smooth natural lakes, head for the Seeley-Swan Valley in western Montana. Mission Mountains and the Swan Range border Highway 83, spanning the length of this approximately 90-mile corridor. This magnet for summer travel is also home to a refreshing chain of over two dozen mountain lakes along the Clearwater River.

Seeley Lake, near the southern end of Highway 83, is the largest in the chain of lakes, complete with campgrounds, private resorts, and stocked rainbow trout. Holland Lake is another stunning lakeshore about halfway up the highway, where Holland Falls National Recreation Trail delivers hikers to a misty gravity display. And Swan Lake borders eight miles of the highway at its northern end, also famous for its fishing and camping opportunities.

Planning Tip: Budget 2-3 days for a solid trip through the Seeley-Swan Valley, booking campsites at places like Lake Alva or Lindbergh Lake or accommodations at the Holland Lake Lodge.   

5. Pioneer Mountain Scenic Byway

Best road trip for uncovering gems of the Treasure State

Wise River – Polaris; 45 miles

The seemingly short 45-mile Pioneer Scenic Byway in southwest Montana facilitates days upon days of authentic Montana experiences. The route follows the entire frontage of the Pioneer Mountain Range through Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest, offering a relatively mellow and straightforward drive where the term “Big Sky Country” really comes to mind.

Multiple days of outdoor recreation line the route, including the Big Hole River at its northern terminus – one of Montana’s top blue-ribbon waterways for fly fishing. National forest campgrounds also line the way, including Price Creek, the largest with 28 sites for tents or RVs. This campground is the closest to Crystal Park, a must-visit, with 30 acres open to harvesting quartz crystals buried in the ground.

Planning Tip: Pioneer Scenic Highway is open between May 15th and December 1st. It transforms into one of the state’s most popular snowmobile trails for the rest of the year.  

6. A Journey through Paradise (Valley)

Best road trip for historic hot springs

Livingston-Gardiner; 54 miles

The Yellowstone River carves through Paradise Valley on either side of the Absaroka and Gallatin Mountains in southern Montana. This idyllic riparian landscape spans only 40 miles, but with Livingston and Yellowstone National Park near its northern and southern termini, there’s enough to fill seven-plus days of exploring Paradise Valley and its river outlets.

Time spent in Livingston or Yellowstone can easily occupy your whole vacation, but budget some time to enjoy the drive between. The best way to soak in the stunning landscape is an overnight stay at the historic Chico Hot Springs, established in 1900 and still providing rustic rooms, a large community pool, and a historic dining room for a romantic night to remember. 

Detour: Highway 89 is the main route through Paradise Valley and a famous access road for Yellowstone National Park. The less-busy East River Road is a recommended alternative with a slower speed limit but better driving experience. 

A woman jumps into the clear water of Flathead Lake from a small dock.Take a break from diving and jump into the refreshing waters of Flathead Lake © Jordan Siemens / Getty Images

7. ZooTown to Whitefish through the Flathead Valley – Highway 93

Best route for an unplanned adventure

Missoula-Whitefish; 138 miles

The route from Missoula to Whitefish will make you want to move to Montana forever. It passes through the Rattlesnake Mountains immediately north of Missoula before crossing into the Flathead Reservation, home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, who manage the southern half of Flathead Lake, an unmissable point of attraction along the route.

Flathead Lake, the largest natural lake west of the Mississippi River in the contiguous United States, has two roads navigating either side of its expansive shoreline. Highway 93 follows the western shore, passing through charming small towns like Polson and Big Arm, where visitors find hotels, boat rentals, and community events like the Flathead Cherry Festival on the last weekend in July.

Approximately 10 miles north of Flathead Lake is Kalispell, a great base camp for exploring the Flathead Valley with the most available hotels, restaurants, and community events. And 15 miles further north is the year-round mountain town of Whitefish, made famous by its Amtrak stop, outdoor recreation, and world-class skiing at Whitefish Mountain Resort.


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