Western Montana road trip: best things to do in Yellowstone Country
So you want to visit Montana? We can’t blame you because Montana roads and sights are amazing. And I think our love of road trips is clear. Our most common that we do each year is an Oregon Coast road trip, but our other frequent road trip itinerary is through Western Montana and Yellowstone Country. This is actually our favorite I think. This is our no frills, easy road trip plan for Montana focusing on fun west of the Rockies.
Some of the best places to visit in Montana are found in the southwestern part of the state, called Yellowstone Country, so that’s where we’re sharing. Ghost towns, Montana hikes, craft distilling and more is what lies ahead, so buckle up and take notes!
Note: we were engaged by Visit Montana to go explore Western Montana and share what we found. They sponsored our trip but decisions about what to include in our road trip itinerary and all opinions are our own.
What you'll find...
- Western Montana road trip itinerary: Yellowstone Country
- Gateway to Yellowstone Country: Southwest Montana
- Butte, Montana: 5 ways to experience the boom-town
- Western Montana ghost towns
- Exploring Big Sky Country
- Ending in Bozeman, Montana
Planning a Montana road trip
Like with any vacation, you need to figure out how long you want to be gone and what sort of activities are the most important to you. Having done it several times, we know that the perfect Montana plan includes both nature and history, and a good balance of being active and relaxing. Also, if you’re planning to visit Glacier or Yellowstone National Parks, adding a few days of exploring is super easy.
Here’s how to plan an easy Montana road trip:
- Choose three highlights or destinations you most look forward to
- Plan to stay at least two nights in each destination
- Pre-map your activities/destinations to make your drive time as efficient as possible
- Check out the local websites for your destinations to see if there are any local events or festivals you either want to be a part of or that may impact your travel
With a few easy planning steps you can make sure that you and your traveling companions enjoy the best Montana road trip possible.
Western Montana road trip itinerary: Yellowstone Country
We are starting this Montana road trip plan in the west heading southeast. For us, we always are driving from Seattle so are following I-90 through Eastern Washington and Idaho until we get to Western Montana.
Here is the route of our trip. Note the drive times between stops and within each destination section, and you can see where we recommend for a home base in each area. As you’re planning your own Yellowstone Country road trip, know that you can break up our travel plan with time in Yellowstone National Park and then finish off the itinerary. Also, to do a complete Western Montana trip, add our Glacier Country itinerary to cover the full span between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Google Maps link here for full route through Yellowstone Country.
Tip: if you want to add the Beartooth Highway to your Yellowstone Country vacation, check out this great article from our friends at Crazy Family Adventure!
Gateway to Yellowstone Country: Southwest Montana
Between the Sawtooth Range of Idaho and the Rocky Mountains lies the Southwest Montana region. This include many historic mining areas, ranch lands and Lewis and Clark country. A visit to this region could be its own Montana family vacation.
Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site: #FindYourPark
Since you’ll be seeing cattle and farms all along your Western Montana road trip route, you might as well learn something about it. The Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic site is a wonderfully preserved ranch that includes a Visitor Center, nature trails, ranch house (has a guided tour), chuck wagon, blacksmith shop and more.
Why visit Grant-Hohrs Ranch NHS?
A highlight of visiting Grant-Kohrs Ranch NHS with kids is the living history element. Besides getting a new stamp in our National Parks Passports we got to chat with rangers manning the chuck-wagon and working the ranch. Also, the longhorn cattle and gardens were hits for our family.
Location: Google Maps link here. 266 Warren Lane; Deer Lodge, MT 59722
Hours: 7 days a week, 9:00 am – 5:30 pm in summer (closes at 4:30 pm from Labor Day to Memorial Day)
Deer Lodge for the Old Montana State Prison
On your Western Montana road trip, you’ll see lots of signs for the Old Montana Prison in Deer Lodge. This is right next door to Grant-Kohrs Ranch NHS so if you do one you can easily add the other to your itinerary.
Built in the late 1800s, the Old Montana State Prison is considered one of the most haunted spots in the Old West. You can tour the Prison year round except for a month crossing between December and January. You decide if it’s right for young kids or not. Our kids wanted to skip it and we went with our gut and let them make that call. The town of Deer Lodge is cute and there are a few restaurants and fun window shopping, so it’s easy to split up your group if not everyone is into the prison.
Location: Google Maps link here. 1106 Main Street; Deer Lodge, MT 59722
Hours: 8:00 am – 6:00 pm
Philipsburg, Montana: a Victorian mining town
Note: **This wonderful Western Montana road trip detour can be added at the end of the trip or as the first stop on your tour. You can do it before Grant-Kohrs Ranch or on your way back out of Montana.
Confession time: we only just discovered Philipsburg on our most recent western Montana road trip and on our way back out of the state at that. A beautifully preserved/restored town from the high point of western mining days, it’s the perfect way to begin a road trip through Montana history.
Location: Google Maps link here
Highlights in Philipsburg
While the obvious reason to visit Philipsburg, Montana is because it’s a picture perfect Victoria town, much like Port Townsend, Washington, there is more to the town. Check out the really cool and interesting Philipsburg Brewing in the old Broadway Hotel, the Sweet Palace where they have vintage candy machines working hard to produce vintage sweets, and of course, there’s the opportunity mining and gem shopping.
Note: if you want to stay in or near Philipsburg, book a local hotel or inn. Like has happened in Cinque Terre, Isla Holbox, and Venice, private vacation rentals in the cute, historic district have made housing for locals more scarce and expensive. Be low impact and make considerate travel choices.
Butte, Montana: 5 ways to experience the boom-town
It’s easy to drive through Butte on a Montana road trip but we’ve got five great reasons to spend some time in Butte. Quick history: mining boom-town in the 1860s, population became 100K+, mining all but ended for Butte, 70K+ people up and left. Butte, the Richest Hill on Earth, became an enormous ghost town. Search accommodations here.
Today, Butte is a really cool town with a lot of beautiful historic homes and buildings. We think of Butte as the gateway to Yellowstone Country. It’s home to some one-of-a-kind dining experiences, and it’s seeing a resurgence of life and business. And here are 5 great ways to enjoy Butte as both a piece of Western Montana history and fun vacation town:
- Do a guided tour to hear the history and visit cool spots (trolley tour through Visitors Center, walking tour through Old Butte Historical Adventures)
- Visit the World Museum of Mining and go into a mine shaft
- Eat at Pekin Noodle Parlour, the very first and longest continually operating Chinese American restaurant in the USA
- Spend an afternoon at the Stodden Park Ridge Waters waterpark (and bonus carousel next door)
- Visit Headframe Spirits or Butte Brewing Co to see modern craft houses at work
There is of course more to do, but these activities are fun, easy and perfect for the whole family.
About the Butte splash pad water park
Run by Butte City Parks and Recreation, this is a small, inexpensive water park that is ideal on a hot Montana summer day. Two big water slides, a kids cove, lazy river and more, it’s only $20 for a family of four. Awesome deal and much needed to cool down.
Location: Google Maps link here. 3103 S Utah Ave, Butte MT 59701
Hours: Seven days a week in summer, 12:00 pm – 6:30 pm (mornings open for lap swimming)
Headframe Spirits in Butte
We are recommending stopping into Headframe Spirits when you’re in Butte because the owners are really remarkable people doing amazing things. “Amazing? Making craft spirits is amazing?” It’s not just that. They are active in the community, providing space for Pride activities in Butte. They have worked to preserve and restore their historic building. Headframe has also pioneered a distilling/aging process for spirits that shortens the time and makes product available faster, making business sustainable, and has shared this technology with other craft distillers. Beyond Butte they are helping others succeed in their ventures.
We want you to visit Headframe Spirits because it’s more than good whiskey: it’s a business doing good.
Location: Google Maps link here. 21 S Montana St, Butte MT 59701
Hours: Seven days a week, 10:00 am – 8:00 pm
Cave tours at Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park
We visit a lot of caves and we try to share what makes each special and interesting. Lewis and Clark Caverns has been a favorite Montana state park of mine since I was a little kid. Why? Lewis and Clark Caverns have some of the most spectacular rooms and formations. The experience of descending the steps in the cave and crouching down through magical portals is just one-of-a-kind. How can this not be a part of a western Montana road trip? Check out our full article on Lewis and Clark Caverns here.
Must know before you go to L&C Caverns
When visiting Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park you need to be ready to do some physical stuff. The hike to the cave entrance is a half mile uphill. Inside the cave you’ll descend 500 stairs and climb 200 more. You’ll be crouching down to get through tiny tunnel areas. You’ll even need to slide down a chute at one point. It’s super fun, but if you’re physically challenged or have bad joints, you’ll find it very difficult or just not for you.
Location: Google Maps link here. 25 Lewis & Clark Caverns Road, Whitehall, MT 59759
Hours: Seven days a week, 9:00 am – 6:30 pm
Getting into nature in Gallatin County
This part of Western Montana is GORGEOUS! Here in the northern part of Gallatin County you’ll find the Headwaters of the Missouri River State Park, Madison Buffalo Jump State Park, and several historic sites pertaining to Lewis and Clark. Gallatin County actually stretches all the way down to West Yellowstone and includes a portion of Yellowstone National Park, but we’ll save that info for another article all about that part of Yellowstone Country.
Missouri Headwaters State Park
For the perfect day out in nature, we suggest getting everything you need for a picnic at the Missouri Headwaters. There is a great, shaded picnic area just off the river that’s perfect for kids. Here you’ll also find river access just before the Gallatin River joins the Missouri River. You can play in the river, but children should be well supervised as the water is very strong and is moving very fast as you get into the center of the river.
There are nature trails as well from the picnic area (Google Maps link here) or from the Confluence area. For adults or families with older kids, there are several spots that you can put into either the Gallatin or Missouri Rivers if you’re into floating. Always exercise caution and review river maps before just jumping in though, because you don’t want to get to a part of the river you can’t handle or go farther than you’re planning to haul out.
Madison Buffalo Jump State Park
We love this spot. It’s an obscure site and lies at the end of a dirt road, but it’s worth the visit. A short quarter mile hike up the hill takes you to the lookout with a shelter and a view of a gorgeous butte. Here, you can watch for deer, pronghorn antelope, birds or all sorts and appreciate wild flowers. Google Maps link here.
If you want to hike further, be sure to have plenty of water and to watch for rattlesnakes, but go for it! There is a nice trail system, shared by equestrians (horseback riders), and the view from the top of the butte looks out across Gallatin County. It’s perfectly picturesque Western Montana.
Western Montana ghost towns
You can’t even begin to talk about a Western Montana road trip without including ghost towns. If you’re unfamiliar, a ghost town is the remnants of a boom-town that has been vacated for one reason or another, often due to the end of the mining era or relocation of timber centers. Montana’s history is full people emigrating and immigrating for the chance of striking it rich with gold or other precious metals and gems.
Nevada City, Montana
The first of the Western Montana ghost towns to stop in is Nevada City. Part of a form 14 mile long boom town in Alder Gulch, it’s now a living museum. While some of the ghost town buildings in Nevada city were rescued from other parts of the boom town strip, the town maintains its history and charm. You can even still pan for gold and garnets.
Tour the ghost town, check out the museum, grab a coffee from the saloon and then hop on the Alder Gulch Short Line railroad to ride through Central City and end in Virginia City.
Staying in Nevada City, Montana
For being a small Montana ghost town, Nevada City actually has some wonderful accommodations. We we privileged. The Nevada City Hotel and Cabins is a collection of 1860s cabins and an original hotel building, nestled up next to the museum portion of the ghost town. We had a two queen bed cabin that had been nicely updated, including a very nice bathroom. It wasn’t at all what we expected upon seeing our 150+ year old cabin with cactus growing out of the roof. Super cool accommodations for a Montana road trip. Book the Nevada City Hotel here!
Virginia City: not so ghosty now
As we said, you can take the Alder Gulch Short Line railroad between Nevada and Virginia Cities. It’s a run, 20 minute train ride that gives you a pretty thorough history of the area and the 14 mile boom town. Once you’re in Virginia City, it’s all fun and history! Between the exhibits that make the town feel like everybody’s just out and about to the old Cabbage Patch shacks, it’s an interesting place for kids and adults.
The most fun thing for us in Virginia City was actually finally getting to do an old-time family photo. If that sounds weird to you, here’s the scoop: you get to dress up in period costumes, from cowboys to soldiers, saloon girls to rustlers, and then they do a photo shoot with you on a set. It’s a Montana road trip must.
Note: the original, very first old time photo studio is the Montana Picture Gallery here in Virginia City. They know their stuff and do a great job. That’s where we did ours. Loved the experience! Google Maps link here.
One other point of interest not to miss in Virginia City is Boothill and the cemetery. If you’re not into old graves but you’re curious, at least visit Boothill and pay your respects to the Rodent Agents: a rogue band of mice that had to be trapped after causing a ruckus in town. RIP, tiny mouse friends.
Exploring Big Sky Country
Going deeper into Yellowstone Country, your next stop is Big Sky, Montana. You’ll find everything in Big Sky from luxury resorts on the mountain to camping right on the Gallatin River. I like to think of Big Sky as the part of Montana that truly has something for everyone and every budget. We’ve been several times now and have a great list of things to do in Big Sky, Montana that will make you want to spend a whole week there!Search accommodations here.
Big Sky Resort: time on the mountain
In the winter, Big Sky is THE skiing and snowboarding getaway. In the summer it’s all about the hiking and mountain biking. We did a guided tour up to the top of Lone Mountain, two miles above sea level, that took us from chair lifts to off-roading to an enclosed gondola to a hike. The view from the top across Yellowstone Country is remarkable.
All around the Big Sky Resort area there are activities for visitors to enjoy, both complimentary and paid experiences. The kids loved having a rock climbing playground available, while zip-lining was much more of dad-speed. The ziplining!! Wow! Again, super cool experience and there was even a few moose in the valley below! Other options including boat rentals, mountain biking, spa days and more. Also, don’t forget that the Big Sky Resort is huge with all sorts of accommodations.
Note: if you’re planning on going on a zipline at the Big Sky Resort, it is their policy that all participants wear close-toed shoes. There can be no holes/gaps, so water-shoes or sandals aren’t allowed.
320 Guest Ranch: enjoying the Gallatin Valley
Have you stayed on a guest ranch before? It’s a great way to feel like a cowboy and enjoy the Western Montana life. The 320 Guest Ranch is located just south of the town of Big Sky, right on the Gallatin River, just 15 minutes to the border of Yellowstone National Park. We enjoyed a cabin with two queen beds and a front porch at the end of the property. It was quiet and beautiful with a creek running besides.
As far as horse experiences go, due to our busy Montana road trip schedule, we didn’t do any lengthy rides up into the wilderness, but did two other fun activities: a wagon ride with a riverside barbecue and kids cowpoke rides. The boys love horses so getting to hang out with them and have short rides that didn’t overwhelm them was perfect.
Other Big Sky experiences not to miss
Of course we can’t share everything to do, but we want to point out a few more activities to fill the time if you have an extra day or two in the Big Sky area. The first two are hikes: Bacon Rind Trail within the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park and Elkhorn Creek Trail at the Red Cliff area of the Gallatin National Forest. These hikes are both considered easy and doable with kids, going as far as you feel comfortable and not too steep.
Note: while we visited, two sets of hikers we met encountered a grizzly bear on the Bacon Rind trail, so be cautious and prepared when hiking. Bring bear spray if you have it (or get some) and know how to act if you come face to face with a bear.
The last STRONG recommendation in Big Sky is having a meal at the Gallatin Riverhouse Grill right on the Gallatin River. You may have to wait for a table, but there are plenty of yard games and river frontage to enjoy. There’s also plenty of picnic tables and Adirondack chairs for guests to chill in and enjoy a local beer or two. The brisket and fried chick were awesome. Chris actually said that it was the best fried chicken he’s ever had.
Ending in Bozeman, Montana
We’re wrapping up our Western Montana road trip plan and ending this portion in Bozeman. A good sized city and the home of Montana State University Bozeman, it’s a fun mix of modern town and old west storefronts. Also, there are a lot of craft breweries in Bozeman. If you can’t pick one to visit, just go for the Bozeman Taproom & Fill Station so you can get the best of everything Montana beer has to offer. Find Bozeman accommodations here.
The Museum of the Rockies
This is why we were sure to include Bozeman in our Western Montana road trip plan. The Museum of the Rockies is a division of MSU Bozeman and is THE dinosaur museum in Montana. The love the Museum of Nature and Science in Denver, and then the Fernbank in Atlanta is awesome too, but nobody can compare with the collection of T-Rex fossils that the Museum of the Rockies has.
The kids loved the extensive fossil collection (and we did too) but the outdoor farm and living history exhibits were, I think, a real bonus. The museum docents were in period costume and doing everything from baking in the farm kitchen to working in the garden. One lady actually showed us how the Victrola phonograph worked at played music for us.
Note: if you’re visiting the Museum of the Rockies on your Montana road trip, check their website in advance for rotating special exhibitions. We got to do the Ghengis Khan exhibit and it was really cool and a great surprise.
Location: Google Maps link here. 600 W Kagy Blvd, Bozeman, MT 59717
Hours: Seven days a week, 8:00 am – 6:00 pm
From Bozeman you can easily continue onto Glacier National Park to the north or Yellowstone National Park to the south, the north entrance in Gardiner being the closest at 1 hour 20 minutes. There’s really no wrong way to do a Western Montana road trip.
For an additional idea, check out our post on Glacier Country and all the cool things to do from Whitefish to East Glacier. Never a dull moment or a bad view in Western Montana.
Want to pin this for planning your own Montana road trip? Go for it!!!
Rob Taylor is the founder of 2TravelDads, the original LGBT Family Travel blog. Focusing on ecotourism and education, 2TravelDads inspires LGBT families (and traditional families also) to go beyond their usual getaways and use travel to learn about and be part of a bigger world. “Traveling the globe and giving the kids a broad worldview.”