Journeying through Central Montana is like taking a walk through the history of America.
You can start millennia before the concept of America even existed, in the prehistoric era on Montana’s Dinosaur Trail. The state is unusually blessed with fossil discoveries, and many took place in Central Montana.
You are most likely to recognize the figures related to the relatively recent history of Central Montana. Compared to the dinosaurs, Lewis and Clark are practically modern.
These great explorers traveled through Central Montana on their famous expedition. You can follow in their footsteps on the National Historic Trail, visit the places they stayed, or learn more about them at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Great Falls.
Central Montana is wedged between Yellowstone to the south and the Glacier National Park to the west. It is often used as a stopping point for people traveling between them.
But the region is beautiful in its own right, with sweeping plains, winding rivers, and vast forests. This is a region that feels completely authentic; you really see the true Montana in its most remote corners.
The Best Hotels in Central Montana
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Central Montana Stats and Facts
- Central Montana is the largest tourist region in the state, occupying millions of acres of land.
- Bear Paw Battlefield is located in Central Montana. It is the site of the final engagement of the Nez Perce War of 1877, where Chief Joseph declared “I will fight no more forever.”
- There are 13 different counties in Central Montana. Including Pondera County, Teton County, Choteau County, and Cascade County.
- Great Falls is the largest city in Central Montana and the third largest in Montana. It is famously known as ‘The Electric City’ due to its five hydroelectric dams.
Notable Towns, Cities & Areas in Central Montana
Great Falls is the third-largest city in all of Montana, and the largest in Central Montana, with a population of almost 60,000 in 2019.
It’s the cultural hub of the region, with a great selection of museums and art galleries, and is home to some of the best breweries in Montana.
Great Falls is famous for its position along the Missouri River and is named for the series of five waterfalls – the largest of which is Great Falls – located either on the Missouri River as it meanders through the city or nearby.
It’s also known as ‘The Electric City’, as the power of the falls is harvested with five hydroelectric dams.
Great Falls is one of the most interesting towns in Montana for history buffs, as it has fantastic museums like the C.M. Russell Museum and Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.
The city is ideal for families, as it has plenty of activities for all ages; besides the museums, Great Falls has a water park and a few recreational areas. The town center is lively, filled with restaurants, bars, and breweries. The city has everything you would need for a relaxing vacation.
Great Falls is a fantastic base for those hoping to explore Great Springs State Park; it is only a few miles outside of the center. The series of magnificent falls are a breath-taking spectacle – even in a state as frequently beautiful as Montana.
The oldest town in the whole of Montana is found in this region; Fort Benton was established as a fur-trading outpost in 1846, before the gold rush of the 1860s. Lewis and Clark reached the area even earlier – in 1805, the famous explorers camped near Fort Benton to take advantage of its sheltered position by the river.
A place sometimes referred to as the ‘Birthplace of Montana’ is bound to be rooted in history. The waterfront has been designated a National Historic Landmark due to its importance as the head of navigation on the Missouri River and in establishing connections with western Canada.
You can see the Lewis & Clark memorial, a handful of museums, and the surrounding natural beauty when visiting Fort Benton. It’s one of the most attractive small towns in Central Montana.
White Sulphur Springs
For a relaxing escape, there are few better places in Montana than White Sulphur Springs.
The luxurious resort town is a popular choice for weekend breaks – it is only a small town, but perfect for a soothing respite away. The main attraction to White Sulphur Springs is its namesake: the mineralized hot springs.
The naturally heated springs can be found in the Spa Hot Springs Motel; you don’t have to be staying in the motel to access them.
The medicinal waters were used by native people for many centuries. Their healing qualities have long been used to help alleviate a number of ailments. People still flock to them today; whether they want to ease a health issue or simply relax.
The rest of the town is small but charming, with a traditional Western appeal. ‘The Castle’ museum is a highlight; the 1892 museums carve a dramatic figure in the otherwise simple town.
Situated right on the edge of Great Falls, Giant Springs State Park is one of the easiest to access. The park runs along 14 miles of the Missouri River, but the trails within run for even longer.
You can see the cascades of the Missouri River as it weaves towards the north. It’s the most scenic state park in Central Montana and offers visitors the chance to escape into nature right on the doorstep of Montana’s third-largest city.
There is plenty to do at the park. Besides hiking, you can try biking, learn about the history of Lewis and Clark, go bird watching or enjoy a simple picnic. Giant Springs State Park has all the amenities you could need and is open all year-round.
First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park
This state park is a National Historic Landmark and is home to what is possibly the largest bison cliff jump in North America.
It is an archaeological site with over two thousand years of history. The cliffs were used as a way to effectively slaughter buffalo by native tribes long before the arrival of Lewis and Clark to the area.
The practice was used for so long that the compacted remains of buffalo are piled high below the cliff. In places, they reach 18ft in depth.
Visiting the park today gives us insight into a way of life that lasted thousands of years. The educational visitor center is a fantastic place to learn more about the people that once hunted the high plains.
There is also an interpretive trail to follow, as well as the typical facilities you would expect like picnic tables and restrooms.
Things to Do
The sweeping plains and dense forests of Central Montana are an adventurer’s playground.
There is so much to do in the open wilderness of Montana – as long as you don’t mind getting your hands dirty. The area is so vast that modern comforts and facilities are hard to come by.
Following the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail in the 21st century doesn’t feel so different from the experience of the expedition in the 19th.
You can hike, ski, or ride by horseback through the wilderness; either by yourself or on a guided tour. It’s a great place for sports in general, but there is no question about which is most popular.
Fishing is far and away the most universally loved pastime in Central Montana. It’s no wonder, really, when the area is overflowing with world-class trout rivers and streams.
You can try your hand at fly-fishing on Big Spring Creek or the Missouri River. There’s more than just the famous trout – Central Montana is also excellent for catching walleye.
Though the recreational activities in Big Sky Country revolve around the great outdoors, you can find things to do for people who prefer to stay indoors. Great Falls is famous for its museums and breweries, and places like Lewistown and Choteau also offer up some interesting sights.
The Dinosaur Trail of Montana runs through the region – you can discover more about the prehistoric era in six separate museums in Central Montana.
Where to Stay
Central Montana is absolutely huge. It takes hundreds of miles and hours of time to cross it. Where you stay depends on what you most want to see.
If you want to be close to the beauty of nature while staying somewhere a little more comfortable, you should stay in one of the larger towns. Great Falls is arguably the best for this, as its proximity to Great Springs State Park and its position straddling the Missouri River tick the nature boxes while offering all the comforts of a city.
For those visiting and wanting to stay close to the airport for convenience, the MainStay Suites Great Falls Airport is your best bet for comfort and accessibility.
The modern hotel is pet friendly, has gym facilities as well as a pool and free wifi. Better yet, a kitchen is included with onsite laundry so if you are planning for a longer stay you can access these amenities with ease.
If you are looking for a more authentic Central Montana experience check out the Historic Hotel Arvon in downtown Great Falls. The exterior is rustic, but the inside has been fully updated to accommodate the modern tourist, pets are allowed, there are gym facilities on-site, free wi-fi, and an airport shuttle.
However, you don’t have to stay in a hotel with so many unique places to stay in Montana. You can stay on a ranch, go camping or stay in a ski resort.
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Places to Eat
Montana is known as a state of vast wilderness; a remote expanse that in many ways feels stuck in time. This is especially true in Central Montana, which by all accounts, has changed very little in the last 50 years.
You can see this in the food scene – there are foods from different cultures in the largest urban areas, but Central Montana is mostly a slice of pure American pie. Diners and Bar & Grills are the most common places to eat, and all serve up authentic American food and hospitality.
An open wilderness like Montana is famous for hunting – the state is unsurprisingly filled with meat-eaters. You will often find steakhouses and BBQ restaurants around Central Montana.
Unusual game meats like buffalo are frequently found as well. Though they do not have the most expansive list to choose from, vegans and vegetarians can usually find at least a few alternatives in restaurants (if there isn’t a solely vegan restaurant around).
Beyond the burger, The Roadhouse is a popular choice for its warm hospitality and relaxed setting; it is the only restaurant in Central Montana to reach our list of top 15 restaurants in Montana.
Great Falls, as the largest city, is of course the center of the region’s food scene. You have the most variety in both restaurants and cuisines here. Try Italian, Mexican or Japanese food on top of the usual American fare at the top 15 restaurants in Great Falls.
Get whisked away on a tour through Central Montana. Put yourself in the hands of an able expert, and take the stress and work out of traveling. Sometimes, letting someone else lead you from place to place is the best way to see an area – you get the inside track from someone who knows it like the back of their hand.
Tours range from simple sight-seeing expeditions to epic adventures. Whether you want to see Central Montana from horseback or on a pair of skis, there is a tour out there for you.
There are few better ways to learn about Montana than from a trained local guide.
Join one of our recommended tours to see Central Montana on easy mode, and start a brand new adventure in Big Sky Country.