Montana National Forests – Exploring The 10 Picturesque Locations

Rebecca Hanlon
Last Updated: March 4th, 2023

National forests are Montana’s most valued natural resources encompassing over 17 million acres. These forests are federally managed and provide broad access to mountains, rivers, lakes, valleys, wilderness areas, and wildlife.

Exploring the mountainous western half of Montana on both sides of the Continental Divide allows you to soak up these treasures.

Whether hiking, wildlife viewing, fishing, skiing, hunting, or camping, Montana national forests have something for everyone. Here’s a summary of these forests.

Montana National Forests – Quick Look

1. Bitterroot National Forest

bitterroot national forest
Image: Forest Service Northern Region

Bitterroot National Forest is a 1.6 million-acre forest in Ravalli County, southwest Montana, though it extends into eastern Idaho.

The forest is home to over 56 mountains, 101 lakes, 35 campgrounds, and three designated wilderness areas. Over half of the forest comprises a designated wilderness area, including the most extensive Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

The other two wilderness areas are the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness.

The rest of the forest terrain is mountainous and forested, with grasslands occupying the lower elevations. Two of the most famous mountains sit adjacent, forming the Bitterroot Valley.

The rugged Bitterroot Mountains to the west feature rugged canyons, while the Sapphire Mountains to the east is gentler and feature forested and grassland areas.

The forest’s higher elevations enjoy more precipitation and feature alpine lakes, dense forests, and fast-running streams.

Exploring the vast grasslands and forested areas offers an opportunity to view mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, moose, black bears, white-tail deer, and various bird species.

Anglers can reel in brook, brown, and rainbow trout in lakes and rivers, especially the meandering Bitterroot River.

With over 1,600 miles of trails, visitors can hike or ride while viewing the heavily glaciated and rugged mountains. Some popular trails include Watchtower Trail, Running Creek Trail, and Holloway Lake Trail.

Alta Campgrounds, Deep Creek Campground, Indian Creek Campground, Warm Springs Campground, and Lake Como Campground are some of the best picks for camping enthusiasts.

Other popular recreation activities in this forest include hunting, mountain biking, horseback riding, rock climbing, boating, rafting, kayaking, skiing, snowmobiling, and snowboarding.

2. Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest

beaverhead-deerlodge national forest
Image: Forest Service Northern Region

Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest is Montana’s largest forest, covering 3.35 million acres. The forest lies in eight counties in southwest Montana.

In 1996, Beaverhead and Deerlodge National Forest were merged into one, forming Montana’s largest national forest. The forest boasts 285 mountains, 371 lakes, 4,215 miles of streams, over 50 campgrounds, and 1,500 miles of trail routes.

The forest extends across the Continental Divide, creating a rugged, adventurous landscape. The two most prominent mountains are Lone Mountain (11,161 feet) and Table Mountain (4,393 feet).

The Beaverhead section is the largest, featuring Pioneer, Sapphire, and Gravelly Ranges and home to Lemhi Pass and Centennial mountain ranges. The Deerlodge section includes parts of the Elkhorn Mountains, Flint Creek Range, and the Tobacco Root Mountains.

This forest boasts a mixture of old-growth forests, high alpine zones, wetlands, and grass ranges. Wilderness areas such as the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness and part of Lee Metcalf Wilderness makes this forest a natural beauty.

Grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, elk, moose, lynx, bald eagles, black bears, and wolves call this forest home.

The vast landscape provides loads of outdoor recreations for visitors. The area is ideal for hiking, wildlife viewing, camping, hunting, swimming, boating, fishing, and mountain climbing. Winter sports include snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing.

Camping opportunities are available in Madison River, Racetrack Campground and Picnic Area, Copper Creek, Willow, or Riverview Campgrounds.

For hikers, Haystack Mountain, Louise Lake, and Continental Divide Trails are some of the best trails for adventure.

3. ­Flathead National Forest

flathead national forest
Image: Forest Service, USDA

Flathead National Forest is a 2.4 million-acre forest in Flathead County, Montana. Glacier National Park and the Canada border are to the north, across the Flathead River, while the Continental Divide is to the east. It’s home to the Bob Marshall Wilderness area.

The forest features fir and pine trees with plenty of evergreen forests, meadows, lakes, and grasslands. Visitors can explore over 137 mountains, 27 lakes, 219 miles of rivers, and 2800 miles of trails.

Holland Peak is the highest mountain within the forest, at 9,334 feet. The Chinese Wall, Whitefish Mountain, Scapegoat Mountain, Mount Aeneas, and a section of the Rocky Mountain Range are some treasure troves for visitors.

Major cities such as Kalispell and Missoula are easily accessible for visitors who wish to take a break from nature excursions.

Water sports lovers can head to Holland Lake, Swan Lake, Seeley Lake, Flathead River, Stillwater River, and Swan River for fishing, swimming, boating, and kayaking.

Wildlife viewers will also enjoy exploring this forest. Flathead National Park is home to black bears, white-tailed deer, mule, grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, elk, hawks, owls, eagles, geese, and ducks.

Popular recreations in this forest include hiking, camping, mountain climbing, and skiing. Campers can try Red Meadow, Swan Lake, Emery Bay, Murray Bay, and Ashley Lake North Campgrounds.

Bond Creek, Mt. Aeneas, and Holland Falls National Recreation Trails are suitable for hiking enthusiasts.

4. Custer-Gallatin National Forest

custer-gallatin national forest

Custer-Gallatin National Forest is a 3.2 million-acre forest in Powder and Park County, Montana. Custer and Gallatin merged in 2014 to serve as one national forest. Today, the forest covers seven ranger districts from south-central to southeast Montana.

This national forest spreads from the east near Yellowstone National Park to northwest South Dakota. Visitors from this forest can access Yellowstone National Park from three access points, including the Beartooth Pass.

The forest features portions of Absaroka-Beartooth and Lee Metcalf Wilderness areas. It’s home to 144 mountains, 3,000 lakes and ponds, 30 rivers, 127 hiking trails, and 50 campgrounds.

The most notable mountain ranges include the Crazy, Madison, Bridger, Gallatin, Absaroka, and Beartooth Ranges.

Wild waterways such as the Yellowstone, Gallatin, Madison, and Lakes like Pine Creek, Hebgen, Earthquake Lake, and Lava Lake provide water sports and activities opportunities.

Custer-Gallatin National Forest provides plenty of outdoor recreations, including hiking, camping, swimming, boating, hunting, wildlife viewing, skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling.

Exploring this forest allows one to view rocky mountain goats, bears, elk, bighorn sheep, mules, moose, and white-tail deer. Birds like hawks, eagles, songbirds, and owls are aplenty.

Visitors can camp in Snowbank, Tom Miner, Spire Rock, Falls Creek, and Rainbow Point Campgrounds. Hiking opportunities are available at College M, Fairy Lakeshore, Drinking Horse Mountain, Lava Lake, Storm Castle Peak, and Timberline Trails.

5. Gallatin Petrified Forest

gallatin petrified forest

Gallatin Petrified Forest is a historic forest in Gallatin County, Montana. It is part of Gallatin Forest, located north of Yellowstone National Park, and one of the state’s valuable fossil resources, thanks to conserved trees buried and petrified over 50 million years ago. The multilayered trees lay on the ground while others stand upright.

Gallatin Petrified Forest attracts visitors interested in the geologic history and the unique fossil resources.

Activities in this forest include sightseeing, hiking, camping, and backpacking. You can also explore petrified wood treasures that are millions of years old.

Tom Miner Campground is the forest’s main campground with 16 campsites.

Hiking along the Petrified Forest Interpretive Trail is a great way to soak up the geologic history of the forest. The trail also allows visitors to see more rocks, gems, and petrified wood fragments.

Hiking from Tom Miner Trailhead leads visitors toward Buffalo Pass, where more routes lead to Ramshorn Lake and Ramshorn Mountain. While hiking, visitors can spot grizzly bears, deer, and elk.

Anglers can reel in cutthroat trout in Trail Creek. For more water sports and activities, head to Yellowstone River.

6. Helena National Forest

helena national forest

Helena National Forest covers 984,558 acres in west-central Montana. A section of the Scapegoat Wilderness area and the Continental Divide dominates the forest’s western regions, while the Big Belt Mountains and the Gates of the Mountain Wilderness areas are on the eastern side.

The southern section is home to the Elkhorn Mountains. In 2015, Helena National Forest and Lewis and Clark National Forest were merged under the management of the US Forest Service.

Parts of Helena National Forest are within Lewis and Clark, Jefferson, Broadwater, Powell, and Meagher Counties. The forest sits in the mountainous region of Montana, with 67 named mountains.

Mount Edith is the highest. Other notable peaks include the Elkhorn Mountains, Lewis Range, Big Belt Mountains, Boulder Mountains, and sections of Rocky Mountain Range.

Numerous lakes, ponds, and rivers serve as ideal resources for water activities. The Blackfoot and Missouri Rivers are hotspots for anglers, floaters, and hikers. Brook trout, northern pike, cutthroat, and rainbow trout are in plenty.

The forest’s distinctive landscape provides opportunities for various outdoor pursuits. Visitors can enjoy hiking, camping, wildlife viewing, swimming, fishing, boating, seasonal hunting, horseback riding, skiing, snowmobiling, and snowshoeing.

There is a sizable population of elk, grizzly bears, mountain goats, mule deer, bighorn sheep, moose, black bears, wolves, white-tailed deer, beavers, and mountain lions.

Camping enthusiasts can look for suitable campsites in Crystal Lake, Aspen Grove, Benchmark, Vigilante, Copper Creek, and Cromwell-Dixon Campgrounds.

Helena National Forest features 100 hiking trails, including Blackfoot Meadows, Hanging Valley, Continental Divide Scenic, and Crow Creek Falls Trails.

7. Kaniksu National Forest

kaniksu national forest
Image: U.S. Forest Service

Kaniksu National Forest is located in far northwestern Montana, stretching across the Idaho border. The forest is approximately 500,000 acres incorporating Sanders and Lincoln Counties.

It’s also near Kootenai National Forest and home to a portion of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness.

Visitors to this forest can explore Thompson Falls, the largest town in Kaniksu, Montana. Several small towns near the forest, including Trout Creek and Libby, are visitors’ favorite stopping points.

Kaniksu is a mountainous forest. The Cabinet Mountains are to the east and are ideal for various outdoor pursuits.

Camping and hiking in this forest is a great way to explore various mountains, alpine lakes, streams, and forested areas. Lakes such as Spar, Engle, Saint, and Wanless are hotspots for anglers looking for brooks, yellow, and rainbow trout.

Hikers can spot grizzly bears, moose, elk, white-tailed deer, black bears, wolves, coyotes, mule deer, and beavers. Other popular activities include biking, swimming, horseback riding, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing.

Visitors can camp in McGillivray Campground, Marten Creek Campground, and Birdland Bay RV Resort. The forest features numerous trail routes like Star Peak, Star Gulch, Engle Lake, and Wanless Lake Creek Trails.

8. Kootenai National Forest

kootenai national forest
Image: Forest Service Northern Region

Kootenai National Forest is a 2.2 million-acre forest in the far northwestern part of Montana.

Almost 95% of the forest is in Lincoln County, with some sections extending into Flathead and Sanders Counties in Montana and Boundary and Bonner Counties in Idaho. British Columbia is to the north, while Idaho is to the west.

Over 100 lakes, 318 mountains, multiple rivers, trails, and campgrounds dot the Kootenai National Forest. A part of the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness sits in Kootenai. This wilderness area is home to Snowshoe Peak, the tallest peak in the forest at 8,738 feet.

The two major rivers in the forest are the Kootenai and Clark Fork Rivers. These rivers provide fishing, swimming, boating, and rafting opportunities.

Lake Koocanusa, Ten Lakes Scenic Area, and Ross Creek Scenic Area are some of the main attractions. Recreations in Kootenai include trailing, camping, hunting, backpacking, horseback riding, biking, and wildlife viewing.

Grizzly bears, moose, black bears, mountain lions, elk, white-tail and mule deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, coyotes, and dozens of bird species call this place home.

Visitors can find multiple campgrounds, cabins, and RV amenities in Bull Lake, Koocanusa, and Yaak River areas. Grouse Lake, Berry Mountain, Kootenai Falls, Swinging Bridge, and Leigh Lake Trails are ideal for hiking.

9. Lewis and Clark National Forest

lewis and clark national forest
Image: Forest Service Northern Region

Lewis and Clark National Forest spans 1,863,788 acres in the west-central region of Montana. It was merged with the Helena National Forest in 2015 and operates today as Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest.

The Jefferson Division features grass and scrublands to the east, while the Rocky Mountain Division is to the west on the Continental Divide.

The forest’s western side borders Glacier National Park and encompasses Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness sections. The upper section of the Missouri River flows in this forest.

Lewis and Clark National Forest stretches across 13 counties in Montana, including Meager, Lewis and Clark, Cascade, Chouteau, Glacier, and Teton.

There are ten mountain ranges, 1,600 miles of streams and rivers, 1,500 miles of hiking trails, 29 vehicle-accessible campgrounds, and numerous lakes. Visitors can explore the Big Snow, Little Snow, Judith, Little Belt, Crazy, and Highwood mountains.

For outdoor recreations, Lewis and Clark National Forest allows visitors to enjoy hiking, fishing, camping, biking, horseback riding, OHV riding, hunting, paddling, canoeing, swimming, and wildlife viewing.

Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and Gates of the Mountains are ideal for historical tours and education programs.

Grizzly bears, timber wolves, mountain goats, elk, black bears, white-tailed deer, and bighorn sheep are some animals to spot.

Birdwatchers can spot bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, peregrine falcon, and grouse, while anglers can catch the native cutthroat, northern pike, rainbow trout, and brook trout.

Some of the best trail routes for hiking include Blackfoot Meadows, Headquarters Creek, Memorial Falls, Windy Mountain Loop, Sulphur Springs, and Gibson Reservoir Trails.

10. Lolo National Forest

lolo national forest
Image: Forest Service Northern Region

Lolo National Forest is a two million-acre forest in western Montana located west of the Continental Divide. It encompasses Rattlesnake, Welcome Creek Wildernesses, and portions of Selway-Bitterroot and Scapegoat Wildernesses.

The forest spreads across Sanders, Missoula, Powell, Flathead, Mineral, Granite, and Ravalli Counties. It surrounds the city of Missoula and towns such as Superior and St. Regis.

Lolo National Forest’s location affords it maritime and continental weather. It features over 1,500 plant and tree species, 235 named mountains, 700 miles of hiking trails, 1,000 streams, five major rivers, 100 lakes, and 30 campgrounds.

The highest mountains include Thompson peak, Fisher Peak, Lolo Peak, and Scapegoat Mountain. The headwaters of Blackfoot River, Fish Creek, and Rock Creek are in this forest and are treasure troves for anglers looking for trout.

The forest is open year-round for visitors interested in hiking, fishing, biking, hunting, camping, boating, wildlife viewing, snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing.

There is plenty of big game, including bighorn sheep, grizzly bears, black bears, moose, elk, mule deer, mountain goats, and timber wolves.

Birdwatchers can spot bald eagles, golden eagles, herons, ducks, and trumpeter swans, while anglers can reel in northern pike, brown trout, yellow perch, bull trout, and Kokanee salmon.

Popular campgrounds in this forest include Lolo Creek Campground and Picnic Area, Lee Creek, Yellowrock, Kreis Pond, and Quartz Flat Campgrounds.

Hiking enthusiasts can explore Lolo Peak, Rattlesnake, Iron Mountain, and Morrell Falls Recreational Trails.

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About The Author

Rebecca Hanlon

Rebecca has been a travel blogger and editor for over 5 years, working with some of the biggest brands in industry. She’s taught English as a foreign language in 5 different countries, and her most fulfilling role was as a tour guide around some of Europe’s finest vineyards. She the one behind the social channels here at Discovering Montana, whilst also finding the time to perform an assistant editor role.

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