Montana is well-known for being a state with wide-open, vast, natural landscapes. The terrain of the region is also quite diverse, whether it is the Rocky Mountain backdrops or the wide stretches of the Great Plains.
Some of the most impressive and awe-inspiring natural terrains are found in the national parks in Montana. In these places, you’ll encounter an outdoor enthusiast’s dream, where there is everything from snow-capped peaks to alpine hiking trails and huge, clear lakes.
But we did say diverse, and diverse this state is – from its best-known national park, Glacier National Park to its state park ghost towns, certainly there is much to explore here. If you love natural scenery, wildlife, boating, hiking, and skiing, then Montana is likely a place that you’ll return to again and again.
Or maybe you are intrigued by the historical past of this region, whether by way of the rich, ‘boom town’ mining era or the prehistoric fossils that is another key point of the area, Montana has many interesting things to explore and discover, not least of all in its national and state parks.
The parks in Montana listed as ‘state parks’, include historic battlefields, underground caverns, buildings, monuments, and various other memorials from the past. And these state parks tend to be less-crowded spaces that allow visitors to encounter another part of the whole spectrum of the Montana adventure.
So if that’s not already reason enough to visit the Big Sky state, let’s have a closer look at some of the best national and state parks in Montana.
Ten Montana National Parks
- Glacier National Park
- Yellowstone National Park
- Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area
- Giant Springs State Park
- Makoshika State Park
- Sluice Boxes State Park
- Pictograph Cave State Park
- Lewis & Clark Caverns Park
- Lone Pine State Park
- Bannack State Park
Probably the most-visited and most well-known of all the national parks in Montana is Glacier National Park. This particular state-managed section of the western Montana landscape was established in 1910, and contains some of the most awe-inspiring natural scenarios of mountain ranges that were once carved out by the flow of prehistoric ice rivers.
Here you’ll encounter fresh alpine forests and meadows, picturesque waterfalls, huge, glistening glaciers, and over 200 pristine lakes.
Some of the vistas that can be seen from one of the most well-known and accessible regions of the park — Going-To-The-Sun Road — are impressive, to say the least. That said, there isn’t actually that much by way of roads in the park across its 1,600 square miles of terrain and scenic landscape, and this is in no small part why much of the park’s stunning, primitive appeal remains unspoiled.
Yellowstone was actually the world’s first national park, having first been designated as such in 1872. It contains more than a few marvels, and here you can witness natural wonders like the underground reservoirs of power that rise up through the park’s various features such as geysers, intensely colorful hot springs, and mud pots.
Yellowstone is another of Montana’s national parks that are vast, open terrains of the natural world consisting of mountains, forests, meadows, and lakes. The area is well-populated with wildlife and is of course an absolute must-visit place for anyone from wildlife or camping enthusiasts to those seeking active outdoor pursuits.
Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area stretches across a vast area of Montana which also covers some of Wyoming. There is some truly stunning terrain and landscapes in this region which is a delight for outdoor explorers and photographers alike.
The park’s main feature is the huge expanse of the towering Bighorn Canyon, which looks down over both a large lake and a river. The craggy cliff formations make for an impressive backdrop to the clear waters, which offer ideal opportunities for water and boating activities as well as fishing.
Aside from exploring and camping, the area also has a range of archaeological and cultural treasures to check out by way of historic ranches, and the Crow Indian Reservation. You’ll even find wild horses here, and there are two visitor centers to provide any further insights and information.
Giant Springs State Park was first discovered by Lewis & Clark on their pioneering expedition in the early 1800s. The park area comprises one of the largest natural freshwater springs in the county, which flows at a rate of more than 150 million gallons per day.
This is pristine, crystal clear water that has its source in the Little Belt Mountains, and one of the reasons why the Giant Springs State Park is actually the most visited State Park in Montana with more than 300,000 visits a year.
The springs are incredibly picturesque, and this park covers over 4,500 acres of front and back county which includes terrain on the North and South shores of the Missouri River. There are also more than 20 miles of impressive trails ideal for hiking and biking.
The “Great Falls” waterfall is one of many in the park, as well as five hydroelectric dams which can all be seen from the road overlooking the park. This park also happens to be the only Montana State Park to contain a fish hatchery, which comes by way of the Giant Springs State Fish Hatchery and produces some monster-sized trout.
Makoshika is the largest of Montana’s state parks and spans a huge, Jurassic-looking area with some amazing and unique hiking trails and a few scenic drives. The layered rock formations are rather photogenic, to say the least, and help to give this national park its own instantly-recognizable appearance.
The park is located just outside of Glendive in the east of Montana, and the scenery of the park may seem somewhat bleak compared to somewhere like Glacier National park, but it is somewhat unique-looking, and certainly wouldn’t be out of place in a dinosaur movie. In fact, a good number of dinosaur fossils have been unearthed within the boundaries of the park, and these are now on display in the visitor center along with a few other interesting interactive exhibits related to history and geology of the region.
Sluice Boxes State Park covers a stretch of Belt Creek Canyon terrain and is located about half an hour southwards of Montana’s Great Falls. The site was first established after becoming an area of interest in mining circles and was once home to a fairly thriving community back in the boomtown days of the late 1800s. Some of the buildings and other structures from the period can still be seen in the park.
Hiking is definitely one of the main attractions of Sluice Boxes State Park these days though, and the somewhat rugged trail leads along an old railroad. The trail crosses Belt Creek Canyon at various points, and the bridges that once made this a simpler endeavor have long since gone, which means wading through the water. Needless to say, this can be a cold and somewhat dangerous option, especially during high water.
The Pictograph Cave State Park is a site of archaeological significance that was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1964. This is another of Montana’s state parks that are in many ways unique and allows visitors the opportunity to explore some of the mysteries of the prehistoric hunters who existed in the region and inhabited the caves.
The caves contain hundreds of artifacts and pictographs by way of rock paintings done with black and white pigments that have seemingly stood the test of time. Here you can see images from over 2,000 years ago, although there are a few more recent additions between 200 and 500 years old.
Here is an interpretive trail almost a mile long that leads to the various Pictograph, Middle, and Ghost Caves in the state park, and the trail loops back to the visitor center. The area is also rich in wildlife roaming among the impressive scenery.
Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park is one of Montana’s most visited state parks and features some of the most impressive limestone caverns in the northwestern regions. The caverns are located within a 3,000-acre site and contain some amazing stalactites and stalagmites as well as other naturally-formed features. They have their own system of natural air conditioning and although the caves are naturally deep and dark, they are fitted with electrical lighting and are safe.
There is a self-guided nature trail above ground which provides visitors with more insights into the natural surroundings, and there are two visitor centers along with interpretive displays. You’ll also find 10 miles of hiking trails above ground in this state park, which is a popular place for camping. There is a campground with the option of cabins, complete with picnic sites, toilets, and showers.
The park is open all year but if you fancy indulging in a guided tour it is best to visit sometime between May 1 and September 30.
Lone Pine State Park is just southwest of Kalispell, overlooking Flathead Valley. It was established in 1941, and the park’s picturesque landscapes and nature trails make it an area popular with both locals and tourists.
The flower-filled meadows and lush forests provide lots of opportunities for outdoor pursuits, and you can find over 10 miles of scenic trails with impressive vistas to explore in this Montana state park. The park is popular for biking and hiking enthusiasts and even a spot of horseback riding, but it doesn’t get overly crowded like some of Montana’s other parks and can be quite a peaceful experience.
Bannack State Park is a state park with a difference in that it provides an opportunity to check out Montana’s most well-preserved ghost town. Around 100 miles to the south of Butte, this wild and rugged terrain marks the site of the first gold strike in the state in the 1860s, and it subsequently became the first of the many boom towns that sprung up in the region around that time.
Today there are still more than 60 original structures remaining from the town’s era of prosperity. The deserted town provides an interesting way to get a feel for the Old West era and the region’s history, and guided tours are available from the visitor center.