If you love road trips, there are scores of roads to cover in Montana. On your way, you will see wildlife, beautiful mountains, rivers, canyons, forests, lakes & plateaus. If this sounds like something you’d enjoy then this article will cover 8 of the most scenic driving experiences in Montana.
- The Beartooth Highway Drive, Red Lodge
- The Going-to-the-Sun, Glacier National Park
- Skalkaho Highway Drive, Ravalli County
- Yaak Valley Route, Yaak
- Bitterroot Valley, Missoula
- Big Sky Backcountry Byway, Terry MT
- The Big Sheep Creek Backcountry Byway, Beaverhead County
- Anaconda-Pintler Drive, Philipsburg
- C.M. Russell Auto Tour, Great Falls
- Lake Koocanusa Scenic Byway, Kootenai National Forest
- Going-to-the-Sun Road, Glacier National Park
Travel Tips for Driving in Montana
- The size of the vehicle you use matters, both the width and length. Some roads get narrow as you go and it could get problematic to pass through. Some roads also prohibit some vehicle sizes, so be sure to check that out.
- Most of these roads pass through elevated mountainous terrain, and they gain and lose altitude as you go. If you’re carrying someone who is afraid of heights, make sure they sit on the sides that don’t face the abyss.
- Many wild animals roam through these areas and some of them could be dangerous. Look out for them and ensure you maintain a safe distance. There are warning signs of bear activities in some areas, so look out for those too.
- Most of the roads get closed during winter as it gets heavily snowy. Therefore, if you’re not snowmobiling, be sure to visit during spring or summer.
- It’s advisable to stock up supplies such as food and water or other drinks if need be, as there are no major stopovers in between these drives that offer supplies. Most of these road trips traverse uninhabited landscapes.
- Be prepared with warm clothes as the weather may change as you drive up high altitude regions.
The 8 Best Scenic Drives in Montana
1. The Beartooth Highway Drive, Red Lodge
Opened officially in 1936, the Beartooth Highway is a 68.7mi (110.5km) road from Red Lodge all the way to Cooke City Montana, an entrance to the Yellowstone National Park. It elevates almost 10,000 feet up on the Beartooth Plateau and is one of the highest roads in America.
The most scenic views along the roads you’ll enjoy are a series of mountains called the Beartooth Range. They are a part of the Rocky Mountains covering Southern Montana and Northwest Wyoming. They’re the highest elevations in this region. Blanketed by alpine flora at the foot and glaciers at the top, they make for a spectacular view as you drive up the highway. Take a stop by the roadside and take in the beauty of these elevated heights.
The Beartooth Plateau is probably one of the best places to take a hike through on this trip. The views are spectacular! From Cooke City or Red Lodge, you’ll walk across a trail of high lakes as you move up the high altitudes. You’ll catch the sight of bears and wild mountain goats along the way. Also, you get an even better view of the mountains. If you love to ski, you can traverse the snowy Beartooth Mountains in winter.
Red Lodge town, a former mining town, is also an amazing stopover to try out food and wines on your drive-through. On the other end of the road in Cooke City, you could choose to go all the way to Yellowstone National Park and see even more lakes and giant canyons. This road is open seasonally as it gets closed when covered up by snow.
2. The Going-to-the-Sun, Glacier National Park
This is one of the most popular scenic drives in the United States. This historic landmark was completed in 1933 and is one of America’s most brilliant and elegant engineering constructions. It begins at the west entrance of the Glacier National Park and stretches 50mi (80.5kms) through the Continental Divide to the shores of St. Mary’s Lake. This all-weather road elevates as high up as 6,646 feet on the Logan Pass, which is one highlight of this drive.
The most beautiful mountain views and falls await you on this road. You’ll catch the sight of the Bird Woman Falls, a 492 feet waterfall right between Mt. Cannon and Mt. Oberlin on West Glacier National Park. You’ll also get an up-close view of McDonald Creek. You’ll also enjoy the more notable Weeping Wall, where water cascades from up the mountains right by the roadside.
There are many places where you can stop by the roadside and take in all this amazing scenery. The most popular hiking trails are also a part of this route, such as the St. Mary’s Falls Trail and the Highline Trail. Expect to see wildlife from the Glacier National Park, such as the mountain goats and bighorn sheep.
There are about five camping grounds along the way, including Avalanche Creek, Sprague Creek, and Apgar Creek. There are no gas stations along the way, so be sure to make the necessary preparations. There are, however, restaurants, visitor centers, and lodgings. This is a highly visited area, hence if you’re looking for a more secluded drive, it’s not suitable.
3. Skalkaho Highway Drive, Ravalli County
This is a less-traveled, scenic highway that snakes its way through the middle of the densely forested Sapphire Mountains in Southwestern Montana. It is 53.8mi (86.6km) long and is a mostly gravel road. From Hamilton, it connects to Flint Creek Valley, in Phillipsburg, Granite County.
The road features narrow curves which are unsuitable for large vehicles. It elevates over 7,000 feet along the Sapphire Mountains and loses altitude as it goes towards Phillipsburg. As the road progresses towards West Fork Rock Creek, there’s a picturesque waterfall, the Skalkaho Creek, which makes for a wonderful place to stop by.
This creek descends right down beside the road and is easy to spot. There are no stops along the way for purchases, so make sure you’re fully stocked.
There are camping sites along Bitterroot Valley at the banks of the Skalkaho Creek. This river is a good fishing site as well. Catch glimpses of wildlife along the way such as mule deer and bears. This road is closed during winter due to large concentrations of snow. Another scenic view you will enjoy along the way towards the end of this highway is the Flint Creek Valley.
4. Yaak Valley Route, Yaak
This drive is quite short if you’re taking the road that leads to Idaho from Montana, about 29mi (46.6kms). Alternatively, it could be a loop if you decide to drive down the Kootenai River to Libby. The Yaak Valley is a secluded, heavily forested region in North Western Montana, near the Canada border.
The Kootenai River and its many tributaries, as well as the Kootenai Forest, are part of this valley. This forest is full of rare rainforests, fire-resistant trees, and is home to lots of grizzly bears and many other animal species. This part of Montana is sparsely populated and people rarely visit.
During this scenic drive, the road moves along the Yaak River, which is one of the scenic features there are on this drive. As you move along, the other must-see sight is the Yaak Falls. Many people make a stopover to have a view of this marvelous feature.
You will love the sight, as the immense masses of water descend the rocks. The Kootenai Forest also has camping grounds where you can spend nights as you explore fishing grounds in the rivers and go hiking in the mountains. The Mountain provides loop trails along the peaks and valleys in this region.
5. Bitterroot Valley, Missoula
The Bitterroot Valley stretches from Missoula into Idaho and is about 96mi (154.4km) long. It’s the valley that separates the Bitterroot Mountains and the Sapphire Mountains, making it a suitable scenic drive-through. This drive is along Highway 93, through to Stevensville. You can make a stopover through the local towns such as Florence and Lolo.
The Bitterroot Forest has lots of activities to be explored. It contains camping grounds, hiking trails, and hunting places too. The Bitterroot River is a good fishing ground for trout. Also, go for a swim and spend your afternoon at Lake Como. The two mountain ranges and their alpine trees also provide an amazing view when driving along the highway.
6. Big Sky Backcountry Byway, Terry MT
This drive traverses the Eastern part of Montana from the Yellowstone River near Terry to the Missouri River in Wolf Point. It’s a 105mi (168.9km) drive from Highway 253 through Highway 200 and ends North on Highway 13. It is one of the state’s most scenic roads, where you get to experience an extensive sky view, as the land is mostly covered in prairie vegetation.
The scenic views you get to enjoy along the way are the buttes, spires, sand bridges, and tabletops of the Terry Badlands. These places are also suitable for backcountry hunting, archeological artifact collection, bird watching, and hiking. You may also catch sights of wildlife such as mules, deer, and elks.
The Yellowstone River in Terry is suitable for fishing activities. You can also go fishing in the Missouri River. There are stalls in both Terry and Wolf Point where you can stop by and learn about the history of these regions. There are also scattered camping grounds available along the way.
7. The Big Sheep Creek Backcountry Byway, Beaverhead County
This is a ride to an uninhabited part of Southwestern Montana heading into the great divide to the Idaho border. It’s a gravel road that is most conducive to drive through when the weather is dry, as the roads get sticky when it rains; unless you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle. This drive makes for an amazing getaway from everything noisy, as it’s highly deserted and rarely visited. It is quiet and full of beautiful terrain.
The road traverses the Tendoy Mountain Ranges, the Big Sheep Creek, and the Beaverhead Mountains in Beaverhead County. The Big Sheep Creek is an amazing fishing spot for those who love the activity. There are trout you can find here if you get lucky. Come prepared as there are no places to get supplies along the way. It’s a long drive of about 50mi (80.5km) and some roads get thin as you go.
8. Anaconda-Pintler Drive, Philipsburg
This 64mi (103km) long drive follows Highway 1 from Anaconda town through Philipsburg all the way to Drummond. It makes its way through the forested mountainous region to Georgetown Lake, a high-altitude lake over 6,000 feet above sea level. From this high point, you’re able to catch the best views of the Flint Mountain peaks.
Ahead, is Phillipsburg, which was an old mining town in the 1970s and 1980s. Here, you can go mining for precious gems and Montana sapphires. As you head past this little town, there are lots of camping grounds to explore. You can go fishing on the Flint Creek as you move along Philipsburg Valley. There are also hiking grounds available that you may explore.
9. C.M. Russell Auto Tour
Using the lens of C.M. Russell’s art to see the Judith Basin with new eyes is the crux of the C.M. Russell Auto Tour. This cowboy artist first came to the Judith Basin in 1880 and spent a good portion of his life committing its natural beauty to his many canvases.
To honor his legacy, the State of Montana designated a portion of Highway 87 – between Lewistown and Great Falls – the Charles M. Russell Trail. The auto tour begins in Great Falls, where you can visit the C.M. Russell Museum.
There, in addition to being able to see some of his most noteworthy pieces, you can pick up a hard copy of the auto tour guide book. The guide contains an outline of the route, gives some history about stops along the way, and has pictures of the various paintings that were inspired by things you will be able to see from the highway.
6. Lake Koocanusa Scenic Byway
Following the banks of Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River, the Lake Koocanusa Scenic Byway connects Libby with Eureka. Total, it’s 67 miles long and is open year-round. If you’d like, you can opt to take Forest Development Road 228 around the west side of the lake instead, though this detour is closed in the winter.
The lake was formed when the Libby Dam was constructed in the mid-70s, and it extends all the way into British Colombia. The name Koocanusa relates this internationality within the name; it was created by combining the first three letters of Kootenai and Canada with the USA.
If you’d like to turn this scenic drive into an entire day trip, there are many recreational facilities along the way with boat ramps, fishing, hiking, and lots of opportunities to see various wildlife. If you prefer to make it several days, you’d easily be able to, considering the multitude of developed and backcountry campgrounds in the region.
7. Going-to-the-Sun Road
A massive feat of engineering for its time, the Going-to-the-Sun Road was completed way back in 1932. It connects the eastern and western entrances of Glacier National Park crossing over the continental divide at Logan Pass. If you’d like, the National Parks Service has even put together an audio tour that you can download and listen to while you’re traveling along this scenic route.
Probably the most famous road in the entire state, it’s a bit trickier to drive along the Going-to-the-Sun than other highways in Montana. In advance of your trip, you’ll need both a ticket and a reservation to drive along it, even if you already have a park pass that allows you entry into Glacier National Park. Because the road is so popular, they have to limit the number of cars that travel along it a day to prevent accidents and roadblocks.
Tickets and reservations are easy to get, you can secure both online. Tickets are $2 per vehicle and are good for 7 days from the date you submit for your reservation. You can get your tickets up to 60 days in advance, and they can be secured for nearly any day between May and September.
There’s even an audio tour that you can download and listen to while you’re traveling along this scenic route.
With so much to see and do in Montana, these road trips will allow you to cover a large part of the state and stop off wherever takes your fancy. Don’t forget to pack your camera to capture some of the magnificent landscapes your see, and perhaps, if you’re really lucky, you’ll encounter one of Montana’s more unique animals!