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The Great Montana Road Trip & Itinerary

The Great Montana Road Trip & Itinerary

Montana is one of those wild states that has a rhythm all of its own. If you want to explore the state, here are a few highlights to help plan that first trip, including where to stay, attractions to putt on your itinerary, and amazing outdoor adventures. And food. Like many of my road trip posts, I always have to highlight my favorite restaurants!

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Must-try food in Montana

Before we get into our trip, indulge me with a brief mention of food. Montana food.

One word for you: Huckleberries. Everywhere you look near Glacier National Park, you’ll see signs for the locally-grown berry. Huckleberry pies. Huckleberry jams. Huckleberry margaritas. Everything.

I was excited to try it when we first arrived and I ordered huckleberry ice cream at Sweet Peaks Ice Cream in Missoula.

Huckleberry ice cream from Sweet Peaks Ice Cream

Tip: Huckleberries are in season in August, so the stuff we were enjoying on our July visit were picked last year. 

Cherries are also a popular fruit grown near Glacier. They’re in-season mid-July through mid-August. You’ll find plenty of U-pick orchards in the Flathead Valley towns just south of the national park.

Other must-try foods while you’ve visiting Montana:

  • Steaks
  • Big Game like elk or bison
  • Pasties (think of them as Hot Pockets but much better)

Day 1: Bozeman | Butte | Anaconda

Bozeman

Being home to the University of Montana, Bozeman has a college town vibe that provides a change of pace from the rugged outdoors. Find affordable restaurants and cute shops, as well as an impressive museum connected to the university. 

Things to do

Museum of the Rockies is a natural history/science museum gem, you can easily spend a few hours here, especially if you see a planetarium show and explore the Living History Farm that features a 1890s farmstead.

Mugging with a t .Rex at Museum of the Rockies

The big draw is the paleontology section with an impressive amount of fossils. The retired curator who had a hand a designing a large portion of it was a consultant for “Jurassic Park.”

There is a hands-on area for young children called Exploring Yellowstone, but it has limited hours. My daughter desperately wanted to see it but it had already closed by the time we found it. 

Tip: If you belong to a children’s museum or science center that’s a part of ASTC (like Omaha Children’s Museum) there is reciprocal membership and you can enter for free.

Additional options if you have more time in Bozeman:

Where to eat

La Para + Shine is a combo food hall with one area for fresh food like bowls and burritos and one area for drinks. Seating is communal, and indoor and outdoor. It is kid-friendly, with a small menu for kiddos. 

The drink area, by the way, is called the Beer Sanctuary. As a fan of trying local beers while on vacation, this was a happy find for me.

A wall of beers at Beer Sanctuary inside La Para + Shine in Bozeman.

Butte

Things to do

Ringing Rocks are a unique geological experience in Montana, and if your car or truck can make it up the road (or at least part way), they’re worth venturing to see. 

When you gently strike one of the giant boulders, they make a bell-like sound. Hammers were provided to try it out yourself.

Hammering a rock at Ringing Rocks

The best part? It’s free!

Anaconda – Fairmont Hot Springs Resort (outside Butte)

Our overnight stop was at Fairmont Hot Springs Resort, located outside the little town of Anaconda. It’s a destination in itself, we discovered.

The slide and outdoor pools at Fairmont Hot Springs Resort

Things to do

The big draw to the resort are the four pools – two indoors, two outdoors. Two of the pools are huge, Olympic-sized pools, and the other two are hot mineral springs. Oh, and there’s one giant waterslide outside.

We discovered that all four pools are kept at a pretty warm temperature. It’s great in the evening with the cooler mountain air, but on an 80-degree afternoon, it’s not as refreshing.

I booked our stay with a family package, which included a coupon for four to play putt putt and frisbee golf. If you come across a package with those included, great. I wouldn’t recommend spending additional money to do them. The putting courses were well loved.

Miniature golf at Fairmont Hot Springs Resort

Where to eat

There was no need to leave the resort area since there were two restaurants and one lounge that serves food. There’s also a concession stand and bar by the pools.

Our dinner was concession stand food by the pools. I had a bite of the pepperoni pizza, and it’s nothing to write home about. The kids liked it, though.

We had breakfast the following morning at Springwater Cafe. The menu was what you’d expect for resort pricing and it had a great variety. The kids’ menu was well-priced, though, and they got plenty of food.

Where to stay

Fairmont Hot Springs Resort has several rooms and suites in the lodge, as well as an RV park nearby. Guests at the resort have access to the pools and slide.

Day 2: Missoula | Columbia Falls

Missoula

Missoula is a city with a free spirit feel to it, combining organic groceries with an abundance of locally owned restaurants and, yes, medical cannabis dispensaries. Our stop was brief but a lot of fun for the kids.

The Dragon Hollow playground in Missoula

Things to do

If time is limited, do what we did and head to Caras Park, home to a carousel with a fascinating story and the playground of my kids’ dreams and a charming carousel with a fascinating history.

Dragon Hollow is a wooden playground is large with dragons on the facade (slides serve as the tongues of the dragons). 

Where to eat

We had lunch at Top Hat, a bar and grill by day, and a concert venue by night. The kids’ menu had a few non-traditional kids’ menu staples, including grilled salmon. 

I ordered a special, which was a strawberry spinach salad and I’ve never seen strawberries so red. It was tasty. 

We also got ice cream after the playground at Caras Park. I tried the huckleberry ice cream, which was a subtly sweet flavor, not too different from a blueberry except maybe less tart. 

All of our stops — restaurants and playground — are all within walking distance of each other. 

Columbia Falls

Columbia Falls was our home base for exploring the area around Glacier National Park. We found a three-bedroom rental home on vrbo.com

Things to do

Brasher Rodeo is a weekly rodeo held at Blue Moon Arena each summer (and every other week in the winter). It’s popular with locals and tourists, and stands are guaranteed to be full. 

A cowboy at Brash Rodeo in Columbia Falls

For a truly unique experience, splurge on the Behind-the-Chutes VIP package. My family did it with my dad during our trip and watching the process riders went through to prep for their bull rides and bareback rides was impressive. 

And I have a whole new appreciation for the power of horses.

Where to eat

Most of our meals were cooked at our rental. Luckily there are a few grocery stores in Columbia Falls, though it’s hit or miss on what’s available at each.

If you do go out to eat, reservations are recommended for almost anywhere, or at the very least, a lot of patience. For quick takeout, there’s always pizza. We ordered from Stageline Pizza a few times and weren’t disappointed, especially the barbecue chicken. 

Beer at Backslope Brewing in Columbia Falls

Next door to Stageline Pizza is Backslope Brewing. There always seems to be a wait, but I hear the food is among the best in town. The beer, I can confirm, is pretty good.

Morning people, there are several coffee kiosks in Columbia Falls and nearby. I tried a few, and settled on liking Cowgirl Coffee the most. Try their fresh chocolate chip banana bread, too.

Day 3: Kalispell

Kalispell is a popular spot to start an outdoor adventure, be it by water or bike trail. It’s also home to a few microwbreweries. Our plan for a day in Kalispell was for a more low-key one, and it was a nice change of pace.

Things to do

We had late-morning reservations at Hurst Flower Meadows to pick some wildflowers. It was more of a curated garden experience, but no matter – we had several gorgeous bouquets by the end to fill vases in our rental home. 

Eating breakfast inside the greenhouse at Hurst Flower Meadows

We got off to a late start, and had to wait for a short rain storm to pass. No problem, since we were able to order a few coffees and cupcakes from the trailer cafe the owner had set up and enjoyed them in the greenhouse.

Once the sun came out, we spent about an hour snipping away at beautiful bulbs and delicate stems. My niece and daughter got a little bored, so they entertained themselves by watching the chickens on the property. There’s also a play area for kids.

We made the short drive to Main Street, and browsed the shops. The downtown area of Kalispell is charming, and while it’s smaller than its neighbor to the north (Whitefish), it’s a gem to visit.

Our favorites were the apparel stores The Montana Scene and Western Outdoor Store. I was at home in the used bookstore The Bookshelf, which had John Prine playing the entire time I browsed the shelves. 

There’s also Imagination Station in Kalispell, a toy store that kids can’t resist. 

Where to eat

Norm’s Soda Fountain is a popular restaurant, we discovered. We’d originally planned on just getting ice cream there, but we ended up ordering lunch as well. The ice cream shakes were delicious. Lunch was okay, but skippable if you just want to go straight to dessert.

Shopping the bulk candy at Norm's Soda Fountain in Kalispell

While we waited, the kids (and adults, let’s be real) can shop the bulk candy and chocolate bins all over the store and fill up bags to-go. 

Day 4: Whitefish

Whitefish is a standout for towns near Glacier National Park. There are a lot of shopping, recreational options, and restaurants. The city charmed my socks off.

Things to do

Kids playing at City Beach in Whitefish, Montana

The highlight of our day in Whitefish was City Beach, a popular rocky lakeshore. There are rentals for kayaks and SUP paddle boards but the kids were content swimming and playing in the sand. 

Another great option, though much more expensive, is Whitefish Mountain Resort. There are activities for all ages.

Girl riding down the alpine slide at Whitefish Mountain Resort

The kids loved the alpine slides, though not the long waits.

Our whole group, from my dad to our kids, took the scenic chairlift up to the summit. Had the haze lifted, the views would’ve been incredible.

For more adventurous folk, there’s mountain biking and an aerial ropes course. 

A ride in the chairlift at Whitefish Mountain Resort

Where to eat

Our favorites eat, so far, has been Wich Haus, a delicious sandwich shop with a large outdoor space. While you wait to place your order, read up on the house’s history and supposed haunting.

The outdoor seating area at Wich Haus inn Whitefish

We had a late breakfast at Peerman Farmstead. The coffee was great and the fresh ingredients in the breakfast bowl were superb. The pastries, like the huckleberry kolache, at least that late in the morning, were so-so.

Day 5 – Apgar, Lake McDonald & West Glacier

Glacier National Park is huge, and to get a good sense of the place, you’ll need more than one day to explore it. But if you want to attempt one day, here’s a one-day itinerary for Glacier. You’ll need a park pass and an entry ticket for Going to the Sun Road in the summer.

Things to do

At Apgar, we rented bikes ride from Glacial Outfitters. While bike trails are marked, it isn’t so clear as to where you need to go if you were planning on taking the easy paved route toward West Glacier.

But you can figure it out.

We didn’t venture out of the park to the actual town of West Glacier, in case you were wondering.

Bike riding near Apgar in Glacier National Park.

Thee trail is mostly flat and paved, though if you want a picture near  where we snacked by the river and took our picture at the iconic national park sign near West Glacier, you’ll take a few trails that turn to dirt and have a fairly steep grade. 

Always wear a helmet.

After the ride, we had a picnic lunch overlooking Lake McDonald from the Apgar area. That particular place is crowded, given the proximity to stores and campgrounds, but if you drive just a short ways along Going-to-the-Sun Road, you can find some pullout areas to park at and hike to a more secluded beach.

Wherever you go, though, the water is clear (and cold) and the colorful rocks are a marvel.

Colorful rocks seen through the crystal clear water of Lake McDonald

Before we left the park for the day, we drive to Lake McDonald Lodge. Guidebooks will tell you to visit because of the lodge’s impressive interior. It is impressive with the taxidermied animals and large stone fireplace, but the treat for my kids was the access to the lake and creek behind the lodge.

They spent near an hour jumping from boulders and examining rocks. 

Tip: This is the place to snag boat tour tickets if you wanted to cruise around Lake McDonald.

Don’t miss a chance to slow down and sit on the rocking chairs of the lodge that overlook the lake. There’s a popular eatery and bar near them, and if you’re inclined (and it’s in-season), they sell a huckleberry margarita that seemed to be popular.

(Yes, again with the huckleberry!)

Where to eat

Grab coffee for yourself and hot chocolate for the kids on your way into the park at Hungry Horse Espresso. Ignore the tragic looking logo.

We packed lunches and then topped off the meal with ice cream from Eddie’s Cafe & Mercantile at Apgar. It’s right by McDonald Lake, so the view is nice if you walk a short distance.

You can find busy restaurants at Apgar but like I said earlier, we packed a picnic for our Glacier National Park day trip. 

Well, we did get ice cream at Eddie’s in Apgar. How could you resist?

Day 6: Going-to-the-Sun Road | Glacier National Park

If you have only one day set aside for Glacier National Park, make it a day that you drive Going-to-the-Sun Road – the uber popular 50-mile road that crosses though the entire park. It’s popular for very good reason.

You’ll drive through tunnels, pass by the Weeping Wall and other rock walls seeping with water, and soak in marvelous views.

Girls wading in the water of Lake McDonald

Things to do

There are plenty of hikes along Going-to-the-Sun Road. An easy and scenic trail for families is the Trail of the Cedars located in Avalanche. Finding a parking spot near it is tough, which you’ll learn is the case for almost any must-see spot in the park.

The 0.9-mile trail is handicap accessible and a mix of paved and plank trails. The shaded path winds though towering cedars and black cottonwood trees, with moss-covered boulders, a waterfall, and rainforest-like ferns on each side. It’s marvelous and unlike the rest of the national park.

Another must-stop area is Logan Pass (and if you thought parking was hard at Avalanche, just wait for this place). It’s worth the patience of seeking out parking (or taking the shuttle bus). From Logan Pass, you can hike to the Hidden Lake Overlook, a 2.6-mile hike, or all the way to Hidden Lake (it was closed due to bear sightings). 

Hidden Lake Overlook is one of the shorter trails with the most bang for your buck (so to speak). It’s tough for beginners and kids, make no doubt of it, but completely worth the effort. The steps you first encounter on the way up are the toughest part so if you can make it past those, you’ll be rewarded with a view of the lake.

A mountain goat approaches hikers along the trail to Hidden Lake Overlook.

In early July, we passed wildflower fields and trudged through snow-covered paths. Big horn sheep dotted the mountains nearby, and at one point, trotted alarmingly close by.

Mountain goats were plentiful, too. They ventured near us, too, but a few claps were enough to send them on their way.

Surprisingly, there was even a mountain goat wandering by the Logan Pass visitor center. There’s a short, paved trail there with interpretive signs and a hand-cranked audio messages that kids might enjoy operating. Hikes I recommend is the Hidden Lake Overlook at Logan Pass. You won’t find a more scenic trail at that short of a distance. It’s a climb, and in the heat of the afternoon, it’s tough. But it’s absolutely worth it.

Where to eat 

Pack your food for this driving along Going-to-the-Sun Road. There aren’t restaurants along the Going-to-the-Sun Road except for food at McDonald Lodge on the west side. It’s going to be pricey, but it’s awfully tempting ordering one of their margaritas and sitting on the porch overlooking the lake.

A cocktail at Josephine's Speakeasy in Coram.

We did find a great cocktail bar in Coram, about 7 miles west of West Glacier. Josephine’s Speakeasy had seasonal cocktail drinks and appetizers like smoked trout spread with crackers and pickled vegetables. Well, it was great for my husband and I since the kids were back with my dad. I don’t think they would’ve liked any of the appetizers we ordered.

More things to do on a Montana road trip

We spent a full week exploring Glacier National Park and the towns nearby. I wrote a list of additional things to do in Whitefish, Kalispell, and other nearby towns.

More adventurous activities near Glacier — things that were a bit much for our kids’ ages — include:

And of course, the tip of Yellowstone National Park is in Montana. If you want to tack on a few more days to explore the park, I have a great three-day itinerary for Yellowstone.

Then you start venturing into Wyoming, and that’s a whole other road trip.

Plan an adventure through Montana with this week-long road trip! The itinerary includes city stops like Bozeman and Missoula, plus gorgeous scenery at Whitefish and of course Glacier National Park.

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