As far as the lower 48 are concerned, Montana is the mecca for the outdoorsman. The magnet draws them all: Fishermen, skiers, hunters, cyclists, rafters, skaters, and especially, hikers and backpackers. The terrain runs the gamut and attracts all skill levels. There’re badlands and big-skied prairies, jagged mountains and meadows, dense conifers and red rock. The Big Sky state is truly a hiking treasure—trails are a stone’s-throw from any major, or any minor, thoroughfare. Below are 15 of the best.
The Boulder Pass Trail is a great, preferably overnight, hike through some of the most remote areas of Glacier National Park, the premier wilderness in the region. The route begins along the Kintla Lakes and makes a steep ascent 19 miles to Boulder Pass, overlooking the renowned Hole in the Wall landmark and campground. There are a few ways to approach the hike, but an overnight circular trek totals over 30 miles. The trail’s difficulty welcomes all skill levels, assuming one is prepared: Check weather, pack water and emergency gear. As is often the case in Montana, the views are amazing and the remoteness allows for an unadulterated wilderness experience.
Logan Pass is the highest point on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, the highway coursing through Glacier National Park. Even for the experienced trekker, it would take days to explore this region of northwest Montanan wilderness. Clements is a much shorter, strenuous climb over two miles of loose rock, towards incomparable views of the park. Highline is a friendlier, longer hike (11 miles) with high, glacial vistas throughout. Overall, Logan Pass has varied hikes over badlands and open prairies, ascending into high elevation, affording singular views of the valleys carved by the Continental Divide.
Danny On was a Big Mountain photographer and ecologist. He taught, inspired and spread his enthusiasm about the regional biosphere and topography, scientific and recreational alike. The five to six-mile hike is of moderate difficulty and length, with some decent elevational gain. But it affords views of Big Sky and the particularly beautiful mountain fauna (wildflowers during spring and summer). There are campgrounds in the area and nearby Whitefish has more substantial accommodations.
Approaching almost 10,000 feet, the path to Glacier Lake isn’t long, but it’s steep. There’re a few switchbacks and some sheer elevation. Though the trailhead is just across the border, in Wyoming, the hike ascends the tallest mountain range in Montana, the Beartooths. A rudimentary 4x4 trail affords closer access to a handful of fishing lakes in the area—they’ve the usual mountain varieties of trout (brown and rainbow). All within scenic hiking distance are four other fish-worthy lakes: Little Glacier, Emerald, Mountain Sheep and Mountain Goat. Worth fishing all day, but watch for late afternoon storms!
Referring to the manmade tunnel drilled through the apex of the eponymous Wall, the Ptarmigan Tunnel is a gradual and serene hike of just over 10 miles. The path itself joins with the Iceberg Lake Trail, which later forks and affords an extended hike if added to a circular trek. Outside of a few short stretches of steep, the path to Ptarmigan is mostly flat and ascends gradually, often traveling alongside and opening into several mountain meadows, carved-out by glaciers eons prior. Patches of berries dot the route, attracting many an animal: Bighorn sheep, grizzly and black bear, and the occasional mountain goat. Though one must eventually turn around at the peak, the tunnel is the climactic end to the hike, with views unmatched by any other national park.
The flat-topped, steep-sided Haystack Butte, while not particularly tall by Glacier standards, is uniquely shaped and affords peak access in a single day’s hike. Unlike other day hikes available to national park visitors, Haystack is less crowded and more serene. A day is well spent traveling the picturesque Going-to-the-Sun Road through Logan Pass towards the Weeping Wall, where the Butte awaits. The path isn’t strenuous, and the views are spectacular. Two family-friendly routes are available: A longer four-mile hike and a 30-minute jaunt. When roads are impassable, skiing and the like become popular. (Note: This is not the Haystack Butte near Augusta, Montana).
Some hikes focus on fishing or mountain views or moose. Others involve bears. This gorgeous hike follows the Ptarmigan Trail, ascending through 8,000 and 9,000 feet, affording views of Mount Wilbur and Mount Grinnell. And in this region, bear activity is particularly high. It’s not uncommon to spot the animals on an adjacent hillside, and as along as precautions are made and respect paid, the experience is surely an enjoyable one. The trail passes through high mountain forest, alpine meadows and past moss-laden springs, eventually reaching the shaded lake with intact icebergs throughout the season. Bring a good camera and some bear spray.
Caves are lesser-known considerations for hiking. But the Pryor Range outside Red Lodge is riddled with rocky outcrops that house adventure. The region is a hotspot for flowering plants during the sunny months. But year-round, tourists explore the Big Ice Cave. It’s found at the bottom of a slanted wooden path, opening into an immense chamber of ice—the walls exude a perpetual chill that cuts clothing and masks a respectably-ancient terroir. Topography provides a steady stream of cold air into the cave, creating icy stalagmites in the winter and preserving them throughout the summer. This subterranean hike through an alien-looking backdrop is scenic in an entirely different way.
The mountainous border of Montana and Idaho is a high alpine Eden of rugged wilderness and unexplored jungle. It’s hard to find more remote terrain in the lower 48—elk, bear and bighorn are normal sights. The terrain affords salmon-filled rivers and ridges lined with elk and whitetail. The hikes wind the uniquely-Idahoan hills—moderate difficultly with steep slopes that snake through rocky coniferous forests. The trails are ideal for seclusion, serene wildlife encounters and rugged, no-frills hiking.
Pitamakan is over 17 miles long and passes through 3,000 vertical feet to Sky Lake—a great (and lengthy!) high altitude hike past avalanche chutes and alpine ascents. Deriving its name from a renowned female warrior of the Blackfeet tribe, the pass is comparably exceptional. There are several points during the hike that, for miles at a time, you are literally above it all, before descending a bowl and following any number of lakeshores. The uncanny views carved by glacial flexing and melting are peppered with elk and bighorn sheep—forming a living backdrop in which “picturesque” falls far short.
Makoshika State Park is a uniquely beautiful place. The park is Montana’s largest, named from a Lakota derivative for “bad land.” But these hills are far from bad. The desert serenity of Makoshika is a gorgeous scenic departure from the high plains or dense coniferous forests usually indicative of Montana. The trail is short and easy, welcoming any and all visitors. The namesake, Diane Gabriel, was an important paleontologist from the Museum of the Rockies and a crucial exponent of dinosaur knowledge. Alongside the scenery, the trail is sought-after for housing several dinosaur fossils. Makoshika is renowned for discoveries of remains from T-Rex and the rare Thescelosaurus, and a full triceratops skull. So, enjoy the view and don’t trip over anything Cretaceous. (Also see the nearby Frontier Gateway Museum).
As this list makes evident, Glacier National Park and its environs offer a thousand different hikes for a thousand different tastes. And sometimes, an easier, shorter day hike is in order. Avalanche Lake is one such jaunt, and it’s accessible immediately off the park’s main thoroughfare, the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The well-maintained, half-mile, paved Trail of the Cedars allows access to the trailhead. Past a gorgeous waterfall and two miles of steady incline, the lake emerges at just over 3,900 feet in elevation. It shimmers and perpetually receives meltwater from Sperry Glacier, one of many stoic remnants of the Little Ice Age.
Admittedly, Calypso refers more to a winding, primitive road than to a hiking trail, per se. But it’s important in that the route snakes along the Yellowstone River, through the beautiful sandstone sculptures that accentuate Montanan badlands. The reds and oranges of beautifully delineated sedimentary layers glow and collect in large spires by the roadside. The route is rudimentary, but affords access to a number of opportunities to hike and recreate in the Terry Badlands and its official Wilderness Study Area. The escarpments and pinnacles reach for the sky, creating a haven for photography, viewing wildlife and hiking.
The aspen-laden and meadow-green glow of Yellowstone National Park is epitomized in Targhee Creek. The 10,300-foot Targhee Peak runs perpendicular to the continental divide, its jagged glacial silhouette a pleasing contrast to the rolling meadows and plumes of aspen trees. The terrain is managed by any skill level, though the 17-mile roundtrip summit trek requires a competent hiker. Conifers and meadows transition into rockier, steeper, snow-dusted outcrops. But the surefooted are rewarded with alpine views of Yellowstone and glimpses of neon wildflowers and grazing sheep.
Sometimes a very popular thing is simply hype. And sometimes it’s popular for a reason. Ousel Falls is certainly the latter. The trail isn’t challenging, it isn’t hard to locate and it’s not without occasional crowds. But Ousel is both beautiful and accessible: It’s only two miles from the town center. The surface is smooth and well maintained, and incline is nonexistent by Montana standards. All types are welcome here: Families, hikers, joggers, those with dogs and those on horseback. The terrain is manageable, the views are incomparable and the hike won’t take the entire day.