Montana is a western state known for its wide-open spaces, cowboys, and big skies. Montana is a place where the pace of life is a bit slower and more relaxed. The population of Montana is low for its size, so there is lots of space, and that space is scenic, mountainous and full of wildlife. When planning a visit, most people think of Yellowstone or Glacier National Park, but they’re so many more things to do in Montana.
We suggest beginning your visit to Billings, Montana’s biggest city. Billings has a great airport to fly into, or it’s an easy drive from other states. With Billings rich western history beginning with the Native Americans and moving forward to the railroads, there is so much to do while there.
Start your exploration of Billings with a trip downtown to the Western Heritage Center. Built in 1901, the Western Heritage center displays private collections of western artifacts, Native American, and regional western art. Additionally, just down the street is the Historic Billings Depot. It was built in 1909 in the Beaux-Arts Eclectic Style. Moreover, the train depot designed by the Northern Pacific Railroad’s chief engineer is on the National Register of Historic Places. When you leave the depot, if you like art, visit the Yellowstone Art Museum. The museum is the largest contemporary art museum in Montana. All of these are walkable in beautiful downtown Billings.
Just Outside of the City
In like fashion, take a short trip to meet Yellowstone Kelly at the Yellowstone Kelly Interpretive Center. Yellowstone Kelly was an adventurer, scholar, author, veteran, hunter, and trader of the Wild West who often visited Billings. Also, it’s located in a nice park atop Kelly mountain with great views overlooking Billings.
Adjacent to the airport is the Yellowstone County Museum. At the museum, you will explore Montana’s history inside the museum’s McCormick Cabin. In general, you will find rare firearms, pioneer wagons, tribal beadwork, and one of only a few exhibits on Native Ghost Dancing. The museum is quite impressive for being on the smaller side.
Lastly, visit the Moss Mansion. Built in 1903, Moss mansion allows you a glimpse into the turn-of-the-century life of the Moss Family, with original draperies, furniture, fixtures, Persian carpets, and artifacts. They offer tours which give you so much more insight into the past.
Take the Scenic Drive Up the Beartooth Pass
A great day trip from Billings is to visit the town of Red Lodge and to drive the beautiful Beartooth Pass. Thus, the Beartooth Pass is known as one of the most scenic drives in the US. You will see wild Montana wilderness. The Beartooth Highway, a National Scenic Byways All-American Road, features picturesque views of the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountains. Also, you’ll see open high alpine plateaus dotted with countless glacial lakes, forested valleys, waterfalls, and wildlife.
The Beartooth Highway is on a section of U.S. Route 212 in Montana and Wyoming between Red Lodge and the Northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park. You travel over the Beartooth Pass in Wyoming at 10,947 feet above sea level. The Beartooth Pass is usually open from Labor Day until the first snowfall. We made the drive on the last day for the season. Subsequently, late in the afternoon, that same day, the snow came shutting down the road. The pass is too dangerous for snowplows, so it closes for the winter.
Take Time to Visit Red Lodge
While you are there, take some time to visit the charming historic city of Red Lodge, Montana. Red Lodge nestled at the foot of the Beartooth Mountains is also a gateway to Yellowstone National Park. Moreover, the city filled with unique shops, art galleries, antique shops, and eateries is great to explore.
We recommend Bogart’s for lunch or dinner. We ate lunch at Bogart’s. It was a weekday, and the restaurant was packed with diners and drinkers. The food was fabulous. As a side note, if you love Margaritas, that is what they are known for.
We love historic buildings, so we took a walk around the Pollard Hotel just down the street. The Pollard Hotel was Red Lodge’s first brick building in 1893. It has been the Pollard Hotel since 1902. The Pollard Hotel quickly became the west’s gathering dwelling for political, theatrical, cowboy, and professional personalities. To emphasize, Buffalo Bill Cody and Calamity Jane were said to have frequented the Pollard.
Buses of Yellowstone
To see something extra special, set up an appointment to see the Buses of Yellowstone Preservation Trust. These are the original buses that ferried people around Yellowstone back in the day. At the height of their popularity within Yellowstone in the mid-1920s, more than 400 of these vehicles operated in the park. The Buses of Yellowstone Preservation group located in Red Lodge is open by appointment on Saturdays and Sundays. Thus, the mission of the Buses of Yellowstone is to historically preserve and or restore to original operating condition a collection of all makes and models of motorized vehicles used by the National Parks before World War II. We found this museum of sorts just fascinating! We were lucky enough to get a narrated tour on one of the buses around town.
Explore Montana’s Ghost Towns
Since Montana is a cowboy state, a great way to get a feel for Montana is to explore Montana’s ghost towns. These ghost towns located in southwest Montana provide a true glimpse into western heritage. In addition to the history preserved in the southwest of Montana, you will see winding rivers, far-reaching valley, and mountains.
First Stop Philipsburg
Philipsburg was an 1890s mining town. There are a few reasons to visit Philipsburg, and the first is because the surrounding county is home to more than 24 ghost towns. These ghost towns are former mining and timber towns. But, Philipsburg is a charming, completely restored historic town with a story to tell.
In the 1980s, the town’s future was uncertain. All of the local mines and sawmills closed. Due to these closings, jobs and dollars disappeared. So stores in the downtown closed left and right, and the value of real estate plummeted. But, there were still residents who just could not part with their beloved small town. One of those residents was a woman named Shirley Beck. She was instrumental in envisioning what Philipsburg could be again. She encouraged people to take a risk and invest in Philipsburg.
Hunt for Sapphires
In Philipsburg, you can hunt for your own sapphires at Montana Gems of Philipsburg right in downtown. They bring in gravel directly from the mine. So you simply purchase a bucket of gravel from them and begin your hunt. You have the exact same odds of finding a gemstone as they do at the mine. People find sapphires all the time. Montana Gems of Philipsburg provides the equipment you need. Undoubtedly, it is fun to dig in and search for your own gemstone.
Have Lunch in a Historic Landmark
We recommend Doe Brothers for an amazing lunch served in an 1880’s building complete with a soda fountain. The two-story building built in 1887 that is now Doe Bothers Restaurant was originally Doe Drugs. Remnants of the days past are still in the restaurant like the original safe of the M.E.Doe and Co. There is also the sign from the original drug store hanging in the restaurant.
Richest Silver Mine of the 1890s
Located on the outskirts of Philipsburg is Granite Ghost Town State Park. In the 1890s, Granite was a thriving silver mining town. At this time, Granite was the richest silver mine on the earth. The mine once had over 3000 miners. Surprisingly in the 1890s, the mine brought in $40,000,000 worth of silver.
The state park preserves the Granite Mine Superintendent’s house and ruins of the old miners’ Union Hall.
The road from Philipsburg to Granite is steep, climbing 1,280 feet in elevation. The road is narrow and winding. The views are lovely.
History, Comfort, and Friendliness
We recommend staying in Philipsburg at the Caledonia Bed & Breakfast. The Caledonia is a lovely 1917 Craftsman Style home located in the heart of Philipsburg. Moreover, the friendly innkeeper’s Steve & Anita are Philipsburg locals who love sharing their stories of Philipsburg. As for their roots in Philipsburg, Steve retired recently as the long-time Granite County Sheriff while Anita worked for many years in the local bank.
Our room was a spacious king bedroom with a private bath. The home has a large living room and a unique, expansive sitting porch overlooking Broadway, the main street in Philipsburg. Before leaving the following morning, we enjoyed a full hot breakfast with choices for everyone.
Great Dining and Spirits in a Tranquil Atmosphere
For dinner, we recommend The Silver Mill. Housed in a historic building in downtown Philipsburg The Silver Mill has a diverse menu. So, I found it easy to eat plant-based, and a person who was with our group needed to eat gluten-free, and she found many options. At The Silver Mill, Chef Tony uses the freshest ingredients to prepare his dishes. Also, The Silver Mill has a full bar and a nice selection of wines.
In like manner, we recommend heading to the town of Butte. Butte is home to one of the nation’s largest National Historic Districts, second only to New Orleans. But, Butte is also unfortunately home to the Berkeley Pit, more on that in a minute.
Similarly, just as Granite was the largest silver mine in the world, Butte was the largest copper mine in the world. Today Butte’s vibrant history can be seen in its well preserved Victorian uptown and stately mansions. In downtown Butte, you will see billboard images ghosted on brick hotels. During the summer, the Butte Trolley tours historic sites in the city.
Butte’s historic shopping district is home to unique stores, museums, several excellent restaurants, and a distillery. Since we are speaking of distilleries, we recommend visiting Headframe Spirits, the local Butte distillery.
Visit Headframe Spirits
Headframe Spirits has a great tasting room for you to try their spirits. On our visit, we met John and Courtney Mckee, the husband and wife owners. We learned that they are not just concerned with making great spirits, but they are interested in using their business as a force for good – good for their employees, good for Butte, and good for Montana.
Headframes innovated still creation allows for more cost-effective and efficient production of alcohol. Their stills are viewable from the tasting room.
Montana has some interesting drinking laws that help encourage the start-up of small breweries and distilleries. Breweries can serve up to 48 ounces of beer, and distilleries can serve up to 2 ounces of alcohol per person until 8 pm. Thus calling them tasting rooms rather than bars.
The cocktails at Headframe Spirits were excellent, but the vibe of the tasting room and the personalities of John and Cortney made for a perfect experience.
Old Dumas Brothel
Built in 1890, the Dumas Hotel, was one of three high-class sex houses in Butte. The architecture reflected the profession; each room features a door and a window so that customers could shop. On account of the hotel’s location near saloons and gambling halls, it was a busy place in the early 1900s. The Dumas Brothel serviced clientele until 1982. Nonetheless, rumor has it that the Dumas Hotel is haunted. Between 1982 and today, the Dumas fell into major disrepair. New owners purchased the Dumas at a tax auction. They plan to open it as an attraction.
The Berkeley Pit
The Berkeley Pit is a former open-pit copper mine. It is one mile long by half a mile wide and approximately 1,780 feet deep. The Berkeley Pit was once a thriving copper mine appropriately dubbed “The Richest Hill in the World.” Butte was one of the richest communities in the country due to the amount of silver, gold, copper, and other metals extracted from the rock.
Open-pit mining came to be in the 1950s when the demand for copper became great. Instead of mining below-ground, open-pit mining is mountain top removal, ultimately allowing underground and rainwater to collect in the pit. When the mining stopped at the Berley Pit, more water collect in the pit, forming a humanmade lake. Unfortunately, the water leaches out the metals and minerals in the surrounding rock.
Now, the water is as acidic as lemon juice, creating a toxic brew of heavy metal, poisons including arsenic, lead, and zinc. The pit operates sound devices to scare waterfowl from the lake and has a guard posted to watch over it. At the present time, the water from the pit has been removed, treated, and is being discharged into a nearby creek.
The Hotel Finlen
In Butte, we recommend staying at The Hotel Finlen. The historic Hotel Finlen is a premier Butte hotel offering guest rooms in either the 1924 Historic Tower or the coolest retro mid-century motor inn.
The Hotel Finlen designed in the second French empire style after the Hotel Astor in New York City is a landmark in Butte. Additionally, in the 1950s, a motor inn became part of the hotel. Moreover, John F Kennedy, Thomas Edison, Richard Nixon, and Charles Lindbergh are said to have stayed at the Hotel Finlen.
We stayed in the historic tower king suite. The room had tall ceilings and was spacious.
Dine in a Vault
For a unique Butte dining experience, make a reservation for the vault at Metals Sports Bar and Grill. The Metals Sports Bar and Grill located on the first floor of the historic Metals Banc Building in the heart of uptown Butte has bar food to fine dining options. The restaurant features the original bank vault and the original marble teller counters in the center with the liquor bar counter also made from the original marble teller counters. So, of course, we dined in the Bank Vault private dining room.
For the Best Breakfast in Butte
For the best breakfast in Butte, check out Park and Main Cafe. Park and Main is an unpretentious cafe making everything from scratch. Consequently, they serve everything from pastries, sandwiches, and frittatas to lattes and espressos.
Bannack State Park is Another Great Thing to Do in Montana
At this point, depart Butte and head to Bannack State Park and Ghost Town. The Park is a historic landmark and the site of Montana’s first major gold discovery in 1862. Markedly, there are over fifty log and frame structure buildings that line the Main St. in Bannack and over sixty in the park. Previously, the city of Bannack was the first Territorial Capital of Montana.
After your visit to the State Park, travel through southwest Montana to Alder Montana and the Upper Canyon Outfitters for dinner and a stay at the ranch.
Disconnect in the Ruby Valley
Upper Canyon Outfitters lies in the breathtaking Ruby Valley and has been family owned since 1910. At the ranch, you can try your hand at fly fishing in the Ruby River and saddle up for a horseback ride to learn about the beautiful area. Most important, the ranch is a tranquil place surrounded by the ranges of Snowcrest, Greenhorn, and Gravelly Mountains.
They have guestrooms in both the lodge and individual 1 and 2 bedroom cabins to stay in. There’s a gorgeous river that runs through their property if you want to try your hand at fly fishing.
Horseback Riding with Upper Canyon Outfitters
At Upper Canyon Outfitters, they care tremendously about their horses. So if you plan on riding, you will spend some time learning about horse psychology. You will learn if your horse is relaxed or nervous. Horses typically feel they are the prey, so they are always on the lookout for predators. Thus, their instinct is what makes them skittish sometimes. Knowing how your horse is feeling will help keep you and them safe. Their philosophy is pretty simple: “Always put the horse first. With the thousands of people and horses, we have helped over the years, we have found that when the horse’s frame of mind is your first priority, safety and performance goals are easier to attain.”
Upper Canyon Outfitters is perfect for novice riders or horse enthusiasts. Thus, all guests will have a ride tailored to their skill level.
Hearty meals are served family-style at the ranch at long tables with the family. In addition, we enjoyed some authentic western hospitality and unforgettable scenery.
This ranch owned by the McDonald family for decades is more than a business; it’s their life. During your visit to their ranch, you will probably meet three to four generations of the family.
At this time, we recommend heading to Three Forks, Montana. The Three Forks area marks one of the most important points along the Lewis and Clark Trail. It was in Three Forks that Sacajawea, the interpreter for Lewis and Clark in 1805, was reunited with her brother and brokered safe passage for the Lewis and Clark.
The Sacajawea Hotel named after this famous Shoshone guide who aided the Lewis and Clark Expedition opened in 1910. In addition, the hotel listed on the National Register of Historic Places is full of old fashioned charm and has the Historic Hotels of America designation. Thus, one of the nicest features is the relaxing front porch. But don’t think this charm means things are outdated. The Sacajawea rooms are that of a 4-star boutique hotel. Thus, they offer their guests modern amenities, ambiance, toiletries, and attention to detail. The Sacajawea has retained the grandeur of its heyday while preserving its history.
We recommend having dinner at the Sac Bar. Located on the lower level of the hotel, this is the place for great food and great conversation.
Museum of The Rockies
Before completing your travels of Montana, we recommend visiting the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana. The museum of the Rockies is one of the world’s finest research and history museums. Thus, it is known for its extensive collection of dinosaur fossils, including a mounted Montana’s T. Rex skeleton! Accordingly, the museum’s collections focus on the physical and cultural history of the Rocky Mountains for the past 500 million years and the people and animals who have inhabited the area.
Great Things to do in Montana
Wilderness rules in Montana. In addition, experiencing Montana’s ghost towns is like stepping back in time to an age of gold, saloons, and cowboys. Besides the famous Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, Montana has so much more to offer in its small towns and other National Park designated sites.
Montana has the most T-Rex specimens in the world at 13.
Montana’s most popular tourist attraction is Glacier National Park.
If you love Montana, you’ll also love Utah. Check out our adventures in Utah.