This Beautiful, Rugged Mountain State Deserves a Spot on Your Bucket List

Dinosaurs, ghost towns, hot springs, and the biggest skies you've seen.

Montana is big. In fact, it’s big as hell. The Treasure State spans 147,040 square miles, making it the fourth largest state in the Union. The land is big; the roads are big; the sky is big enough that they named a whole town after it. And the bison and bison burgers? Forget about it.

You may be asking yourself: Why is Montana—with all its grassy hills, old-growth forests, historic trails, and legendary national parks—so very, very big? That’s because it’s got to make room for alllllllllll the goodies inside. It packs into one state the key aspects of almost every other US region: the wide, open spaces of the Midwest; the cowboy towns of the Southwest; the huge, hearty meals of the Deep South. And while people from out east won’t find the large cities they know and love, we promise that the skyscrapers of New York or Chicago don’t have anything on Mother Nature’s own skyscrapers: the larger-than-life mountains the state is named for.

Cowboys meet dinosaurs meet foodies meet hikers meet brown bears in Big Sky Country. Here’s what not to miss, no matter what category you fall into.

glacier national park
Views: check. Fresh air: also check. | Feng Wei Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Traverse the scenic trails of Glacier National Park

If you tried to tell us that J.R.R. Tolkien dreamed up this vast expanse of forested valleys, glacial lakes, and bear country, we’d believe you without hesitation. One of the most popular national parks in the US, beautiful Glacier—which stretches up past the border into Canada—offers a tale of two parks, separated by the spectacular (and almost perilously thin) Going-to-the-Sun Road, which may just be the king of all scenic drives.

In peak season, the west side of the park is reminiscent of a summer camp; you’ll find groups of outdoorsy families, the bustling Apgar Village and Campground, and famous landmarks like Lake McDonald. Meanwhile, less-busy East Glacier appeals to rugged and escapist types, with a local population that’s 50% human, 50% wildlife. Both sides offer stellar hiking, lakeside lodges and camping, and chances to get acquainted with mountain goats, bighorn sheep, beavers, elk, and moose. Just a few words of advice: (a) arrive early in the morning if you want to get parking and (b) uh, pack your bear spray.

livingston, montana
Can I get a "yee-haw"? | Nick Fox/Shutterstock

Don your Stetson and hit some true cowboy towns

You might associate the Wild, Wild West with desert states like New Mexico and Arizona. But Montana—though a far cry from the tumbleweeds and saguaro cacti of your imagination—is as quintessential to the yeehaw agenda as any state further south. Take Livingston, for example, where cowboy cool and artistry come together in one place, earning the affections of celebs like Jeff Bridges, Michael Keaton, and the late, great Anthony Bourdain (not to mention the majority of A River Runs Through It filmed here in the early ‘90s).

Kalispell, which sits just under 45 minutes from the west entrance of Glacier National Park, offers up itinerary items every wannabe cowboy could desire: you can dress like one at Western Outdoor, eat like one at Moose’s Saloon, and drink like one at Blue Moon Nite Club. (Come in summer, and you can also vicariously ride like one at a Blue Moon rodeo.)

And if you’re after something historic, Missoula—aka Zootown—has got just the goods for you. Along with the requisite Montana to-do list items like hiking, fishing, and river rafting, the town keeps it classic with joints like the ‘30s-era The Roxy Theater and the Lolo National Forest, home to trails used by the indigenous Nez Percé tribe for time immemorial, as well as by Louis and Clark. If you want, from Missoula, you can also escape to the five-star Ranch at Rock Creek about 1.5 hours south. After all, just because the cowboys of yore didn’t relax much doesn’t mean today’s cowboys can’t.

flathead lake island
Grab your paddles: we're kayaking. | Ll Cook/Shutterstock

Do some unexpected island-hopping

Yeah, sure, the state’s name is derived from the Spanish montaña, or mountain. But who’s to say you can’t get a little island action going while you’re here? Found in northwest Montana, Flathead Lake—the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi—contains not just 30 miles of refreshing glacial waters: it also offers a number of small islands, some home to sprawling estates, others to wild horses and gigantic bighorn sheep, all easily explored by watercraft.

Take a day trip to the largest of the bunch, Wildhorse Island, first occupied by indigenous inhabitants who brought the namesake steeds there for safe-keeping. There, you’ll be greeted by everything from Ponderosa pines and scalable boulders to apple orchards and wildlife like mule deer, bighorn sheep, and—of course—wild horses. (Speaking of which, Wildhorse is kind of like Montana’s answer to the Galapagos; since there are no predators around, the animals tend to grow really fuckin’ big.)

Other highlights include kayaking and finding hidden treasures off the shores of so-called Invitation Island; tasting Flathead Lake cherries at a u-pick farm; and recounting the tale of the Flathead Lake Monster over a slice of its namesake pizza.

Quinn's Hot Springs Resort
I'll just sit here and chill forever, thank you very much. | Quinn's Hot Springs Resort

Let hot springs and ski lodges soothe your spirit

If the bucolic mountains and wildflower field surroundings didn’t clue you in, Montana is equally good for R&R as it is for thrilling hikes along canyon rims. Take, for example, the town of Bozeman, which sits just 90 minutes outside of Yellowstone National Park. There, you’ll find access to not only the tastiest food in the whole dang state of Montana, but to two of its most impressive thermal springs, as well: Bozeman Hot Springs, situated just a few minutes from downtown, and Chico Hot Springs, about an hour’s drive southeast in the tiny town of Pray. Around the state, you’ll also find the equally-scenic Lolo Hot Springs in Missoula, as well as Quinn’s Hot Springs in Paradise and Fairmont Hot Springs in Anaconda, both considered among the best hot springs in the country.

The only thing that makes a steamy soak better is one taken on a snowy day—which is where Big Sky comes in. One of Montana’s most popular year-round getaways really comes to life in winter, when the valley becomes a dictionary-illustration-type image of the word “mountain.”

At Big Sky Resort (and its sister resort, Moonlight Basin), you can go careening down some pretty impressive slopes on one of the largest winter sport terrains—at 5,750 acres—in all of North America. And that’s all well and good; this is the kind of place built for the adventurous type (as well as for those who’d rather not pay the outrageous prices you’d find in places like Vail). But for anybody more interested in apres-ski than actual ski, you can enjoy everything from enchanted forests and scenic lift rides to spas, luxury lodges, and shopping. Alternatively, if you’d rather just go 100% cozy hermit mode at Lone Mountain Ranch or a similarly serene Airbnb, that’s also a possibility.

Maybe don't try this at home. | Photo courtesy of Visit Montana

Stick around for unusual festivals and roadside attractions

By now, your Montana itinerary is likely packed and stacked. But if you’d like one last cherry on top, there’s always something else worth stopping for—if even just for a few hours—to check out. If you find yourself near Glacier National Park around mid-February, hit the nearby town of Martin City for Cabin Fever Days and its claim to fame, the Barstool Ski Races, a hilarious, near 50-year-old tradition that’s—well, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Equally quirky are the summertime pig races at Bear Creek Saloon & Steakhouse just north of the Wyoming border, which run weekend evenings from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

If you plan to go exploring statewide, anchor your trip around the Montana Dinosaur Trail, a series of 14 stops that’ll take you through all the historic dino-related discoveries made in the state. It’s also worth making a pilgrimage to the utterly serene Garden of One Thousand Buddhas in Arlee, Montana, where an enormous golden Buddha sits encircled by—as the name implies—one thousand smaller figures. All are welcome to visit.

And on the opposite end of the spiritual spectrum is Bannack State Park, about two hours southwest of Bozeman. The spectacularly preserved ghost town has more than 60 mining-era buildings to explore, reenactments, campsites, and—if you look closely or stay after dark—a few spectral residents who’ll gladly welcome you to the Treasure State.

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Tiana Attride is Thrillist’s associate travel editor. She thinks Montana is too damn cool.