A trip to the American West is a bucket-list family adventure. Are you ready to grab your crew and unleash some of those pent-up vacation dreams with a visit to Montana? Images of iconic national parks, haunting ghost towns, plenty of moose and perhaps a grizzly bear may tumble through your mind. But what are you actually going to do once you get there?
Minted with statehood in 1889, Montana is overflowing with history and culture as well as an incredibly broad and diverse topography from the Rocky Mountains to the Great Plains. Depending on the time of year, activities can vary greatly. CB has you covered, no matter when you plan to visit. Here’s a snapshot of the incredible breadth of activities on offer in Big Sky country.
National Parks. The two “biggies” in Montana are Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. We suggest allowing for at least a full day in Yellowstone to view majestic Old Faithful and see the imposing Grand Canyon waterfalls. With more than 25 active glaciers, Glacier National Park offers a breathtaking juxtaposition of lush green forests, mountain scenery and pristine lakes. A popular drive in Glacier is the Going to the Sun Road, which hugs the mountains and traverses several waterfalls that are very near the road.
Hiking. Getting out and exploring on foot is one of the best ways to truly experience Montana. Grab your boots, camera (OK, maybe your smartphone) and get ready to blaze your own trail. Even the youngest hikers will enjoy a nature walk in West Glacier, especially with an expert guide to bring the area to life. For families with teenagers, a popular Glacier ascent is up Apgar Mountain for stunning views of Lake McDonald below. Older kids and teens will also enjoy the hike to Grinnell Glacier viewpoint, which is about 10 miles in length. You can shorten it to 7 miles with a boat ride across Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine.
Fishing. Every kid should come back from Montana with a fishing story, and there are options at virtually every turn. Based on its proximity to the Gallatin River, the area around Bozeman is well known for fly fishing. Popular spots include Cameron Bridge, Hyalite Reservoir and DePuy’s Spring Creek. Nearby, the quaint downtown of Bozeman is a perfect stop for its restaurants and local culture. North of Yellowstone is an area called “Paradise Valley” that is lauded for its rugged beauty, and families can enjoy floating or fishing in the river here. Consider a guided excursion to find the best fishing spots and help your kids catch one “this big.” Our Family Travel Advisors can book a kid-friendly guide for you as part of our full vacation planning service.
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Horseback riding. The opportunities are endless in Montana for getting out on the range and exploring by horseback. Kids elementary-school age and up will be thrilled with this activity, whether it’s an hourlong taste or an all-day excursion.
Rafting. There are many excellent options for rafting in Montana. The Yellowstone River is a perfect place to try whitewater rafting, with class two and three rapids that lend themselves to family fun. Glacier National Park also has fantastic rapids on the Flathead River in additional to scenic raft trips that are ideally suited to families with toddlers and up. Note, water levels lower as the summer progresses, so rapids tend to be calmer as the season goes. Also, most whitewater outings require children to be over 6 years old.
Train and boat rides. Kids of all ages will enjoy hearing the stories of the people and places that make up the fabric of Helena, the capital of Montana, on the Last Chance Train Tour. Afterwards, explore this endearing city with its many shops, eateries and galleries. Nearby is a calm and scenic boat ride to the Gates of the Mountains for tales of local lore and a chance to see this spectacular rock formation that mesmerized Lewis and Clark.
Water fun. Flathead Lake is a clear lake fed by the runoff from Glacier National Park and is an uber-popular place for swimming, boating, water skiing and stand-up paddleboarding. Although beaches may not be the first thing that come to mind when you think of Montana, there are several that beckon families, including Lake McDonald beach, Flathead Lake Beach, Bozeman Beach and the sandy shores of City Beach in Whitefish. For thrills of the man-made and water slide variety, there’s also Big Sky or Electric City water park.
Skiing. Big Sky is one of the premier names in Montana for skiing and it is literally the biggest ski resort in the U.S. by area. This vast destination offers seven terrain parks for skiers and snowboarders of varying abilities and a well-regarded ski school. Though winter fun is definitely the draw here, there are engaging options year-round, including ziplining, paintball and archery. Other popular ski resorts in the area are Bridger Bowl, Blacktail, Whitefish and the Great Divide.
Dog sledding, ice skating and snowshoeing. If there is a snowy pursuit your family is keen to try, you will find it in Montana. To experience your own Call of the Wild, be whisked away by a team of huskies on a dog sled for a thrilling and once in a lifetime ride. For those who would rather appreciate from afar, there are many professional dog sled races that you can watch. If you prefer to use your own feet, the options for ice skating, snowshoeing and even cross-country skiing are plentiful.
Stay at a dude ranch. There’s a wide range of experiences to be had with a stay at a dude ranch, but you can think of it as a taste of life as a cowboy or cowgirl. Activities include everything from horseback riding and cattle work for older kids to wagon rides and cultural programs for even the tiniest guests. Days on the ranch will be memorable and jam-packed, with, of course, plenty of time for campfires and s’mores. The chance to immerse your family in the spirit of the American West makes a dude ranch vacation one of CB’s most requested family experiences. Reach out to us for help finding your perfect stay.
A dude ranch vacation belongs on every family’s travel wish list. Read more about our vetted ranch properties, then contact us to help you plan and book an unforgettable family trip.
Wildlife encounters. Budding naturalists will want to make a beeline for the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. This nonprofit is located next to the West Entrance of Yellowstone and visitors come to learn about and appreciate the bears and wolves from a safe distance. The bears don’t hibernate, so the center is open 365 days a year! The National Bison Range, located on the Flathead Indian Reservation, is a federally supported entity to protect and preserve bison. Learn about bison conservation through exhibits and displays, and drive your own car through the preserve to see the herd of several hundred of these majestic animals.
Hot springs. For a change of pace from active pursuits, consider soaking your cares away with a visit to one of the many open-air, natural hot springs in western Montana. Popular spots include Quinn’s, Chico, Lolo and Fairmont. Some hot springs have enclosed areas and plunge pools, and others are resorts unto themselves with lodging, spa and dining options.
Ghost towns. Bannack State Historic Park, northwest of Yellowstone, is a crowd-pleaser for all ages. This preserved mining town lets visitors turn the clock back to 1862 and learn about the life pioneers, gold miners and railroad builders led here. There are more than 60 buildings to visit that remain much as they were when the gold ran out. Families can take a guided tour, participate in a ghost walk or even pan for gold. Nevada City and Virginia City are other well-known ghost towns that are slightly smaller in scale.
Museums and parks. For young fossil enthusiasts, the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman is a must. This museum affiliated with the Smithsonian has an ample collection of natural history exhibits, a planetarium with a Montana-specific sky show and the largest T-Rex skull ever recovered. Next up, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center brings the history of Montana to life. It overlooks the Missouri River and reveals the treasure trove of knowledge about the Pacific Northwest that Lewis and Clark brought back to Thomas Jefferson. To uncover clues about the earliest Montana inhabitants, visit Pictograph State Park to see more than 100 cave paintings left by hunters in prehistoric times. And a great stop for history buffs will be the site of Custer’s Last Stand at Little Bighorn National Monument and Battlefield.
Bottom line, Montana is a destination ripe for making tons of lifelong memories. With easy airport access and wide-open roads, families will be wowed by this slice of the American West at any time of year.
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