When thinking of U.S. states you have to visit, for most, Montana is not one of the usual suspects. For many, Montana might not be on your U.S. travel list, but I hope that, with this blog post, I can convince you otherwise and bring the state of Montana to the top of your travel bucket list. As I started to do some research to escape the city and breathe some fresh mountain air, I came to the conclusion that Montana is the place to go. In this blog post, I am sharing my top places in Montana that will blow your mind.
A lot of untouched nature with stunning views as far as the eye can see. Montana is famous for a part of the Rocky Mountains at Glacier National Park. Glacier National Park is a not-so-hidden gem but has fewer tourists compared to other, more famous National Parks. There is so much more to Montana than just the Glacier National Park. It offers tons of beautiful lakes, valleys, and waterfalls all around the state. If you like ranches and horseback riding, this is the State to go. Montana has many beautiful wildlife refuges and you can visit them and observe animals from the far.
I have never seen that much wildlife as I have seen in Montana – you can spot deers, bison, bears, all kind of sheep, marmots, chipmunks, and more. It is also a great place for birdwatching. If you love wildlife and wildlife photography you do not want to miss out on some great photo ops. Make sure to bring your zoom lens. You will need it 🙂
How to get there?
The best way to explore Glacier National Park and Montana is by flying into Kalispell. The flights from Chicago with United are about 150-250 dollars one way.
I use http://www.momondo.com and http://www.skyscanner.com to get the best prices on flights.
How long to stay?
If you are planning to visit Glacier National Park, I recommend staying for at least 7 days so you can fully enjoy all Montana has to offer. Park Rangers monitor the trails and decide whether a trail can be accessed or not. A couple trails have been closed because of weather conditions or bear spotting. You will need some time to alter your travel itinerary to adjust the weather and trail conditions.
Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park reminded me of the Alps, especially the Austrian, Swiss, and northern Italian part of the Alps. Snow-covered peaks, blue mountain lakes, lush forests and charming valleys surrounded by beautiful mountainous scenery. This National Park is one of my favorite National Parks in the USA now. It is just a beautiful mix of wildlife, mountain landscape, and cute towns that make me want to go back.
Bears at Glacier National Park
There are about 1,200 bears in Glacier National Park and 300 of them are grizzlies. The chances of seeing a bear are so great that the park service recommends that you always hike with bear repellent. In fact, most of the trails were closed when we were there because of bear activity. They usually stay closed for a while until the rangers give clearance. They only open the trails again, when they have not seen a bear for at least 3 days in a row.
During our 7 day stay at Glacier, the Avalanche Lake Trail was closed the entire time and Hidden Lake was open for just one day. Luckily we were able to do the Hidden Lake trail on that day. So be prepared for being flexible. There are also a lot of fires in this area which can also be a reason for closed trails. I recommend just talking to the Park Rangers to get the latest information on bear activity and what trails are safe.
We always had Bear Spray with us and luckily didn’t have to use it. I recommend carrying bear spray on the trails and make yourself familiar with how to use is in case you have to. Some hotels lend bear spray and we were lucky that the Duck Inn Lodge gave us the bear spray for a full week. Be aware that you can’t bring a bear spray on the plane, but you can buy it locally or get it at your hotel.
East and West
The Glacier National Park is divided into two parts: the East and the Westside. The two sides are distinctly different in terms of views, trails, wildlife, lodging, weather, and geography. When we visited the National Park the Eastside was completely closed, so we only did the Westside, but the Eastside apparently is home to the most famous hikes at Glacier such as the Iceberg Lake hike. The Westside was beautiful too so I can only imagine how nice the Eastside must be.
The west side of Glacier has much heavier forests, including an actual rain forest. The rain forest is in an area called Avalanche, named for the creek that flows through the woods. The east side of the park has plenty of forests, but they aren’t as dense as those in the west. There are a few western red cedars and hemlocks, both of which need lots of water to grow.
Lake McDonald for sunrise
One of the places that I absolutely fell in love with was watching the sunrise at Lake McDonald. This was our first morning at Glacier and the sunrise was insanely beautiful. I highly recommend waking up early and witnessing the rising sun behind the mountains. The water is crystal clear and the lake is full of beautiful colorful stones that the lake is famous for. Most beautiful views at Glacier require a long hike but Lake McDonald is clearly an exception. You can basically park right there and will get the best view of the lake right at the dock. We even decided to dip our feet into the water and it was actually pleasantly warm. Coming back for sunset we saw a lot of people swimming there, which must have been refreshing. Lake McDonald is one of the top places in Montana that should be on your list.
Going-to-the Sun Road
The Going-to-the-Sun Road is a 50 miles long road that climbs up and over the Continental Divide. It is supposed to be the most stunning 50 miles of road in the United States and after driving on this road back and forth I do not doubt it. There are tons of stunning viewpoints and lookouts along the road that make incredible photo opportunities. Sometimes it felt like we were stopping every 5 minutes for photos. My highlight was a lookout overseeing the field of purple flowers with the most scenic mountain backdrop. It was about a 5-minute drive from Logan pass. You cannot miss it. We stopped there 3 times to take photos and it was always beautiful.
Another stop that you will see while driving on the Going-to-the Sun Road is the Goose Island lookout. It is a small island on St. Mary Lake that looks super cute. There are several photo opportunities at this lookout. You can even hike down a short trail to the lake.
Make your way to Logan Pass and park your car there. Make sure to be there as early as possible as the parking lot gets full very fast and you will spend hours looking for a parking spot. We once spend over two hours to enter the parking lot and then look for a spot. Trust me, it not a lot of fun 😀 The Highline Trail starts at Logan Pass. Just follow the signs and you will be rewarded with gorgeous views immediately. We only made it to Haystack Pass which is about 7 miles roundtrip because it was super cold, wet, and windy that day, but I would definitely love to come back and do the full hike. If you continue the hike you will be able to see the Grinnell Lake Overlook which is supposed to be spectacular.
Distance: 11.6 miles one-way
Elevation Gain: 800 feet
Elevation Loss: 3000 feet
Length of Time: 5 to 7 hours
Hidden Lake Trail
We were so lucky to be able to do the Hidden Lake Trail as it was closed 6 days out of our 7 days at Glacier National Park. We did not even know that is was open until like 11 am in the morning when some other visitors told us. This is when directly headed to Logan Pass (this is where you have to park. After finding a parking spot we started the trail around 1pm. Not the best time to start a hike when there are no clouds and the sun is at its highest and burning down. Still, it was worth it. The hike is relatively easy compared to Highline Pass and will amaze you with its scenic views. If you are lucky you will also see mountain goats, bighorn sheep, lots of chipmunks and marmots along the way.
The first section of the hike is a relatively easy ascent across the alpine meadows above Logan Pass to the scenic Hidden Lake Overlook. It will take you about 1.3 miles to reach the Hidden Lake Overlook. The entire journey is accompanied by nonstop views of the high peaks surrounding the Logan Pass area. Most people only hike to the overlook, so if you want to escape most of the crowds you need to continue your hike by extending the hike to Hidden Lake. Beyond the overlook, the trail loses almost 800 feet as it descends on moderately-steep to steep grades to the lake. The views along this trail are even more breathtaking, so make sure to go the extra mile 🙂 The hidden lake makes it to my top places in Montana.
Distance: 2.6 miles (round trip) to Hidden Lake Overlook
5.2 miles (round trip) to Hidden Lake
Elevation Gain: 529 feet to Hidden Lake Overlook, 795 feet to Hidden Lake
Length of Time: ~ 3 hours
St Mary and Virginia Falls
Another great and easy hike to do at Glacier is the St. Mary & Virginia Falls hike. You will see three waterfalls along the trail, all of them beautiful and unique in its own way. I personally liked the second waterfall the most. Apparently, the second waterfall does not have a name. The hike starts at either St. Mary Falls Shuttle Stop or St. Mary Falls Trailhead. Unfortunately, there are only limited parking spots available, so you either need to start your hike early or will spend some time looking for a spot.
We did the hike in the afternoon and were lucky enough to find a spot very quickly. This was one of the easiest hikes we did and the views still did not disappoint. We saw a lot of beautiful wildflowers along the way. The trail descends 200 feet to Saint Mary Falls and then climbs 250 feet to Virginia Falls.
Distance: 1.7 miles (round trip)
Elevation Gain: 215
Length of Time: ~ 1.5 hours
Bowman Lake is a secluded lake away from all the crowds because it is relatively difficult to reach compared to the other attractions in the park. From our hotel in Whitefish DuckInn Lodge, it took us about 2.5 h to reach Bowman Lake. Once you reached the Glacier National park, 90% of the road will be not be paved but dirt road. We drove a Kia Forte and it was quite challenging to reach Bowman lake, but not impossible. You just have to drive relatively slow and careful. I highly recommend you to visit this beautiful lake. It must be absolutely stunning for sunrise and sunset. On your way to Bowman Lake, you will pass through the little town of Polebridge. We made a lunch stop there on our way back from Bowman Lake and loved the pastries at Mercantile shop.
Shop opening hours:
Summer Hours (Memorial Day Weekend to Labor Day Weekend): 7:00 AM to 9:00 PM, every day
Fall Hours (Tuesday after Labor Day Weekend to Halloween): 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM, every day
This trail begins from the Cedars Trailhead. It is one of the easy hikes at Glacier and will lead you to a beautiful lake. We did not have a chance to do the trail because of bear activity. It was closed for 7 days. Hopefully, I will have the chance to come back again and do this trail.
Distance: 4.5 miles (round trip)
Elevation Gain: 730
Length of Time: ~ 1.5 hours
Ninepipe Wildlife Refuge
If you want a break from the Glacier views and love bird watching and do not mind stunning views, check out the gorgeous Ninepipe Wildlife Refuge. About 200 bird species have been recorded at the Wildlife Refuge. It is a loop drive and you can do several stops along the way. We came there for sunset hours and it was really nice. The mountain views do not disappoint. This exceptional wetland complex contains over 800 glacial potholes and a 1,770-acre reservoir.
Address: Charlo, MT 59824
Another cool thing to do when in Montana is to check out a Bison Refuge. It was a two-hour scenic drive from our place in Whitefish. The main attraction is the scenic two hours drive through the Bison Refuge. Unfortunately, we arrived too late and were not able to do the drive because the park closes at 6 and it takes you about two hours to drive on the dirt road. You will see lots of Bisons along the way and if you are lucky you can also spot bears. Get more information here.
Address: 58355 Bison Range Rd, Charlo, MT 59824
Cute Barns and Hay fields
Honestly, driving in Montana is so scenic that you don’t need a destination most of the time. You can just drive and will discover a lot of beautiful views and lookouts along the way. During our 7 days there, we have seen multiple cute barns and fields along the way.
Here are my favorite ones including the exact address:
Where to stay?
During our time in Montana, we stayed at the Duck Inn Lodge in Whitefish. The small hotel owned by Tyler, Mark, and Alyssa is absolutely lovely. Tyler, Mark, and Alyssa make you feel like home at their place and I loved every minute of it. The huge lobby and breakfast area are decorated in a very welcoming and comfortable way that makes you feel like you are sitting in your own living room. Every morning the owners cook a yummy breakfast for you and I especially fell in love with their waffles and daily casserole. The rooms are all incredibly clean and comfortable and the views from the balconies are beautiful, especially in the morning for sunrise. They also have the cutest dog named Becket 🙂
Where to eat?
Most of the time we did not have time to eat out but rather just had breakfast at our hotel or just survived by eating granola bars and chips. I know, not the healthiest option, but we had priorities and food was not one of them. 😀 Although I can’t say “no” to a good, healthy, and delicious meal. One place that we had time to visit twice was the Farmhouse Inn & Kitchen though.
The food at Farmhouse Inn & Kitchen is super fresh and delicious. I have to be honest, I wanted to try every single item on their menu, but my tummy is just too small. This is why we went there twice. And if I ever go back to Whitefish, I will eat there again. Not only is the food absolutely delicious but the decor of the food is outstanding as well. This makes the place a wonderful dining experience. Most of their ingredients are coming from their hobby farm that is located in Whitefish. And you definitely can taste the quality of the food. My absolute favorite dish was the savory avocado pancake and toast – seriously to die for.
I also fell in love with their cute outdoor seating area that is super inviting. This family owned restaurant is not only offering healthy & delicious food but also is offering accommodation. They have 3 differently decorated rooms that you can book.
What to pack?
Here is a list of my packing essentials:
- Sunscreen ( I love the sunscreen from Neutrogena)
- Hat ( I love the ones from Brixton)
- Bug repellent
- Bear spray
- Light backpack ( I am using the Gregory Jade 28)
- Proper hiking boots (my hiking boots Meindl Ohio)
- Rain jacket ( I have one from Lululemon)
- Wind breaker (mine is from Patagonia)
- Camera (Canon 6D MKII but also recommend Fujifilm camera)
- Hand warmers and Toe warmers ( I am telling you, these are life savers!)
- Warm and comfortable socks (I can really recommend having warm and comfy sock like Falke TK2 and Smartwool PhD Outdoor)
- Headlamp (I am using a Black Diamond Storm as my go-to headlamp)
- First aid Kit (I use Surviveware)