Nearly every time I tell someone I live in Montana, they have one of two reactions:
- “Oh my God I LOVE Montana!”
- “I’ve always wanted to visit Montana!”
People love Montana because it’s so dang beautiful – especially western Montana. Walking outside and being surrounded by vast mountains, cattle farms, and nature is one of the reasons I love living in Bozeman. I write a lot about what to do and see in Bozeman, but there’s so much more of the state to see!
If you’re looking for the perfect Montana road trip itinerary, this is the perfect post for you! Here’s how I would spend eight days driving around Western Montana.
Day 1: Arrive in Bozeman
You’ll start your Montana road trip in Bozeman. If you’re flying, you’ll fly into Bozeman-Yellowstone International Airport. You’ll want to rent a car if you’re flying in which is a very easy and fast process at this airport. If you’re driving in, then just head straight to your hotel or Airbnb to get settled in.
There are a number of hotels right downtown if you want to be in the heard of the action. The Baxter Hotel and the Lewis and Clark Motel look like some of the nicest options. On the other hand, if you’re more interested in getting away from the crowds and seeing some amazing views, the Yonder Yurt AirBnb is where you’ll want to stay. I wrote an entire post about why this yurt is the best AirBnb in Bozeman.
Once you’re settled in, I recommend heading downtown to walk around Main St. Here, you’ll find a number of very cute boutiques to shop at and restaurants to have lunch and dinner at. My favorite shop on this street is Heyday, so make sure not to miss that one. For dinner, I’d suggest Montana Ale Works or Dave’s Sushi, depending on the type of food you’re interested in.
–> Have more time in Bozeman? Here’s how I’d recommend spending 6+ days here! <–
Day 2: Visit the Northern Loop of Yellowstone National Park
You’ll have to wake up early on this day to see as much of Yellowstone as possible. If you’re visiting in the summer, you’ll luckily have more time to see the park since the sun doesn’t go down until around 9pm, so sometimes even later.
I’d recommend waking up as early as you can and hitting the road. I always like to stop at City Brew for a breakfast sandwich and coffee before trips like these. It’ll take you about an hour and a half to get to the northern entrance of Yellowstone near Gardiner, MT. From here, It’ll be another hour and a half to drive to the furthest part of the park you’ll see this day: Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
You can see these sites in any order you want, but I think it makes sense to drive to the furthest one and work your way back. If the full loop happens to be open, you can simply drive in a loop, however, the last few times I’ve visited, the East end of the road has been closed which means you’ll have to do some back tracking at some point.
Here are the sites I’d visit in the northern loop (in order):
- Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
- Norris Geyser Basin
- Roaring Mountain
- Golden Gate
- Mammoth Hot Springs
- Lamar Valley (if you have time)
This will likely be a long day and when you’re ready to leave Yellowstone, you can find a restaurant in Gardiner, or head back to Bozeman. If you come back to Bozeman, I’d recommend Red Tractor Pizza or Sidewinders.
–> Have more time in Yellowstone? Here’s how I’d recommend spending a weekend there <–
Day 3: Drive to Helena
I’d recommend waking up early on these “drive days,” but realistically, you can wake up whenever it makes sense for you. On day 3, you’ll check out of your hotel or Airbnb and start the almost-two-hour-drive from Bozeman to Helena.
Once you arrive, check into your new hotel or Airbnb. I don’t have any solid recommendations, but there is one Airbnb I’m dying to try called the Creekside Hideaway. It can fit 12 guests in total, but Austin and I might splurge and rent it for ourselves this summer.
As Montana’s capital, there’s a lot to do in Helena including several museums, breweries, parks, and more. There’s literally something for everyone! On your first day, I’d consider walking around Helena’s downtown. There are a bunch of shops and restrants – somewhat similar to Bozeman’s downtown. If you’re interested in seeing more of Helena’s rich history, I recommend heading over to Reader’s Alley where you’ll instantly be transported back to the 1800’s with old architecture and cobblestone streets.
If you’re looking for something else to explore this day, head over to Cathedral of St. Helena. There’s something about old, ornate churches that makes me want to visit them whenever I travel. You can guess I had a ball in Italy and Poland where the churches were even older and more detailed. However, this cathedral is also stunny and worth a stop into.
My friend, Kara, lives in Helena and she has an amazing blog post that details all of the boutiques and restaurants to see on this leg of your Montana road trip!
Day 4: Outdoor Activities or Visit a Ghost Town
Montana is such a beautiful place to explore the outdoors. I don’t care if you’re visiting in the summer or winter – there are incredible views everywhere.
If you’re into hiking, AllTrails is a great place to go to find hiking trails pretty much anywhere. Montana is also a great place to try mountain biking, ATVs, or pretty much any other outdoor sport. However, if history is more your thing, you might want to consider driving to a nearby ghost town.
There are several ghost towns in Southwest Montana. Most of these sprung up in the 1800s to mine for gold or other precious metals and when the mines ran out, everyone left. Some of these towns still have residents, but most are completely empty except for travelers looking to capture part of Montana’s history.
I have an entire posts that details all of the ghost towns in Southwest Montana, but the one I would recommend going to this day is Elkhorn State Park. This ghost town has been transformed into a state park and is therefore kept up by the state of Montana. This also means there will be informational signs about what you’re looking at. This state park is about a one hour drive from Helena and if you want the best of both worlds, there are hikes nearby once your done walking around the abandoned buildings.
Day 5: Drive to Missoula
On day 5 of this Western Montana Road Trip, you’ll be heading to Missoula. Missoula is about 1 hour and 45 minutes West of Helena. It’s not a huge city, so one day is likely enough, but it’s still worth seeing. There are a few museums in town including the Fort Missoula Museum and the Missoula Art Museum.
If you want to check out the local beers, you can visit the Bayern Brewery or Big Sky Brewing. There’s also a winery here called Ten Spoon that looks like it would make a great afternoon.
If you want to get outside after the morning drive, take a look at AllTrails to get a sense of the hiking options. After doing some research, Mount Jumbo seems to be a popular hiking spot.
Day 6: Drive to Glacier National Park
The last part of this Western Montana road trip is arguably the best! On day 6, you’ll wake up early and head to Glacier National Park (about a 2.5 hour drive). This is as far North as you’ll go on this road trip since Glacier extends to the Canadian border. There are acommodation options inside the Park, but if those are full, there are also quite a few right outside. If you get here early, you likely can’t check in yet, so I’d head straight into the park.
The first thing I would suggest doing in this park is driving along Going to the Sun Road. This road runs West to East and said to be one of the most scenic roads in North America. There are plenty of places to pull over and admire the mountains of Northern Montana. Since this road is quite narrow, there are some vehicle restrictions that you should read before you go – you can find those here.
The entire road is 50 miles and it takes about 2 hours to drive it without stopping. Assuming you’ll be stopping a few times, this will likely take you anywhere from 3-4 hours. By the time you’re done, it will be time to head to your hotel or Airbnb and check in. Grab dinner and get ready for an early day tomorrow!
Day 7: Pick a Hike in Glacier National Park
I bet you’re tired of me saying this by now, but AllTrails will be a great tool to get a sense of what hikes are available in Glacier National Park. One of the most popular options is the Highline Trail. It’s quite long (about 12 miles) and strenuous at times, but it gives you some of the most incredible views in the park.
I’d recommend starting early on this day and getting to the park at just about sunrise. You’ll drive to the trailhead of the Highline Trail (or another trail of your choosing) and start your hike! Make sure to pack plenty of water and snacks. Also, take into consideraiton that the Highline trail is pretty much all exposed to the sun – so I’d recommend bringing sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses.
There is usually a shuttle at the end of this hike to take you back to the trailhead, but with Covid, that was suspended, so make sure to check beforehand. If there’s no shuttle service, you can always hike part of this trail and then turn around if the whole thing is too much.
This hike will take up most of Day 7, so when you’re done, head back to wherever you’re staying, have some dinner, and get some rest!
Day 8: Visit Bowman Lake
Bowman Lake is one of the most picturesque lakes in Glacier National Park. It’s toward the northern end of the park and I recommend waking up early enough to get there to see the sun rise. On your way there, you’ll pass a small general store and bakery called Polebridge Mercantile. Stop here for a coffee and pastry and then keep heading north to Bowman Lake!
I’ve been told that part of the road to the lake is not paved, so it’s best to have a 4-wheel drive or all-wheel drive vehicle to get there. Once your there, drop a blanket on the ground and watch the sun rise over the mountains. You can even take a dip in the water if you want!
This is a general day use area, so you can stay as long as you’d like.
Other Road Trip Ideas?
This Western Montana road trip will be one of the most beautiful road trips you ever go on – I’m sure of it! If you’ve taken other road trips, or you thinking about seeing a particular part of the world via road trip, let me know in the comments!