Travel Guide To Montana
If Northwest Montana’s Glacier National Park and Bob Marshall Wilderness comprise "the Crown of the Continent," the rest of the state is certainly its jewels. The quintessential American landscape rises from the flat prairies in the east, to the heights of the Continental Divide. It’s where some of America’s best writers and artists have drawn inspiration. And it’s the place nearly every trout angler and wingshooter has dreamt about.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) divides the state into seven regions, each presenting unique recreation experiences. While you may not have time to visit all seven on your next adventure trip to Montana, it’s highly recommended to explore them all when the opportunities arise.
Region 1 – Northwest Montana
This region can be defined roughly as Glacier National Park, west to the Idaho border, and the Canadian border south to Highway 200. It includes plentiful lakes, like Flathead Lake and the Hungry Horse Reservoir, and fly fishing hotspots like the North, Middle and South Fork of the Flathead River. Mountain towns like Whitefish serve as outdoor adventure hubs. And while much of the recreation focus is drawn to Glacier and the surrounding Bob Marshall, Great Bear, and Scapegoat Wilderness Areas to the north and east, one can find other backcountry experiences in the Kootenai National Forest and Cabinet Mountains Wilderness to the west. Northwest Montana provides easy access to some of the country’s most beautiful mountain settings, with direct flights into Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, or a short drive from Missoula International Airport.
Region 2 – West Central Montana
Recreation opportunities around Missoula and Helena are prolific. The Blackfoot and Bitterroot Rivers combine with the Clark Fork in Missoula, growing significantly before it heads north. With the Lolo National Forest on its west flank and the Rattlesnake Wilderness to the north, you can be at a wilderness trailhead within a twenty-minute drive of the airport, or on the bank of a world-class trout stream in even fewer. Home to the University of Montana and accompanying college town amenities, Missoula is the perfect basecamp for any western Montana adventure.
Region 3 – Southwest Montana
Roughly 60 percent of this region is public land. It’s not only the land that draws southwest Montana’s visitors: it’s the water. Many of Montana’s top trout rivers are located in in this area — the Jefferson, Madison, Gallatin, and their tributaries all flow through here before forming the Missouri which exits the region north. And the Yellowstone and many of its famed tributaries make up the eastern side of the region. With a flight into Bozeman, you can access many of Montana’s best trout waters within a 90-minute drive. And if you’re looking for adventure beyond the water, Montana’s side of Yellowstone and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness provide some of the most scenic hiking and paddling in the lower 48.
Region 4 – North Central Montana
A sprawling area from the Canadian border west of Glacier, south to Helena and east beyond Lewis and Clark National Forest, this region provides access to destination rivers, including the remote Smith River and the famous stretch of the Missouri River below Holter Dam. Home to the most diverse flora and fauna in the state, this area holds 64 of Montana’s 89 fish species in a variety of fast-moving coldwater streams and placid, lower-elevation lakes. Fly direct into Great Falls from a number of Midwestern and Western cities, and set up base camp. From this central location you can explore all of what middle Montana has to offer.
Region 5 – South Central Montana
The Yellowstone warms as it reaches Billings, but quality trout fishing can still be found a short drive from town. South central Montana is also home to the Bighorn river, a tailwater providing some of the best wild trout fishing in the state. Beyond the banks of the Bighorn lay prairie and brush-covered hillsides. And among the flora, partridge, pheasant, and grouse: a wingshooter’s paradise. Billings Logan International Airport offers daily flights from a number of Western and Midwestern hubs, so some of the best fishing and hunting in the US is just a short flight away.
Region 6 – Northeastern Montana
This relatively narrow strip along the Canadian border epitomizes the “big sky” moniker. With an endless horizon, you can see for miles across the short grass prairie. While the easternmost topography of this least populated region of the state is flat, its western edges are home to steep canyons and mountainous terrain which support bighorn sheep and elk. At a lower elevation than much of the rest of the state, this is where the Missouri River slows to an easy pace, and just beyond the North Dakota border, the Yellowstone joins in the relaxed flow. These rivers, along with plentiful warmwater lakes, provide ample habitat for warmwater game fish like walleye and smallmouth. And with very few residents, you’ll likely have the water and land much to yourself. However, the small rural towns mean getting there will take a little more effort. Smaller airlines offer flights from Billings to many towns in northeastern Montana, but depending on your travel plans, renting a car in Billings and driving north (four or more hours to many destinations) is an alternative.
Region 7 – Southeastern Montana
With a unique topography of badlands and rolling hills, southeastern Montana features both the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers as they roll northeast. With plentiful walleye and bass, the lakes, ponds and wetlands also provide world-class waterfowl hunting. The prairie hillsides give cover to upland birds, which draw wingshooters from all over to this quintessential Montana landscape. Hop a daily flight to Billings, then a connecting flight to one of the many mid-sized towns in the area for easy access to all that southeastern Montana has to offer.
Still not sure where to visit in Montana? Talk to a local. Our list of endorsed guides and lodges makes it easy to find an expert who knows the region’s fishing, hiking, and adventure opportunities. And they may even share some secret spots.