Montana

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While Montana’s total population may add up to less than 1 percent of the entire United States, it easily claims the title of the fourth largest state when it comes to land (it clocks in at a whopping 145,552 acres). With that much terrain under its belt, it’s no surprise that Montana’s topography is incredibly diverse. The western half of the state is endowed with the Rocky Mountains and spans the Continental Divide. The eastern half is mostly prairie land, broken up by rivers, lakes, and a smattering of mountains. Montana’s largest cities lie along the Missouri River, which runs the length of the state from northeast to southwest, the Yellowstone River (to the south), and the Clark Fork River (in the northwest). Glacier National Park spills into Canada from the northwestern corner of the state, while the entrance to Yellowstone National Park rests on Montana’s southern border with Wyoming.

Montana Cities and Regions

Helena

Built on a foundation of gold in the late 1800s, this mining town quickly turned from “Last Chance Gulch” into the “Queen City of the Rockies.” In just twenty years, prospectors pulled an estimated $3.6 billion (in today’s dollars) in gold out of the ground. Today you can take in Helena’s charming nineteenth century architecture (including St. Helena Cathedral – a replica of the Votive Church in Vienna), visit a sapphire mine, go shopping in the historic downtown district, or enjoy the spectacular outdoors, which encompasses mountains, rolling hills, and the nearby Missouri River.

Butte

Butte can thank copper ore for rescuing it from small mining town oblivion. Situated right on the Continental Divide and flanked by Big Butte (the geographical landmark from which Butte takes its name) to the northwest, Butte claims to be “the richest hill on earth.” The city, which is located halfway between Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park on I-90, boasts an historic district, several museums and mines (some still in use), and a few classic western remnants – including the Dumas Brothel Museum dedicated to the late Venus Alley, Butte’s very own Red Light District.

Missoula

The most artsy city (and the second largest) in the state is tucked into the northern Rockies, not far from the Idaho state line. Here, settled attractively amidst trees and the mountains, you’ll find the University of Montana and the reason why Missoula is synonymous with arts, culture, and education. Festivals and community events add panache to city life year-round. The three roaring rivers that run through the area – the Blackfoot River, the Bitterfoot River, and the Clark Fork of the Columbia River – please fisherman, kayakers, and adventurers alike.

Great Falls

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how this Montana city got its name. Situated on the Missouri River, Great Falls is home to five formidable waterfalls (within a distance of ten miles the Missouri River drops 512 feet, cascading over: Black Eagle Falls, Rainbow Falls, Great Falls, Coulter Falls, and Crooked Falls). As you might expect, numerous dams and power plants take advantage of this natural force. Still, much of the terrain remains the same today as it did when Lewis and Clark arrived in 1805. You can visit one of the largest cold water springs in the world at Giant Springs Heritage State Park or the shortest river in the world, Roe River.

Bozeman and Yellowstone National Park

Located 95 miles southeast of Helena, Bozeman drew ex-miners who streamed in after the gold rush to establish more conventional careers as merchants and farmers. Today visitors pass through en route to one of the many National/State Parks surrounding the city. Yellowstone National Park (to the south), for example, can be reached in a little over an hour. The city is also surrounded by the Rockies, Gallatin National Forest, and hundreds of prime ribbon trout streams. In the winter, two nearby ski resorts (Big Sky and the more community-oriented Bridger Bowl) attract visitors. Stop by Montana State University’s Museum of the Rockies for a peek at their dinosaur exhibit. See our Big Sky Travel Guide.

Kalispell and Glacier National Park

In the northwest corner, flush against the state line separating Montana from Alberta and British Columbia, lies Glacier National Park. Established in 1910, GNP is a photographer’s paradise. Of the park’s 700+ miles of foot and horse trails, none can compare to the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road, which traverses some of the park’s most breathtaking scenery – drive past mountains (including nail-biting, hairpin turns), ice rivers, waterfalls, and fields of wildflowers. Just 30 miles southwest lies the small town of Kalispell, aptly named the “Hub of the Valley” and the most popular jumping off point for GNP. For more outdoor fun, visit Flathead Lake to the south, the largest continental natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi.

Custer Country

Montana’s southeast corner is Custer Country – land of dinosaurs, Lewis and Clark, the Yellowstone River, seven state parks (including Makoshika – the largest in Montana), and, of course, the battle of Little Bighorn. Visit Billings, Montana’s largest city and a metropolis that is known as much for its urban center as it is for its surrounding ranches, farms, and stockyards. Another must is the huge rock known as Pompeys Pillar, not only does it paint a stunning western landscape, it also still bares William Clark’s carved signature.

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