Budget Travel

5 Scenic Drives in Big Sky Country

GOING-TO-THE-SUN ROAD: The  grand-daddy of all Montana drives is without doubt, the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which bisects Glacier National Park. While portions of the road are open all year, a significant section closes in winter (or sooner) due to snow and other weather-related conditions. From about mid-to late June (depending on when the snow is cleared) to mid-October, the entire length of the road is open. The views of forested valleys topped by snow-covered peaks are spectacular. An absolute must-stop for photo buffs is the pullout for Wild Goose Island, in St. Mary Lake (pictured above).

GOING-TO-THE-SUN ROAD (continued): The highest point on the drive is Logan Pass at 6,636 ft., where you’ll find a visitor center and the starting point for a few hikes into the backcountry.  Always a thrill near the pass is seeing both mountain goats and bighorn sheep that call Glacier home. on the east side of the drive, while several pullouts on the west side afford views of the 10-mile-long Lake McDonald (pictured above). For those who may be uncomfortable driving a narrow, winding mountain road, there are interpretative tours available both through Sun Tours and Glacier National Park Lodges Red Bus Tours.  

THE MEANDERING MISSOURI RIVER: The fastest route between Montana’s capital, Helena, and the city of Great Falls is I-15, which parallels the mighty Missouri River. For those who are keen on driving the back roads, get off at the tiny town of Wolf Creek and follow Recreation Road for 24 miles as it dips and curves right along with the meandering Missouri, before the road reconnects with the interstate. You’ll find no shortage of water activities on the river, as it’s extremely popular with fly fishermen, kayakers, and canoeists.   

THE MEANDERING MISSOURI RIVER (continued): There are a handful of fishing access sites along the Missouri River if you are inclined and have the gear to fish from shore. Or pack a picnic lunch and enjoy a water’s-edge view of this epic river.  If you want to get out on the water and don’t have a boat, the Gates of the Mountains boat tour 20 miles north of Helena at Exit 209 cruises down a stretch of the Missouri that Lewis and Clark toiled up in 1805. Keep your eyes open for black bear, deer, otters, and a host of bird life (over 120 noted in the canyon), including bald eagles on this unforgettable two-hour tour.   

PARADISE VALLEY: Highway 89, just south of Livingston, is a popular route to Yellowstone National Park’s north entrance at Gardiner, Montana and provides stunning views of the Yellowstone River. Aptly named Paradise Valley, this is a land of small ranches flanked to the east by the magnificent Absaroka Range of mountains, and to the west by the Gallatin Range. Deer and elk are plentiful along this corridor, along with a bison or two as you get close to Gardiner. 

PARADISE VALLEY (continued): The Yellowstone River (pictured above) is a mecca for fly fishermen, as well as kayakers, canoeists and floaters, so there is no shortage of activity on the water.  For thrill seekers, sign on for a guided whitewater adventure in Gardiner, where the Yellowstone plummets through Yankee Jim Canyon, creating Class III rapids. The beauty of this Valley and the quaint town of Livingston hasn’t gone unnoticed by the film industry, as both A River Runs Through It and The Horse Whisperer filmed in the area. A popular stop on this route is Chico Hot Springs, a great spot for a soak, lunch or horseback ride. In Gardiner, the towering Roosevelt Arch entrance to Yellowstone is a must stop for photos.  

A GEM OF A ROAD: When you’re traveling between Missoula and Butte on I-90, you can enjoy a wonderful alternative route by exiting at either the anchor town of Drummond or Anaconda onto the Pintler Veteran’s Memorial Scenic Byway (Highway 1). Pull into Philipsburg (pictured above) on this route, literally a gem of a town, where sifting through gravel in search of Montana sapphires at the Sapphire Gallery is a must, along with a stop at the Sweet Palace to satisfy the sweet tooth.  If you’re a history buff, take the bumpy detour at Philipsburg to Granite Ghost Town for a glimpse of Montana’s early mining history.  

A GEM OF A ROAD (continued): The  64-mile Pintler Veterans Memorial Scenic Byway weaves its way through the lush Flint Creek Valley, and around Georgetown Lake, a popular area for water based recreation.  Classic weathered barns dot a landscape of sweeping ranch land on this drive. In Anaconda, you can’t miss one of the world’s tallest free-standing smokestacks at 585 feet. Now a state park, this smelter stack remains as a tribute to Montana’s early mining days. If you’re into selfies, stand in front of the “Mentzer’s Used Cow Lot” sign at Drummond. 

PIONEER MOUNTAINS: If your journey has you traveling I-15 between Butte and Dillon, a pleasing alternative is the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway, a 47-mile stretch that cuts through the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. To reach this Byway from Butte, you’ll connect with I-15 four miles west of Butte and head south 14 miles to Divide. Exit here onto Highway 43, then head west to the tiny hamlet of Wise River, the start of the Byway. The landscape is a mix of densely forested mountains before opening up to sagebrush meadows and irrigated ranch land.  

PIONEER MOUNTAINS (continued): Antelope and deer are a common sight on this route. There is no shortage of campgrounds and for those keen on history, look for interpretive signage at several pullouts. One of the unique experiences on this Byway is Crystal Park, where for a small fee of $5/car, you can dig to your heart’s content for quartz crystals. A small shovel and some sort of screen for sifting the dirt is helpful. At the south end of the drive, as you connect with Hwy 278 back to Dillon, take a short detour to the ghost town of Bannack State Park, Montana’s first Territorial capital back in 1864. More than 60 structures remain today.   

From the dizzying heights of Glacier National Park to the majestic Missouri River to adventures in mining country and the aptly named Paradise Valley, Montana delivers some of America’s most breathtaking road trips.

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