I bought a car this summer so I could drive and explore the states around Colorado. And first on my wish list was a Western Montana road trip. I hadn’t been to Montana since I was 11 years old when my parents and I did a road trip from Illinois to Oregon and back.
All I remember from that trip was being terrified of encountering a bear in Glacier National Park and eating only cheeseburgers for the entire two weeks.
Those were the days of being able to eat endless cheeseburgers…
I think it was about time for me to see Montana with adult eyes now on my own road trip from Denver.
I’m still scared of meeting a bear on a trail, but I have developed my culinary interests past cheeseburgers these days. In fact, I was pretty excited to drive through Western Montana’s small towns, see the mountain scenery, have a few outdoor adventures, find the distilleries, and enjoy the farmers markets and local cafes. And I would do all of this from my new road tripping car!
Table of Contents
When you think of Montana, What comes to Mind?
Cheeseburgers? Bears? Fly Fishing? Brad Pitt? (ok – maybe that’s just me…) Glacier National Park?
I think for most people Glacier National Park is one of the big draws to Montana; especially this summer as the pandemic lingered on. Yes, the park is lovely, however the beauty doesn’t stop at the park exit…it’s all over Western Montana. Nature has no boundaries and the National Parks don’t have the only beauty and cool things to do.
So when everyone is headed to Montana to go to Glacier National Park in record numbers, I have some suggestions of where you can go that is outside of the park but just as fun, beautiful, and cultural (probably more so) than just Glacier.
Why Explore Beyond Glacier National Park?
My first answer is because exploration is cool. Leading is cool. And finding your own new experiences are more impactful.
Lewis and Clark in Montana
Lewis and Clark famously traversed Montana not once, but twice, so as a way to honor them, I set out to really explore beyond the National Park in western Montana. I took the mindset of someone who is leading a team of explorers who are about to step into the great unknown!
I know – many people don’t like the unknown – but I thrive on it. In fact, I am always excited about encountering the unknown because I normally think that I can find a place better than what others have found.
And on this Western Montana road trip…I did.
Now you get to reap the benefits of my discoveries! I’ve split them into the categories of Eating, Drinking, and Being Curious. Just like Lewis and Clark, I’ve created a map of my route, where I stayed, and given you an idea of what I loved and why…and what to stay away from!
Western Montana Road Trip – Eat, Drink, and Be Curious
Even though I drove from Denver (a 2 day leisurely drive), I basically started this trip from Missoula. It’s a super jumping off point for Western Montana. You can also fly into Missoula and rent a car.
Renting a Car
I have consistently found the best rental car prices on RentalCars.com (international and at home) and use them when I have to rent a car. They work with all of the major car companies; check out their prices and see what you think. I also love their cancellation policies that are easy to find and understand – a must in these times!
I stayed in Missoula getting to know this awesome college town for 2 nights. The beautiful thing about Missoula is that it’s so easy to get out to nature – in fact you are surrounded by it! We used the elegant AC Hotel in Missoula as a hub for two nights while we went rafting and hiking – just a short drive outside the city. Then we came back at night and enjoyed all of the food, drink, and nightlife. We even went to a concert there at the historic Wilma theater.
From there we went West – out to experience the mountainous landscapes. However, we had one problem – wildfires.
Explorers Have to Be Flexible
One of the first rules of being an explorer is to be ready for anything – and to be flexible when you encounter it. This is a trait of any good traveler – and Mother Nature put us to the test. Wildfires were burning around Western Montana so we had to make a few changes to our plans, but thanks to that we discovered other fun things like antique stores and a really cool jail museum! We didn’t get to do as much hiking or landscape photography as I normally would have, but I still had an incredible trip!
Each morning before hitting the road we’d check the latest news on the wildfires and then have to possibly reroute a bit. Don’t let things like this ‘ruin your vacation’ – just roll with it and see where it leads you. This is part of being a responsible traveler. In fact, Western Montana actually has Responsible travel tourism guidelines that range from campfire maintenance, to parking, to fast changing weather, and even where to take and how to tag selfies!
Learn more about the Glacier Country Tourism Pledge
Western Montana Road Trip Map
Click on the box in the upper left corner to get information on lodging, restaurants and experiences along the route.
As you can see, I actually did go to Glacier National Park, but I tried to stick to the less-visited Many Glacier area. While everyone was vying to get into the Going to the Sun Road, we went to a different area that required no reservation and was absolutely beautiful.
In addition, we were also able to experience the Indigenious culture of the area – it was my highlight of the trip to be able to connect with the land and the people in this unique way.
Eating my way Through Western Montana
Food glorious food! It’s one of my favorite things about taking a vacation. Thanks to recommendations from locals I had some incredible meals on the road trip. Here were some of my favorite experiences.
Indigikitchen – Babb Montana
The Glacier National Park tourist market has been traditionally centered on the west side. However, I discovered the east side of Glacier and was introduced to a much less crowded area as well as Mariah Gladstone of Indigikitchen.
Indigikitchen was formed to foster an appreciation and love of traditional Native foods. The name is a combination of Indigenous, digital, and kitchen — Mariah creates short video cooking tutorials on Youtube for recipes that use pre-contact ingredients.
But as travel starts to open up again, Mariah is working on a new experience that will give visitors a better grasp on the landscape; a foraging and cooking class based on indigenous foods.
Her goal is to offer people a meal made of native ingredients, especially things that they can have a part in foraging and harvesting, thereby ‘immersing themselves in the landscape’. It’s a way to look at the small parts of the landscape rather than looking at a glacier or mountains. Instead, visitors can really look at a glacier as berries, and flowers as flavors.
We started by walking around her yard picking sarvis berries. The pinkish purple berries were bursting with flavor – I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t heard of them before considering their prevalence in the area. She taught me about the different native plants and how they were traditionally used for culinary and medicinal purposes.
We had iced cedar tea with maple syrup and stuffed peppers. Mariah cooked up ground elk that was harvested up on Chief Mountain and mixed that with wild rice from Red Lake. I loved the idea that she knew where the meat and rice came from, something we never really know when we eat at a restaurant. For desert I helped with forming cookies from ground up sunflower seeds and maple syrup. We topped our ‘cookies’ with the freshly foraged pink sarvis berries all mashed up.
Not only do you get an education about the land, the Blackfeet people, a wonderful meal, but you also get to meet Mariah. She’s one of these special people who brings the whole area to life. She grew up here and her life and culture are woven into the landscapes. In addition, she has worked as a park ranger and knows the areas inside and outside the park really well – so it’s a good way to get some super hiking advice too! It’s a truly special experience.
To do this experience, go to Mariah’s website and contact her and request it.
Minnie’s Café – Thompson Falls Montana
The little town of Thompson Falls has one of the biggest cinnamon rolls I’ve ever seen! Made fresh every morning, Minnie’s Café is known for this giant plate of cinnamon-y goodness. It’s also known for its authentic small town America feel and hospitality. Minne’s is what small towns are made of – great homecooked food, and a gathering place for locals.
Sit at the old counter and order things like meatloaf, roast beef with gravy, and malts. I chatted with some locals about what to do in the area and asked the status of the nearby wildfires. Then came my giant cinnamon roll with ice cream scoop of butter on the side! I had never seen a side of butter served with a cinnamon roll…but oh my…it’s worth it.
I suggest you go out of your way to experience Minnie’s if you have to! Just check their Facebook page to make sure they are open. They run out every day so I suggest you go early and go famished.
Harwood House – Paradise Montana
Want to treat yo’self on your roadtrip? Then make sure you stop at Harwood House. Fine dining meets rustic cabin life by the river – a perfect combination to experience Montana’s western culture. Harwood House in Paradise, MT is a part of the historic Quinn’s Hot Springs Resort. It’s known for their extensive wine list and their surf and turf options.
I decided to try the best of both worlds – smoked trout for an appetizer and Montana prime rib for my main. A delicious and decadent meal – no wonder why the area is named Paradise.
It’s good to have reservations, you can make them here.
Box Car Bistro – Missoula Montana
There’s a ton of great restaurants in Missoula, however if you are looking for a special upscale meal – stop at Box Car Bistro. Located in the newly developed Old Sawmill District. This small intimate dining experience makes you feel as if you’ve walked into a 1920’s glamour-filled French bistro.
They are known for their French dishes, seafood, and steaks…hello escargot! And they have a fabulous wine menu. See their entire menu here.
Enough fancy stuff…let’s talk huckleberries. This juicy, sweet berry seems to be Montana’s state fruit. Everywhere you drive you’ll see signs for huckleberry pancakes, jam, syrup, ice cream, pie, mustard, and beer. You better try some else can you really say that you’ve been to Montana?
Lodge at Trout Creek
This isn’t a restaurant, but it is a kitchen – where you can cook for yourself. There comes a time in a road trip where you are sick of eating out all the time. Sometimes you just want control over your food for a bit of a break. That’s where Trout Creek Lodge comes to the rescue. If you stay at this lovely lodge (more on that below), you will have access to your very own kitchen downstairs. It has everything you need, and you can even use their grill!
Just remember to stop at a nearby market and pick up food to cook!
Lodge at Trout Creek Website
Drinking My Way Through Western Montana
A girl gets thirsty driving all the time! Actually, I do have a love of local beers and spirits – and it was always nice to end a day of driving at the local watering hole. It’s a great way to really get to know some locals, get advice on where to go, and just learn about the area.
Montgomery Distillery – Missoula
This family-owned distillery has Montana roots. They are one of the few distilleries I’ve ever known to not only distill, but also grow and harvest their own grains from their 250 acre family farm. This farm-to-glass strategy starts in central Montana where the grain is farmed, is distilled in the basement of the bar in Missoula, and ends in the tasting room/bar upstairs.
“From the very beginning of the process we get to walk through the field and then have it in a bottle and it all comes from us.”Ryan
Not only are the spirits for drinking – but Ryan, one of the founders, found a way to combine his love for distilled spirits and motorcycles. In 2018 he customized a motorcycle to run on vodka byproduct and raced it down the Bonneville Salt Flats setting a land speed record.
They make the traditional spirits; vodka, gin, rye, and whiskey. And they also make some pretty non-traditional spirits; Aquavit (Scandinavia) and Kirschwasser (German). All of this comes together in an incredible cocktail list at their tasting room. A big building with comfortable vintage couches and chairs packed with locals is always a welcome place for a weary road tripper!
Lavender Lemonade – Lakeside Montana
Debbie handed me a small mason jar of lavender lemonade with a paper straw. Even though this was lavender lemonade, it was a pink in color and had a couple of huckleberries floating in it among the ice. This refreshing drink wasn’t made from a powder – it was made with real lavender that was grown by Debbie on her lavender farm.
July is harvest season for lavender and Debbie’s field of 1500 plants was gorgeous and aromatic! We met Debbie at her farm high above Flathead lake where she educated us about lavender and her quest to make the world more beautiful. Debbie is a retired 2nd grade teacher who got her lavender farm inspiration from a school book she was reading to her class. The book was about a woman who wanted to make the world more beautiful by spreading lupine seeds throughout the Northeast. Debbie decided she would make the world more beautiful (and fragrant) by planting lavender.
She transforms the lavender into culinary, decorative, and personal care products that are sold in the barn shop on site. Plus, in July she holds Lavender themed dinners (that always sell out) during which a local chef creates a multi-course farm-to-table dinner featuring products from local farms and a different variety of lavender in each course. If you are road tripping through in July – be sure to sign up for one of the Lavender dinners!
Go visit her, have some lemonade and get a tour of the farm by appointment! It will brighten your day!
Create Art Bar – Missoula
While in Missoula we happened across this cool new (to me) concept called the CREATE Art Bar. It’s a regular bar (with incredible cocktails) and a makers studio. So if you are the type that has their creativity increase when you have a cocktail…you may just find your inner Piccaso!
They have various projects you can choose to make, they provide all of the tools, instructions, and occasional help – and you are off and creating! We had so much fun making our leather bag tags and koozies…and drinking cocktails!
Be Curious in Western Montana
I value curiosity – especially when it comes to travel. For me it never seems to be satiated – and it is what keeps me traveling. My curiosity led us to so many interesting experiences along our Western Montana road trip – and these were some of my favorites.
Ross Creek Cedars
I adore trees – not only do trees speak to each other, but I feel like sometimes they speak to me, so I was pretty excited when we came across the Ross Creek Cedars. The Ross Creek Cedar Grove is a hidden gem in Western Montana. With only one little sign on the highway- you really have to be looking for it to see it! After a winding drive on a one lane road, you’ll come to this little oasis of cedar trees among a landscape of Ponderosa Pines. We walked the trail that led through these big beautiful trees and enjoyed every quiet, reflective moment of it!
Bring a picnic lunch with you and eat it at one of the picnic tables under the tall cedars. And feel free to hug as many trees as you’d like! I was even able to crawl inside of one for a completely different perspective.
They have a cedar Grove in Glacier National Park too; however, Ross Creek Cedars is much less visited and you’ll practically have the Grove to yourself. All of the beauty and none of the chaos.
Why in the world would you go to a library as part of your Western Montana road trip? Because the new Missoula Public Library is incredibly cool, and it has some of the best views of the city!
The newly opened library is nothing like the library I remember as a kid – the architecture and design is open, welcoming, and clever. The building décor and design is meant to represent the Western Montana landscape starting on the 1st floor with the river, and rising up like a mountain on the 4th floor. They have a great coffee shop, a makers studio, a cooking/demo kitchen, and a beautiful patio with a stellar view on the top floor.
Plus, they sell used books there too – so if you forgot a book for your road trip, stop by and pick up some great reads!
National Bison Range – Dixon Montana
If you want to be one of those ‘Sunday drivers’ inching along gawking at the views, then stop at the National Bison Range. Drive through the landscape at any pace you’d like, stopping to enjoy the views. The mostly dirt road that traverses through the range is not heavily trafficked and everyone is there to take their time and see bison and other wildlife. There is a herd of 400 bison living on this on the land managed by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
Viewing wildlife is unpredictable – and even though there were 400 of them, we only saw a couple of bison near the road we were driving on. It’s hit or miss on if you will see the wild herd close to the road, but there is one guarantee – you will see incredible views.
It was a beautiful, winding drive through the grasslands and rolling hills of this preserved land. You climb to a high spot on switchbacks to get a view of the surrounding mountain ranges. Then look down on the lush valley below formed by glacial lakes that filled and drained numerous times.
This a great way to see wildlife and learn about the Native American tribes and their relationship with the land.
Thompson Falls Jail Museum
Thompson Falls Montana is where we started to have to put our flexibility to the test. Wildfires in the area were forcing us to change our itinerary a bit. Instead of doing a big hike in the surrounding forest, we decided to stay within Thompson Falls and do some walking around town, go to a museum, and go to the island park across the High Bridge. Flexibility is key when you travel – and it can lead you to some incredible finds!
Originally operating as the county jail, sheriff’s office AND sheriff’s residence, the Thompson Falls Jail Museum now focus on preserving Sanders County history, historical artifacts, images and maps. Oh my – this was one fun and surpising stop! The old building had different exhibits in addition to the jail artifacts.
While we were there they had a 1920’s fashion exhibit on the main floor. The main floor is where the Sheriff’s family lived. The Sheriff’s wife even cooked all of the meals for the inmates…who were housed upstairs.
You can see all of the old cells/bunks upstairs along with old log books telling the tales of drunken disorderly nights, petty theft, and more.
Being flexible paid off in Thompson Falls!
Kootenaie Falls and Bridge
This scenic area near Libby Montana was probably the worst hit from wildfires in the region. In fact, it was the smokiest environment we came across on our trip. However, we were still able to hike to the falls and the bridge, yet I had to imagine how spectacular the views would have been without the smoke.
Regardless of smoke – you can walk over the 210 foot swinging bridge that sits 100 feet above the roaring river. The Kootenai Falls Swinging Bridge offers some incredible views of the Kootenai River gorge directly below Kootenai Falls. It was built by the Forest Service to access forest fires across the Kootenai River, but anyone can cross it and enjoy the views!⠀
I love international travel because – it exposes me to different cultures. However, you don’t always need to go out of the country to find different cultures.Wwe went to the Libby Rodeo and found a whole western culture that was completely foreign to us!
Montana is ranching country, and there are a number of rodeos that travel around the area. From the events, to the crowd, to the announcers, and even the vendors – it was all foreign to me. We had a great time giving our Yee-Haw for the incredibly brave competitors.
Whenever you have a chance on a road trip to go to a local event – do it!
Get more information about rodeos around the region here.
White Water Rafting
When I think of Montana, one of the first things that comes to mind is rivers. During our entire road trip we followed meandering rivers. They are great to look at, but why not get a closer perspective and go white water rafting!
We rafted down the Clark Fork River with Montana River Guides! The river is a mix of class 2 & 3 rapids and is the perfect mix of wild ride and relaxing float! We did the full day trip just 40 minutes from Missoula.
Many Glacier Region
Finally, We did spend a little time in the lesser-visited area of Glacier National Park. You don’t need a reservation to get into the Many Glacier region on the East Side of the park. However, you do need a car that can take the really rough road that is under construction for about 10 miles. Maybe that’s what keeps the crowds away from this side of the park. Or maybe it’s just that EVERYONE wants to do the Going to the Sun Road and they don’t bother with the other areas of the park.
After walking around and photographing the jaw dropping Many Glacier Hotel, we rented a canoe for an hour and set out on the lake surrounded by towering mountains! Built by the Great Northern Railway in 1914-15, Many Glacier Hotel is situated on the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake inside Glacier National Park. It was designed like a Swiss mountain chalet and it does feel like you’ve somehow been transported to the Swiss Alps. It’s worth it to go inside and look around, then sit out on the big deck and enjoy the view.
There are also a number of hikes in this area too. Sadly we didn’t have time to do them – but canoeing around the lake was a great alternative.
Where to Stay on This Western Montana Road Trip
Quinns Hot Springs Resort
Quinn’s Hot Springs Resort is an institution in Western Montana. These newly remodeled hot springs have incredible views and tons of history. They resort was started in the late 1800’s and still is a favorite stop today with visitors near Paradise, Montana.
We spent the night and enjoyed a soak in their new pools along with a cold water plunge. Perfect for after a day of adventure in the area! And it’s not just about the hot springs. The riverbank is dotted with little cabins giving you that true Montana vibe! I kept looking (more like hoping) at the river expecting to see Robert Redford and Brad Pitt out there fly fishing…
Lodge at Trout Creek
One of my favorite places we stayed was The Lodge at Trout Creek. This secluded home is a bed and breakfast that is a place to relax and enjoy the view…and the incredible breakfasts. (This was my first taste of the famous Montana huckleberries!). The breakfast really was over the top; fruit, yogurt, muffins, coffee cake, eggs/meat – all lovingly made by Julie.
They have 5 suites in the house, and you have access to the entire house to just sit and relax in various rooms. You will be pampered in luxury while surrounded by nature. And if you are a porch lover like me – then you will be in porch heaven! In addition to the porches surrounding the house, they had a theater room, and plenty of rooms with fireplaces to sit and really experience that Montana vibe.
AC Hotel Missoula
The newest addition to the Missoula hotel scene. This upscale business hotel is more than just a place to sleep. They have a beautiful bar in the lobby serving up craft cocktails and a European style breakfast in the mornings. The rooms are modern and it’s located right on Main Street walking distance to restaurants and shops.
Plus – I found out that they have the only generator in downtown Missoula! We had a blackout one of the nights we were there and it was probably one of my favorite nights in Missoula. The AC bar filled up and it was a fun way to enjoy a blackout!
Evergreen Hotel – Libby Montana
This small single story hotel in Libby was full of vintage charm. Taking me back to the days of road trips with my family. The Evergreen hotel was brightened up with tons of hanging flower baskets and colorful landscaping. The rooms were remodeled a few years ago and they were very comfortable. The entire hotel had a Schitt’s Creek Rosebud vibe to it! A great small town find!
Don’t Forget to Bring This Road Trip Gear
Here’s my Travel Playlist that I love on Spotify to keep you in that travelin’ mood!
Are you ready…let’s go eat, drink, and be curious in Western Montana! Let me know what new things you discover!
I was a guest of Glacier Country Tourism during this road trip, however all opinions expressed here are my own.