Montana State Parks between Yellowstone and Glacier National Park
Dive deep into Montana history, see stunning views and hit the trails in these four parks.
Montana’s national parks may get all the attention, but its state parks shouldn’t be overlooked. With 55 locations across Big Sky Country, there’s tons to explore whether you’re looking for gorgeous trails, dark night skies or fun on the water. It’s easy to make state parks part of your itinerary as you drive from Yellowstone to Glacier national parks.
Particularly amazing are the state parks that celebrate the vast history and culture of Montana. These locations tend to be off-the-radar, allowing you to escape from the crowds and experience little-seen pieces of this gorgeous state. You’ll still find great trails, sweeping vistas and gorgeous water, you’ll just learn something new along the way.
Here are four of our favorite Montana state parks that focus on history and culture from ancient artists to the many Native American tribes that call Montana home to Lewis and Clark’s famed exploratory mission.
Missouri Headwaters State Park West of Bozeman
Thirty minutes west of Bozeman is Missouri Headwaters State Park near Three Forks. It sits at the headwaters of the mighty Missouri River, the longest in the United States. It’s also the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers. For years before explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark camped here in 1805, the Flathead, Shoshone and Bannock tribes hunted along its shores. The area was named Gallatin City in the 1860s and the Gallatin City Hotel went up in anticipation of a rush of travelers that never materialized. It closed in 1890. You can walk by what remains of this hotel today.
It’s easily accessible from Interstate 90 since it’s just three miles from the highway. Get out on the river with your canoe or kayak or do some fishing and then relax at the small campground which offers 17 campsites, plus one rental teepee. Pets are allowed. On Saturday evenings, there’s a great speaker series.
Madison Buffalo Jump State Park West of Bozeman
Twenty minutes further south from Missouri Headwaters State Park, you’ll find Madison Buffalo Jump State Park. This primitive site doesn’t have a visitor center and isn’t staffed, but it’s a fascinating piece of Montana history you won’t want to miss.
A large limestone cliff rises above the Madison River Valley and for 2,000 years was used as a creative way to hunt bison by Native Americans. Hunters would wear buffalo, pronghorn or wolf skins and incite massive herds of bison into a stampede, leading them off the edge of the cliff. An integral part of many Plains Indians’ way of life, every part of the bison would be used for food, clothing, shelter and tools.
Hike the 3.6-mile, moderate loop to the top of the cliffs to get incredible views and imagine what a herd of stampeding buffalo must have been like to witness. Interpretive panels help you understand what you’re seeing. Bison bones are still buried at the bottom of the cliff today.
Pictograph Cave State Park in Billings
Just five miles south of Billings, Pictograph, Middle and Ghost caves reveal evidence of ancient humans. Archaeologists have discovered more than 30,000 ancient artifacts, including tools and weapons at this state park. More than 100 pictographs, or rock paintings, can be seen inside Pictograph Cave with designs like warriors and animals. Some are 2,000 years old. The cave is 160 feet wide and 45 feet deep, so bring your binoculars and a headlamp to see the art.
You can visit all three caves along an easy 0.75-mile loop trail which includes interpretive displays. There is no camping at this state park, but there is a picnic area.
Chief Plenty Coups State Park near Billings
Forty minutes southeast of Billings, you’ll find Chief Plenty Coups State Park, a very special place that was home to the Apsáalookes (Crow) last traditional chief, Aleekchea-ahoosh, known as Chief Plenty Coups. Explore his log cabin and farm, which he shared with his wife, enjoy a picnic near the apple orchards and stop in the visitor center to learn more about him and the Apsáalooke.
Revered for his wisdom and statesmanship, Chief Plenty Coups was born in 1848 near Billings, becoming leader of the tribe by age 28. When he was 36, he traded nomadic life for a cabin and farm on 320 acres allotted to him under the federal Indian Allotment Act. Known as one of the Great Plains Indian leaders, he made many trips to Washington, D.C., to meet with the U.S. government and railroad companies, entities that threatened his tribe’s way of life. To his credit, the Apsáalooke were allowed to stay on their traditional grounds, but the government shrunk their reservation dramatically from what was promised in its treaty. He represented all Indian tribes at the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on November 11, 1921, when he laid down his war bonnet and sacred coup stick on the tomb.
This is a day-use park with no campground. It’s in Pryor, 40 minutes from Billings. Pets are allowed.
Check out all 55 of Montana’s State Parks at fwp.mt.gov/stateparks.