In between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, you’ll find gorgeous trails and scenic views without any of the crowds of the national parks. Head to one of Montana’s 55 state parks that offer incredible trails and outstanding vistas, beautiful lakeside adventures, wildlife-watching and cultural experiences.
And as you head outdoors to explore these gems, leave them the same or better than you found them. It will help keep these beautiful places beautiful, especially as more people than ever are exploring Montana’s wild places. If you brought an energy bar or bag of chips with you on the trail, be sure to pack away the wrappers and throw them out at a trash can after your hike. Stay on the trails rather than making your own trails. It will lessen your impact on the land. If there are fire restrictions because of the droughts that have stricken the West in profound ways, follow them.
And lastly, always carry bear spray and practice knowing how to use it before you head out on the trail. The grizzly population has moved beyond Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Glacier national park’s borders, and it’s best to be well-prepared and not see a bear than to be ill-equipped and have an unexpected bear encounter.
Bannack State Park in the Greater Yellowstone Area
For a fascinating glimpse back in time, head to Bannack State Park near Dillon, Mont. It’s a two hour and 45-minute drive from West Yellowstone, Mont.,, which sits at the park’s West Entrance. The park is home to the best preserved ghost town in all of Montana. It’s also where first major discovery of gold in Montana took place on July 28, 1862. It’s a little off-the-beaten path, requiring a 30-mile drive from Dillon. But it’s well-worth the journey to get there.
“It’s a spectacular part of the state,” says Pat Doyle, of Montana State Parks. “And it’s such a sweet park.”
There are about 50 historic buildings lining the park’s streets, which the state park system maintains. You can walk into the buildings on a self-guided experience, but you can also go on a tour, which leaves from the visitor center. The visitor center is open Memorial Day through Labor Day. There’s also a gift shop. Throughout the summer, you’ll find activities offered from gold panning to painting with natural plants.
Plus, there are 28 campsites here, including a tepee you can rent for the night. Reserve your site up to 6 months in advance to ensure you have a spot waiting for you when you arrive. If you time your visit with Bannack Days during the third weekend of July, you’ll be able to participate in all sorts of activities from listening to live music to hat making, candle-making and blacksmithing.
For more information go to the Bannack State Park page.
Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park near Yellowstone
Another Montana state park gem is Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park in Whitehall, Mont., which is just two hours north of Yellowstone National Park. It’s located right along the Jefferson River. You’ll explore the most decorated limestone cavern system in Montana and a stand-out among caverns in the Northwest. It’s the only state park in Montana where you can drive up and pay to go on a guided caverns tour May 1- Sept. 30. The tour covers two miles, and you should plan to spend at least two hours in the cave. You cannot tour the caverns without being on a tour. Dress warmly since cave temperatures in general hover in the 50s and 60s. With two great visitor centers and 10 miles of hiking trails, this is a great place to pull up and explore a unique pocket of the West.
You can also spend the night in the campground, which has an RV dumping station and showers, or in one of the state park’s three cabins, all of which are ADA accessible. Pets are welcome at the campground but must be on a leash. The park is open year round, although running water is seasonal. Candlelight tours are offered four days in the winter.
For more information, visit fwp.mt.gov/stateparks/lewis-and-clark-caverns
Montana’s Missouri Headwaters State Park
Less than an hour away from Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park is Missouri Headwaters State Park near Three Forks, Mont. It sits at the headwaters of the Missouri River. It is also the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers. For years before Lewis and Clark camped here in 1805, Flathead, Shoshone and Bannock Indians 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 I-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 here that offers 17 campsites, plus one rental tepee. Pets are allowed. On Saturday evenings, there’s a great speaker series.
First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park south of Glacier
Just two hours south of Glacier National Park and 15 minutes outside of Great Falls, see how ancient Native Americans hunted bison at one of the country’s largest bison cliff jump sites.
For more than 1,000 years before Lewis and Clark traveled through Montana, Native Americans hunted buffalo on a sandstone cliff in what is now known as First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park and National Historic Landmark. The tribes used the cliff as a means to kill the bison, which in turn provided meat for food and hides to make clothing and shelters.
Located in Ulm, Mont., you can explore remnants of paths created by hundreds of bison and used by 14 Native American tribes for more than a millenia. Below the one-mile long sandstone cliff rests 18 feet of compacted bison remains.
“There are still the drive lines where the Native American drove the bison off the cliffs,” says Pat Doyle, marketing and communications manager of Montana State Parks. “The park also has really cool tribal events that go on during the summer.”
Be sure to visit the gorgeous, 6,000-square-foot visitor center, which is home to buffalo culture exhibits, a gallery and bookstore. There also are playing fields and an amphitheater outside.
To visit, go to 342 Ulm-Vaughn Rd. in Ulm, Mont. Learn more at the First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park page.
State Parks in Eastern Montana
If you’re visiting Yellowstone or Glacier from their east sides, consider three state parks in eastern Montana: Pictograph Cave State Park in Billings, Mont., Makoshika State Park in Glendive, Mont., Chief Plenty Coups State Park in Pryor, Mont.
Pictograph Cave State Park
Just 5 miles south of Billings, Mont., archaeologists have discovered more than 30,000 artifacts, including tools and weapons at this location. See warriors and animals painted on rock walls by ancient people more than 2,000 years ago at Pictograph Cave State Park The cave is 160 feet wide and 45 feet deep, so bring your binoculars to see the art. There is no camping at this site, but there is a picnic area.
For more information, visit Pictograph Cave State Park page.
Makoshika State Park for Night Skies Viewing
Offering incredible badlands and night sky viewing, Makoshika State Park in Glendive, Mont., is one of the state’s best-kept secrets. In addition to offering scenic drives, hiking trails and a chance to see dinosaur remains, it also hosts a number of really cool events. There’s night campfire programs and Montana Shakespeare in the Park, plus Buzzard Day festival the second Saturday in June with running races, a disc golf tournament and more. Plus, the skies are so dark here that the universe comes alive overhead when night falls. Look up and see the stars like never before.
When you enter the park, head to the visitor center by the entrance where you can see the fossil remains of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and other ancient life. Then head out on one of the park’s 11 hiking trails or play at the disc golf course. There are 28 camping sites. Dogs are allowed.
Learn more at the Makoshika State Park page.
Chief Plenty Coups State Park near Billings, Montana
Four hours west, you’ll find Chief Plenty Coups State Park, a very special place that was home to the Apsáalooke’s 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 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, Mont., 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 Indians 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’s 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 Nov. 11, 1921, when he laid down his war bonnet and sacred coup stick on the tomb.
This is a day-use park only with no campground. It’s in Pryor, Mont., 40 minutes from Billings. Pets are allowed.
Learn more at the Chief Plenty Coups State Park page.
Wild Horse Island State Park near Missoula, Montana
About an hour and a half south of Glacier National Park, hiking trails abound on this 2,160-acre island in Flathead Lake where you’ll find Wild Horse Island State Park. Salish-Kootenai Indians allegedly swam their horses to the island to protect them from being stolen. Today five wild horses, eagles, mule deer and bighorn sheep inhabit the island.
Take a boat tour to and from the island. Vendors include Wild Horse Island Charters out of Lakeside Marina in Lakeside, Mont.; flatheadlakeboattour.com, or WildHorse Island Boat Trips in Bigfork, Mont.; wildhorseislandboattrips.com.
Learn more at the Wild Horse Island State Park page.
Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park
Between Butte and Bozeman
At Montana’s first and best-known state park, go underground to discover a limestone cave with large formations.