Despite its vast land size, the majority of Montana is made up of small towns with populations hovering around three to four digits. It would be easy to pass these places by on your way to larger population centers like Billings and Missoula, but that would be a shame as you would miss so much of what makes Montana great like friendly locals, stunning scenery, and unique attractions. As a long-time resident of the state and curious traveler, I have spent many a road trip exploring these towns, and I’ve found that a visit to any one of them is well worth the stop. Many places in Montana go into hibernation during the colder months, so I would recommend checking temperatures at individual locations before planning a visit in the winter.
1. Fort Peck
One great reason to visit Fort Peck is the town’s proximity to massive Fort Peck Lake and its 1,500 miles of shoreline. Explore the lake by boat and fish for walleye, northern pike, and the prehistoric paddlefish. If you have the time, explore the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge — which surrounds the lake — on foot or in a car to see elk, pronghorn antelope, and sage grouse. Whatever adventures you choose, make Fort Peck Hotel your base camp. This historic hotel offers comfortable rooms and a wide porch perfect for taking in the sweet prairie air. There is no elevator, but rooms are available on the first floor. Be sure to time your visit to catch a performance at the delightful Fort Peck Theatre to watch local thespians put on a range of plays and musicals.
Pro Tip: Despite its size, few services are available around Fort Peck Lake. Fort Peck Marina is a great place to start if you’re looking for supplies and information.
Havre is located in north central Montana along US Highway 2. To get to know the town, visit the historical attractions. At Wahkpa Chu’gn Buffalo Jump, a tour guide leads you down a paved path to the site where 2,000 years ago native peoples herded buffalo over the steep cliff as an effective hunting method. A tour through Havre Beneath the Streets takes you to a perfectly preserved city below the sidewalks. In 1904, three men set fire to town after being kicked out of a bar that resulted in the destruction of 60 businesses. Instead of giving up and moving on, the resilient community went underground setting up barber shops, doctors offices, and even a brothel in the steam tunnels Beneath the Streets.
Pro Tip: Currently, the only access to Havre Beneath the Streets is by a series of stairs. The owners hope to provide a chair-lift in the future.
3. Fort Benton
Initially a fur trading post, Fort Benton’s fate was sealed as a rough and bustling town in the 1860s when gold was discovered in Montana. Those seeking their fortune realized Fort Benton was the last available stop for steamboats on the journey west along the Missouri River. One of the best things about visiting Fort Benton is your ability to park your car and explore a vast array of historical sites and museums within less than a mile along the Steamboat Levee Walk. The mighty Missouri is your constant companion as you learn about the town’s infamous history through interpretive signs and sculptures. The Steamboat Levee Walk leads you to Historic Old Fort Benton where your admission fee grants you access to the fort along with three other museums.
Pro Tip: A visit to Fort Benton isn’t complete without a stay at the historic Grand Union Hotel. Be sure to choose a room with a view of the river if available.
4. White Sulphur Springs
Locals and guests relax and mingle in the warm mineral waters at the Spa Hot Springs Motel in this central Montana town. As with any community dependent on agriculture, the White Sulphur Springs economy has ebbed and flowed in the past. In recent years, a small group of locally-owned businesses have cropped up along Main Street giving the town a boost. Shop at Red Ants Pants for durable clothing and accessories specifically designed for women. Head over to 2 Basset Brewery for a pint of Drooligan Irish Red Ale. Chat with the friendly barkeeps and locals while keeping an eye out for the brewery’s namesake canines. The Jawbone is the perfect place to enjoy a classic cocktail with dinner before heading back to the motel for a late evening soak.
Pro Tip: You don’t have to be a guest of the motel to soak in the springs. Day passes for adults are $10 and $9 for seniors 65 and older.
Bigfork is one of many small communities that dot the shores of Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. Bigfork is also one of the prettiest due to its location along the Swan River in the shadow of the Swan Mountains. The heart of Bigfork sits along Grand and Electric avenues just off Bigfork Bay. Fine art galleries, boutique shops, and a variety of dining and lodging options line the streets. Shop for Montana-made art and gifts at myREALmontana, feast on elk tenderloin at Traditions Restaurant, and enjoy views of the setting sun reflecting off the water from your room at the Inn on Bigfork Bay.
Pro Tip: Be sure to take part in the town’s Christmas celebrations if you find yourself in Bigfork in December. Local elves decorate the streets with lights and evergreen boughs and holiday festivities abound.
6. West Yellowstone
In the winter, the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park is closed to vehicles so the gateway town of West Yellowstone is quieter than in the summer. As the weather warms, the town digs out of its snow-packed surroundings and comes alive with a wealth of adventures to experience. Visit the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center to delight in close-up views of grizzly bears and wolves as they play in spacious natural enclosures. Learn about the history of transportation in the national park at Museum of the Yellowstone. Then book your own ride through the national park at one of the many tour companies based in town and leave the driving to someone else.
Pro Tip: You can access the park in the winter via West Yellowstone by snowmobile. Guided tours and rentals are available through Backcountry Adventures.
The towering skinny smokestack rising above the hills along Interstate 90 in western Montana is the first clue that you’re close to Anaconda. This 585-foot tower of bricks, one of the tallest free-standing masonry structures in the world, was once part of Anaconda’s booming copper mining industry. The mines closing in the 1980s could have signaled the end for this small community, but the recent steps at revitalization have kept Anaconda on the map. Play a round at the Jack Nicklaus-designed Old Works Golf Course, take a closer look at the smokestack at the state park that surrounds it, and end the day with a pint of locally brewed beer while listening to local musicians at Smelter City Brewing.
Pro Tip: Grab a seat on the Anaconda Vintage Bus Tour for a great way to explore the town’s history. Tours run Monday through Friday during the summer.
Dillon sits in the southwest corner of Montana in the picturesque Beaverhead Valley. Take in Dillon’s beautiful scenery on the numerous paved walking and biking trails weaving in and around town. For those looking for a little more adventure, head over to Clark’s Lookout State Park. A short climb to the top of the lookout lets you stand in the footsteps of Captain William Clark while enjoying an expansive view of the Beaverhead River. Back in town, check into the Andrus Hotel, a historic hotel in the heart of downtown Dillon. Each of the 12 exquisitely decorated rooms features a full kitchen and king-sized mattresses. A wheel-chair accessible room and an elevator are available.
Pro Tip: Dillon is home to one of the nation’s few Patagonia Outlet stores. The store sits right across the street from the Andrus Hotel.
Hamilton anchors the southern edge of the Bitterroot Valley in southwest Montana, and acts as the perfect basecamp on your tour of the area. Copper King Marcus Daly founded Hamilton in the late 1800’s and lived briefly at his expansive homestead until his death in 1900. You can take a tour of his home and the surrounding grounds at the Daly Mansion. Downtown, treat yourself to a unique gift by a Montana artist at Stone Cottage, then onto a tasting of locally produced wine perfectly paired with a selection of meats and cheeses at Blodgett Canyon Cellars.
Pro Tip: If you’re up for an adventure, take a drive on the twisting roads of Skalkaho Pass. The road is narrow and mostly unpaved, but your reward is a great photo opportunity at Skalkaho Falls.
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