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Introduction

Montana

Montana

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Montana is a US state, located in the northwest of the country. With almost 150,000 square miles, it is the 4th largest state in the United States and it's one of the most sparsely populated with just around 1 million inhabitants. The western part is formed by the Rocky Mountains and other mountain ranges and also contains (part of) the Glacier National Park. Helena is the capital while Billings is the largest city. In the southwest you'll find a few gateways to the Yellowstone National Park, like West Yellowstone, making it a very popular state for nature lovers!

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Geography

With a land area of 380,850 km2, Montana is slightly larger than Japan and slightly smaller than Paraguay. It is the fourth largest state in the United States (after Alaska, Texas, and California). To the north, Montana shares a 880-kilometre-long border with three Canadian provinces: British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. To the east, the state borders North Dakota and South Dakota. To the south lies Wyoming and to the west and southwest is Idaho.
The topography of the state is diverse and roughly defined by the Continental Divide, which runs on an approximate diagonal line through the state from northwest to south-central, splitting it into two distinct eastern and western regions. Montana is well known for its mountainous western region, most of which is geologically and geographically part of the Northern Rocky Mountains. The Absaroka and Beartooth ranges in the south are technically part of the Central Rocky Mountains. About 60% of the state is prairie, part of the northern Great Plains. Nonetheless, even east of the Continental Divide and the Rocky Mountain Front, there are a number of isolated "island ranges" that dot the prairie landscape. This island range region covers most of the central third of the state.

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Regions

  • Glacier Country - The far northwest portions of Montana, including Glacier National Park and the cities of Missoula, Whitefish, Kalispell, and Cut Bank.
  • Gold West Country - Southwest Montana, including the cities of Butte and Helena.
  • Russell Country - Named for famed western artist Charles M. Russell, north central Montana including the cities of Great Falls and Lewistown.
  • Yellowstone Country - South central Montana, the gateway to Yellowstone National Park, including the cities of Bozeman and Red Lodge.
  • Missouri River Country - The far northeast Montana, including Glasgow.
  • Custer Country - The far southeast Montana, including the cities of Billings, Miles City, Glendive and the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

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Cities and Towns

  • Billings, the state's largest city.
  • Bozeman - gateway to Yellowstone National Park.
  • Butte - former mining town, once the largest city between Chicago and Seattle, famous for the Berkley Pit, the largest Superfund site in the nation
  • Great Falls - The Electric City
  • Havre - Railroad town, home to many interesting historical sites including the Wahkpa Chu'gn buffalo jump, the H.Earl Clack Museum, Ft. Assiniboine, Havre Beneath the Streets, and the nearby Bear Paw Battlefield.
  • Helena, the state's capital
  • Kalispell - gateway to Glacier National Park.
  • Livingston - The original gateway to Yellowstone National Park. Home to three interesting local museums, and still the Northern gateway to Yellowstone.
  • Missoula - Montana's second largest city, home to the University of Montana.
  • West Yellowstone

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Sights and Activities

Glacier National Park

Chief Mountain, Glacier National Park

Chief Mountain, Glacier National Park

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Perhaps one of the better known attractions in Montana, Glacier National Park, together with Waterton Lakes National Park (across the border in Canada) is a World Heritage Sight in northwestern Montana. Glacier National Park is a nature lover's paradise, and apart from a handful of lodges and private inns, you won't find any towns, hotel chains or shops and stores. While the visitor's centers can get crowded at times, there are over a million acres of wilderness (not including Waterton Lakes, adjacent to Glacier on the Canadian side) to get lost in (but please don't get lost).

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Weather

Montana is a large state with considerable variation in geography, and the climate is, therefore, equally varied. Eastern Montana comprises plains and badlands, broken by hills and isolated mountain ranges, and has a semi-arid, continental climate. The Continental Divide runs north-south through the western mountainous half, and has a great effect on the climate. It restricts the flow of warmer air from the Pacific from moving east, and cooler, drier continental moving west. West of the divide, the climate is described as modified northern Pacific coast climate, with milder winters, cooler summers, less wind, and a longer growing season. In the winter, valley fog and low clouds often form in the valleys west of the divide, but this is rarely seen in the east. Average daytime temperatures vary from -2 °C in January to 29.2 °C in July. The variation in geography leads to great variation in temperature. Hot weather occurs in the eastern plains on occasion, the highest observed being 47 °C at Glendive on July 20, 1893, and Medicine Lake on July 5, 1937. Throughout the state, summer nights are generally cool and pleasant. Temperatures decrease as altitude increases, and extremely hot weather is relatively unknown above 1,200 metres. Snowfall is not unknown in any month of the year in parts of Montana, namely in the more mountainous areas of central & western Montana, but is rare in July and August. The coldest temperature on record for Montana is also the coldest temperature for the entire contiguous U.S. On January 20, 1954, -57 °C was recorded at a gold mining camp near Rogers Pass. Temperatures vary greatly on such cold nights, and Helena, 65 kilometres to the southeast had a low of only -38 °C). Temperatures can drop or rise significantly though within a matter of days or just hours. Loma, Montana is the location of the most extreme recorded temperature change in a 24-hour period in the United States. On January 15, 1972, the temperature rose from -48 °C 9 °C. Average annual precipitation is 380 mm, but great variations are seen. The mountain ranges block the moist Pacific air, holding moisture in the western valleys, and creating rain shadows to the east. Heron, in the west, receives the most precipitation, 881 mm. Most of the larger cities get 76 to 130 centimetres of snow each year, but this is much higher in mountain ranges.

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Getting There

By Plane

Billings Logan International Airport (BIL) is the largest airport in Montana and has flights to/from Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, Oakland, Phoenix, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Denver and Chicago.

By Train

The Empire Builder, operated by Amtrak, travels between Chicago, Illinois and Seattle, Washington, stopping en route in a number of places in Montana, including near the Glacier National Park.

By Car

Montana can easily be accessed by car from neighbouring states and Canada.

By Bus

Check Greyhound for options.

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Getting Around

By Plane

There are flights between Billings and Glasgow, Lewistown, Miles City, Sidney and Wolf Point. Other cities and towns, including Helena have flights to several towns in Montana as well.

By Train

Amtrak's Empire Builder goes across Northern Montana stopping at Libby, Whitefish, West Glacier, Essex, East Glacier (seasonally), Browning (seasonally), Cut Bank, Shelby, Havre, Malta, Glasgow, and Wolf Point.

By Car

Many international rental companies have a wide selection of rental cars and these include Hertz, Avis, Dollar, Thrifty, Enterprise, Budget and Alamo/National. Most companies will require you are at least 25 years of age, although younger people might be able to rent cars at slightly higher rates and with some insurance differences as well. A national driver's license is usually enough, but an additional international one is recommended. Also note that it usually costs more to include lots of other extra things. For example extra drivers, GPS, the first full tank, SLI (Supplemental Liability Insurance), PAI (Personal Accident Insurance, usually covered already at home), road assistance/service plan, and drop-off costs for one-way rentals.
If you want to book a car, it is recommended that you book your car before arriving in the USA. This is almost always (much) cheaper compared to just showing up. Also, try and book with a so-called 'broker', which usually works together with a few or many car rental companies and can offer the best deal. Some examples include Holidayautos, Holidaycars and Sunny Cars. Some of the cheapest deals to book from Europe, includes Drive-USA, which also has a German version.

For more information and tips about renting cars and campers, additional costs, insurance, traffic rules, scenic routes and getting maps and fuel it is advised to check the USA Getting Around section.

Montana has a number of National Scenic Byways which offer a great way to explore the state crossing beautiful landscapes. Mostly, there are lots of national parks, state parks or monuments along the way and it's generally a better alternative than the faster but boring Interstate Highways.

By Bus

Several companies including Greyhound and Jefferson Lines offer interstate lines with several stops in Montana.

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Eat

For a state generally associated with cattle chomping green grass underneath big blue skies, Montana has quite a bit to offer outside of meat and potatoes. Within cities and settled areas you should find a good variety of the ubiquitous fast food drive thrus, homey cafes and diners, delis, steakhouses, Mexican cantinas, noodle and Asian grills and the odd Indian or Sushi restaurant.

In rural areas, however, your selection may be much more limited. Every small town will have at least one eatery, even if it's a cafe stuffed in the corner of a post office, or a burger joint in the back of the town bar. Quality will vary, of course, but the experience might stick with you. If you are looking for meat and potatoes, look no further than the local cafe, diner or steakhouse. The beef will be fresh, most often locally raised and slaughtered, and cooked however you want it -- but if you say well done, your server might cry.

For local flavor and distinctly Montana eateries, try the Staggering Ox, with locations in Billings, Helena and Missoula, or MacKenzie River Pizza Co, with locations in Billings, Bozeman, Helena, Great Falls, Missoula, Kalispell, Belgrade, Whitefish and Butte. The Pickle Barrel is excellent and famous for sub sandwiches with the original location in Bozeman, other locations in Belgrade and Livingston.

Buffalo chili, cowboy beans, Indian fry-bread and steak are types of cowboy food that many love to experience while in the Big Sky Country whether in Billings, Hardin, Laurel, Red Lodge or Helena. Try some chuckwagon food in and around the state like Pappy's MT Catering and other quality businesses who cater for large groups and gatherings in Montana.

Be sure to get a scoop of Wilcoxson's ice cream. This Montana company offers traditional favorites along with speciality flavors, like Moose Tracks. Their fudge bars, available at any convenience store, are a must-have.

During the summer months, primarily late June, July and early August, look for huckleberries and famous Flathead cherries at farmers markets and roadside stands throughout Western Montana. If you're looking for adventure, ask a local a good place to go pick your own huckleberries -- but beware, they may keep it a closely guarded secret. If you go, take some bear spray, they love the treat, too.

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Drink

Montanans, as a general rule, love their beer. Increasingly, Montanans love their microbrews, especially those brewed locally. Some famous microbrews are brewed in Montana, including Moose Drool, a brown ale brewed by Big Sky Brewing Co. and the best selling microbrew outside and inside of the state. Microwbreweries in Missoula, Kalispell, Helena, Billings and other cities and towns allow for cheap tasting and filling of a growler -- usually the best bang (or buzz) for your buck. A list of breweries can be found at VisitMT. In 2012 Montana had 18.2 craft breweries per 500,000 people making it the 3rd most micro breweries per capita in the country.

Outside of microbrews, domestic favorites vary from Coors to Budweiser, with light varieties in between. Bars good for bar hopping can be found in the downtown districts of most cities, especially Missoula, Billings and Bozeman, and they're generally a good gauge of local color and culture. Outside of large cities, most small towns have at least one bar, and they often serve food of varying quality. A general rule of thumb -- if the town has a post office (the Montanan's definition of a town in rural areas) then there should be a bar in which you can quench your thirst.

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Sleep

Montana is great place for camping, there are plenty of camp sites in the state. Prices are reasonable, but the sites are often rather spartan. Sites generally accommodate both tents and RV's.

Hotel and Motel Chains

There are dozens of hotel and motel chains, ranging from budget to top end. Allthough they are not the most charming accommodations, they usually have a very decent midrange service with good rooms and are generally good value. At least you know what to expect and in some cases they are either the only or the best option in the area. Some of them include:

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Contributors

as well as Peter (2%)

Montana Travel Helpers

  • zentric

    I've lived on both the Western and Eastern sides of Montana, from the time I was 5 years old until I graduated High School. My parents and much of my family still live in Montana, and exploring the Big Sky State is still a favorite hobby.

    Ask zentric a question about Montana

This is version 22. Last edited at 7:15 on Apr 4, 16 by Utrecht. 30 articles link to this page.

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