Family Trail Adventures: Best Bike Rides and Best Hikes in Montana

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This article is sponsored by Visit Montana

We spend a lot of time on Montana trails. Sometimes, we make a game out of it—like hunting morel mushrooms—other times we are chatting and deepening our connection with each other, sometimes we are dealing with big emotions and little interest in walking or biking. Whatever the mood or impetus, when we choose to explore Montana hiking trails, we are always rewarded.

Summer in Montana is all about hitting the trail with my family. Whether we are trying to out walk mosquitos around Bowman Lake in Glacier National Park, getting a bird’s eye view of Missoula from the “M” Trail, or biking along the River’s Edge Trail in Great Falls, we like to be outside together. Time in nature with friends and family has to be one of the best things to do in Montana.

During the mornings at the Bob Marshall Music Festival last summer, we took advantage of the gorgeous Seeley Lake scenery and got out and played, despite the rain. While some festival-goers were running a 50K(!), we wandered the trail to Morrell Falls, looking for morels. There were tons of people on the trail, but we had a blast being together, collecting morel mushrooms, and watching gallons upon gallons of water rush over a cliff.

best hikes in Montana Passage Creek Falls

Passage Creek Falls Trail

Best Bike Rides and Best Hikes in Montana

It’s impossible to sum up all the trail adventures Montana has to offer, but I’ve narrowed it down to ten family-friendly hiking and biking trails in the Treasure State.

Makoshika State Park

Family hikes on the Diane Gabriel Trail at Makoshika State Park in Glendive, Montana, USA

Photo: Visit Montana

Montana’s largest state park features badland formations and the fossil remains of dinosaurs. The landscape is dreamy and breathtaking. It’s out on the east end of the state near Glendive, but the badlands and scenic hiking and biking make it well worth the effort to get there.

An easy family hike with “wow” factor is the Diane Gabriel Trail (1.5 mile loop). The trail passes sod tabletops and sinkhole caves, both erosion features you’ll note in this badlands park. At the end of the trail, you’ll climb up to Hadrosaur vertebrae. This dinosaur backbone was left in the hillside to demonstrate what an excavation looks like.

For unusual Montana mountain bike trails, try the three-mile Vista Trail or the 1.8-mile Paramount Trail. The Vista Trail is a road-to-trails route along a plateau. You’ll be riding through the badlands and have views of nearby valleys. The trail isn’t hard, but it is exposed – no shade!—and it can be hot in the summer. Pack lots of water or take this family ride in the morning or evening for a more comfortable experience.

Don’t miss: Buzzard Day on June 8. If you can take the heat, participate in the 5K or 10K Buzzard Run. There’s also a kids’ fun run and a paleo hike, as well as Native American drumming and singing with traditional dancers. Check the schedule on their website.

Entrance to all Montana State Parks is free for residents (anyone driving a car with Montana license plates). Nonresidents pay $5 per park entrance or can purchase a $35 annual pass.

Sluice Boxes State Park

Sluice Boxes State Park Montana State Parks

Another state park (we have a lot of awesome state parks in Montana) we love is Sluice Boxes State Park, southeast of Great Falls and north of Kings Hill. Sluice Boxes is known for great fishing and kayaking, but we spend our time there hiking, because the view is pretty great.  

The trail meanders up a rugged limestone canyon along Belt Creek. Fans of history will appreciate the remains of mines, a railroad and historic cabins. This is hiking in Montana at its finest. The trail is unmaintained and a little rugged, which makes it even more fun for adventurous families. (The trestle at Tiger Creek is currently closed, so there is no through-hiking, but there is a plan to repair and reopen it. Until then, you can still hike three miles along the trail to the trestle.)

To get to the Upper Trailhead, drive almost 2 miles down Evans Riceville Road and look for the small pull off on the left with trail maps. Follow the fence line south and climb over a little cliff face and across a small stream. Follow the trail to the right up to a scenic overlook, then follow the loop back down or continue your hike south along Belt Creek.

Find a trail map on their website

Entrance to all Montana State Parks is free for residents (anyone driving a car with Montana license plates). Nonresidents pay $5 per park entrance or can purchase a $35 annual pass. 

River’s Edge Trail in Great Falls

Biking the River's Edge Trail Great Falls

The River’s Edge Trail is a lovely in-town, open space trail in Great Falls. It follows the Missouri River through the town of Great Falls, past the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, and into Giant Springs State Park. It connects a multitude of parks and historic sites and provides views of Black Eagle Falls.

There are 13 places to access the trail depending in what section you want to ride, walk or skate, or where you want to start. We like watching kayakers in the river and looking for birds and other wildlife along the way.

Get more details on the River’s Edge Trail on their website

Tip: You can rent bikes in Great Falls at Knicker Biker, which is quite close to the trail.  

Glacier National Park

best hikes in montana glacier national park

A gem often referred to as the Crown of the Continent, Glacier National Park is filled with over 700 miles of trails for hiking. Glacier National Park trails are well mapped and wind through all corners of the park, leading to glaciers, mountaintops, lakes, chalets and viewpoints.

Check this post for the best day hikes in Glacier National Park, broken into hikes in each section of the park.

One of the best trails in Glacier National Park is the Highline Trail. It can be busy, but for good reason.

Starting at Logan Pass (you can take the shuttle or get there early in hopes of snagging a parking place), the trail traverses alpine splendor for 11.8 miles to its terminus at The Loop shuttle stop. Along the way, you pass towering cliffs, wildflowers, marmots and mountain goats, and views that will take your breath away.

Stop at the Granite Park Chalet to eat your picnic lunch and soak in the views.

Morrell Falls National Recreation Trail

Morrell Falls National Recreation Trail

One of the best lakes in Montana for camping is Seeley Lake. While you are there, you should check out the nearby Morrell Falls National Recreation Trail in the Swan Mountains. The 5-mile round-trip trail is relatively easy and brings you to the 90-foot Morrell Falls.

In spring and early summer, shade-loving wildflowers, including Calypso orchids, violets and sundews poke through the coniferous forest floor. You’ll pass Morrell Lake at about one mile and get scenic views of the Swan Mountains.

You can bike this trail, too, but be prepared to meet a few hikers. Morrell Falls is a big hit on summer weekends, so choose a weekday adventure if you can.

Missoula’s “M” Trail

There are miles and miles of national forest hikes near Missoula, as well as bike routes. But you don’t have to leave town to explore beautiful trails with the family. One of the hiking trails in Montana that we repeat every time we go to Missoula is the Mount Sentinel “M” Trail.

After ¾ of a mile, 11 switchbacks, and 620 feet of elevation, you’ll have an amazing view of the Missoula Valley with the University of Montana in the foreground, residential neighborhoods, the Clark Fork River and shopping areas beyond. It’s a great place to get perspective on the mountains that ring Missoula.

The M was originally built of white-washed rocks in 1908. After several transitions, a large concrete M was put into place and painted white, creating a landmark you can see from most of Missoula.

We like to combine the hike up the M with a walk along the Clark Fork River. Or continue up the trail another mile to the top of Mount Sentinel.

Mount Helena City Park in Helena’s South Hills

Mount Helena South Hills

We like to take family vacations to explore parts of the state other than where we live. One of those places is the capitol, Helena. From Downtown Helena, outdoorsy families can access 75 miles of local trails. By going farther afield, hikers and mountain bikers can walk and ride even more trails in surrounding national forests.

The South Hills Trails are stitched together with a mix of property ownership and land management. They are managed by the Prickly Pear Land Trust (PPLT) for the city of Helena.

According to the PPLT, “With over 65 miles of trails in the foothills around town, there is plenty of room for bikers, hikers, runners, dog-walkers and even horseback riders to find their own favorite route. These trails provide citizens and visitors alike with an opportunity to head out for an hour or an entire day on trails that range from wide, gravel roads to rocky, technical trails.”

We like hiking to the top Mount Helena where there are 360-degree views of Helena and the South Hills. From the Helena City Park trailhead, take the 1906 Trail for the easiest way to the top. The trail passes limestone cliffs, wanders through forest and passes the Devil’s Kitchen before reaching the summit. Come down the mountain via the rocky Hogback Trail to Prospect Shafts Trail to make a loop.

The Easy Rider Trail/Archery Range Trail loop are good for both family hiking and family biking. There are a few steeper sections, but overall the 1.5-loop is relatively easy. Start and end at Beattie Street Trailhead via Pay Dirt Trail (moderate) or the Prickly Pear Trail (easy) or Eagle Scout Trail (easy).

Find more hiking and biking trails in and around Helena .

Copper City Trails

Copper City bike trails, Montana

Photo: Erica Lighthiser

One of the newer venues in the Montana biking world are the Copper City Trails. Not far from Three Forks, this new trail system will eventually encompass about 18 miles of bike-optimized trails, which can also be used by hikers and trail runners. In addition to technical and downhill mountain bike trails, there are some family-friendly and beginner trails.

The trails wind and climb through sagebrush flats and rocky ridges in what was once a mining camp. Most of the trail system is completed and the last phase of construction began this spring.

Passage Creek Falls

Favorite Montana hikes Passage Creek Falls

Passage Creek Falls trail is one we try to hike most summers. It’s a beautiful drive up Mill Creek in the Absaroka Mountains and then it just keeps getting better as you hike or bike.

This trail is easy and flat as it crosses Mill and Passage creeks, then skirts the edge of a scree field. Follow Passage Creek through meadows and woods. Then it’s up and over a short, steep hill to the thunderous waterfall at 2.5 miles.

If you continue down to the falls, the last ¼ mile descent is fairly steep and exposed, so go slowly and keep an eye on the kiddos.

Take US Highway 89 south from Livingston about 14 miles. Turn left on Mill Creek Road, cross the Yellowstone River and East River Road, then drive about 15 miles. You’ll see the trailhead on your right.

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