Best Places in Montana, Off the Beaten Path

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This post is sponsored by Central Montana and Montana’s Missouri River Country tourism regions.

We’ve been to some of the best places in Montana in our years of living here and exploring. Or so we thought. On a recent trip to Central Montana and Montana’s Missouri River Country we got to know Montana off the beaten path even better.

Some of the best places to visit in Montana during the 2020 pandemic are the same places we’d want to travel any time. The middle of Montana is wide open and crowd-free. We played outdoors, learned about recent and very long ago history, ate delicious food, and stayed in some of the best towns in Montana.

This Montana travel guide is for you if you:

  • want to see the places in between Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park
  • crave uncrowded spaces
  • like your vacations to be fun learning experiences and outdoor play
  • want to eat scrumptious food and enjoy tasty beverages
  • desire a real understanding of why we call this “Big Sky Country”
  • think a Pie Trail is a genius idea

Rock City hoodoos in central montana

Visiting Montana During Covid-19

If you are traveling in Montana during Covid-19, there are a few things to remember in order to travel responsibly.

  • Plan Ahead: check for closures and have backup plans.
  • Keep Space: always give people space and wear a mask when you can’t.
  • Be Respectful: of guidelines, the land, and other people.
  • Protect the Outdoors: Minimize impact and give wildlife space.

It’s pretty basic — be a good guest. We love having visitors here in Montana and we ask that you respect the people who live here, our public health, and our spectacular outdoors. You can read more about the Montana Aware program here.

Now for the fun stuff! We spent five days traveling through mountains, prairies, and towns. Follow our itinerary or adjust it to fit your timeframe and interests.

We started in Livingston, Montana, since we live there, but starting and ending in Great Falls makes for a nice loop. Or, you can add these stops to a Yellowstone to Glacier itinerary.

Make sure you pack all the 2020 road trip essentials for a safe and comfortable trip.

Day 1: Breweries, Elk Bugling, and Stargazing

Our first stop was in Lewistown. We parked at the Central Feed Grilling Company and took a walk along the Lewistown community trail system to stretch our legs. The restaurant shares a parking lot with the Creekside Marketplace and Pavilion, so it’s a great place to get out of the car and do multiple things.

river and walking path in Lewistown

Lunch was at Central Feed Grilling Company in Lewistown. We sat out on the patio and enjoyed lunch and beer from Big Spring Brewing. It’s not ideal for vegetarians — the boys and I all got grilled cheese sandwiches, which is the only veggie option — but we like the restaurant so much we made it work. Henry says the burgers are great.

In the past, we’ve sat inside and the interior is really cool. It’s in the historic Mercantile Building and both modern and rustic. They strive for sustainability, from the locally sourced meat to the building materials. I always appreciate local ingredients and sustainable practices.

Holding a beer in Lewistown on an Montana road trip

After lunch we walked down the historic Main Street and poked in the shops.

From Lewistown, we drove to Zortman to check into our hotel, visit the old town jail, and order our sack lunches for the next day. You don’t necessarily need to go to Zortman before Slippery Ann (our next locale), but it is a really tiny town at the end of a dirt road with no cell coverage, so it might be good to get there in daylight and then backtrack to see the elk.

Since we were road tripping through Montana during the elk rut (mating season), we went to Slippery Ann Elk Viewing Area on the C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. In September and October, elk gather in the area to breed. Bull elk try to collect a harem of cow elk to mate with. They have to defend their harem by bugling and clashing antlers with other bulls. The bugling sound is eerie and not what you would expect to come out of that animal. Watch our video (above) to hear them because there is no way I can describe it.

best places in Montana to see elk bugling like this is Slippery Ann

The best time to catch the elk bugling seems to be 5 – 7 pm around the third week of September. Elk numbers change pretty quickly, so call the Elk Viewing Hotline (406-535-6904) before you go.

Side Trip: If you aren’t traveling during elk bugling season you may still want to visit the C.M. Russell Wildlife Refuge. The elk viewing area is on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and the birding can be phenomenal in the area. (See more about the Lewis and Clark sites in Montana)

We would have liked to stop at Gigantic Warm Springs, about 14 miles north of Lewistown. They were closed for the season when we were there, but if you are traveling in summer, check it out — the view from the pool is amazing.

For dinner, we packed a picnic and spread out a blanket while watching the elk rut and listening to them bugle.

Once it started to get dark and the rutting died down, we drove back to Zortman. We climbed the small hill with the church (you can’t miss it) and stargazed. Even with the big light in town, the stars poked through an inky black sky. It was magical.

Starry night sky and a church Montana off the beaten path

We stayed at the Zortman Motel and Garage. It’s Montana rustic, but the location can’t be beat. There are motel rooms and trailers available. Everyone we met in Zortman was incredibly friendly and helpful. They were ready to plan a week’s worth of activities for us. We are putting it on our list for another visit.

Day 2: Gold Panning, Bear Paw Battlefield, and a Lovely B&B

kids learning out fossils outdoors in montana

The folks at the Zortman Motel and Garage set up a morning of gold panning for us on their claim, but before that, we had a fossil lesson from Candy Kalal, once of the owners of the motel. There are fascinating fossils in the area. If you have time, Candy can tell you where to look for them.

We brought our breakfast, but could have eaten at the Miners Club Bar and Café, which is where we got our sack lunches. It’s steps from the motel.

We started gold panning with some practice in a trough set up in front of the motel. From there, we went about a mile up Alder Gulch to pan in the stream. We didn’t find more than a speck or two of gold, but sitting along the creek, taking in the fall colors was glorious. Since the kids and I are reading Bloody Bozeman: The Perilous Trail to Montana’s Gold, the gold panning experience fit right in.

where to go gold panning in Montana

The mining claim belongs to the Kalals, so you need to go through them to pan there. If you are like us, you’ll need the equipment and expertise anyway. We learned so much about the area, geology, and gold panning from Candy and the couple that took us panning.

We waved goodbye to Zortman and drove to Bear Paw Battlefield.

Side Trip: We ran out of time to visit the cemetery in Zortman, but several people recommended it. Apparently, it is quite ornate.

I would have also like to stop at Landusky Plunge, a warm springs pool in the foothills of the Little Rocky Mountains. We lacked both time and a high-clearance vehicle. (See other Montana hot springs)

Unusual places in Montana include Bear Paw Battlefield an this big expanse of prairie

Bear Paw Battlefield is one of the sites in the Nez Perce National Historical Park. It’s where the final battle and siege of the 1,100 mile Nez Perce flight of 1877 took place. We met with Ranger Casey who put the battle into perspective and gave us a lot of insight into the site.

There is a 1.25-mile interpretive trail. Pick up a brochure-map at the battlefield or download one ahead of time from their website.

It’s exposed out there; it could be hot, windy, bitterly cold, and/or snakey (that’s the technical term for rattlesnakes being present). It was pretty nice while we visited and we didn’t see any snakes, but be prepared for extreme weather and bring water. There isn’t a visitor center or other building, but there are a couple vault toilets and picnic tables.

Rangers are available on site in the summer months to offer guided tours of the battlefield. In the off-season, call (406) 357-3130 or email prior to your visit if you would like a ranger to join you at the battlefield.

Three people listening to a ranger at Bear Paw Battlefield

Side Trip: One other stop I would have liked to add (I need more time in the day!) is the Blaine County Museum in Chinook. Since there isn’t a visitor center at Bear Paw Battlefield, this is the place to see the audio/visual presentation, “40 Miles to Freedom,” which depicts the battle and siege at Bear Paw. The battlefield’s official brochure-map and Jr. Ranger booklet are available at the museum. They also have exhibits about Blaine County from prehistoric times to the present.

We stopped for ice cream at The Creamery Ice Cream Shop in Chinook. It’s soft serve ice cream and chunky shakes – perfect for a hot day. There is outdoor seating.

Dinner was pizza from Nalivka’s Pizza Kitchen in Havre. We ate it at Montana Style B&B with Betsi’s yummy cocktails, but you could also take it to a park in Havre. Nalivka’s is take-out only.

We spent the evening chatting with Betsi at her B&B, drinking cocktails, lounging on the couches, and stargazing.

interior of B and B with people reading

We fell in love with Montana Style Bed & Breakfast outside of Havre. Betsi Knight was an interior designer (among other things) who opened a B &B and event center. She’s also an incredible host and her breakfasts are scrumptious.

Day 3: Lewis and Clark, Virgelle Ferry, and Boutique Hotel

After a gorgeous sunrise with deer scampering through the sage and a late, lazy breakfast at Montana Style B&B, we drove south to Virgelle. (Well, Henry got up early, put the spare tire on our car and drove into Havre to have the tire repaired. The rest of us had a leisurely morning.)

I still think about the huge, delicious breakfast at Montana Style B&B.

Virgelle Mercantile building

The Virgelle Mercantile is an antique shop in the middle of nowhere. It’s also the jumping off point for river trips on the Wild and Scenic portion of the Missouri River. And it’s a bed and breakfast made up of cute little cabins and a lodge. Plus they run a ferry across the river. That’s a lot for a little outpost far from everything else.

We put on our masks and browsed the antiques while we waited for Don to get back from running the ferry. He gave us the lowdown on Virgelle and sold us cold drinks and a book on planning a Missouri River trip. Hopefully we will see him next summer when we launch canoes.

To use the car ferry, stop in the mercantile or ring the buzzer at the landing and the Ferry Operator will come over the Missouri to pick you and your vehicle up. The ride is free, but operated at your own risk. The Virgelle Ferry has successfully transported over 30,000 vehicles with a 50 foot long steel frame and deck pulled by a power cable.

I recommend taking the Virgelle Ferry to the other side of the Missouri and driving the 18-20 mile gravel road to Decision Point. We were nervous about driving our repaired tire over that much dirt road, so we went around.

Decision Point is at the confluence of the Marias River and the Missouri River. When Lewis and Clark came through they camped here while they scouted both rivers to determine which would take them to the Great Falls of the Missouri.

two people sitting overlooking a river at Decision Point a Lewis and Clark site in Montana

The rivers look different now in part due to dams upstream, but you can still stand at the point above the confluence and see something similar to what the Corps of Discovery saw.

There are interpretive signs and a short trail to the lookout.

We followed the Missouri upstream (just like Lewis and Clark, but in a car) to Fort Benton. This cute little town is known as the “Birthplace of Montana.” Its history is long and illustrious and its role as the innermost port meant it was the crossroads to much of the west. It was the last port for steamships coming up the Missouri River.

We walked along the steamboat levee, crossed the first bridge to span the Missouri, learned more about Lewis and Clark in Old Fort Benton, and hopped on the Pie a lá Road at Wake Cup.

Lunch was picnic snacks and pie from Wake Cup Coffee House in Fort Benton. Their lunch offerings looked really good, too.

cherry pie in a bowl in Fort Benton montana

“What’s the Pie a lá Road?” you ask. It’s the Central Montana Pie Trail, a 19-location pie trail that weaves through 13 counties. We got take-out cherry pie and ate it at the picnic table in the park across the street. It was lovely.

The day wrapped up in Great Falls. There is so much to do there, but we were ready to relax more than anything. We checked into Hotel Arvon and went next door for cocktails and dinner on the patio of the Celtic Cowboy.

Side Trip: If you still have energy, you can walk or bike on the River’s Edge Trail along the Missouri.

Woman sitting at a table with a cocktail

Dinner at the Celtic Cowboy Pub and Restaurant was just what we needed. The cocktails were pretty and tasty, and everyone found something they liked for dinner. Finn went with veggie mac and cheese, Anders chowed down on fish and chips, I devoured the Southside tacos, and Henry went with the Cornish pasty. We all recommend what we ordered.

There is outside seating as well as indoor.

hallway in Great Falls with Montana with western art

The Hotel Arvon is a boutique hotel that feels like staying in an art gallery. It’s a thoroughly modern hotel in the oldest commercial building in Great Falls. We had two suites and lots of room to spread out, work, and relax.

Day 4: Hoodoos and Dinosaurs

We started the day with the continental breakfast from the hotel. There are a lot of good coffee shops and cafés in Great Falls, if you prefer a hot breakfast.

One of our new favorite things to do in Central Montana is run around Rock City. Rock City is a maze of sandstone hoodoos and pillars perched above the confluence of Birch Creek and Two Medicine Creek where they form the Marias River. It’s a great place to talk about geology and the erosive power of water.

Sandstone hoodoos and pillars at Rock City weird places in Montana

We were thrilled to spend a couple hours playing at Rock City. It’s a little weird getting there: From Valier, drive north on Cutbank Highway. When the paved road turns left, stay straight on the gravel Rock City Road. When that road turns right, continue straight on a two-track that is basically just the edge of a farm field. After 6 miles from Valier, you will see Rock City as it appears out of nowhere. The moral of the story is just go straight north from Valier about 6 miles.

It’s exposed and there aren’t any facilities. Dress for any weather, bring water and food, and be prepared for adventure. It was super windy while we visited, which was quite exhilarating.  There aren’t a lot of restaurant options in the area, so we picked up picnic supplies in Great Falls and ate at Rock City.

We returned to paved roads and went south to Bynum and the Two Medicine Dinosaur Center. Two things you will want to see while you are there:

1. The world’s first baby dinosaur fossils

2. The skeleton of the longest dinosaur in the world, the Seismosaurus.

There’s more to see, of course. And you can even join in a dig with one of their Dig Programs — make a reservation ahead of time since they are only offered seasonally.

museum on Montana's Dinosaur Trail

The Two Medicine Dinosaur Center, like a lot of places in Montana, is open seasonally so check the hours before you visit.

On our way back to Great Falls, we stopped at another restaurant on the Central Montana Pie Trail. The Log Cabin Café in Choteau had a variety of pies to choose from. We each gobbled a slice on the outdoor patio.

For dinner we went to the Mighty Mo Brew Pub. We did not make it next door to Elevation 3330, but I hear the appetizers and cocktails are well worth a visit.

Exterior brick building best hotel in Great Falls

Another night at the Hotel Arvon.

Day 5: Montana Made and Hiking

On our final day of this off this Montana off the beaten path road trip, we slept in a bit and grabbed breakfast from Al Banco in Great Falls. It was avocado seeded toast and Earl Grey for me and quiche Lorraine and coffee for Henry. Al Banco was recommended by someone on Instagram who saw my Stories and I am very grateful that she mentioned it! The kids ate the continental breakfast at the hotel.

al banco coffee shop in great falls

After packing up and eating we went walking around downtown Great Falls.

My main goal was to visit The Farmer’s Daughter Fibers. Candice started hand dyeing yarn in her laundry room, inspired by the colors and places of Montana. She now has a yarn store downtown, as well as a dyeing studio where her husband Xander and staff dye small batches of yarn.

yarn and an elk skull

As a knitter, I was in my element here. The store is so aesthetically pleasing that I think you’d want to stop in even if you weren’t in the market for hand dyed yarn. Stay tuned for the cute hat I am going to knit for Finn with yarn from The Farmer’s Daughter.

As we headed for home down the very scenic Highway 89, we stopped for a short hike at Sluice Boxes State Park. As the name implies, Sluice Boxes has a history of gold panning, though these days it is hikers, kayakers, and anglers that use the gorgeous canyon and river.

Sluice Boxes State Park Montana State Parks

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

We had to make one more stop on the Pie a lá Road, this time at the Branding Iron Café in White Sulphur Springs. We got ours to go and ate it across the street to Rader Park.

Side Trip: We love soaking at the Spa Hot Springs in White Sulphur Springs, though we didn’t do it this time.

Thanks for joining us on this road trip around Montana’s less discovered places. Let me know if you have questions or need any help planning your trip.

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