This post is sponsored by Visit Montana.
Montana’s moniker “Big Sky Country” doesn’t just apply to daytime views. After the sun sets, the Montana night sky is alight with brilliant stars, colorful planets, a moon that sometimes feels close enough to touch, and the dense milky way that reminds us just how small we are.
Montana stars aren’t brighter than any other state’s, but the lack of light pollution and frequently cloudless skies over most of the state does ensure some of the best stargazing in the Lower 48.
If you get lucky, you might even see the Northern Lights.
In this post I will share:
- Stargazing Tips
- Best Places to View the Montana Night Sky
- Stargazing Parties (what they are and where to find them)
Montana Stargazing Tips
When to Stargaze in Montana
There are a couple of things to think about when you are deciding when you want to see stars in Montana.
Time of Year
Because Montana is north of the 45th parallel (closer to the North Pole than to the Equator) length of daylight swings dramatically throughout the year. The farther north you go in the state, the more it swings.
In summer, it is warmer and more comfortable to sit outside after dark, but the sun may not set until 10 p.m. so you will be up late. Winter is colder, but you can be stargazing by 6 p.m. or even earlier around the winter solstice.
I prefer to watch the stars when the moon is new or less than half full. Once it gets any bigger than that, it reflects so much light into the sky, that it washes a lot of the dimmer stars out.
A full moon can be really fun to look at, especially through binoculars or a telescope, you just won’t see much more than it and the brightest constellations.
Another option is find out when the moon rises. You may be able to get in some stellar stargazing and check out the moon.
There are apps to find out the moon phase and rising/setting times. See the “What to Bring” section below.
Where to Stargaze in Montana
Scroll down to see some of my favorite places to see Montana stars.
These general tips will be helpful if you are trying to choose your own spot.
- Avoid light pollution. That’s pretty easy to do, but the farther you go outside of Montana’s cities and towns, the darker it gets. That said, the star siting is pretty good right in the middle of the town I live in.
- The central and east sides of Montana tend to be less cloudy than the northwest.
- Look for open spaces. You will see more of the sky on the prairie or in a field than in the middle of a forest.
- Many Montana campgrounds are ideal places for star viewing as they are set away from town lights. String together several nights at different campgrounds to create your own Montana Night Sky Star Trail.
What to Bring to Watch the Stars
You don’t really need anything to stargaze. Just walk outside and look up. However, a few items can enhance your experience.
Star Identification App. There are several of these to choose from. They are really easy to use, just point them at the sky and they name the stars. It’s important to not use the white or blue light on your phone as it ruins your night vision. The star apps have a red light for that reason. Practice with it before you actually use it.
Best Astronomy Apps
Telescope or Binoculars. While there are plenty of stars you can see with the naked eye, a telescope or even binoculars can help you see a lot more. If you don’t want to buy the gear, but you do want to use it, it is possible to rent it or attend a star party.
Blanket and Chair. Again, you don’t need these things, but it will make extended star watching in Montana more comfortable.
Best Places to View the Montana Night Sky
It’s hard to narrow down the best places to see stars in Montana, but these are a few of my favorites.
Glacier National Park
From West Glacier to East Glacier to Logan Pass or Two Medicine Lake, the stargazing is often lovely. One of the best places in Glacier to see stars is at Logan Pass because it’s at a high elevation and it’s wide open.
Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (that is its whole name in conjunction with Canadian Waterton National Park to the north) is designated a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association.
At St. Mary Visitor Center there is a 20-inch PlaneWave telescope in the Dusty Star Dome Observatory which is open to the public. Learn more about Glacier as a Dark Sky Park or attend a National Park Service star party (details below).
My Guide to Glacier National Park has all the information you need to plan your trip.
Bigfork is a fun town on Flathead Lake. We stayed there in winter and went dog sledding and snowshoeing as part of a western Montana road trip. One of the highlights was stepping out of the sauna and gazing at the stars. Plus, the sauna made a nice foreground feature for the photos.
Wayfarers State Park is another good spot for stargazing in Bigfork.
We fell in love with this tiny mining town on a road trip through central Montana and Montana’s Missouri River Country. In addition to panning for gold, we climbed the little hill above town to take gorgeous star photos. The church provides interest in the foreground.
Montana State Parks
Some of the best stargazing in Montana is in the State Parks. I recommend almost all of them, but three that we’ve had good luck catching a star show are Smith River State Park, Makoshika State Park, and Medicine Rocks State Park.
The Smith River takes a little more commitment since you have to get a permit to float it and then spend several nights camping along the way. Planning a Smith River trip is well worth it for stargazing and so much more.
At both Makoshika and Medicine Rocks State Parks, hoodoos and other fascinating rock formations add texture and interest to photos.
While we can and do stargaze from our bedroom window, driving up the Paradise Valley is even better. Any of the Fishing Access Sites along the Yellowstone River are nice for star watching (especially Mallards Rest with Emigrant Peak in the background).
We also like driving about halfway up Luccock Park Road toward Pine Creek Campground. From a pullout, you get sweeping views of the Paradise Valley, Yellowstone River, and the night sky.
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone is known for a lot of things: geysers, wildlife, and waterfalls to name a few. Soon it may also be known for stargazing. Yellowstone is working to become a “Dark Sky Park” by altering the lighting in the built areas.
Right now, you can catch the stars without light pollution in the Lamar Valley, Hayden Valley, on the Continental Divide, or any other place away from the developed areas.
Red Lodge, Montana abounds with star watching opportunities. South and southwest of town there are a handful of Forest Service campgrounds from which to point a pair of binoculars or a telescope.
On one of our winter visits to Red Lodge, we found a stargazing spot along Rock Creek about five miles north of Red Lodge.
Star Parties in Montana
To learn more about the night sky in Montana and possibly get use of a telescope for superb viewing, join a star party or other star-watching event.
- Statewide: Montana calendar of dark sky-related events.
- Statewide: Astronomy clubs around Montana offer star-related events.
- Glacier National Park: Dusty Star Observatory at the St. Mary Visitor Center and Glacier National Park frequently host star parties during the summer.
- Great Falls: The Central Montana Astronomical Society hosts monthly star parties outside the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.
- Missoula: Check out the Star Gazing Room at the Payne Family Native American Center on the University of Montana campus.
- Missoula: Blue Mountain Observatory offers public observation nights.
- Canyon Ferry: Montana Learning Center offers public stargazing nights.
- Bozeman: Museum of the Rockies has star shows in the Taylor Planetarium.
- Antelope Creek Campground / NE of Lewistown: American Prairie Reserve offers summer star parties hosted by In Focus Astronomy.
- Ekalaka: The Carter County Museum hosts summer star parties and other dark sky events.
- Many State and National Parks have interpretive dark skies programs.
We often add stargazing to our travels around Montana. I hope this helps you do the same.