Bike trails in Great Falls Montana State Parks on the Way from Yellowstone to glacier national park

Don’t-Miss Montana State Parks on the Yellowstone to Glacier National Park Drive

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We are big fans of Montana State Parks and love using them as vehicles to explore Montana. Recently we revisited three State Parks on the Yellowstone to Glacier National Park Drive: Sluice Boxes State Park, Giant Springs State Park, and First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park.

Since I do a lot of trip planning for people visiting Montana, I often recommend these State Parks as things to do between Yellowstone and Glacier National Park. We also think they are perfect for a stand alone weekend for Montanans.

As always, we like to get more out of our trip by learning about the places we explore both before and during the visit. Then we combine the educational elements with recreation.

Woman taking photos at Sluice Boxes State Park on the Yellowstone to Glacier National Park Drive

This article will have the resources we used to learn about Montana natural and cultural history, and everything you need to plan your own trip.

We made Great Falls our base camp as all three parks are quite close and we could have access to hotels, restaurants, and other Great Falls amenities. There is no camping in any of these three State Parks.

Central Montana State Parks Educational Trip Itinerary

Day 1

  • We stopped in White Sulphur Springs for a soak at Spa Hot Springs on our way to the Little Belt Mountains. White Sulphur Springs is the last town (coming from the south) to get groceries, fuel, and anything else you might need.
  • Lunch: picnic at Sluice Boxes State Park.
  • Hike at Sluice Boxes State Park.
  • Dinner: Celtic Cowboy in Hotel Arvon, Great Falls.
  • Stay: Hotel Arvon or Springhill Suites by Marriott. We have stayed at both. Hotel Arvon is a boutique hotel with great art and is located right in downtown. It’s hard to fit a family on one room and we end up getting two rooms there. It’s still my favorite. The Springhill Suites is very nice and family-friendly. It’s close to downtown, but probably not walking distance for dinner.

playing by Belt Creek in Sluice Boxes State Park

Day 2

  • Breakfast: Crooked Tree
  • Mountain biking in Giant Springs State Park on the north side of the Missouri River.
  • Lunch: Takeaway from Great Harvest Bread Company (picked up in the morning after breakfast and stashed in a cooler).
  • Exploring Giant Springs State Park on the south side of the river.
  • Dinner: Fire Pizza Great Falls – really good pizza, salads, and craft beer.
  • Stay: Hotel Arvon or Springhill Suites by Marriott. We have stayed at both. Hotel Arvon is a boutique hotel with great art and is located right in downtown. It’s hard to fit a family on one room and we end up getting two rooms there. It’s still my favorite. The Springhill Suites is very nice and family-friendly. It’s close to downtown, but probably not walking distance for dinner.

Day 3

  • Breakfast: Broadwater Brewing
  • Hike and explore at Buffalo Jump State Park.
  • Lunch: Picnic at the top of the Jump. You can get takeaway from one of the cafés in town, or do what we did and grab some easy foods from the grocery store.

Visiting Sluice Boxes State Park

State Parks between Glacier and Yellowstone include Sluice Boxes

Sluice Boxes State Park is a gorgeous limestone canyon dissected by Belt Creek. It’s popular with anglers, hikers, and rafters/tubers.

There are two trailheads – the Lower Trailhead (with a vault toilet) and the Upper Trailhead. Both have maps you can take with you. The trail from the Lower Trailhead intersects with the Upper Trailhead trail in less than a mile and offers and easy access to Belt Creek.

We always take the Upper Trailhead because we like the cliffside walk (which you can avoid by going up and over a hill). Along the unmaintained trail there are remains of a railroad, mines, and cabins left behind by miners, prospectors, and others trying to strike it rich.

Because of its proximity to Great Falls, Sluice Boxes gets a lot of use by people looking to have a good time – thus a there are a few extra rules. Alcohol is not allowed in the park and fires must be in fire pans (bring your own). As always, pack out your trash and follow leave no trace principles.

A Backcountry Campsite Permit is required to camp in this park. Contact FWP Headquarters in Great Falls to obtain a permit.

cabin ruins in Sluice Boxes State Park

Learning About Sluice Boxes State Park Before You Go

There is a lot of history in the Sluice Boxes canyon, but not a lot of resources dedicated to the specific area.

Learning About Sluice Boxes State Park On Site

  • We chatted about the history of the area as we hiked and when we came upon old railroad bridge abutments and cabin ruins.
  • We also pulled out the nature guides and identified a few flowers, trees, and birds.

Three people looking at Belt Creek in Sluice Boxes State Park

How Do You Get To Sluice Boxes State Park?

From Monarch, drive north on US-89 12 miles to Evans Riceville Road and turn left. From Armington Junction east of Great Falls, drive south in US-89 10 miles to Evans Riceville Road and turn right. The Lower Trailhead is on the left.

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. You can view the park map here.


Visiting Giant Springs State Park

people viewing the Giant Spring in Giant Springs State Park from a bridge on the drive from glacier national park to yellowstone

Giant Springs is Montana’s most visited State Park. We’ve been several times and love feeding the fish at the hatchery, walking alongside the colorful spring, and debating whether the Roe River really is the shortest river in the world.

On this trip we ventured out to the north side of the river and mountain biked the park’s single track from Ryan Dam to the Sulphur Spring parking area near Morony Dam. It wasn’t a beginner ride, but manageable for low intermediate riders. Get started early as it is pretty exposed out there and can get very hot in summer, but the views are lovely. There were vault toilets and kiosks with a map at both parking areas.

For a more challenging ride, check out the section between Cochrane Dam and Ryan Dam (or combine the two). The single track trails are nice for hiking, too. There isn’t a place to rent mountain bikes in Great Falls, so bring your own bike or hiking shoes.

The River’s Edge Trail is a great system of paved and dirt trails that wind along both sides of the river from downtown Great Falls east. See a map of River’s Edge Trail here or pick one up in Great Falls at the Park & Recreation Department or the Great Falls Tourism office.

two boys looking at the Missouri River while mountain biking on single track in Giant Springs State Park in Great Falls

Next we drove over to the Giant Springs State Park headquarters. We fed fish in the hatchery (bring quarters to buy food) and Henry reminisced about doing the same thing as a kid. There is a fishing pond upstream from the Ranger Station where you can check out fishing poles. If your kids are under 11-years-old they can fish without a license.

We wandered around the spring itself and the Roe River and had a picnic on the lawn.

Then Henry, Anders, and I (Finn got two flat tires while mountain biking – watch out for cactus!) jumped on our bikes to pedal east along the paved trail to the Lewis and Clark Overlook and back around the spring area. Along the way we stopped at interpretive signs to learn a little more about the area.

In the past we have visited the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center which is in the same area and loved it. I highly recommend a stop there before or after a visit to Giant Springs.

Please remember to recreate responsibly — keep your dog on a leash, pack out whatever you pack in (don’t litter), and stay on the trail (don’t create shortcuts or user trails).

family educational field trip at Giant Springs Montana State Park

Learning About Giant Springs State Park Before You Go

three people riding bikes in Giant Springs State Park along the Missouri River

Learning About Giant Springs State Park On Site

paved bike path and two riders on the Great Falls bike trail Montana

How Do You Get to Giant Springs State Park?

There are a lot of places to access the park. To get to the main parking area and Ranger Station from 15th Street NE and River Drive, go east on River Drive North 1.8 miles and turn left onto Giant Springs Road. Continue 1.3 miles to the parking lot.

To get to Ryan Dam bike trail parking from 15th Street NE and River Drive, go west on 15th Street NE/US-87 North 3.7 miles. Turn right on Morony Dam Road and continue 6.9 miles to where the road splits. Go right onto Ryan Dam Road for 1 mile to the parking area on the left.


Visiting First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park

Looking over the edge at Ulm Buffalo Jump

First Peoples Buffalo Jump and National Historic Landmark is a really interesting site. We’ve been a couple times, but this is the first time we have visited during summer and could listen to a “Jump Talk.” Hearing the ranger talk about how 13 tribes used this jump, while looking up at it, really helped create a picture of how the site was used.

What is a buffalo jump? A buffalo jump, sometimes called a bison jump, is a cliff formation which local tribes historically used to hunt and kill plains bison in mass quantities. Basically, they ran them off the edge of a cliff in a highly choreographed and dangerous stampede. The bison that survived the jump were killed with spears or arrows or whatever weapon was being used at the time. Then the bison were processed for food, clothing, lodge covers, tools, and more.

After our Jump Talk — held every hour on the hour during summer — we wandered around the visitor center and learned more about the tribes and how they used the jump and lived in the area. The ranger even pulled out a gofer snake, which Anders and I enjoyed holding and Finn and Henry enjoyed looking at from afar.

three people reading interpretive signs at a bison jump

Next we walked the Loop Trail to the top of the jump and imagined what it would be like to see all those bison running off the edge. The view from up there is stunning and the prairie dogs were pretty entertaining. We followed the Loop Trail back down to the visitor center, reading interpretive signs as we went.

You can also drive around to the top of the jump, if you are unable to walk. And there are other trails on the north end of the park that we decided to save for next time.

An important thing to remember is that all the artifacts, historic bones, etc are protected in the park. If you find an arrowhead or artifact, leave it in place and let a ranger know the location. Once the artifact is removed from its context it is much harder for archaeologists to learn much from it.

Like much of the West, First Peoples has invasive weeds. Use the boot brushes before and after hiking so you don’t add new seeds or take invasive seeds with you.

tipi in the visitor center at First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park Montana

Learning About First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park Before You Go

Learning about buffalo culture at First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park Great Falls

Learning About First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park On Site

  • Don’t miss the Jump Talk or other interpretive programs. Local kids can participate in a very cool junior ranger program.
  • Visit the visitor center.
  • Read the interpretive signs on the Loop Trail and Sweat Lodge Trail.

How Do You Get to First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park?

In Great Falls, take 10th Ave South to I-15 and drive south on the interstate. After 11.5 miles take Exit 270 at Ulm and turn right onto Ulm Vaughn Road for 3.8 miles. Turn left into the First Peoples Buffalo Jump parking lot and visitor center.


family travel educational field trip

Whether you are traveling from Glacier National Park to Yellowstone National Park, taking a road trip through Montana, or just spending a few days around Great Falls, put these three Montana State Parks on your itinerary.

More about these three Montana State Parks and other things to do in Central Montana for learning and recreating.

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