two teens atop sandstone pillars off the beaten path in montana

How to Get Off the Beaten Path in Montana

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The terms “hidden gem” and “off the beaten path” get thrown around a lot these days, but in the case of Southeast Montana, they couldn’t be more fitting. This region boasts wide-open spaces, dramatic landscapes, and a rich history waiting to be explored. 

Here’s a perfect 3-day, 2-night itinerary for a road trip that will take you from otherworldly rock formations to charming small towns and you’ll actually get off the beaten path in Montana.

We’ll visit three Montana State Parks and a National Monument, charming small towns, and the wide open road.

four people in camp chairs looking at the badlands in Makoshika State Park off the beaten path in Montana

Plan Ahead for Travel in Southeast Montana

Because of the remoteness and rugged landscape, be aware that you won’t have cell service in some areas, gas stations can be far apart, and restaurant hours may vary from what Google tells you. Plan ahead and be prepared for a fun, self-sufficient trip.

  • carry water and snacks in your vehicle
  • know how far the next gas station is and make sure you have enough fuel to get there

three people roasting marshmallows in front of a yurt in Makoshika State Park Montana

Off the Beaten Path in Montana Day 1: Makoshika State Park

Our adventure began with a scenic drive to Makoshika State Park, about three hours from Billings, Montana, and a little less from Bismarck, ND. 

Makoshika always blows us away with its badlands scenery – hoodoos (think giant mushroom rocks) and deep canyons that feel like another planet. 

We were excited to stay in the park’s new yurt and it didn’t disappoint. You’ll need to pack all your regular camping gear except for a tent and sleeping pads. There is no electricity and the bathroom is a vault toilet. Be sure to bring camp chairs – we spent a lot of our visit watching the view and chatting.

aerial view of badlands and a yurt in Makoshika State Park Montana

Rent the yurt or reserve a campsite at Makoshika State Park online. 

After getting set up in the yurt, Anders and I walked over to the Capstone Trail where we were rewarded with big views and a walk over the natural bridge. 

Back at the yurt, we roasted marshmallows under a million stars and knew we were in for a good trip.

dark sky with lots of stars and the silhouette of a yurt. A small campfire fire burns.

If the yurt or camping aren’t your thing, there are hotels and vacation rentals in Glendive. Click through the map to find a place to stay.

Montana State Park Fees

These entrance fees apply to all the Montana State Parks in this post: Makoshika, Medicine Rocks, and Pictograph Cave State Parks.

Montana Residents

  • Montana residents who pay the $9 state parks fee with their annual vehicle registration have no daily entrance fees to state parks. For residents who don’t include this in their vehicle registration, non-resident day use fees apply.

Nonresidents

  • Day use entrance fee with a vehicle: $8
  • Day use entrance fee as a walk-in, bicycle or bus passenger: $4
  • With a Nonresident Entrance Pass: Free

three people sitting on a bench and one standing looking over green prairie in Medicine Rocks State Park Montana

Off the Beaten Path in Montana Day 2: Medicine Rocks to Miles City

three people hiking in the badlands at Makoshika State Park Montana

Makoshika State Park, Glendive

Day two started with another Makoshika hike, this time we hiked into the Badlands on the Hungry Joe Trail. There are some great trails in Makoshika State Park and a disc golf course. The park is on the Montana Dinosaur Trail and you can see some of the more than ten different dinosaur species that have been discovered in Makoshika in the visitor center.  

three people eating breakfast in a converted greenhouse restaurant in Glendive Montana

Bloom & Vine, Glendive

Whenever we get a chance to eat at Bloom & Vine, we take it. Nestled in a charming historic greenhouse, this Glendive gem offers a unique atmosphere that perfectly blends nature and comfort.

The menu boasts delicious brunch options, from savory breakfast burritos to quinoa bowls, to scrumptious pastries. We lingered over our plates, enjoying the sunlight filtering through the glass and the sound of gentle conversation around us. It was the perfect pit stop to recharge and fuel up for our next adventure.

interpretive sign in the foreground and sandstone pillars  with two teens standing atop in the rear at Medicine Rock State Park Montana

Medicine Rocks State Park

Medicine Rocks State Park was a photographer’s paradise. The towering sandstone pillars, worn by time into fantastical shapes, had us all snapping away. 

We walked the easy Sunset Loop and Dalton Trail, rewarded with panoramic views of the surrounding plains. 

The kids and I got a kick out of scrambling over the rocks and exploring the little tunnels and pillars. 

aerial view of sandstone pillars with three people climbing on them at Medicine Rocks State Park Montana

Even with a little graffiti marring some of the formations, the overall experience felt like stepping back in time, a place where ancient history brushed shoulders with the wide-open Montana sky.

While we didn’t camp there this time, I remember from other trips how dark the sky gets and how bright the stars are. This is one of the best places in Montana for stargazing.

a hamburger from the Southeast Montana Burger Trail and onion rings in the foreground and a smiling woman in the back

Heiser’s Bar, Baker

Being a Montana road trip, indulging in legendary beef was a must. The boys and I are vegetarians, but Henry was willing to be our tester on the Southeast Montana Burger Trail.

The Southeast Montana Burger Trail is made up of over 24 unique burgers at local restaurants. You can download a mobile-exclusive passport (no app required) to keep track of your stops and win prizes.

Lunch at Heiser’s Bar in Baker (a Burger Trail stop) hit the spot before our scenic drive to Miles City. Fortunately, we found some great veggie options in this historic bar. Even though it’s a bar and casino, it’s very family-friendly during the day with the casino tucked in the back.

Miles City, Montana

hotel miles city montana with two white beds and a big chandelier

Miles City became our home base for the night. We opted for a vacation rental that was like a large hotel room. It worked out well and was within walking distance of everywhere we wanted to go. 

Check out the map to see other places to stay in Miles City, including both hotels and vacation rentals. (Most of the hotels in Miles City are close to I-90, so zoom out a little to see them.)

Dinner was at Tilt Würks Brewhouse, another Burger Trail participant. We’ve eaten here several times and always enjoyed it. The beers are good and they have veggie options for those of us not on the Burger Trail. We inadvertently showed up on bingo night and the place was packed! Fortunately, the weather was perfect for sitting outside. 


teen looking at a sign with tribal flags and a tipi behind him

Off the Beaten Path in Montana Day 3: Miles City and Beyond

three people looking at menus in a diner with a red table

Miles City, Montana

The next morning, we explored the unique shops downtown, finding everything from western wear and tack to vintage treasures.

Remember When Cafe’s classic diner breakfast fueled us for another day on our off-the-beaten-path road trip. The 50s-style diner is inside Vintage and Rustics – a mall of unusual, vintage, and antique stalls.

saddles and a western town exhibit at the Range Riders Museum in Miles City Montana

Range Riders Museum, Miles City

On the way out of Miles City, we stopped at the Range Riders Museum. This captivating museum showcases a treasure trove of artifacts and exhibits that vividly illustrate life in the West. 

There are barbed wire collections, a donut from 1864, an extensive archive of historical photographs that provide a visual record of the people, events, and landscapes that define the region’s history, household items, clothing, and tools used by pioneers, and so much more. This place was a hit with the whole family – so much history to unpack!

two dugout canoes with two people looking at them and a sandstone pillar in the back

Pompey’s Pillar National Monument

Another scenic drive led us to Pompey’s Pillar National Monument (use your America the Beautiful / National Park Pass to get into the site).

Here, we marveled at William Clark’s signature etched onto the rock face (talk about history coming alive!). Be sure to continue to the top of the pillar for a 360-degree view. The trails down to the Yellowstone River were a nice change of pace, and a ranger program about marmots educated and entertained us.

The visitor center is really well done and is a cool space on hot days.

two people walking on a sidewalk and looking at a building with cliffs in the background at Pictograph Cave State Park

Pictograph Cave State Park

Our final stop was Pictograph Cave State Park, where we gazed at the ancient petroglyphs and pictographs left behind by indigenous people. A powerful reminder of the long history of human presence in this beautiful landscape, it was the perfect end to our trip.

This itinerary is just a taste of what Southeast Montana has to offer. So next time you’re looking for an adventure that caters to everyone, consider following our path. You won’t regret it!

green prairie and a cliff on the left side of the photos

This wasn’t our first time in Southeast Montana, here are some other things we’ve done: 

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