Hey, Emma and Walker here! We just got back from the BEST road trip through Montana – exploring Bozeman, Missoula, Glacier National Park, and Big Sky Country. We enjoyed the state so much that we are already planning a trip back. The goal was to experience an authentic representation of life in Montana and we did just that & completely fell in love with the state. During our travels we received SO many messages and questions asking us everything we did & how we planned our trip, we knew we wanted to make an entire guide for you. Hopefully you enjoy our Montana Travel Guide + it will help you plan your next trip to “The Last Best Place”.
First of all we are all travelers who LOVE to visit new places. Maddy who is Emma’s best friend since the beginning of high school also tagged along which made the trip even more fun. We really wanted to plan a fun girl’s trip with just the 3 of us and when one suggested a summer trip to Montana.. the rest was history. 7 days, in Montana. Here we go!
While planning, we knew we wanted to spend majority of our time at Glacier National Park which is one of the most amazing and majestic places on earth so we planned most of our activities and days around that!
We drew out a map of our road trip below so you could visually understand what it looked like and also took a screenshot of a map showing what the area around Glacier National Park looks like. It’s a HUGE area & we travelled very far distances. To get from the West side to the East side of the park for example, it takes about 2 hours one way. So no matter where you stayed, activities were all over the state which meant having a reliable car is a must.
We drove from Bozeman through the western farmlands, through Missoula, and then up to the Glacier National Park area. From there we traveled to a ranch then back down the airport in Bozeman. It was the BEST! I know a lot of people were surprised that we didn’t visit Yellowstone but we are actually planning a whole separate trip back there. :)
1 week is not enough for Montana!
TIP: Download Google Maps (offline) before you head to the Glacier area, especially if you have AT&T. Emma and Maddy had 0 cell service almost the entire time they were there, thankfully Emma downloaded the google maps before the trip and was able to use that to drive around with.
Day One: Bozeman to Whitehall
We flew into Bozeman from our respective cities (Emma and Maddy from San Francisco & Walker from San Diego). It’s the largest airport in the state but still small by most standards. Walker: “I would also say the cutest airport I’ve ever been to, it’s like an airport crossed with a log cabin. The second I stepped off the plane I spotted a 10 gallon hat- We made it people!” We definitely weren’t in California anymore. ;)
Meanwhile Maddy and Emma picked up the rental car that Walker booked 2 months ahead of time. We paid quite a pretty penny for our rental for 7 days. However, we were lucky because when we booked, we booked through Hotwire to get a “deal” and they paired us with National rent-a-car. The woman at the rent-a-car counter gave us a free upgrade & we were STOKED to find that we got a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited 4×4. Highly suggest getting a 4×4 while in Montana if you plan on doing any hiking/exploring.
TIP: We found our rent-a-car deal (Quite better than searching on each car’s website) through Kayak, so make sure to look through their deals! Book at least 2-3 months ahead of time if you know you’re going to Montana during the Summer.
Once we started driving, we were greeted by a summer thunderstorm.. but we didn’t mind. After doing some research we knew to bring layers and a windbreaker/ raincoat because the weather can be unpredictable. After an early dinner in Bozeman we headed to our AirBnB in Whitehall, a small town an hour west. The AirBnB was a loft above a barn on a working farm! It had a view that looked out over sweet cows and one morning we even saw a family of deer grazing the property. We loved our little Airbnb!
The reason we ended up here was because we actually booked our accommodations SO last minute.. only 2-3 weeks before our trip. Highly recommend not doing this so you have more options of staying anywhere, although this was a great ending point after a long day of travel.
Day Two: Whitehall to Missoula to Glacier
After saying goodbye to our new cow fam, our first stop was for coffee of course! We headed to Whitehall proper a small town made up of a single street of businesses and a few residential properties tucked behind. We found Bluebird Sky Coffee, the owner was a sweetheart and the coffee was delicious, she offered locally made sweet and savory scones. Right off the bat we realized that the sense of community was so strong in the state.
Once we were properly caffeinated we headed to Missoula. Missoula is the home of the University of Montana and the 2nd largest city in the state. We enjoyed a pulled pork sandwich from Notorious P.I.G and did a little shopping. Our favorite store was the Butterfly Herbs, they had an extensive variety of herbs, local coffee beans, and teas. We also stopped in at APORTA and I bought some cute jewelry. This ended up being the biggest city we stopped in, so were were happy we got our gifts here. We put our toes in the Clark Fork River that runs through the city and then queued up Dixie Chicks radio for the long stretch to Glacier National Park. It’s about 3 hours from Missoula to the side of the park we were staying in – a tiny town called Essex.
The drive by Flathead lake was so beautiful. It’s a HUGE lake and actually a great place to stop/stay for a day or two. Lots of wonderful hiking around here and plenty to-do, including visiting Wild Horse Island in the middle of Flathead Lake. Apparently you can only visit by boat & see Wild Horses! Gorgeous.
These photos don’t do any justice! Unfortunately, there was also a fire in the area, if you end up heading toward Glacier take a look at road closures! We were lucky someone told us because google maps didn’t.
We stopped in Kalispell (a large town near Glacier) for groceries and Bear spray. We saw two bears on our trip! We were super lucky we saw them from the comfort of our raft and car. It’s rare to see a bear but if it does happen you definitely don’t want to be left defenseless. Many Montanians hike with guns as protection against bears, but research shows that Bear Spray is actually a better defense system against them.
Before you know it we were on highway 2, a gorgeous scenic drive that follows the Middle Fork Flathead River bordering Glacier National Park. We booked an adorable AirBnB cabin in Essex. It was the PERFECT location near everything – we were able to see both the Western side and Eastern side of the park easily! To call Essex a town is a stretch, it wouldn’t even be a map dot anywhere but Montana. We spent the rest of the night playing card games and talking- our AirBnB didn’t have a TV and it was a blessing in disguise.
Our AirBnB was the perfect home base for 2 nights while exploring the park – next time we visit Glacier we’ll definitely stay here longer!
Day Three: Whitefish
After a late night catching up, a lake day was in order! We headed to Whitefish, an adorable town boarding Whitefish lake. It felt a bit more touristy and upscale than the other towns we went to. Lots of cute shops & restaurants + SERVICE. We later found out that Whitefish is full of transplants from California – looking back I can definitely see that. If you have a family this would be a great place to stay while exploring Glacier National Park. The lake wasn’t too chilly either so we took a dip :) They rent kayaks and SUPs by the boat ramp if you’re looking to go!
Day Four: Going-to-the-Sun Road
We were so pumped to finally be heading into the Park! Glacier National Park has very limited parking on the main stretch, Going-to-the-Sun-Road. For that reason they only allow a certain amount of cars to come into the the park during peak hours of 6am-5pm. We weren’t quick enough to get one of these coveted passes so we had to go into the park during the off hours around 5AM. The parking lot actually filled up completely by 6AM so we recommend you get into the park early anyways! We slept in the car for about an hour and started our hike at 6AM. It was an early start but the abundance of parking and views of the moon above the mountain tops made up for the lack of sleep. We hiked the popular Avalanche Lake Hike – a moderate 6 mile hike that started with the Trail of the Cedars then along a beautiful river that carved through the rock that ended at the gorgeous lake with 3 picturesque waterfalls in the background. Highly recommend this hike for the whole family!
TIP: The reservation system for the famous “Going to the Sun Road” is very important to remember while planning your trip to Glacier National Park. The majority of the hiking trails is off of this road, so it is a necessity to get a reservation. Once you get a reservation, it is good for 7 days. You can reserve them on THIS WEBSITE. Go on the website 60 days before your trip to get the coveted passes. If you miss this date, then they open up only 1/4 of tickets left over 2 days before. Emma tried to do this multiple days in a row but it was basically impossible. We made it work regardless, but it would have been easier to have access all-day long.
That afternoon we moved to our 3rd AirBnB on the east side of the park. During our drive on Hwy 2 from the west side to the east we saw an American Buffalo preserve. Beautiful!
The east side of the park doesn’t have the same scheduled tours and activities that the West side does.. it looks much more like the Big Sky area of Montana featuring rolling hills and farms. Whereas, the west side felt like a dense forest.
We stayed at the most darling Bed and Breakfast off of Hwy 89 near the Eastern entrance of the Going to the Sun Road & Two Medicine Lake. Our host Teri made us a hot breakfast and a to-go lunch for the park every day. There are so few places to buy groceries and even the restaurants are few and far between on this side of the park so this was a lifesaver.
Being overachievers we went on another hike! Our Airbnb was really close to Two Medicine Lake where we had a boat tour and guided hike scheduled. This is technically part of Glacier National Park, but the highway to Medicine Lake is not restricted or on Going to the Sun Road. However, since the rest of the park is restricted, a lot of people visit the Two Medicine area which has tons of hiking & a beautiful lake.. apparently this hits capacity as a result. We went at 2pm and they told us the park is full but because we bought our tickets to the boat tour in advance they granted us entry. A family who was on our tour told us that they had arrived at noon and had no problems getting in but parking was a different story. They had to drive around looking for a place to park for an hour.
I suggest doing what we did to avoid both issues.
TIP: We absolutely loved our amazing boat ride & guided hike with Glacier Park Boat Company. This company has boats on all of the Glacier National Park lakes, and they are the only company that has an outstanding agreement with the park to do this. It’s an absolutely gorgeous ride – you can reach parts of the park that you would normally have to hike hours to get to. We highly suggest booking this excursion way ahead of time in order to get tickets for any of them. It was only $15 per person.
Click here to see all options!
All our hiking worked up a big appetite so we headed to St. Mary’s (the closest town) near our AirBnB. The town is rural but our host Teri said it had great pie so we obviously had to stop by. This is the town where the eastern entrance to the Going to the Sun Road begins, so it is a very popular place to stay.
We ran into a little traffic on our way.. ;) there were cows, girls riding bareback and dogs in the middle of the highway between Browning and St. Mary’s. Be sure to drive slow if you visit.
We stumbled upon a nameless taco stand that served the best huckleberry margaritas and awesome live music. After a long day we were happy campers! :)
Day Five: River Rafting
This morning we woke up early & headed back to West Glacier to Glacier Guides and Montana Raft. We suited up for a trip down the river. We had signed up for a full day of whitewater rafting which is around 6 hours in the late summer. There were 8 sections of white water, all mild but really fun for us beginners. About an hour in we spotted a Black Bear! Our guide told us he had only seen one other bear on all his trips down the river that season, we totally lucked out.
After our boat ride we were able to swim in the most crystal clear (and freezing glacier runoff ) water. It was gorgeously blue and stunning to raft in all day long.
What really made this day was seeing a few bald eagles fly above us. So close in fact that we were able to snap this photo. We felt so lucky to have spotted wildlife as closely as we did.
TIP: If you would like to book activities in Glacier, we definitely suggest booking through Glacier Guides & Montana Raft! They have plenty of activities to book – from Guided Hikes, Fishing Trips, backpacking trips, Rafting & much more! Book this FAR in advance as possible, majority of activities were booked up when we tried to book about 3 weeks before our trip.
Aside from the bursts of whitewater our rafting trip was fairly leisurely so afterwards we had enough energy to explore more of the park. We drove the Going-To-The-Sun road again from east to west after peak hours and this was the highlight of our trip. The views were the most beautiful we’ve ever seen in our lives. We viewed glaciers, mountains, islands, forests, waterfalls, rivers, lakes and a bright orange sunset which blanketed all of it.
Our day consisted of taking in the scenery as best we could.. we stopped at every turnout possible to breathe it in. At the peak of the mountain as we were descending back into the valley Emma spotted another bear to the right of our car! We all flew to the right of the car to get a closer look as a little grizzly bear bumbled along on the side of the road. We couldn’t believe our luck. We turned around hoping to get more than a fleeting glimpse but he was gone. We had to have been the only people to see him because he was about as tall as the retaining wall between us. Such a cool experience.
This place is so magical! Photos can’t do it justice. We ended our night eating pizza at Glacier Highland Restaurant – the only place open past 9pm near the park. The end of another amazing day.
TIP: We highly suggest driving the Going to the Sun Road during sunset hours. It was the ultimate highlight of our trip & although it took awhile – (about 2 hours one way) it was absolutely incredible.
Day Six: Swan Lake and Alpacas
After falling into a deep youtube rabbit hole of bear attacks in Glacier we decided to go on more populated trails and guided hikes. To make it more spicy we decided to book a Llama Trek. A guided hike up to a waterfall with the company of these sweet furry friends. Then we headed to the Swan Lake area which was outside of the Glacier National Park realm.
Many hunters in the area use llamas to carry equipment for multi-day trips. In the off season they keep in shape by going on hikes with the tourists. The llamas were SO happy to be hiking and walking with us.. it was adorable! They seemed so well taken care of, & our guide was awesome.
Our destination on the hike was this beautiful waterfall where we stopped for lunch. The water was gushing, just out of frame it falls again into a second basin.
This guy decided to snack along the trail and ended up covered in greenery. He doesn’t seem too worried about it.
After our hike we checked out Swan Lake. Like most bodies of water here it was lined with gorgeous river rocks in every color. Over the course of the trip we spent hours looking for heart shaped stones to bring home & found so many beauties. It’s definitely more of a “local lake” area & we loved it.. stunningly beautiful. One of the most picturesque areas we saw in Montana.
During our hike we stopped for lunch at Flathead Lake Brewing in Big Fork before heading back to the east side, the food was delicious! On our way home we were able to catch site of lots of farms and ranches that really make you want to move and start a simpler life. It’s interesting how each part of the region has it’s own unique community.
As we were driving along highway 2, near mile 170, we started seeing hand draw signs of a bear holding a pie and as we got closer we saw a little girl and her mom waving us down, selling pies! Only in Montana! We turned in for some rhubarb lemon pie and mint tea. While there we met Bella, their pet rabbit. Let me tell you, this was the best pie I have ever eaten.
Once we got back to our AirBnB we shared our pie with Teri and Mark the owners. They made us coffee and we shared stories. Everyone we met during our trip was so sweet and quick to share a story.. it was the cutest thing.
It began to rain just as we finished petting the horses on the property so we decided to settle in with some snacks and call it an early night.
Day 7: Dude Ranch Day
The storm was still going strong in the following morning, making for a cozy breakfast before heading south to the plains for a taste of big sky country. We had a reservation at The Ranches at Belt Creek. Our room was incredible – it had two stories, 3 beds and a gigantic fireplace.
We got there just in time to feed the horses.
Once we were cleaned up we headed to the club for a 5 course meal to finish our trip off right! We all indulged in the best surf and turf dinner. When in Rome, am I right? ;) This ranch was so gorgeous with plenty of activities, but we were just excited to relax and put our feet up.
This was the only place we stayed that had a TV so we curled up on the sofa and watched a lifetime movie.
I did NOT want to leave, especially after enjoying my coffee with this view, but it was time to head toward Bozeman for our flights.
This trip was such a welcome change of pace. There is so much to do and see, even 7 days was not enough. 5 day fly fishing backpacking trip anyone? One thing is for certain.. we all want to head back!
Have you been to Glacier? What was the highlight of your trip? Anything we missed? Questions for us? Leave us a comment, we would love to hear from you.
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Until next time,
Walk & Emma