Western Montana Road Trip: 7–10 Days of Natural Wonders

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This article was written by Sanjay from Jetsetting With US, and unless otherwise credited, all photos were taken by his wife and travel partner, Urmi.

Westward ho! Montana is well known for sporting some of the most beautiful scenery in the US, if not the world. In addition to its natural beauty, Western Montana contains a number of towns with exciting things to do for tourists.

Montana is a huge state. and no doubt it would take a multi-week road trip to fully experience all its beauty. In this blog post, I’ll focus exclusively on the things to do on a 7- to 10-day Western Montana road trip.

Read on to see what Western Montana has to offer!

How to get to Western Montana

peaceful Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park with mountains in the background
Credit: Yohan Marion

Getting to Western Montana might seem like a daunting task, especially if it’s your first time. But relax, I’ve got you covered!

You can reach Western Montana in numerous ways based on your travel preference, location, and comfort. Here are some methods to consider:

  • By train: Amtrak operates a train called The Empire Builder. It covers a substantial stretch of the northern US, connecting Chicago with Portland and Seattle. A stop at Whitefish, MT. provides easy access to Western Montana. The journey via train gives you the opportunity to enjoy scenic landscapes en route.
  • By car: If you’re up for a good old-fashioned road trip, driving is a great way to reach Western Montana. Interstate 90 (I-90) is the most common route for those coming from the east or west. However, if you’re traveling from the north or south, US Route 93 is your best bet.
  • By air: The primary airport that serves Western Montana is Missoula International Airport (MSO). It’s located in the heart of the region, and it offers various domestic and international flights. That being said, if you’re flying from overseas, you’ll likely have a stopover at a major US city, like Seattle.

Another option for flying into Western Montana is to fly into Kalispell (FCA). If your intention is to exclusively see Glacier National Park, you may want to consider Kalispell or even Great Falls (GTF).

Should I fly into Missoula vs Kalispell?

Naturally, you may wonder what makes flying into Missoula or Kalispell better than the other. This itinerary is written assuming you’ll fly into Kalispell, but with the information I’ll give you, it’ll be easy to modify to fly into Missoula as well!

Fly in and out of Kalispell if:

  • Glacier National Park is a priority: If visiting Glacier National Park is a top priority for your trip, flying into Kalispell makes more sense, as it’s the closest airport to the park. You’ll be able to start your adventure in the park right away.
  • Scenic Drives in Northwest Montana: Kalispell provides easy access to the stunning scenic drives, outdoor activities, and charming towns in the northwest region of Montana.

Fly in and out of Missoula if:

  • Exploring outside Western Montana is a priority: If your road trip itinerary includes a desire to explore both Western Montana and possibly the central and southern regions, flying into Missoula makes more sense. Missoula is more centrally located, allowing for a more flexible route.
  • Variety of Activities: Missoula itself offers a diverse range of activities, from outdoor adventures to cultural experiences, making it a great starting point if you want to spend some time in Missoula.
  • Flight Availability and Cost: Sometimes, flight availability and cost can be deciding factors. If you find more convenient or cost-effective flights to Missoula, this should probably be your #1 factor.

Ultimately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, and your choice should match your specific travel goals and priorities. Both Kalispell and Missoula are gateways to the stunning beauty and adventures that Western Montana has to offer, so you can’t go wrong with either! Consider your desired destinations, the overall itinerary, and any cost or convenience factors when making your decision.

Our Western Montana Road Trip Itinerary (1 Week or More)

All that being said, getting to Western Montana is only the first part of the adventure. Once you’re here, the region’s natural beauty takes over, and that’s where the real journey begins!

Let’s dive into our road trip itinerary around Western Montana.

Day 1: Arrival in Kalispell

Mountains and Missoula Valley
Credit: Varju Luceno

Once you arrive in Kalispell, you’re ready to kick off your Western Montana adventure in style!

It’s a good idea, depending on the time of day you arrive, to keep the first day light and easy. Use this day to really soak up the local atmosphere. You can start by exploring Kalispell’s downtown. The town is fairly small, so you can easily walk around and discover the charming streets and quaint shops at your own pace.

Main Street, the hub of Kalispell’s downtown, is the natural place to start. It’s old and charming, with shops, boutiques, and a range of restaurants that serve local fare.

This is also a great time to visit the local Visitors Center. You’ll find loads of free maps, tips from locals, and information about upcoming events.

Kalispell has a host of restaurants but admittedly, my wife and I both prefer home-cooked food. We got accommodations with a fully stocked kitchen, as we usually do with 10 day trips! We wouldn’t want to recommend restaurants we didn’t personally try and can’t vouch for 😊

Alternative: Arrival in Missoula

If you decide to fly into Missoula instead, I recommend you still take a light and easy day. The only difference is that you’ll explore Missoula’s downtown rather than Kalispell’s.

Higgins Ave. is the heartbeat of Missoula’s city center. It has coffee shops, bookstores, art galleries, and eateries that are perfect for whileing away a few hours.

One specific attraction worth highlighting is the Montana Natural History Center. As Montana has been the site of many dinosaur fossil excavations, they do have a replica of a Tyrannosaurus Rex skull. Awesome to see for both adults and kids!

The Missoula Visitors Center is a great place to get information on local events and attractions!

Day 2: CSKT Bison Range

Herd of bison on a plain

On this day, you’ll explore one of Western Montana’s coolest experiences—the CSKT Bison Range!

Formerly known as the National Bison Range, the CSKT Bison Range is located in the center of the Flathead Indian Reservation. It’s about a 1 hour drive from Missoula and 1.5 hours from Kalispell.

The drive itself is mesmerizing, with mountains cradling the landscape, and rivers serenely flowing across the terrain. Be sure to bring your camera! Also, be sure to have a full tank of gas, snacks, and water, as services may be limited en route.

This sprawling expanse of land is home to 300–500 bison, but of course, keep your eyes peeled for other wildlife as well! If you’re a bird watcher, you’ll find various species of birds here, so be sure to bring your binoculars.

Plan on spending 3–4 hours on the range to really immerse yourself in the tranquil beauty of this conservation area. You’ll be left with a sense of awe and deep appreciation for these gentle giants!

Days 3–6: Glacier National Park

Wild Goose Island on lake in western Montana. Clouds and mountains in background

No trip to Western Montana would be complete without a visit to Glacier National Park!

This US national park is easily one of my top 3 favorites. Glacier National Park has loads of activities, from hiking to water sports to wildlife observation. I’ll include a summary here, and encourage you to read my full post on Glacier National Park for greater detail.

I’ve listed 4 days in this itinerary, as I believe this length of time will give you a solid amount of time to enjoy the park. You can adjust as necessary. As the park is in the mountains, I strongly recommend you build flexibility into your plan. Weather can change quickly and unexpectedly, so if you only have 1-2 days allocated to seeing the park, a sudden change of weather can totally ruin your plans!

The park has 3 main sections: West Glacier, East Glacier, and Many Glacier. Of these, West Glacier and East Glacier are connected via Going to the Sun Road, an iconic drive through the park with some of the most beautiful mountain views you will ever see in your life!

Many Glacier is considered by many (myself included) to have the best scenery in the park. It is also known for having the highest population of grizzly bears in the US. If wildlife observation is on your checklist, be sure to save a day to make the extra drive to Many Glacier!

Day 7: Whitefish

A gondola at Whitefish Mountain Resort

Today, we roam around the charming town known as Whitefish. A bustling hub for nature lovers, Whitefish delivers a blend of small-town charm and captivating natural beauty!

After breakfast, you may wish to check out the Whitefish Mountain Resort. This no doubt sounds like an odd recommendation outside of the winter—but hear me out! This resort boasts a number of summer activities, most notably its still-operational chairlift (seen in the above picture). You’ll get an unbeatable opportunity to catch stunning views of Montana’s snow-capped mountain peaks and vast green forests.

Once you’re done with the resort, head into downtown Whitefish for lunch. Around downtown Whitefish, you’ll encounter a range of restaurants. Afterward, check out some local boutiques and art galleries. You may find a souvenir to take home!

The Whitefish Trail is a public access trail comprising 47 miles of natural trails. It’s a great place for a leisurely hike, bird watching, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Keep your eyes peeled for Montana’s wildlife!

If hiking is one of your priorities, due to the size of the Whitefish Trail, you may wish to spend an extra day in Whitefish.

Days 8–10: Optional Extensions

A white goat mother and baby on a rocky hill

The above itinerary should suffice for a 7-day western Montana road trip. If you have more time, or if you’d like to substitute in some other activities, here are some recommendations:

  • Goat Lick: Among its diverse nature experiences, one unique visit that stands out is the Goat Lick, a mineral-rich cliff that attracts hundreds of mountain goats. These creatures flock there to lick the rocks coated in salt and other minerals not present in their regular diet. The sight is something that’s not commonly witnessed in other parts of the world.
  • Rafting on Flathead River: Whether a scenic raft or a whitewater raft, the Flathead River offers ample opportunity to enjoy Montana’s breathtaking scenery! We didn’t get to go rafting due to last-minute weather, but on a future trip, I hope we have better luck!
  • Hiking National Forest trails: If you take the “long” drive between West Glacier and East Glacier on US-2, you’ll find a number of trailheads scattered along the highway. These off-the-beaten-path trails are sure to excite hikers looking to get away from the summer crowds of Glacier National Park. One example is the 4.2-mile out-and-back trail to Glacier View Mountain. If you’re the adventurous type, consider getting off the highway at a random trail!
  • Sapphire mining: Philipsburg is a little town in Western Montana. Did you know it’s a gem (literally) for sapphire mining? For a unique add-on to your itinerary, a trip to Philipsburg might be worth the effort! This enchanting activity is fun for all ages, and you get to take home what you find!
  • Drive to Yellowstone and beyond to Colorado: For readers on a larger road trip around the USA, I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend driving south toward Yellowstone National Park and even farther south to Colorado’s national parks Colorado, much like Western Montana, contains a great deal of natural beauty that must be seen to be believed.

💡 PRO TIP: The north entrance to Yellowstone via Gardiner, MT is arguably the best entrance if you’re looking for wildlife!4

Snow-capped mountains behind a lake. Field and trees in foreground. The text overlay says "1 week in montana the ultimate road trip itinerary"

FAQs for planning a Western Montana itinerary

When is the best time to visit Western Montana?

Unless you are a serious mountain-goer or are specifically planning a ski trip, plan to visit between Memorial Day and late September. Montana winters are long, and most tourist activities (and many roads) will be closed. In the summer, enjoy long sunlight hours and beautiful weather! If you’re looking to avoid high season, try to go in early–mid June before schools close.

Is there a nightlife scene in Montana?

Most people traveling to Western Montana are looking for nature, not nightlife! Some of the bigger towns, such as Missoula and Kalispell, will have restaurants and bars, but don’t expect the liveliness of a city like New York!

Are there family-friendly activities in Western Montana?

This depends on what your kids like! While I’ve listed some indoor activities above, Western Montana is primarily a nature and outdoor scene. Kids who enjoy being outdoors and who would be excited to see a live grizzly bear, would absolutely love this location! Kids who prefer indoor activities would probably prefer a trip elsewhere. An itinerary around Western Montana necessarily involves long drives to visit some of the best scenery. If your kids are restless, you may wish to visit when they are a little older.

How many days do I need in Western Montana?

A bare-bones trip of 3 days could accomplish 1-2 days in Glacier National Park and 1 day experiencing one of the other items in this article. While doable, in my opinion, you’d be doing yourself a disservice and would leave your trip at the mercy of unpredictable mountain weather. I’d recommend 4-5 days just for the park and 2-3 days for some of the other activities I’ve listed here. A 10-day Western Montana road trip would really give you a proper experience.

Conclusion

Montana is a nature lover’s dream: the grandeur of Glacier National Park, the serenity of the Flathead River, and the bison of the CSKT Bison Range are sights that are far greater than any written description.

Don’t let all these enchanting places be just facts on a blog post. Pack those bags and let the mountain air greet you as you walk its paths. Montana awaits!

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