Majestic terrains & luxury stays on a road trip through Montana

Photo credit: Montana Office of Tourism

Yellowstone might have put it on Australians’ radars, but Montana has always been a favourite for outdoorsy Americans. Here’s why.

Think of Montana and you might want to pull on the cowboy boots and a fancy belt buckle. The USA’s fourth biggest state does have its share of cowboys working on vast ­cattle ranches, which have been a mainstay of Montanan business since the 1850s, and starring in rodeos. But the state that stretches from the Rocky Mountains to the Great Plains and houses 3,000 lakes and just as many rivers has a whole lot more. While it’s big, its network of highways and by-ways make it the perfect road trip destination, with or without cowboy gear.

A little off the radar of most Australians, Montana has always been a favourite for outdoorsy Americans wanting to escape into its wide-open spaces. Montana saw a boom not long after Covid hit as folks sought a reprieve from big-city life, while a certain TV series worked to increase its appeal, bringing some 2.1 million people to the state in 2021.

Screen tourism

Yellowstone follows the saga of the Dutton family with Kevin Costner as patriarch John Dutton, whose sole aim – over five binge-worthy seasons – is to keep others from getting their hands on his precious land. While Yellowstone is actually America’s first national park located in neighbouring Wyoming, the Dutton homestead is in Darby, south-west Montana near the border with Idaho. The gorgeous terrain that the camera sweeps over as John Dutton admires his empire is the Bitterroot Valley, surrounded by the Sapphire and Bitterroot Ranges.

Keen viewers can stay on the property, whose real name is Chief Joseph Ranch, in one of the two log cabins that appear regularly in the TV show. My road trip doesn’t include such a stay, however my co-traveller (a Montana gal) and I do a good job of racking up sites from battlefields to rolling meadows, former mining communities, wild west saloons and manicured towns with Main Streets aflutter with patriotic bunting. And adding a bit of our own drama, the trip is book-ended by two of the scariest mountain roads I’ve ever traversed.

Road tripping Montana

We enter Montana from Wyoming on Highway 90 enroute to Little Bighorn Battlefield passing through the Crow Agency (the largest Native American reservation in the state at 8,900 square kilometres) on the way. It’s a sweltering June day as we listen to a volunteer guide relate the tale of the most storied and controversial battle of the so-called ‘Indian Wars’. It’s a peaceful day as we walk along the pathway past marble headstones to Last Stand Hill, a far cry from 1867 when Lt. Colonel George Custer and his 268 men met their horrific defeat at the hands of the Sioux and Cheyenne lead by legendary warrior, Crazy Horse.

From cowboy-and-Indian territory we head south as roadside billboards from local churches welcome us to their counties and stop at Red Lodge, a former  goldmining town of saloons and bootleggers to pick up supplies at the Montana Candy Emporium. We begin our climb up the Beartooth Pass, a mountain highway that twists and turns for 111 kilometres to the 3,337-metre summit. I’m clutching my seat at every turn but in awe of the never-ending mountains and at the top the walls of compacted snow on the road shoulder and this all in a day that begins at 37 degrees celcius and ends around a log fire.

At Silver Gate, a hiker and skier’s village, we overnight in a lodge with Little House on the Prairie credentials and have drinks in the bar that Ernest Hemingway liked to frequent. The next day it’s just a three-kilometre drive to the north-eastern entrance of Yellowstone National Park, one of three park entrances located in Montana. We skirt along the park’s northern road and within 15 minutes we’re spotting dozens of bison grazing by the side of the road and a solitary black bear on the edge of the woods. We’re in the tiny three per cent of the park that’s in Montana but it’s a quick visit (we’ll be back later!) and we are on the only road in the park that’s open year-round.

Luxury stays

We exit at the northern gate, near Gardiner, and drive to Big Sky a ski resort and mountain town established in 1973 by NBC television newscaster Chet Huntley and now owned by Boyne Resorts; think Perisher or Thredbo but much larger.

It’s here at the Montage Hotel & Residences, opened in 2022, that Montana’s  style of luxury is on show. White-glove valet parkers relieve us of our car keys, a delicious alpine cocktail awaits at the check-in desk and the views of the Spanish Peaks mountain ranges loom just beyond the hotel’s cathedral windows in the atrium and Alpenglow Bar. This is the ski resort’s only five-star accommodation and the hotel, measuring 6,445 square metres, is the largest non-government building in Montana. It’s summer so I take a hike along the Ousel Falls track with a hotel guide, ever wary of bears, considering Montana has the greatest concentration of grizzlies in the US.

From Big Sky we head north to poke around the fashionable towns of Bozeman, Ennis and Philipsburg, where sidewalks are prettified with flower baskets and lined with cafes, galleries and boutiques. Bozeman features in TV’s Yellowstone as the place where Dutton bad-girl Beth liked to shop and party – there’s an array of breweries and distilleries and a wine bar called Plonk!

Further north we pass the Bleu Horses, 39 metal sculptures high on a hill created by artist Jim Dolan as a gift to the state, and soon after we call into the St Ignatius Mission, within the Flathead Indian Reservation, whose 19th century church is decorated with glorious frescos painted by Jesuits.

Our last destination is Glacier National Park, near the Canadian border. As we drive the 80-kilometre “Going to the Sun Road”, I grip the car seat again, on far too many precipitous curves to the summit.

Luckily, Montana’s mountains, lakes and waterfalls are the reward for my bravery.

Caroline Gladstone was a guest of the Great American West.

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