Designed to impress (and educate) even the most jaded young urbanites, our great Montana road trip consists of eight easy segments with frequent stops at historic sites, trading posts, ice cream shops, and other landmarks. Your reward: Glacier Park.
Wibaux to Miles City
104 miles- As Montana’s easternmost town, tiny Wibaux makes a perfect starting point for a family road trip. Stock up on gas, water, and candy rations at the rest stop for the easy 90-minute drive on Interstate 94 to Miles City. Before leaving town, pay homage to the statue of Pierre Wibaux, French rancher and town namesake, and the Centennial Car Museum. Impress your kids with the fact that the Vin Diesel movie Knockaround Guys was based (but not filmed) in Wibaux. Bore them with the fact that Montana derives its name from the Latin word for “mountainous.” When you get to Miles City, located at the junction of the Yellowstone and Tongue rivers, get your cultural fix at the Custer County Art Center and your Western fix at the Range Riders Museum, which features classic cars, wagons, and more than 400 guns. Afterward, cool off with a dip in the municipal pool and a Dilly Bar at Dairy Queen before getting back on the road to Custer.
Miles City to Custer
91 miles- Custer, at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Bighorn rivers, was named for U.S. General George Armstrong Custer, who was killed in 1876 at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Bring history to life with a visit to the nearby Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, which memorializes the battle between Custer’s Seventh Cavalry Regiment and Sitting Bull’s Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. Afterward, savor a buffalo burger and shop for Crow Indian beadwork, turquoise and silver jewelry, and other souvenirs at the rustic Custer Battlefield Trading Post and Café, built to resemble the 1877 Old Fort Custer Hospital. Drive back into town and hunt for Montana agates around the Yellowstone River. Dazzle your kids with your knowledge of local lore: Maurice Hilleman, who developed a chicken pox vaccine, was born nearby.
Custer to Billings
55 miles- It’s a short drive to Montana’s largest city, but keep your eyes open for deer, antelope, and other large animals that may leap onto what they consider to be “their” road. On the way, make a stop at Pompey’s Pillar, a sandstone butte named after Sacagawea’s son, who was nicknamed Pomp. At the top of the pillar, you can still see where Captain William Clark carved his signature in 1806, during the Lewis and Clark expedition. When you get to Billings, look for Coulson’s Boothill Cemetery just above Main Street, where Muggins Taylor, the scout who informed the world of Custer’s Last Stand, is buried. If your kids have had their fill of history, spend the rest of the day with Ozzy and Bruno, the resident grizzly bears at ZooMontana, followed by a spin around Dillard’s and the other shops at Rimrock Mall. End the day with a hearty Montana-sized dinner of pizza, burgers, and mac and cheese at Montana Brewing Company.
Billings to Bozeman
144 miles- Midway between Billings and Bozeman on Interstate 90 is Big Timber Waterslide Park, complete with Oldfaceful, Suicide, the Typhoon, and other thrilling rides, as well as gentler rides for younger kids. For further refreshment, head toward Big Timber and drive about 15 miles northwest to the Crazy Mountains. Park the car, put on your hiking boots, and follow the signs for the easy hike to the 120-foot Big Timber Falls. From Big Timber, it’s only 34 miles to Livingston, a charming turn-of-the-century town made famous in the movies A River Runs Through It and The Horse Whisperer. Browse the many art galleries, enjoy an old-fashioned banana split at the Western Drug soda fountain, and catch a film at Empire Theater. To get back to nature, head 25 miles south for a soak at Chico Hot Springs and carry on to Yellowstone National Park. Once you return to Livingston, Bozeman is just 27 miles away.
Bozeman to Butte
85 miles- If you’re lucky enough to be in town for the annual three-day Sweet Pea arts festival in August, let the goings-on guide your agenda. If not, take a tour of Montana State University and stop by the Museum of the Rockies to see the planetarium, as well as dinosaur fossils found by paleontologist Jack Horner, upon whom Jurassic Park’s paleontologist Alan Grant was based. Come back to the future with a spin through the American Computer Museum. As you drive to Butte, point out a fascinating Trekkie factoid: Bozeman was the fictional site of Earth’s first alien contact in Star Trek: First Contact. When you reach Butte, once known as the “richest hill on earth” for its enormous copper deposits, visit the fancy 34-room Copper King Mansion, see the breathtaking Granite Mountain Mine Memorial, and gaze into the Berkeley Pit, a former open pit copper mine. End the day with juicy home-ground burgers and a platter of succulent pork ribs at Derby Steak House.
Butte to Helena
69 miles- As you drive to Helena, the capital of Montana, you’re following a trail of Minnesota footsteps. In 1864, a group of townspeople rallied to rename Last Chance Gulch, as they felt the name was too crass. A man named John Summerville proposed the name Helena after Helena Township in Minnesota, and the rest is a rich history defined by decades of gold, sapphire, silver, and lead mining. Hunt for treasure at the Spokane Bar Sapphire Mine and Gold Fever Rock Shop, followed by a scoop of huckleberry sorbet at Big Dipper Ice Cream. End the day with a Last Chance Ranch wagon ride through the high mountain forests and dinner in an authentic tepee. On your way out of town, drive up to Gates of the Mountains, nearly 30 minutes north of Helena, and take a boat ride on the Missouri River. Floating through the canyons with eagles flying overhead, you’ll see the same views that Lewis and Clark saw on their own Montana trip.
Helena to Missoula
116 miles- About 50 miles before Missoula is Drummond, an authentic and unadorned ranching community on the Clark Fork River. Drive through the Frosty Freeze and order malts to go. Continue up to Garnet Ghost Town, a historic 1895 mining town with more than 30 buildings including a hotel, saloon, bar, and store. When you’ve paid your respects to spirits of the long-gone miners, continue to Missoula, which started as a trading post known as Hell Gate and was later renamed after a Salish Indian word for “near the cold, chilling waters.” Home to the University of Montana Grizzlies, Missoula offers a dynamic mix of cultural activities and outdoor adventures including fishing, rafting, kayaking, and canoeing on the three rivers that run through the area. For a taste of Missoula, check out the Montana Museum of Art & Culture, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Wildlife Visitor Center, and Big Sky Brewing Company, home of the legendary Moose Drool Brown Ale.
Missoula to Kalispell
123 miles- As you leave Missoula, remind your kids in your best cruise-director voice that the city’s motto of “The Discovery Continues” makes a great mantra for any road trip. Punctuate this leg of the trip with a stop at the National Bison Range in Moiese, home to nearly 500 bison, as well as elk, antelope, black bear, and other wildlife. Continue north to Polson, situated on the Flathead Indian Reservation at the southern end of beautiful Flathead Lake. Enjoy a home-cooked, Happy Days–style meal at Betty’s Diner and check out an 1880s hearse, a 1969 Cadillac convertible, and more than 50 antique motorcycles at the Miracle of America Museum, aka “The Smithsonian of the West.” Leaving Polson, continue north around Flathead Lake until you reach Kalispell, the gateway to Glacier Park and the beginning of yet another great Montana adventure.