Photo Courtesy of Brett Whaley
The frontier spirit is alive and well in Montana, the Mountain West's biggest, boldest destination. Defined in the western part of the state by mountain ranges and legendary Glacier National Park, the east is known for the starkness of the high desert and the beauty of wide-open ranch country. Monta…na's size demands that it be taken bit by bit, but each region, no matter how vast, personifies all the best the West has to offer.
There's never a bad time to visit the rugged Mountain West. Winter brings with it tremendous opportunities for alpine, back-country, and cross-country skiing, drapes mountaintops in heavy blankets of snow, and grants the truly intrepid opportunities to call entire swaths of open country their own. Spring brings wildflowers, surprising gatherings, and high-country horseback rides.
Montana's busiest airport is located in Billings, in the south-central part of the state. Missoula, Helena (the state capital), Great Falls, and Bozeman have large airports, while a number of other cities are serviced by small regional airlines like Great Lakes, Sky West, and Frontier. Still, most visitors will arrive, and get around, by car. Montana is infinitely drivable, and an extended road trip is one of the best ways to see the state. Three major interstates run through the state: I-94 links North Dakota with Billings. I-90 runs from Sheridan, Wyoming, to Billings, on through Bozeman and Missoula, and then into Idaho. I-15 links the Canadian province of Alberta with Western Montana. Intercity bus links are provided by Greyhound, Powder River Trailways, and Rimrock Trailways, while the Airport Shuttle Express of Calgary, Canada, provides charter bus services from Calgary, Lake Louise, and Banff to numerous Montana towns. Train service is available via Amtrak's spectacular Empire Builder, the 2,200-mile stretch of track between Chicago and Seattle. Trains stop a dozen times in Montana, connecting Libby, Whitefish, West Glacier, Essex, East Glacier, Browning, Cut Bank, Shelby, Havre, Malta, Glasgow, and Wolf Point.
The Winter Carnival is a two-day celebration hosted annually by Red Lodge Mountain Resort that turns the picturesque vacation town into a raucous center of splendor. The Cardboard Classic Parade whips down Broadway, live music takes over the mountain, Red Lodge Brewery hosts a keg derby, and now and then people find time to ski and snowboard (but only if they're dressed in elaborate costumes associated with the carnival's theme).
Montana's culinary traditions are undoubtedly defined by the rancher's way of life. Grass and grain-fed beef, wild game, and hearty varieties of vegetables remain wildly popular throughout the state, though the food scene in most big cities and many small towns has evolved along with the changing palate of modern Americans. Fast-food chains can be found in most every city and at rest stops along the interstate, while cafes, mom-and-pop diners, cantinas, steakhouses, and delis are never too far away. You'll even find the odd noodle cart, Peruvian ceviche vendor, or sushi shack if you look hard enough (or find yourself in a Yellowstone gateway town). Buffalo burgers, elk chili, and antelope steaks feature on wild game menus throughout the Big Sky State, while cowboy beans and Indian fry bread pop up here and there. Chuckwagon cookouts are mostly geared toward tourists these days (real cowboys order pizza from their iPhones like the rest of us) but can be combined with exciting outdoor excursions, and they feature on many outfitter itineraries. Farmers' markets pop up in most populated areas during the summer; famed Flathead cherries, huckleberries, raspberries, apples, rhubarb, and sweet corn are always popular.
Life in Montana is rooted in the traditions of the American West; this country was born by, and for, big dreamers, hard workers, and free spirits. The state is home to some of the largest Native American reservations in the country; Crow, Cheyenne, Fort Peck, Fort Belknap, Blackfeet, Flathead, and other smaller reservations each have a culture all their own and remain open and welcoming to visitors looking to understand more of the people who first called the country home. The annual Crow Fair and Rodeo is the Apsaalooke Nation's largest gathering, known as the “Tepee Capital of the World,” when nearly 2,000 temporary structures are raised during the weeklong celebration of Crow culture.
The Wild West Winterfest takes places in Bozeman every February, celebrating the best in living out west with chili cook-offs, dog keg pulls, skijoring, horse sales, and more. The Whitefish Winter Carnival features penguin plunges, a beer barter, parades, and appearances by Wayne Newton. North American Indian Days and the Miles City Bucking Horse Sale turn small-town Montana into the wild, wild west, and give visitors a glimpse at a way of life few folks have the mettle to continue living in this fast-paced, ultra-modern world.
Montana is home to the Custer Battlefield, a tiny slice of Yellowstone National Park, professional gold panners, the best trout fishing in the country, more archaeological dinosaur digs than almost anyplace else on earth, and Glacier National Park, the UNESCO World Heritage darling.