21 of the Best Hidden Gems in Montana – Picked by Locals!
Montana is known for its magnificent national parks and fantastic ski resort towns, but Montana also has many secret wonders. Because of Montana’s size and its lack of populace and visitors in many areas of the state, there are lots of hidden gems tucked away in remote parts of Montana.
I’ve listed my top picks below along with hidden gem favorites from the rest of the Travel Montana Now team (aka my sister and mom who live in Yellowstone Country and Southeast Montana, respectively 🙂 ).
Bighorn Canyon is an impressive body of water created by the Yellowtail Dam. It’s one of those places that when I first went to it as an adult I remember saying to my mom “why have you never taken us here before?!”
My mom grew up with summer weekends spent boating and water skiing on Bighorn Canyon. But alas, this hidden gem stays hidden because it’s not super close to anything and there’s really nowhere to stay once you get there unless you want to go camping.
However, it does make for an excellent day trip from Billings. It takes a couple hours to get to Bighorn Canyon; you’ll be heading east via I-90 and then south along Rte 313 through the Crow Reservation (it’s a good idea to fill up with gas in Hardin where the two highways connect). Once you get there you’ll find a parking lot right by the boat launch where you can either put in your own boat or pick up a pontoon rental from the Ok-A-Beh Marina. Then you’re ready for a day of unforgettable water fun.
Bighorn Canyon is so memorable because of its deep blue water and incredible surrounding rock walls that have a reddish hue to them. The water is cold even at the height of summer, though not so cold that you can’t swim in it. However, I’m not so sure I’d want to swim in it on an overcast day!
If you’re feeling extra adventurous you can even climb up the side of one of those red hues rock faces and go cliff jumping. Although, if you don’t know what you’re doing and you’re a newbie to Bighorn Canyon, it’s probably best to only go cliff jumping where you see lots of other people doing it to help ensure you’re jumping somewhere that’s known for cliff jumping. Be smart and safe!
Since most visitors to Montana tend to stick to the western side of the state, not a lot of people venture to eastern Montana — especially all the way to the eastern border of Montana, but if you love dinosaurs you most definitely should.
That’s because in eastern Montana you’ll find Glendive, a cute little town that just happens to be the gateway to some of the most amazing dinosaur finds in all of the world.
You can visit the Frontier Gateway Museum, where you learn about the archaeological finds in the region as well as other pioneer history of the Montana plains.
While visiting Glendive you’ll also want to head into nearby Makoshika State Park. I’m not sure that you could ever call a state park a total hidden gem, but suffice to say that not a lot of people visit this incredible State Park, which is made up of the Montana Badlands and is where most of the dinosaur skeletons you can see on display throughout the entire country were found. In fact, even today more dinosaur bones are still being unearthed in this area of Montana.
Read More: The Ultimate Glendive, Montana Travel Guide
Coram is mostly seen as a pass-through type of town right in between Glacier National Park and the north shores of Flathead Lake, but I recommend making it into a destination unto itself if you are a foodie or you like whiskey.
That is because this town is home to Josephine’s Restaurant and the Glacier Distilling Company, both of which are owned by the same local family and are right next to each other in Coram.
I am not a whiskey connoisseur by any means and in general I do not like liquor, but my husband’s preferred drink of choice is whiskey so we made plans to stop here on the way back to Bigfork from Glacier National Park one day last summer and we had a great time.
The distillery employees were friendly to our kids and brought them out pretzels, while my husband thoroughly enjoyed the tastings he tried. I took a tiny sip of his honey whiskey and huckleberry whiskey because, after all, when in Montana how can you not try huckleberry whiskey? I was pleasantly surprised to find I actually liked both of them.
Granted, the North Fork Whiskey, which is their most popular, tasted much too strong for my liking but the other aforementioned ones were pretty fun and I could see them being really good in cocktails.
Once my husband finished his tasting he purchased a couple bottles to take home, and then we went to Josephine’s for dinner, located just up the little hill by the distillery. This restaurant is about as cute as can be and decorated with a rustic chic vibe.
We got some creative Montana cuisine and left Coram with full, happy bellies and some unique whiskey for our liquor cabinet.
2021 Update: Josephine’s has recently adapted into Josephine’s Speakeasy, a more cocktail and tapas style of eatery with craft cocktails on the menu and yummy sounding tapas and other delicacies. I’m looking forward to checking it out next time I’m in Glacier Country, but in the meantime I’d call ahead to check if it’s still kid-friendly.
Kootenai Suspension Bridge
The Kootenai Suspension Bridge is easily one of the coolest bridges in Montana. This hidden gem is located in the northwest corner of the state about 20 minutes from the little town of Libby.
You won’t be driving over the Kootenai Suspension Bridge, though.
Instead, you’ll come to its trailhead right off Hwy 2. You’ll have to do a hike to it where you’ll find it hanging across the Kootenai River, just waiting for you to walk over it.
It’s a very narrow bridge and it’s wobbly, but it’s well enclosed. Still, give your fellow hikers some room and patience when crossing it. The Kootenai Suspension Bridge has incredible views of the river and surrounding forest.
After you cross the suspension bridge you can also do the other arm of the hike which is to Kootenai Falls. At the end of this short hike from the main trail you’ll be able to get an excellent view of Kootenai Falls, a series of little waterfalls cascading over the rocks as the river rushes its way down.
To access the Kootenai Suspension Bridge and Kootenai Falls hiking trail you’ll pull off into a small parking lot off of Route 2 a short distance west of Libby. There are restrooms and even a seasonally run little coffee and ice cream stand by the parking lot.
Yellowstone Kelly Exhibit in Billings
Yellowstone Kelly was one of the original quintessential cowboys of Montana. He did a lot of good for the state of Montana and when he died in 1928 the state said they would erect a memorial for him. However, due to funds and bureaucracy issues, that memorial didn’t happen for another hundred years; in 2018 the city of Billings decided it was time to properly honor Yellowstone Kelly.
The memorial for him is in a grand location at the top of the rim rocks, which is the wall of rocks encircling Billings on the city’s north end. The Yellowstone Kelly Memorial has several informational boards where you can learn more about the man he was and why he was important to Montana.
The memorial also has an incredible view of Billings, making it well worth the drive to the top of the rims. The Yellowstone Kelly Memorial also connects with some of the Rimrock hiking trails if you’d like to make more of an excursion out of it.
Pompeys Pillar doesn’t seem like somewhere that should be a hidden gem in Montana. However, so many people unknowingly pass it on I-94 when they’re traveling between the eastern end of Montana and western Montana on their Montana road trip that we feel it deserves a spot on this list.
Pompeys Pillar is a large sandstone rock in Southeast Montana located about 45 minutes east of Billings right off of I-94 and by the Yellowstone River. The scenery is beautiful in that big sky, understated eastern Montana kind of way, but the real allure of this rock is that it is the only known spot that was marked by Lewis and Clark with a signature during their expedition in 1806.
The signature you’ll see at Pompeys Pillar is that of William Clark, who carved his name right into the side of the sandstone.
It’s worth it to take the several flights of stairs up to the top of the rock to see the signature, which is protected by a clear box covering it.
Before or after you do the climb, also make time to go through the adjacent museum, which has exhibits that talk more about the Louis and Clark expedition as well as those they met along the way, such as Sacajawea.
Gates of the Mountains Holter Lake
Continue to follow in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark with a boat ride across Holter Lake to the Gates of the Mountains.
It is so named this because upon floating down this section of the lake, Meriwether Lewis wrote that it looked like the gates of the mountains were opening up to let them through and then closing behind them. The way the mountains frame the lake here is truly majestic and worth making the jaunt to this part of Central Montana to see it.
Travel Montana Now team member Jackie wrote an incredibly detailed article about visiting Holter Lake and Gates of the Mountains, plus other things to do in the area. We don’t think you’ll find a better guide to Gates of the Mountains than this one! Click here to read her Holter Lake and Gates of the Mountains travel guide.
Butte is an old mining town that is rich in history. It was once called the Richest Hill on Earth because of the amount of money being made off its land rich with iron and copper. Today, the mining days are long gone, but you can still see remnants of this past as well as the riches that came with it by walking around downtown Butte.
Take notice of the old Victorian homes and buildings, once considered to be the height of grandeur. You can even stay in one! Copper King Mansion is a museum/B&B located right downtown, while Toad Hall Manor is a highly-rated bed and breakfast that is located just slightly out of town.
Outside of town, you’ll see old mining equipment and the massively tall Anaconda Smelter Stack.
Another mesmerizing (though perhaps disgustingly so) thing to see in Butte is the Berkeley Pit, a huge body of water that has been filled with chemicals and bacteria from the runoff of the mining and which has never been dealt with. The residents would no doubt like to see that pile of sludge go away, and recent legislation has begun the long process, while for visitors it’s an interesting view and a good reminder of what can be lasting results of foraging the earth.
Read More: Best Things to Do in Butte
Train Car Accommodations
In the town of Essex, located south of Glacier National Park about halfway between the west and east entrances of the park, there is a historic hotel with some epically fun accommodation: the Isaak Walton Inn.
The Amtrak goes right by the Isaak Walton Inn, and it has a storied rail history.
The lodge is lovely to stay in, but for an unforgettable visit, stay in one of the train cars. Book early; these go fast. But you’ll have the delight of sleeping in a converted caboose or other railcar that has been converted into a standalone accommodation. Some even have kitchens.
If you’re traveling with kids, check out the cabooses, which have a sleeping area in the cupola that can fit two kids and are a hit with children.
Actually what’s underneath Havre, Montana. In 1904, a fire swept through the small town of Havre, Montana, destroying buildings and devastating the livelihoods of many residents.
Not to be deterred, many local business owners who lost their store decided to move it underground and made their new place of business within these underground tunnels.
Today, old supplies and furniture of these businesses are still underground, long forgotten after the town was rebuilt and the businesses moved back up above ground. You can do a tour of Havre’s underground to see the old businesses and learn more about the history of small-town Montana.
Bleu Horses in Three Forks
If you’re passing through Three Forks, be sure to look up in the hills where you’ll see what at first glance looks like a herd of horses overlooking Highway 287.
But do a second glance and you’ll see they’re not moving. This is an art installation called The Bleu Horses, which was created by local Montana artist, Jim Dolan. It features 39 horses made of blue painted steel and adorned with realistic looking manes and tails.
If you love horses and you love interesting art, it’s a display not to be missed. Three Forks is located roughly halfway between Butte and Bozeman.
A favorite local pastime is a weekend day spent lounging in the Boiling River, a hidden gem of Montana located in Yellowstone National Park that many visitors don’t realize exists.
The Boiling River is located in the Mammoth Hot Springs area of the park just inside the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner. It’s then down a short hill just south of the 45th Parallel Bridge.
The Boiling River gets its name because it’s the location where blistering hot springs meet up with the cold water of the Gardner river, creating a hot tub like atmosphere right in the midst of Yellowstone’s scenery.
For Montanans, this is a beloved stretch of road, but it’s still not that well-known to those outside of Montana: the Beartooth Highway.
The Beartooth Highway is a remarkable part of U.S. Route 212 that has long switchbacks up the side of the Beartooth Mountain range. At the top, you’ll have to pull out at the lookout points for photo ops and simply to gaze at the jaw-droppingly stunning views.
The Beartooth Highway starts in Red Lodge and ends at the Northeast entrance to Yellowstone in Cooke City. If you’re heading to Yellowstone from southeast Montana, there is no better way to get there than the Beartooth Highway (as long as the road is fully plowed!).
Read More: The Best Scenic Drives in Montana
St. Ignatius Mission
Located on the eastern side of the Flathead Reservation is the little town of St. Ignatius, which is home to an incredible Catholic church called the St. Ignatius Mission.
Built in the late 1800s, the church stands out due to incredible original paintings on the ceilings of the church. These 58 paintings were done by Brother Joseph Carignano.
There is also a museum next door to the mission that has artifacts from the mission and local Native American tribes.
Hungry Horse Dam
Hungry Horse Dam is located up a long winding mountain road, which may be why most people aren’t aware of this incredibly built gem just a short drive from the west entrance to Glacier National Park.
The Hungry Horse Dam is an arch dam that was built in 1953 on the South Fork Flathead River to help store water that would be used to better harness hydroelectric energy at other dams downstream.
Hungry Horse Dam is an engineering marvel to behold; it is 564 feet tall and is one of the largest concrete arch dams in the entire USA and has the highest glory hole spillway in the world. It also has incredible views of the river and surrounding mountain range.
There’s also an area where you can pull off to take better pictures and where you can leave your car and walk across the dam.
Often overlooked by its larger and glamorous cousin to the east (that would be Flathead Lake), Swan Lake is one of the hidden gems of Glacier Country in Montana.
if you’re looking for some fun on the lake in a serene setting, head to the lovely Swan Lake which is down the Swan River Corridor Drive from the northeast corner of Flathead Lake. It’s a beautiful drive to and from the Swan Lake Day Use Area, which is also a terrific way to access the lake.
My family was at the Swan Lake Day Use Area right before the Fourth of July and we saw hardly anybody else. It was easy to park right by numerous little trails leading down to what felt like a private beach; each picnic/beach area was separated from from the others with vegetation and trees so it feels private and peaceful, but you can still easily walk between all of them along the shoreline.
From the beach and picnic area we parked by, we were able to quickly and easily get our stand up paddle boards in the water, and then it was a peaceful paddle across the water with hardly any other boats or people around.
The water of Swan Lake was also warmer in early July than Flathead Lake was since it’s not as deep, though we were still glad we had our wetsuits. The day use area is on the east side of Swan Lake just a slight distance north of the tiny little town also called Swan Lake.
Read More: Activities Guide for Swan Lake, Montana
Garden of One Thousand Buddhas
This is a beautiful hidden gem in Montana to visit…even if a garden of one thousand buddhas seems a bit random in Montana! Located in Arlee on the Flathead Reservation about 30 miles north of Missoula, this sight doesn’t quite have 1,000 buddhas yet, but that’s the goal.
Started in 2000, the site was planned to be a center for international peace. Over the past couple decades, the buddhas have been created and built by volunteers and are being placed to represent the wheel of dharma. In the center is a large, colorful statue of Yum Chenmo, also referred to as the Great Mother.
National Bison Range
One of the preeminent animals to see while in Montana is the bison. These majestic animals look like some thing left over from the prehistoric age, and in a way they are.
Most visitors head to Yellowstone for the chance to see bison roaming and grazing in the valleys, but if you want to do a drive without the crowds through an area frequented by bison then head to the aptly named National Bison Range in Glacier County. The entrance is just a short drive southeast from Flathead Lake.
Once there, you’ll be able to drive through rolling plains framed by jagged mountain silhouettes, and you should see much fewer cars than in Yellowstone National Park as you look for those glorious bison.
Old Montana Ghost Town
Montana is home to several so-called ghost towns, which are old, decrepit, yet still standing towns leftover from the mining and gold rush era that have long since been abandoned.
My top pick for one to visit on your way through Montana is Bannack Ghost Town, just west of Dillon.
Bannack Ghost Town is where the first gold was discovered in Montana in 1862, resulting in a gold rush and new settlers arriving in Bannack. At its peak in 1863, Bannack’s population was 3,000 and then slowly dwindled over the coming years as the gold resources were depleted.
In 1954, the remains of deserted Bannack became a Montana State Park, and visitors can now walk down its Main Street lined by over 50 buildings that harken back to days gone by.
If you’re researching a trip to Montana you have probably heard of Bozeman, especially since it’s the major airport to fly into in western Montana.
But if you want to leave the crowds behind and get off the beaten track, then driving 30 minutes east of Bozeman to the town of Livingston is your answer.
In Livingston, you’ll still be close to Yellowstone National Park and Big Sky, but you’ll also be in a charming town that is known for its wild west history and delicious farm to table cuisine.
You can read more about what to do in Livingston in our Best Things to Do in Livingston Travel Guide here.