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Photo by Jeff Handlin

From alpine tundra to lush valleys, hot springs to waterfalls, here is some of the most amazing terrain in the world and how you can get there.

This article is sponsored by our friends at the State of Montana.

THERE’S SOMETHING about waking up deep in the backcountry, having carried all of your gear in to camp near a quiet lake or alpine cirque with panoramic views of the surrounding peaks.

You can find dozens of places like this in the Big Sky State. These are nine of my favorites, the ones I consider the “ultra-classic” Montana experiences.

Montana has incredibly varied terrain, so I’ve included different regions as well as different levels of difficulty and distance.

East Rosebud Trail (aka The Beaten Path)

Location: Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Arguably one of the best hiking experiences the Rocky Mountains has to offer in any state, the East Rosebud trail between Red Lodge and Cooke City has something for everyone, from wildlife that walks right up to you, to incredible fishing in lakes surrounded by craggy peaks, to trailside berries to munch on.

A strong hiker could make this 26 mile hike in one day, but if you want to get the most out of the trip, expect to spend three or more days out there. Though the trail gets its nickname from the mid-summer throngs of people, it’s far from crowded. Take any of dozens of side trails and you’ll find yourself in complete solitude.

Cottonwood Creek, Crazy Mountains

Location: Gallatin National Forest

Unlike many backpacking routes, this hike offers great mountain views right from the start. The trail follows Cottonwood Creek through prime moose habitat before climbing to excellent camping in the beautiful glacial tarn that embraces Cottonwood Lake.

Fishing is good at Cottonwood Lake, but another unnamed pond just below Cottonwood has water so clear you can watch the foot-long trout strike your line. Make sure you bring a stove to cook your catch as firewood is scarce.

Photo: Jeff Handlin

Boulder Pass

Location: Glacier National Park

If you’re looking for a variety of interesting geological features Boulder Pass won’t disappoint. The beginning of the hike is marked by ample huckleberries along alpine lakes, lovely expanses of prairie and spectacular views of Harris Glacier. Waterfalls line the mountainsides as you make your way up to Boulder Pass.

Here, the geology gets more interesting. The terrain resembles a moonscape with lava pools and other reminders of the area’s volcanic past. The trail goes through Hole-in-the-Wall campground, said to be the most remote campsite in Glacier Park, and along narrow cliff-side trails Glacier is famous for.

Bechler River Trail

Location: Yellowstone National Park

Bechler River Trail has everything people come to Yellowstone Park for: wildlife, waterfalls, hot springs, picturesque river canyons, and great fishing. It is also one of the least visited areas of the park. That said, don’t leave getting your backcountry permits until the last second.

Camping is limited to established campsites and there aren’t many. It is also one of the least strenuous trails in the Rockies, being flat or a slight decline for most of its substantial length. Its flat grade turns boggy in some areas, making it almost impassable until early August.

Photo: Jeff Handlin

Big Creek to Bear Creek Traverse

Location: Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness

The first several miles of the Big Creek Trail wander along the bottom of a forested canyon and belie the rugged nature of the Bitterroot range. Stepping out of the trees near Big Lake, however, will introduce you to the jagged peaks that characterize most of the hike, twice crossing the spine of the Bitterroot divide between Montana and Idaho.

The stunning views and complete solitude make the considerable trek in well worth it.

Moose Lake Trail

Location: Bob Marshall-Great Bear Wilderness

This trail, located just south of Glacier Park’s southern boundary, offers what’s best about the Bob Marshall Wilderness: options. Studying the map for a few minutes will reveal almost infinite possibilities from lake-to-lake angling excursions to alpine summit expeditions.

The trail to Moose Lake begins in dense woods but soon opens up into spectacular views north into Glacier and south/east into the Great Bear Wilderness. Next, drop into Moose Lake, or change your mind and climb to Tranquil Basin, descend into Elk Lake or hook up with the Twenty-five Mile Creek Trail.

From there, choose between heading for the Middle Fork of the Flathead River or climbing Vinegar Mountain. You get the idea.

Hyalite Creek to Hyalite Peak

Location: Gallatin National Forest

This trail is short but sweet, and considered by many to be the premier hike of the Bozeman area. In the first five miles to Hyalite Lake, the trail passes eleven seperate waterfalls cascading from Hyalite Basin’s red rock bowl. At Apex Falls, just below Hyalite Lake, the trail branches toward Apex Crest and Hyalite Peak.

Hyalite Peak may not be the highest peak in the Gallatins, but it may be the most beautiful, looking down on one of the most unique drainages in Montana.

Crystal Lake-West Peak

Photo: Jeff Handlin

Location: Lewis and Clark National Forest

Starting at Crystal Lake, the trail leads in a long loop to the top of the Snowy Mountains, connecting with several side trails that lead to peak-bagging opportunities—notably Promontory and Grandview Peaks. At least two cave entrances along the trail will entice spelunkers to light up and explore.

Upper Potosi Hot Springs

Location: Tobacco Root Mountains

The Tobacco Root Mountains are often overlooked when it comes to backcountry adventures. Big mistake. The landscape is more arid than most in Montana, which makes for open, panoramic views. Hot springs on the trail bubble into primitive backcountry soaking pools. A just reward for the hike in.

More information

Gallatin National Forest Headquarters
Federal Building
P.O. Box 130
Bozeman, MT 59771
(406) 587 – 6701

Glacier National Park
Off Hwy. 2
P.O. Box 128
West Glacier, MT 59936

Bob Marshall Wilderness hike

Lewis & Clark National Forest
Augusta Information Station
Augusta, MT 59410
Phone: (406) 562-3247

Custer National Forest
Beartooth District, Rt 2, Box 3420, Red Lodge, MT 59068

Crystal Lake hike

Lewis & Clark National Forest, Judith Basin Ranger District
PO Box 869
Great Falls, Montana 59403
(406) 791-7700

Bechler River Trail

Yellowstone National Park
P.O. Box 168
Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190
phone: 307-344-7381
fax: 307-344-2005

Visit the backcountry planner on Yellowstone’s website — the backcountry office can be reached at 307-344-2160.

About The Author

Eric Warren

Frequent Matador Contributor Eric Warren has lived in various Montana locales including Missoula, Big Sky, Bozeman, and Billings, for 25 years.

  • Benjamin

    Sitting in an office building right now and seriously considering taking two weeks off. Thanks for this article. I’m heavily considering Glacier and the Boulder Pass looks awesome!

  • Sarah

    Ohhh!! You just made me so, so homesick for mountains (not that I grew up around them, but I’ve traveled to and climbed a fair number). Gorgeous photos…the whole article makes me want to be trekking along some Montana creek with that smell of snow and pine blowing down from the mountains…

  • Julie

    I’d be totally confident printing out this article and using it as my Montana hike guide. The information is solid; the photos are just beautiful– you took me right there.

  • michelle

    You took me right back to the lake where I stood and saw my first Grizzly…Glacier is perhaps one of Northern America’s greatest gifts. Truly a humbling place. Now I am eager to see the others you’ve written about – thanks for the inspiration!

  • Tina of Pfeiffer Photos

    Another wonderful post…want to go there now, please! The photos are just breathtaking!! Thanks :)

  • Carlo

    Great writeup Eric! I love the great outdoors but never really knew what Montana had to offer. I would love to do some of these. Gorgeous shots too.

  • Dave

    Great list! But the Bechler is not in Montana…

  • Tom

    Boulder Pass looks like the one for me. Thanks for including all of the info at the end. I’m making a pdf of this page and saving it for later this year, when I hope to go to Montana.

  • David Miller

    Damn, this makes me want to break out the backpacking gear. That hot springs hike sounds especially good to go.

  • Jen

    Unreal. I promised my husband we’d go, but I wasn’t looking forward to it…. until now!!

  • Sarah King

    I was married in Glacier along the banks for Lake McDonald. Those of us forced to sit in cubicles need to unite and relocate in Big Sky country.

  • Tim Patterson

    Those photos make me want to throw my laptop into a lake, stock up on rice and lentils and go catch some fish.

  • Hal

    Give me a backpack and wave goodbye…I’m gone!

  • samh

    Yes, as Dave pointed out the Bechler region of Yellowstone is located in Wyoming. I’ve done four of the suggested hikes above and can attest to their beauty.

  • Phillip Otterness

    Who’s coming with me?

  • Dwayne Mason

    I’m in

  • James Taylor

    All 9!

  • Jarrod

    Hiked Devil Creek trail to Elk Lake in Sept. 2013. Great lake and fair fishing. The campsite is great and the views are fantastic. Huckleberries for weeks. Hiked down to Moose lake and the lake was completely dry except for one small pool at the far end. Lots of bear tracks at Moose Lake. See pics below.

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