This article has been created in partnership between Matador and our friends at the State of Montana.
HERE ARE TEN of the finest, most colorful Montana watering holes I have had the pleasure of scarring my liver in. Though there are many others that are worthy of this list, these bars are standouts due to their local flavor and their proximity to world class recreation.
The Palace Bar, Fort Benton
Located within a stones throw of the mighty Missouri River, The Palace Bar in Fort Benton beckons as a fine beverage house with a friendly attitude.
I first found the Palace Bar the night before an extended canoe trip many years ago. With its aged wooden interior and friendly service my wife and I were soon feeling right at home.
A few drinks into our evening a woman in her sixties and her older sister walked in. Turns out, the older sister was actually her 90 year old pistol of a mother. This spry lass found a lonely piano against the wall, sat down and rocked the house. Playing, singing, dancing and drinking, even at 90 she could party with the best.
We camped that night (under a park bench) along the river. My wife had found slumber while I, fearing rain, was stowing our gear. To say I was alarmed when I saw the beat up Lincoln Town car creeping towards us with no lights on would be an understatement. I was armed when the car stopped and the high beams glared in my face.
I was relieved to hear the bartender’s voice. He had come just to inform us he’d kept his word and acquired some horseradish for our mornings Bloody Marys. Now that is service!
Fort Benton is quite the historic place. It has had an important role in the settlement and exploitation of Montana. These days it is better known as the last bastion of “civilization” before many Missouri river trips.
The Metlen, Dillon
I’ve always had a knack for letting a normal drinking night erupt into a spontaneous party and on one of these nights I found The Metlen in Dillon. Several years ago I helped haul a handicapped hunter and the deer he shot out of the woods. We both got animals at about 10:00 am and his ride wasn’t due back till after 5:00.
By the time we had everything loaded up in my truck I was a tad parched and in need of refreshment. When we hit the closest bar this guy told me to let him do the talking and I wouldn’t have to buy a drink all night. Once he started telling the story of our day and my hauling him and two deer out of the hills, that booze started flowing like a river.
As the night wore on I was taken under the wing of these four random cowboys. I don’t remember most of the drive (except a fight in Wisdom) but apparently we crossed the Big Hole and went to Dillon.
My memory of the rest of the evening remains foggy except for one incident. The cowboys I was with started another round of fights and this old guy I was sitting next to got fed up with the ruckus.
He casually got up, walked behind the bar and grabbed a can of bear deterrent pepper spray. He leisurely walked up to the pile of people fighting and announced that if they “couldn’t drink like normal assholes” he was going to hose down the lot of them with the spray. As I recall, they all opted to start playing nice.
Dillon is located in the middle of some of the coolest country in the state. You are close to the Big Hole, phenomenal climbing and backpacking and a whole host of blue ribbon trout streams. Also, Dillon has a college so there is a decent nightlife for such a small town. Finally, there is a Patagonia outlet store in Dillon that boasts annual clearance sales that are unbelievable.
West Glacier Bar, Glacier
Every good outdoor location needs to have somewhere nearby to re-hydrate and when in Glacier, the West Glacier Bar gets my vote. I found this honey hole after a pack trip many moons ago. After six hard days in the rugged terrain of Glacier the booze hit me hard and I fell asleep at my table around lunch time.
I awoke to the dinner crowd getting rowdy feeling refreshed and ready for round two.
Barn board walls and low lighting initially obscure the stuff on the walls.
As your eyes adjust you can see the pictures and relics on the walls and you begin to realize that the bar is a mecca for climbers, backpackers and whitewater enthusiasts. Be prepared to hear several different languages on any given day as the park draws quite the international crowd.
Rocky Knob, near Conner
I was just a wee ladd of 19 when I first discovered the magic of the Rocky Knob. I was a hunting guide at the time and I would cut loose, real loose, at the “Sloppy Knob” on my few nights off. This is a fun loving redneck bar where almost anything goes as long as you don’t act like a dink or like too much of an urbanite.
The bar is attached to a hotel and a restaurant that has semi-fine dining. It is said that the bar was built in the 1940’s for a colorful lady named Ptomaine Joe who traded personal favors to the loggers and carpenters who built it for her.
I have gotten to know many folks that have worked there over the years and they all attest to the fact that the place is haunted. The hunting and fishing in the area is awesome and the family friendly Lost Trail ski area is just a wee bit down the road.
Miner Saloon, Cooke City
If you should happen to be exploring the famed Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park, do yourself a favor and make the small side trip to Cooke City and the Miner Saloon. Depending on the day and the bartender, this place can be an absolute riot. It has a party waiting to happen year round and it doesn’t take much for things to disintegrate into a drunken melee.
This place is surrounded by the Beartooth Wilderness and Yellowstone so there is plenty of fun to be had. The fishing, ice climbing, backcountry skiing and snowmobiling are off the charts.
Coming through the park you will pass through neighboring Silver Gate which also has a fine beverage establishment. If you have an off road type vehicle, I highly recommend taking the Bannock road between the two towns. Do yourself a favor and be sure to drive this road in the daylight before trying it in the dark!
Charlie’s Bar, Babb
I’ve already mentioned the cool stuff going on around Glacier Park. At the north east corner of the park is a little town called Babb. Babb rocks!
The bar to visit in Babb used to be the Babb Bar. In its day it ranked as one of the most dangerous bars in the country with shootings, and stabbings a regular event.
Today the Babb Bar is a restaurant and the place to go is Charlie’s Bar. Picture this, about a thousand twenty-something year old seasonal employees at the park, a daily influx of international visitors and the Browning Indian Reservation just down the road.
Now add great pizza and a constant stream of awesome live music and stiff drinks. This is the beauty of Charlie’s. The place is a party almost every night and it is a really chill scene with little harassment by local lawmen. I have never had a bad time at Charlie’s and the music scene is incredible.
If you find yourself in Babb, you are usually there for one reason, to enter the Many Glaciers area of Glacier Park. In my opinion, this is the most picturesque, rugged and awe-inspiring region of the park and you must see it at least once in your life. Good food at the old Babb Bar and good times at Charlie’s.
The Jack, Missoula
The Jack (formerly the Lumber Jack Saloon), though close to the thriving metropolis of Missoula, is as wild a bar as you could ever desire. The walls of the building are built from old growth cedars and the entire interior is hewn from local logs.
These days The Jack has cabins for rent and all the facilities needed for big parties. My beautiful bride and I were wed there and we have had many, many wild times on their grounds. Anything can and does happen at the Jack. They have live music most weekends and five star fried food.
Located about 16 miles up highway 12, The Jack is close to Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley as well as Lolo Pass. You are surrounded by great climbing, paddling, backcountry skiing, hot springs, hunting and fishing. With the college town of Missoula nearby there is always an influx of party-minded folks.
#1. Pony Bar, secret location
Located in a truly one horse town, the Pony Bar is my favorite out-of-the-way filling station. It is secluded and almost unknown, and surrounded by mountains that get little attention. There is climbing and hot springs nearby and everyone that finds their way to Pony came to party.
I’m going to let this place be a little treasure for the serious drinker-adventurer to find. Do me a favor though, when you find it help keep the secret!
Planning to visit Montana this summer? Pair up your Montana bar crawl with a tour of the Most Unique Local Food in the state.
We’ve recently put together a special Montana In Focus page where you can find locally-written guides on Montana paddling as well as cycling, fly fishing, backpacking . Check it out!
Do you have any favorite Montana bars? Let us know in the comments below?