Photo: clspeace

From transport to food to lodging (and also to getting your priorities straight), here’s how to travel big sky country on a small time budget.

The Montana that most folks seek is all about wilderness, western mythology, and epic trout fishing. Even with the arrival of high-end eateries and increasingly expensive accommodations in iconic western American towns like Whitefish and Hamilton, you can still come away after a week or two in Montana with solitary experiences and money left in your billfold. Here’s how.

Photo: .Bala

Transportation

The best way to see Montana is by car.

Yes, there’s Amtrak and airports, but in the planes, trains, and automobiles trifecta, bet on the latter. Gas is a bit cheaper this year and as a rule Montana boasts some of the lowest petrol prices in the US.

The flexibility of your own ride allows for either intense investigation of one portion of the state, or a decent linear sample of Montana’s high mountains and vast prairies.

Lodging

For lodging, I subscribe to a “2/3 camping + 1/3 motel room” formula on a summer road trip, ideal in a place with plentiful outdoor sleeping options.

Besides Glacier National Park, there are nine national forests and several state parks to explore.

One unique lodging alternative involves rental of a historic fire lookout, ranger residence, or bunkhouse. Over 90 are available in the national forests. Cost is around $30.00 per night for four people, with varying levels of modern conveniences and accessibility.

They make excellent base camps for hiking, fishing, berry picking, or simply lying amongst the wildflowers in a nearby meadow (as a botany nerd, that’s where you’ll find me).

Montana is covered with campgrounds: private, public, developed, undeveloped. The latter works well if you are self contained and have no need for running water or flush toilets. They’re also best in terms of budgeting: free of charge.

“In 2008, a friend and I stayed in an obscure fly-to resort for small plane enthusiasts when all the Highway 93 hotels were booked…”

Fancier campsites will cost no more than $15.00 per night. You can reserve ahead of time, good advice when approaching summer tourist hot spots. I tend to take my chances and have no qualms following an obscure Forest Service road a few miles to some unknown place. The further off the beaten path, the less competition for camping space and more opportunity for Montana-style peace and quiet.

Travelers needing a proper mattress, lights, and hot water, will find them in every town offering the typical low/moderate/high range of lodging options. I go low end to kick the dirt off, catch an installment of SportsCenter and regroup. A complimentary breakfast is always a plus.

Summer is high season and hotels/motels close to Glacier and Yellowstone will be spendy and without vacancies. This is when wandering far afield may prove scenically and financially beneficial.

Photo: Eric_Ulmer

In 2008, a friend and I stayed in an obscure fly-to resort for small plane enthusiasts when all the Highway 93 hotels were booked in Hamilton due to a June pow wow.

For $37.50 each we shared a cabin with a gorgeous view of the Bitterroots, the only guests of the chatty Cessna pilot/innkeeper and his wife.

Come day break, we found out we were just up canyon from Triple Creek Ranch, a five-star spot for the Travel and Leisure set starting at $325.00 a night per person. I don’t know what that extra $225.00 would have gotten us exactly, but I don’t think our dogs would have been welcome.

Food

In keeping with a camping/DIY strategy, preparing meals most of the time goes easier on the food budget. There’s not a town in Montana right now without a Saturday farmer’s market. The absence of a sales tax is another money saver. Montana offers morels in the spring, huckleberries in the summer, and trout all year long. You can acquire other foodstuffs on your own or purchase them along the way.

Dine out sparingly, saving up for something spectacular for supper one night and brunch come Sunday. For comprehensive, statewide dining recommendations, check out Munching Montana: A Road Trip Guide to Montana’s Most Unique Local Food.

Getting Priorities Straight

My cash goes to adventures:

Photo: bugeaters

A whitewater plunge in kayak or raft, a knowledgeable fishing guide, or a night’s stay at a hot springs resort with therapeutic waters pumped into my private claw-foot tub. I keep the day-to-day simple, inexpensive, sweet tasting, and scenic.

Not being much of a shopper, my souvenir and gift purchases center on things I can eat, read, or listen to. I’m certain the dozen-plus Matador Montana experts concur and can expand on these suggestions.

These general hints and an Internet click over to Travel Montana should have you cruising the fun and frugal road to my favorite geographical neighbor. See you in the huckleberry patch in a few weeks!

Community Connection

If exploring Big Sky Country sounds good to you, make sure to read up on Bike Touring Montana: Classic Big Sky Rides and 9 Montana Backpacking Trips That Will Blow Your Mind.