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Montana Road Trip: From Flathead to Philipsburg

More of a road map to adventure than a simple scenic drive, this approximately 380-mile route offers limitless opportunities to get out and play. Make your home base Missoula, where you can river surf, bike, and learn to fly-fish downtown. From here, head north to see wild buffalo roam on the National Bison Range, try a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) on shimmering Flathead Lake, and ride a WaveRunner in summer or snowmobile in winter in Seeley Lake. Drive south from Missoula to mine a genuine Montana sapphire in historic Philipsburg. If you dare, head back on the road less traveled—the steep and winding portion of MT-38 that leads through forest, over 7,257-foot Skalkaho Pass, and past Skalkaho Falls.

The Route

Missoula > U.S. 93 > MT-35 to Bigfork > MT-83 > MT-200 > MT-141 > MT-271 > From MT-271 follow Frontage Road East toward Drummond. Turn left onto E Front Street through Drummond and then to the intersection with MT-1 > MT-1 through Philipsburg to Porters Corner > MT-38 (partially gravel road) through Skalkaho Pass (Caution: closed from the Tuesday after Thanksgiving until the Friday before Memorial Day; check conditions before leaving) > U.S. 93 to Missoula.

Note: MT-38 through Skalkaho Pass is a narrow (sometimes gravel) road and is not advised for motor homes, campers, or motorcycles.

Shortcut: If the approximately 50-mile drive on MT-38 across Skalkaho Pass is closed or makes you nervous, take I-90 back at Drummond to Missoula.

The National Bison Range in Moiese, established in 1908, is one of the nation’s oldest wildlife refuges. Arrive early in the day to allow ample time for viewing big mammals (including bison, bighorn sheep, elk, deer, and black bears) from observation points along the range roads. Best Bet: To up the chances of seeing wild buffalo, take Red Sleep Mountain Drive, which delves deeper into the park and provides vistas to see the buffalo (open summer season only).

Missoula is an outdoorsy activity hub and gold-level Bicycle Friendly Community. Rent a bike and ride the Riverfront Trail to the hand-carved Carousel for Missoula. Or tackle a mountain bike trail. Other must-sees: the University of Montana and the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula. You haven’t really visited Missoula until you hike the M, the city’s signature hiking trail. Choose the straight (and steep) or switchback trail up to the white concrete m on the slope of Mount Sentinel. From here it’s less than a mile to the summit. Inside Tip: Pop inside the old prospecting hole on the hike up and ride the wooden swing at the top.

Go surfing Montana-style at Brennan’s Wave, a man-made white-water venue on the Clark Fork River in downtown Missoula. Rent a handmade board specially designed for river surfing or rent SUPs and gear at the nearby Strongwater Mountain Surf Company.

From U.S. 93 you can see the St. Ignatius Mission, located on the Flathead Indian Reservation. The Gothic revival Catholic church was built with clay bricks in the early 1890s. Stop inside for quiet reflection and to see the 58 original frescoes painted on the walls and ceilings by Brother Joseph Carignano (open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. in summer; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in winter).

Charlo is home to Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge and its wide variety of waterfowl, including tundra swans, white pelicans, Canada geese, and more. The refuge is part of the National Bison Range Complex and is located about ten miles from the range’s visitors center. Drive the back roads to see the kettle ponds where shorebirds congregate. To learn about the Flathead Indian Reservation and early Montana history, stop at the Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana.

The Cheff family has welcomed visitors to the Cheff Guest Ranch in Charlo since 1933. Unlike many dude ranches, this working ranch offers day rides to nonguests (two-hour minimum). To schedule a ride, call Mick or Karen Cheff at (406) 644-2557.

South of Polson, look for the Miracle of America Museum, billed as the state’s “largest and most diversified museum.” The five-acre site is packed indoors and out with memorabilia (kid-friendly items are tagged “enjoy but don’t destroy”), including more than 70 vintage motorcycles, 4,000 pieces of cycling collectibles, and a Vietnam War–era Huey helicopter. A general store is stocked with antique merchandise. Open daily.

Montana only has five cheese creameries, and the only one using a solar-powered pasteurization process—Flathead Lake Cheese in Polson—is on your route. Cheesemakers (and former professional actors) Joe and Wendi Arnold built the cheery yellow creamery and host entertaining tours and tastings when not making Hoppin’ Mad Gouda, Joe’s Hawaiian Shirt feta, and other original cheeses. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Monday to Saturday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday.

Bigfork is a small Flathead Lake town with a big focus on homegrown arts, foods, and drinks. Browse the collection of exclusively Montana-made original paintings, ceramics, and more at ARTfusion, a contemporary art gallery. Call ahead for a distiller-led tour of the Whistling Andy micro-distillery, where the handcrafted spirits are sourced from Montana grains. Or, simply sip whiskey, rum, vodka, or cucumber gin in the tasting room, which is decorated with Flathead Lake driftwood, reclaimed lumber furniture, and paintings and photography (available for purchase) by local artists. Inside Tip: Whistling Andy offers bottling parties for groups of up to 15. In exchange for bottling help, they’ll provide lunch.

In Seeley Lake, play on the water or the trails. Rent a canoe, WaveRunner, boat, or bike in summer or a snowmobile, snowshoes, or cross-country skis in winter (December to mid-April). Stop at Grizzly Claw Trading Company to see Montana-made, Native American, and Western art and artifacts. At the in-house Jitterbug Java coffee bar, sip Evening in Missoula and other tea blends from Montana Tea and Spice Trading.

Dig into Philipsburg’s rich mining heritage at the Granite County Museum and Cultural Center’s Ghost Town Hall of Fame. Go mining for blue, pink, or yellow Montana sapphires at Montana Gems of Philipsburg, Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine, or Sapphire Gallery (closed Saturdays). If you find a gem, all three can make it into a piece of custom jewelry.

In summer, plan a detour to Georgetown Lake for a day of boating, paddleboarding, or jet skiing. Rent your ride and water toys, such as kneeboards and tubes, in advance.

Bring binoculars to Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, located between Stevensville and Florence on U.S. 93. The refuge is home to an incredible diversity of waterbirds, plus nesting bald eagles and ospreys, strutting turkeys, great horned owls, songbirds, moose, and black bears. Inside Tip: Visit in spring to see the largest number of birds and in fall to see the foliage.

Gibson Mansion Bed and Breakfast in Missoula is a restored 1903 Victorian with four elegantly styled guest rooms and secluded gardens. Owners Tom and Nancy Malikie are Missoula natives. Best Bet: The master suite has a private balcony and fireplace.

Ninepipes Lodge in Charlo is a clean, comfortable motel conveniently located on U.S. 93 and across from Ninepipes Reservoir. The Mountain Side rooms have less highway noise, plus outdoor patios to sit and watch the skies over the Mission Mountains.

At the 30-suite Mountain Lake Lodge in Bigfork, stay on the second floor for the best views of Flathead Lake. All rooms have fireplaces, and there’s a pub and restaurant on-site.

Another locally owned Bigfork option is the Islander Inn. The funky, eight-room inn is across the street from Flathead Lake and from the Raven, a lively (and inexplicably Caribbean-themed) restaurant and bar.

Pitch a tent at Lake Mary Ronan State Park, located just west of Flathead Lake but away from the tourist crowds. The remodeled campground is a paved loop with electrical sites. Best Bet: Visit in fall, when the larch trees change to yellow, and elk can sometimes be heard bugling across the lake.

Located on a remote 19th-century homestead, the Ranch at Rock Creek in Philipsburg delivers a luxurious yet authentically Montanan experience. Lodging (one-bedroom suites to five-bedroom homes), guided activities, gear, gourmet meals, and wine and spirits are covered in the all-inclusive rate. The 6,600-acre property includes meadows, mountains, forests, and access to Rock Creek, a Blue Ribbon trout fishery. Inside Tip: Trapper Cabin is the ranch’s most secluded “glamping” (glamorous camping) accommodation. The private cabin of canvas, wood, and stone sits on the banks of Rock Creek and is open year-round.

At KettleHouse Southside Brewery taproom in Missoula, watch the craft brew production process while sampling a Fresh Bongwater Hemp Pale Ale or other “K-Hole” mainstay. The taproom doesn’t serve food, so get lunch at Biga Pizza. Try a pie incorporating locally sourced foods, such as the Flathead cherry pizza in winter and the fennel marmalade, bacon, and Gouda pie in summer. For dinner, reserve a table at the fine-dining restaurant Red Bird. Inside Tip: The Red Bird wine bar is walk-in only. For an off-menu treat, order the champagne fondue and ask for added melt-in-your-mouth tenderloin.

Stop for a coffee and doughnut (or a huckleberry muffin) at the Windmill Village Bakery in Ravalli. The made-from-scratch specialties include oversize doughnuts (made from the owner’s family recipe) with light vanilla glaze on the outside and a light and fluffy inside. Open Tuesday to Saturday, April to December.

In Bigfork, start the day with an Echo Lake Cafe Cowboy Benedict (homemade biscuit, ham, eggs, and sausage gravy) or a slice of fresh-baked coffee cake (such as blackberry and strawberry-peach). At lunch, pair a Huck Mountain smoothie (made with wild huckleberries) with a hot panino at family owned Grateful Bread. Watch the sunset from the heated outdoor deck at the Raven on Flathead Lake. Best Bet: Check the Raven’s daily menu for yak specialties (such as meatloaf or sliders) from the local Spring Brook Tibetan Yak Ranch.

Lindey’s Prime Steak House is the only restaurant on the shores of Seeley Lake and has been owned and operated by the Lindemer family since 1980. The menu does include Alaskan king crab legs from October to March, but otherwise there are three choices: Lindey’s special sirloin, prime sirloin, and prime chopped sirloin. Inside Tip: Order the Lindey’s special and ask for extra “finger-lickin’” sauce.

In downtown Missoula, get fitted with an old-school, metal Brannock device for boots, sandals, or shoes at Hide and Sole. The family-owned footwear and leather shop also sells sheepskins and hides, such as bison, deer, and elk. Nearby (about a five-minute walk) Trail Head stocks all the gear and clothing you need to play on land and water. Ask the helpful, outdoors-loving staff for local hiking, fishing, and rock climbing tips. Best Bet: Check out the store’s sale racks and Missoula-area maps.

Before your trip, ship any used yet usable fishing gear to the Grizzly Hackle Fly Shop, located on the banks of the Clark Fork River in downtown Missoula. They’ll market your old rod, reel, or other equipment in the Grizzly Hackle Ebay store. If anything sells, you’ll receive store credit to upgrade your gear online or in person. Inside Tip: Grizzly Hackle’s master river guides are excellent fly-fishing instructors. If you're new to the sport or want to improve your skills, book a guided fishing trip.

The Barn, Bigfork’s only consignment and gift shop, houses an eclectic and ever changing inventory. Browse the 6,000-square-foot store for new and new-to-you finds, including vintage Western artifacts and cowboy boots, jewelry, clothing, furniture, and antiques. (Closed on Sundays and on Monday from October 1 to June 1.) From here, it’s only five miles to Eva Gates Homemade Preserves, where every batch of syrup or preserves is made with locally grown fruits and berries (such as apple and chokeberry).

In Philipsburg, buy a box of Dark Chocolate Premium Moose Truffles (made with Big Sky Brewing Company’s Moose Drool Ale) from the Sweet Palace. Closed Saturdays.

Get quilting tips, buy fabric and sewing supplies, or take a one-day class at Deer Country Quilts in Seeley Lake (check website for dates and times).

Catch a Missoula Osprey Baseball home game (late June through early September) at Missoula’s Ogren Park Allegiance Field. The Ospreys are the Pioneer League affiliate of Major League Baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks.

Missoula hosts the annual Western Montana Fair the second week of August. In addition to carnival rides, midway games, and 4-H exhibits, there are three action-packed marquee events: the Demolition Derby, Professional Bull Riding, and the Missoula Stampede PRCA Rodeo.

Philipsburg’s historic Opera House Theatre, built in 1891, presents live theater from Thursday to Sunday (late June through late August). The lineup typically includes three concurrent productions, making it possible to see a season’s worth of shows in a single weekend.

Pedal around Missoula with a purpose on the Missoula Microbrew Bike Tour. The route links several city breweries and brewpubs, most of which serve root beer as a nonalcoholic option. Inside Tip: Most tour stop locations open at noon, and last call is at 8 p.m. Start your ride early in the day to safely and slowly sip and eat your way around town before sunset.

Visit Seeley Lake studios to meet local artists and watch them work on the self-drive Alpine Artisans Tour of the Arts, held annually the second weekend of October. Most studios are located down gravel roads bordered by meadows, horse pastures, and other bucolic Seeley Swan Valley landscapes. 

Take a serene, scenic float trip; wild, white-water rafting excursion; or exhilarating river boarding ride with a Missoula-based outfitter such as 10,000 Waves Raft and Kayak Adventures or Montana River Guides, located on the Clark Fork River in Alberton at the entrance to Alberton Gorge.

The view from 7,257 feet at Skalkaho Pass is one that few tourists ever see. Getting there requires driving (carefully) along 54 miles of the narrow, steep, and winding Skalkaho Road portion of MT-38. The combination dirt-and-gravel route was constructed in 1921 to connect the towns of Hamilton and Philipsburg. Follow the single-lane road (there are pull offs to let oncoming cars pass) over the rugged Sapphire Mountains. Payoffs include backcountry forest, creek, and mountain views, plus Skalkaho Falls, located adjacent to the road near the summit. Closed in winter. Inside Tip: There are no services along the way, so fill up the tank and stock up on food and water in Philipsburg before heading out.

From Bigfork, take a Pointer Scenic Cruise (May–November) southwest across Flathead Lake to Wild Horse Island State Park. Wild Horse, the largest freshwater lake island west of Minnesota, is home to mule deer, bighorn sheep, and a handful of wild horses.

Go fishing at Lake Mary Ronan State Park in Dayton, located about 40 miles south of Bigfork, off U.S. 93. Lake Mary’s top catches of the day: yellow perch, salmon, and bass. Inside Tip: A Montana Conservation license is required before you can buy a fishing license, or you can purchase both as a combo.

Visit the remote ghost town of Garnet, located approximately 11 miles off MT-200 near Seeley Lake. The partially paved road to Garnet is open to vehicles from May 1 to January 1, depending on snow conditions. From MT-200, turn south between mile markers 22 and 23 onto Garnet Range Road.

Check out the summer photography workshops available at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography in Missoula.

Mid-July through mid-August is typically wild huckleberry season. At restaurants and bakeries along the route, look for fresh huckleberry specials, such as huckleberry pancakes, ice cream, and martinis. Best Bet: Buy fresh huckleberries or go huckleberry picking.

In late July, pull off at the roadside fruit stands selling Flathead Lake cherries along MT-35 (eastern side of lake) and U.S. 93 (western side).

Base Camp Bigfork is an all-season outdoor outfitter offering equipment rentals and customized activities any month of the year. In summer, rent SUP equipment or kayaks to go paddling on Flathead Lake. If you’re visiting in winter, book one of their Dogsled Adventures to mush your own team of Inuit sled dogs. Inside Tip: For daytime paddling excursions, access Flathead Lake at Wayfarers State Park. Stick around to watch the sunset from the rocky cliffs.

Missoula is home to the Missoula Smokejumper Base, the largest training center for smokejumpers (firefighters who parachute from airplanes) in the United States. Memorial Day through Labor Day, take a guided tour of the parachute loft and training facilities.

Day 1: Missoula

Day 2: Missoula to Flathead Lake and Bigfork

Day 3: Bigfork to Philipsburg

Day 4: Philipsburg to Missoula

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