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Best of Montana in Summer: Outdoor Recreation

Check out the must-do local activities for outdoor enthusiasts visiting Montana this season.

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Montana's Upper Missouri River is one of the top canoe trips in the United States. It runs for 149 miles through the state's prairie country, and camping is permitted on all public lands bordering the river.


Go Paddling in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, Fort Benton

For 149 miles, the Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River slices through the central Montana prairie. Paddling along the river, which served as the passageway west for Lewis and Clark, is the best way to see the diverse geology—white cliffs, rugged badlands, sandstone canyons, and fertile valleys—of the remote Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. Lewis and Clark Trail Adventures offers three-, four-, and six-day canoe adventures through the area. The trips start in Fort Benton and take travelers through such areas as the Grand Natural Wall, Citadel Rock, and Hole-in-the-Wall formations.

“This active adventure gives you the unique perspective not possible from the highways and roads,” says Gia Randono, co-owner with her husband, Wayne Fairchild, of the outdoor adventure company. “Paddling the Upper Missouri River Breaks through the white cliffs is special from a historical perspective. It is a section of Lewis and Clark's route where the landscape hasn’t changed … You can still see Native American teepee rings and early pioneer homesteads along the banks of the river. The hiking opportunities up into the slot canyons are an unexpected highlight of the trip.”

Take a Llama Trek, Swan Valley

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If you think having a llama lug your gear up a trail doesn’t jive with the rugged Montana mindset, you’ve never met a llama. “Llamas make excellent trekking companions and make outstanding guard animals,” says Pat Tabor, founder and owner of Swan Mountain Companies, which operates Swan Mountain Llama Trekking. “One day all ten of our llamas treed a black bear that had wandered into their pasture. We had to remove them so the black bear could scurry down and be on his way.” You can meet Swan Mountain’s fearless llamas on a guided trip ranging from two hours to four days or more. Options include llama-packing clinics, yoga with a llama, and evening wine and cheese treks. On the latter, guides and guests set up a picnic on a scenic ridgetop overlooking the Swan Mountain Range, which makes up the western border of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. “We do a luxurious picnic setup, complete with tables, chairs, wine glasses, and a variety of cheeses, meats, crackers, and fruit,” says Tabor. “And, best of all, the pack llamas have done all of the heavy lifting for you.”

See the Chinese Wall, Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex

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At 22 miles long and averaging 1,000 feet high, the Chinese Wall—a limestone escarpment that’s part of the Continental Divide—truly is a natural wonder. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to get to, requiring at least three days to hike or horseback ride into the backcountry of the more than million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. "The awe-inspiring feeling that you get when you first see the wall, and then travel under it, is unforgettable,” says Connie Long, co-owner of Bob Marshall Wilderness Outfitters, which offers horseback trips to the wall. The wildlife and wildflowers and the splendor of the eastern front of the wall add to the experience. There are two perspectives from which the Chinese Wall can be seen. One is by traveling to the top of Haystack Mountain (the most familiar image). Long suggests taking a different angle by riding the trail along the base of the wall. “There is nothing like cresting the top of the hill and seeing the Chinese Wall shining back at you,” she adds. “It always gives me goose bumps.”

Be a Huckleberry Hound, Various Locations

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Across western Montana, huckleberry is the taste of summer. From the end of July through Labor Day, you can try something huckleberry—pancakes, jam, beer—at many local restaurants. Finding huckleberry foods to eat is easy. Locating actual huckleberries to pick can be more challenging, particularly since bears love them too. The trick, says veteran picker Jan Metzmaker, is to always carry a gallon-size, zipper-top bag with you. That way, if you come across a patch on a hike (try Danny On Trail at Whitefish Resort), you can take some berries with you. “Since you can’t cultivate huckleberries, it’s a summer tradition to go up into the mountains and pick them,” adds Metzmaker, former executive director of Glacier Fund, the fundraising partner of Glacier National Park. Although similar to blueberries, huckleberries have a definite tang. The versatile berry also makes one heck of a milkshake, and many Whitefish area restaurants will blend your huckleberries into one if you ask. The season’s first huckleberries typically appear at lower elevations in mid-July. As summer progresses, you’ll either have to hike higher up or stop at the Huckleberry Patch in Hungry Horse for a slice of freshly baked huckleberry pie.

Float Through the Gates of the Mountains, off I-15 Near Helena

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When explorer Meriwether Lewis first saw this spectacular, cliff-walled stretch of the Missouri River he named it Gates of the Rocky Mountains. While more commonly called Gates of the Mountains, the limestone cliffs continue to awe boaters who travel the Upper Missouri. Visitors can channel their inner explorer by taking a two-hour Gates of the Mountains (GOM) boat tour along Meriwether’s route. During the trip, it seems as though rock walls up to 1,200 feet high are blocking the way, giving the boat no place to go. Eventually, the cliffs appear to open like gates, revealing the rest of the river. “The uniqueness of the Gates of the Mountains is the hidden beauty,” says GOM boat tour manager Tim Crawford. “The canyon in some places towers over you, in other places it opens up for grand vistas.” River guides point out sights most people miss, such as 1,300-year-old pictographs and Kelsey Moss, a small pink-white flower that blooms in spring.

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