Glacier National Park
Celebrated conservationist John Muir called Glacier National Park’s dramatic landscape “the best care-killing scenery on the continent.” More than a million acres of glacier-carved terrain form an all-season wilderness wonderland: 400-foot-high waterfalls and 762 lakes, treeless summits and coniferous forests, lush alpine meadows and high country glaciers.
If you have limited time, drive the spectacularly scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road, which crests the Continental Divide at 6,646-foot Logan Pass. The 50-mile route provides access year-round (some sections are closed late September to late June) to recreational opportunities and breathtaking vistas. In spring, hike or bike Going-to-the-Sun before the entire road reopens to vehicular traffic. In fall, chart your own autumn foliage tour on some of the park’s more than 700 miles of maintained hiking trails.
During the busy summer season, head to a less visited part of the park like Two Medicine, where you can join a guided hike or boat tour. Winter at Glacier brings fewer visitors and miles of deep powder for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, ranger-led nature walks, and quiet contemplation.
Yellowstone National Park
What’s the secret to getting the most out of Yellowstone? Join what locals call the “5 percent club.” The first U.S. national park, so designated in 1872, draws about 3.5 million visitors a year. But 95 percent of those visitors stay on the Grand Loop Road, getting out of their cars only long enough to watch Old Faithful erupt. Be one of the few who get off the main roads and boardwalks, and consider a spring or fall visit when the park still is easily accessible yet less visited.
Yellowstone covers 3,472 square miles, so there’s plenty of space to explore and animals to see; the park has the largest concentration of wildlife in the lower 48. “Make no mistake, though, the park isn’t a zoo,” says Dan Hottle, public affairs officer for Yellowstone. “This is one of America's last truly wild settings, managed strictly to allow nature to follow its course.”
National Bison Range, Moiese
The herd of approximately 350 wild buffalo here roams free—and protected—thanks to President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1908, Roosevelt and the U.S. Congress established this National Bison Range on 18,500 acres of prairie near Flathead Lake to save the American bison from extinction. For an inside view of the mighty bison, drive the preserve’s steep Red Sleep Mountain Drive. The 19-mile gravel road—open only during the summer—gains 2,000 feet in elevation and has 10 percent grades.
Plan on at least one and a half to two hours to do the full trip up and back. “From the top, you can view the snowcapped Mission Mountains to the east and the Mission Valley stretching to the north,” says Pat Jamieson, outdoor recreation planner for the Bison Range. “On clear days, you can see beyond Flathead Lake all the way to the mountains of Glacier National Park.”
Wild Horse Island State Park, Flathead Lake
Wild Horse Island is a 2,160-acre hunk of land breaking through the waters of Flathead Lake, the biggest freshwater body of water west of the Mississippi—at 28 miles long, up to 15 miles wide, and with 185 miles of shoreline.
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“The cleanliness and incredible clarity of the water in the summer and fall makes for spectacular snorkeling opportunities around the lake’s many islands and rocky shorelines,” says David Landstrom, a park manager. “But my must-do activity here is to visit Wild Horse, which is accessible only by watercraft.”
The primitive island is open year-round for day use. Rent a boat from town, pack a picnic, and spend the day hiking and looking for resident wildlife, including a thriving population of bighorn sheep, mule deer, songbirds, waterfowl, bald eagles, falcons, and the island’s namesake wild horses.
Lone Pine State Park, Kalispell
Located four miles southwest of Kalispell, Lone Pine is one of the gems of Montana's rich state park system. Covering 270 acres and ranging between 2,959 and 3,709 feet in elevation, the Flathead River Valley park offers 7.5 miles of trails for, depending on the season, hiking, mountain biking, snowshoeing, and horseback riding. The thing that draws locals, though, is the park’s year-round schedule of events, including National Winter Trails Day, which offers the chance to try out snowshoeing on guided hikes; June's National Get Outdoors Day; Raptor Day in September; and the kids Snow Stompers Program, a series of one-hour workshops allowing kids ages four to seven to explore all things winter.