On your next Montana adventure, veer off the well-trod hiking trails to discover places most visitors never see. This collection is a something-for-everyone trail sampler: from hardcore backcountry treks and challenging day hikes, to family-friendly nature, wildlife, and history walks. Every region of Montana is represented. So wherever you go, a trail less travelled will be close by.
Glacier Country: Ross Creek Cedars Scenic Area, Kootenai National Forest
Hike under a thick canopy of colossal western red cedar trees—some towering up to 175 feet high—at the Ross Creek Cedars Scenic Area. Located south of Troy in northwest Montana’s Kootenai National Forest, the 100-acre rainforest area protects an awe-inspiring grove of ancient cedars, most more than 500 years old and some topping the century mark.
Get up-close views of the giant trees on the accessible nature trail, which starts in the parking area, crosses Ross Creek, and loops through part of the grove. The paved trail is less than a mile long, and has benches and interpretative signs. For a deeper dive under the cedars, follow the nature trail to Ross Creek Trail 142, a 4.5-mile day hike route suitable for families.
Southeast Montana: Rosebud Battlefield State Park and National Historic Landmark, Busby
Walk back in time through remote Rosebud Battlefield State Park and National Historic Landmark, also known as Where the Girl Saved Her Brother. Located about 90 miles southeast of Billings, the 3,052 acre park preserves one of the finest examples of a Great Sioux War battlefield and is sacred ground to the Northern Cheyenne. Interpretive markers recount the story of the 1876 Battle of the Rosebud, a fierce, eight-hour clash involving thousands of Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors and United States Army soldiers.
Paths in the primitive park, a former ranch reclaimed by nature, lead to historic sites, such as petroglyphs carved below an ancient buffalo jump. Hike up to Crook’s Hill summit, the U.S. Army command post during the battle, for wide-ranging views of rocky outcrops and the wave-like prairie.
Central Montana: Sluice Boxes State Park, Belt
Limestone cliffs, multiple creek crossings, and remnants of Montana’s mining history await adventurous day hikers at Sluice Boxes State Park near Belt. The 1,450-acre park, named for the gold-panning trays prospectors use, occupies the eight northernmost miles of Belt Creek Canyon. When water in the fast-moving creek is low (typically July to September), you can hike through the canyon on the primitive Sluice Boxes Trail.
The 7.5-mile (one way) trail traces an abandoned railroad bed from Riceville Bridge at the top of the canyon down to Logging Creek Bridge. For a shorter Sluice Boxes sampler—scenic overlook, creek crossings, abandoned cabins, and some cliff-hugging sections—hike the first two miles of the trail and turn around.
Southwest Montana: Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, various locations
Montana is home to the longest (820 miles) section of the five-state, 3,100-mile Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT). Considered the most-challenging of the nation’s long-distance hiking Triple Crown (CDT, Appalachian Trail, and Pacific Coast Trail), the trail mainly consists of existing and proposed trails, and dirt roads.
While the entire CDT isn’t complete, the Southwest Montana sections offer day hikers and backpackers miles of solitude, unspoiled wilderness, and spectacular high-altitude vistas, such as snow-capped peaks and glacial lakes. Northeast of Helena in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, gain access to the CDT at MacDonald, Rogers, Flesher, Stemple, or Priest Passes. For a rugged, backcountry trek, hike the 45-mile CDT section running through the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness west of Butte.
Missouri River Country: Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, Lewiston and Fort Peck
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Spanning 1.1 million acres, the Charles M. RussellNational Refuge (CMR) embodies the spirit of Montana: natural, unspoiled, and, seemingly, limitless. Exploring the CMR on foot takes extra planning, since there are few trails or services. Hikers who are prepared for rugged, backcountry conditions will be rewarded with sightings of all sorts of wild things, such as bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, osprey, and white pelicans.
There is an easy, paved trail on the eastern edge of the refuge at the Fort Peck Interpretive Center. Stop inside to learn about the CMR’s current and historic (such as dinosaurs) wildlife. Afterwards, watch for birds and other critters on the nature trail (3.34 miles one way) between the Interpretive Center and the Downstream Campground.
Yellowstone Country, Middle Fork Sweet Grass Trail, Crazy Mountains
Conquer the wild-and-windswept Crazies (Crazy Mountains) on the Middle Fork Sweet Grass Trail (Forest Trail 123). Located on the eastern side of the lofty southern Crazies—home to more than 20 jagged peaks topping 10,000 feet—the five-mile (one-way) trail follows the Middle Fork of Sweet Grass Creek through the Custer Gallatin National Forest. Since the Crazies are a patchwork of public and private lands, download the South Crazy Mountains trail map and obey posted No Trespassing and Private Property signs.
The Middle Fork Sweet Grass trail starts at the junction with Sweet Grass Trail (Forest Trail 122). From here, the hike leads southwest to the Middle Fork Sweet Grass Divide above Campfire Lake, one of about 40 alpine lakes in the Crazies. Since the range is an isolated and relatively barren island of rock, Crazy hikers are rewarded with sweeping views of the surrounding peaks and prairie. Scan the steep slopes for mountain goats and the open skies for eagles.