Six Montana Scenic Drives You Haven’t Taken Yet

Hit the open road with these six Montana scenic drives.

The Milk River carves a stunning path through Missouri River Country.
Image Credit: Sean R. Heavey

Wild, wide, and spectacularly scenic Montana is made for road trips. Whether you’re craving high-altitude adventure on a ridiculously winding road, a leisurely drive with incredible badlands views, or something in between, there’s a Montana scenic drive on this list for you. Choose a route, fill up the tank, and go.

Glacier Country: Skalkaho Highway

Not for the faint of heart, the primitive Skalkaho Highway (MT-38) is a twisting, mostly gravel thrill ride through the Sapphire Mountains. The 54-mile seasonal road (typically open Memorial Day weekend to November, check road conditions) connects the town of Hamilton and the Bitterroot Valley in the west to the historic mining town of Philipsburg in the east.

Elevate your Instagram by sharing road views, such as Skalkaho Falls, 7,260-foot Skalkaho Pass, and thrilling hairpin curves. Go slowly for safety and to watch for mountain goats, moose, mule deer, black bears, and other wildlife. Fall is the best season to spot elk. To explore more of the surrounding 23,000-acre wildlife area, pitch a tent at Black Bear Campground or Crystal Creek Campground.

Yellowstone Country: Beartooth Highway

Feel on top of the world on the wild-and-winding Beartooth Highway (U.S. 212), the highest elevation highway in the Northern Rockies. Beginning at an elevation of 6,400 feet (just south of Red Lodge) the 68-mile All-American Road climbs southwest, before corkscrewing northwest to Cooke City-Silver Gate, Montana, near the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park.

The epic drive delivers spectacularly scenic views, such as 20 snowcapped peaks topping 12,000 feet, glaciers, alpine lakes, dense forests, mountain goats, and grizzly bears. The road is open from Memorial Day weekend to mid-October, weather permitting. Get gas and road snacks in Red Lodge or Cooke City before making the drive, as there are no travel services available.

Southeast Montana: Glendive to Billings

Dig into Montana’s dinosaur history and Native American heritage on a 607-mile ramble through the badlands and plains. Begin in Glendive, home to two Montana Dinosaur Trail stops: Makoshika State Park (the state’s largest) and the Frontier Gateway Museum (summers only). Go east on I-94 to Wibaux, and then south on MT-7 to the sandstone pillars of Medicine Rocks State Park. Bring camping gear to spend the night among the remote park’s otherworldly rock formations. Campsites are first come, first served, and RVs are welcome.

Spend the next morning exploring the park before continuing south to Ekalaka. Stop to see the triceratops skull and other prehistoric treasures at the Carter County Museum's impressive paleontology exhibit. From Ekalaka, drive south and west (MT-323 to MT-277 to U.S. 212) to Broadus. Plan to spend at least two hours here viewing the vast-and-varied collection (such as 20,000 seashells and a one-room schoolhouse) at the Powder River Historical Museum and Mac’s Museum. Overnight at one of the historic Broadus Motels. The next day, continue west to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. From here, head north on I-90 to Billings, where you can learn more about Southeast Montana at the Western Heritage Center.

Missouri River Country: Bainville to Malta

Launch your own discovery expedition by retracing part of Lewis and Clark’s route through Montana’s Missouri River Country. The 187-mile drive west on U.S. 2 primarily follows the Missouri and Milk Rivers, and passes through the Fort Peck Reservation and several historic small towns.

Begin in Bainville, home to the Pioneer’s Pride Museum (summer only). Next up is Culbertston, host of homespun annual events, such as Frontier Days and the Labor Day Trail Ride and Wagon Train. In Nashua, take MT-117 south to tour the Fort Peck Dam and Power Plant Museum. Continue west to Glasgow’s Valley County Pioneer Museum. Wrap up your trip by touring The Great Plains Dinosaur Museum and Field Station and Phillips County Museum in Malta.

Southwest Montana: Ennis to the Centennial Valley

Experience a “wide-open spaces” slice of Southwest Montana few visitors take the opportunity to explore. The drive (about 135 miles one way) begins in the fly-fishing hub of Ennis and ends in the Centennial Valley, a remote ranching community and wildlife corridor, little changed since the 1870s. Buy gas and supplies in Ennis as there are few travel services on the route.

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From Ennis, take U.S. 287 south to MT-87 south. After a quick border crossing, go west at Henrys Lake on South Valley Road (MT-509). The mostly all-season gravel road crosses back into Montana at Red Rock Pass (elevation 7,120 feet) and continues west along the base of the Centennial Mountains through the unspoiled Centennial Valley.

With its distant snowcapped peaks and sweeping sagebrush, grasslands, wetlands, and family ranch lands, Centennial Valley is a microcosm of natural and rugged Montana. If time permits, drive the 45-mile Refuge Loop through the Valley’s Red Rock Lakes Wildlife Refuge to look for moose, pronghorn, and other wildlife. The drive ends in Monida (where South Valley Road meets I-15). From here, either go north 63 miles to overnight in Dillon or retrace the route to Ennis. An alternative—and adventurous—path to Ennis is through the Gravelly Range mountains. Nearly half of the 72-mile-long Gravelly Backcountry Drive crosses high-altitude plateau, providing sweeping mountain, meadow, and valley views. Since the route includes some dirt and mud-prone sections, only attempt the drive in dry weather.

Central Montana: River Road along the Milk River, Havre

Get front-seat views of a nature-made time capsule: the primeval, Central Montana badlands northwest of Havre. What the drive lacks in distance (it’s only five miles), it more than makes up for in geological and paleontological points of interest, and scenic Milk River and badlands views.

The route parallels the northern banks of the Milk River. From MT-2 in Havre, take 7th Ave. north over the railroad and the river. Turn left on River Road, and drive five miles west to the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Rookery. Along the way, soak in the views of the badlands—a lunar-looking valley eroded by wind and water. The land bordering the road is privately owned, but you can hike and launch canoes and boats in the rookery.

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