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Best of Montana Year-Round: Scenic Drives and Trails

Get ready for a breathtaking experience on scenic routes across Big Sky Country.

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The Amtrak Empire Builder rumbles across 690 miles of Montana's breathtaking landscape.

Amtrak Empire Builder

“The Empire Builder provides the best way to see the big sky of Montana with actual purple mountain majesty,” says Marc Magliari of Amtrak. The legendary passenger train, which travels more than 2,200 miles through the Midwest and Northwest between Chicago and Seattle or Portland, debuted in 1929 as part of the Great Northern Railway. The 670-mile Montana portion rumbles across the prairie, snakes along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, and provides passengers with spectacular views of Glacier National Park as it crosses the Continental Divide at Marias Pass.

Stops at Whitefish and Glacier National Park are always in daylight eastbound from Seattle or Portland. Westbound passengers pass through the park in darkness, except at the peak of daylight saving time. If riding the rails in spring or summer, head to the Sightseer Lounge Car for special talks led by volunteer U.S. Park Service rangers.

Montana Dinosaur Trail

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Montana is the "home" of dinosaurs. The first T. rex found in the world came from the state in 1902, and the first dinosaur fossils named in North America were found here in the 1850s. Follow the 14-stop Montana Dinosaur Trail to dig into the state’s prehistoric past and see the mostly rural communities located on the 1,300-mile route.

Preorder a Montana Dinosaur Trail Prehistoric Passport to plan your route and learn about the stops, each of which highlights dinosaurs found nearby. The Garfield County Museum in Jordan houses many fossils found on local ranches, and several of those ranchers volunteer at the museum (open June through August). Three stops—Two Medicine Dinosaur Center, Great Plains Dinosaur Museum and Field Station, and Makoshika Dinosaur Museum—have field dig programs, and two communities—Glendive and Malta—are home to two Dinosaur Trail locations.

“Dinosaur fossils are not something you find everywhere,” says the Montana Office of Tourism's Victor Bjornberg, who helped develop the trail. “Seeing and learning about dinosaurs and the landscapes their remains are found in is a uniquely Montana experience.”

Montana Scenic Loop

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The nearly 400-mile-long Montana Scenic Loop circles the continental United States’s largest stretch of wilderness, including four national forests, the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Great Bear Wilderness, Scapegoat Wilderness, and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Created, in part, to promote sustainable tourism throughout the state’s wild country, the route connects and introduces travelers to 15 rural communities, each far off the well-trod tourist path. The windshield views are Montana in microcosm: rugged mountains, rolling hills, snow-covered peaks, dense forests, sparkling lakes, and historic towns.

“Many stretches of the loop are wide open, and you might not see another car for miles and miles,” says Corlene Martin, a member of the Montana Scenic Loop Board of Directors. “But don't worry, because there is a little town just up the road waiting to greet you.”

Montana Brewers Trail

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Craft brews are the taste of Montana. The state’s field-to-tap tradition begins with local farmers who produce about three million pounds of malted grain each year for use in Montana breweries. Dozens of full flavor ales and lagers bearing the Montana Brewers Association’s “Grown & Brewed in Montana” seal are created in the state’s independent craft breweries, including Lewis and Clark Brewing in Helena, Missouri Breaks Brewing in Wolf Point, and Flathead Lake Brewing in Bigfork.

Thirty-five of the brewers (most located in the western half of the state) are featured on the 2014 Montana Brewery Trail map. Use it as a guide to sample distinctively Montana seasonal and signature brews like Madison River Brewing Company’s Salmon Fly Honey Rye, Glacier Brewing Company’s Golden Grizzly Ale, and the milk chocolate sweet Flash Flood Milk Stout from Higherground Brewery in Hamilton.

Missoula Microbrew Bike Tour

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“True Missoulians bike everywhere in any kind of weather,” says Larry Dent, founder of the online resource hub Mountain Biking Missoula. Dent has been mapping bike trails in and around the city for more than a dozen years. One of his “Quick Spin” routes combines two of his favorite things: mountain biking and local microbrews. The Missoula Microbrew Tour is an eight-mile loop that’s accessible from any point along the Clark Fork River Trail. Stops include brewery taprooms, such as KettleHouse Southside, and brewpubs with restaurants, like Flathead Lake Brewing Company. In bike-friendly Missoula, it’s easy to rent a ride at local bike shops like Open Road and Big Sky Bikes. And while the route connects microbrews, no alcohol consumption is required to enjoy the leisurely loop through downtown. Homemade root beer is served at some stops, including Draught Works, and decadent dishes like the Flathead Lake Brewing Company’s Mandolin Burger (espresso rubbed beef topped with bacon, caramelized onions, cheddar cheese, and house-made porter barbecue sauce) will make you thankful you can pedal off extra calories on the ride home.

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