Montana Outdoors Best 100 list

From the Montana Outdoors July-August 2013 issue

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Have you seen and done the best of Montana’s outdoors? Use this checklist to keep track of outside activities you’ve experienced and sights you’ve seen. Keep it handy this summer as you explore Montana, and check off each new accomplishments. If you or others you know ever achieve all 100, let us know at

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Montana's Best 61-80

(In no particular order or rank)


Ross Creek cedarsVisit the Ross Creek cedars

One of the best examples of Montana’s inland rainforest (known to scientists as mesic montaine mixed-conifer forest) is the grove of giant cedars at the Ross Creek Scenic Area, part of the Kootenai National Forest. The 100-acre site is home to a grove of enormous western red cedars, some up to 12 feet in diameter and 175 feet tall. Staring up at the ancient trees, a few more than 1,000 years old, you’d swear you were deep within Wash­ington’s Olympic Peninsula.

A flat, graveled 1-mile loop trail that is handicapped accessible takes visitors through the main grove. The nearby 4.5-mile Ross Creek Trail 142 makes for a great day hike.

Where: Southwest of Libby just off Montana Highway 56

When: Spring, summer, and fall

Bonus: Look for American dippers (water ouzels) at Ross Creek, which runs through the area. The entertaining slate-gray birds feed on aquatic insects by walking underwater along the stream bottom.

Glacial Lake Missoula


See evidence of Glacial Lake Missoula

Fifteen to twenty thousand years ago, vast mile-thick sheets of ice inched down from Canada over what is today northwestern Montana and northern Idaho. A massive ice dam backed up water into northwestern Montana valleys, producing a monstrous lake of long fjord-like inlets known as Glacial Lake Missoula. As water deepened behind the dam, pressure built until eventually the ice formation burst. During the next several days, 500 cubic miles of water was forced between tall cliffs, shooting out of the narrow opening as if sprayed from a nozzle. The cataclysmic flood—estimated at 60 times the flow of the Amazon River—spewed glacial debris and torrential waters more than 400 miles westward all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Mount Jumbo, Glacial Lake Missoula Signs of this and similar ice age floods are scattered across northwestern Montana. Evidence includes “strandlines”—horizontal terraces created by varying lake levels most evident on the grassy slopes of mountains around Missoula, particularly Mounts Jumbo and Sentinel. While hard to distinguish during some seasons, they become obvious in fresh or melting snow.

The torrents also loosened boulders and plopped them across what is now the University of Montana campus. One boulder plucked from the walls of Hellgate Canyon, 1 mile east of the university, protrudes 5 feet above the grass in the campus area known as The Oval.

Ice age floodwaters also left ripple marks—huge undulating, wavelike patterns—in the ground. South of Hot Springs, giant grass-covered ripples of silt crest up to 35 feet high. The earthen waves also run perpendicular to Route 382 through Camas Prairie.

Where: Various sites including the University of Montana campus, Mounts Jumbo and Sentinel in Missoula, and areas south of Hot Springs and around Camas Prairie.

When: Year-round. The horizontal terraces along Mounts Jumbo and Sentinel are most obvious after a fresh snow.

Bonus: For more information on the geological cataclysms, including a map of ice age floods, read “Ice Age Floods” in Montana Outdoors here.

Dutch oven cooking83

Cook in a dutch oven

The vessel looks downright medieval, but what it produces is as delicious as food from any modern Cuisinart-outfitted kitchen. The Dutch oven is a lidded, thick-walled cast iron cooking pot that has been popular for hundreds of years. The name comes from the late 1600s, when the Dutch developed a superior dry-sand process to give their cooking pots a smoother surface. After the vessels were imported to Britain and then the United States, the name stuck.

Lewis and Clark carried one on their epic voyage west, as did most pioneer families in covered wagons and the chuckwagon crews that fed cowboys.

The pot’s appeal is its ability to roast and bake a wide variety of slow-cooked foods, including casseroles, stews, biscuits, and even cake. The camping, or outdoor, Dutch oven has three short, stubby legs, a wire handle, and a rimmed lid that can hold coals on top. Coals are also placed under the raised pot, so that food cooks from above and below.

Dutch oven chefs use regular charcoal, lit in a fire-starter chimney and brought to the gray ash stage. The number of coals placed on the lid and below the vessel varies depending on whether you are baking, roasting, or stewing.

One of the best places to learn how to cook in a Dutch oven is at FWP’s Becoming an Outdoors-Woman classe, which also teach fly casting, shotgun shooting, canoeing, fire starting, tent setup, dog training, and many other outdoor recreation basics.

Where: Anywhere outdoors

When: Summer is best because it’s easier to maintain the right temperatures.

HOW: In addition to the BOW program, a great online source is

Bonus: Bake a birthday cake at a campsite using a Dutch oven. You can find a gluten-free recipe for Chocolate Amaretto Fudge Brownie Cake here.

American Wigeon


Visit a prairie pothole

Northern Montana above the Hi-Line from Fresno Reservoir east is part of what’s known as North America’s Prairie Pothole Region. Also called “America’s duck factory,” this portion of the northern Great Plains was created with the retreat of glaciers during the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago. Massive sheets of ice flattened the landscape and left behind hundreds of thousands of ice chunks ranging in size from cabins to football stadiums. When the ice melted, it left behind shallow basins filled with water.

The potholes are rich in plant and animal life, including more than 100 waterfowl, shorebird, and other bird species. The shallow waters warm quickly in the spring sun, providing ducks and other animals with a protein-rich soup of invertebrates. Many potholes are ephemeral (temporary), filling in spring with snowmelt then evaporating in summer to become dry basins. Deeper potholes and those connected to groundwater sources contain water year-round.

The state’s prairie pothole abundance make it one of the nation’s top waterfowl producers, a fact well known to Ducks Unlimited members but unknown to most other Montanans.

Where: Major concentrations of prairie potholes are in northern Phillips and Sheridan Counties. The wetlands also dot the Five Valleys area encompassing the Flathead, Blackfoot, Bitterroot, Swan, and Clark Fork river valleys. Several potholes are visible just off Montana Highway 200 at a federal waterfowl production area about 18 miles east of Lincoln.

When: Go in May and June to see breeding waterfowl and other birds. Hunt potholes in October and November.

Bonus: Many people don’t know that ducks don’t nest in the potholes but rather in grasslands surrounding the basins. When the eggs hatch, the hen takes her brood to the water, where they can swim around safe from land-based predators.

Quake Lake


See the Madison River Canyon Earthquake Area

In August 1959, an earthquake measuring 7.5 on the Richter Scale jarred the West Yellowstone area, causing teacups to rattle as far as 500 miles away in Dickinson, North Dakota. The quake caused a landslide at the west end of Madison Canyon that killed 28 people, many of them campers in the Rock Creek Campground. The 80 million tons of rock blocked the Madison River and formed Quake Lake, today filled with dead trees that stand as grim reminders of the tragic natural disaster.

The area contains an informative visitor center that looks out over the lake and “the mountain that fell.” Ask about the “ghost village,” a jumble of buildings near the lake’s west end that were swept up and dropped here by the floodwaters.

Where: The Earthquake Lake Visitor Center is on U.S. Highway 287 roughly 27 miles northwest of West Yellowstone.

When: The earthquake area can be seen year-round. The visitor center is open mid-May through mid-September.

Bonus:The quake drastically altered geothermal activity in nearby Yellowstone National Park. Roughly 200 geysers in the park erupted during the quake, and new ones sprang to life.

Many hot springs changed temperature and volume and even altered color, as minute particles of broken rock muddied the waters.


Hear a loon call

The loon’s haunting sound is the classic “call of the north woods” regularly heard in movies or TV shows set anywhere outdoors that’s not downtown Los Angeles or Manhattan. In fact, loons spend their summers only in a few northern states, swimming in clean, cold waters where they nest and feed on fish.

LoonMinnesota and Alaska are the big loon states, each with thousands of birds. The West’s largest population is in Montana, where roughly 200 live each summer.

Breeding loons are found primarily in northwestern Montana west of the Continental Divide. The highest concentrations live in the Clearwater drainage east of Missoula, the Tobacco-Stillwater drainage stretching from north of Kalispell to Eureka, and in Glacier National Park. As loons migrate through Montana in spring on their way to those areas and Canadian lakes, look for them at Pablo National Wildlife Refuge, Flathead Lake, Clark Canyon Reservoir, Canyon Ferry Lake, Hauser Lake (between the dam and Black Sandy State Park), and Fort Peck Lake.

Loons make eerie, beautiful calls. Among these are the tremolo, a wavering sound given when a loon is alarmed or to announce its presence at a lake. Another is the wail, the haunting wolflike howl that loons make back and forth to determine each other’s location.

Where: Lakes in northern Montana, especially from Eureka south to Salmon Lake, as well as in several large reservoirs statewide during spring migration

When: Summer on lakes and spring on large reservoirs

Bonus: If you are in a boat in summer and a loon approaches while making its haunting call, move away. The song is a warning cry, made because the bird fears your boat will injure its chicks.


Fish the salmonfly hatch

There are two reasons the salmonfly hatch is such a big deal: (1) Big trout that ordinarily scoff at dinky mayflies will rise to the surface for these massive insects, and (2) even people with no casting skill can fling a Sofa Pillow or other salmonfly imitation the 20 feet or so it takes to reach rising fish that have become temporarily stupid in their desire to eat. The phrase “easy fishing for big trout taking surface flies” is not one you’ll hear on Montana rivers except during this particular hatch.

SalmonflyThat said, fishing the salmonfly hatch is not as simple as it might sound. These 3-inch-long members of the stonefly family usually emerge during or after runoff when water temperature reaches about 55 degrees. That can vary from year to year by several weeks, and rivers can be high and murky, making it hard to fish even if salmonflies are on the water. In addition, trout fill up quickly on these huge insects and stop eating. When thousands of salmonflies are littering the water and plopping down onto your hat and fishing vest like winged voles, not a single trout may be rising. If the salmonfly hatch is indeed the greatest hatch in Montana, it can also be the most frustrating.

Where: Large, well-oxygenated rivers containing swift, bouldery or riffly stretches and narrow canyon reaches, such as in the Big Hole, Madison, Gallatin, Yellowstone, Clark Fork, and Smith Rivers, as well as Rock Creek.

When: The hatch runs from mid-May to early July, depending on the river and stretch. Generally it starts downstream and moves up several miles each day, based on daylight length and water temperature. The best time to fish the hatch is five to seven days after the peak has passed. By this time trout have had time to digest their feast on naturals and are getting hungry again.

HOW:Cast near shore, where adult salmonflies fall from bushes, tree branches, and other streamside vegetation. Target water a few yards downstream or downwind of overhanging branches. As for flies, use whatever adult imitations fly shops recommend. Tippets should be short and heavy—3X or 2X—because the trout aren’t skittish and you’ll need to yank a few flies that end up getting cast into trees and shrubs.

Bonus: If you find a stretch with salmonflies hatching but without rising fish, head upstream a few miles and fish a big stonefly nymph below the surface. Because the hatch hasn’t arrived yet, the trout will be keyed in on the nymphal stage.

South Fork of the Flathead River


Float the South Fork of the Flathead

The two great river floats in Montana are the Smith and this one in the heart of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The South Fork of the Flathead flows through some of the wildest country in the Lower 48. No roads, no settlements, no cabins. What you will see are lots of anglers. The South Fork’s phenomenal westslope cutthroat fishing, with catches of 30 to 50 or more 12- to 17-inch trout per day, has not gone unnoticed by outfitters. Expect to see a dozen or more rafts float by each day in midsummer.

The challenge of floating this federally designated Wild and Scenic River is reaching the best fishing water, far upstream. Most people get there via the shoreline trail from Hungry Horse. They use pack horses that carry inflatable rafts and other gear, or they haul in small inflatables themsleves. The river’s best fishing —catch and release for cutthroat—starts at Big Prairie. Some backpackers reach this water by climbing over the Swan Range from Holland Lake to the southwest or over Youngs Pass from Dunham Creek Trailhead. If you are up to it, either route is a fine way to reach the upper South Fork of the Flathead, fish a few days, then backpack out the way you came.

Where: The float begins in the heart of the Bob Marshall Wilderness and ends up 50 river miles downstream near the head of Hungry Horse Reservoir.

When: July and August

HOW: The best and most up-to-date information on the river is in Ben Romans’s Montana’s Best Fly Fishing, published by Headwater Books. The easiest way to float the river is with an outfitter, who will haul rafts, food, and other gear up to the starting point and then guide you on the way down. Other options include outfitted drop camps and hiking in on your own, with or without a raft. Roman’s book has details for do-it-yourselfers.

Bonus: This is one of the few waters in Montana where you can legally fish for bull trout. These massive char run 20 to 36 inches and must be released immediately. Fishing for them requires a catch card available from FWP. Check the annual fishing regulations for season dates.


Moss agatesCollect a moss (Yellowstone) agate

Montana has two state gemstones: the sapphire and the moss, or Yellowstone, agate. The sapphire is mined in the state’s western and central mountains; the moss agate, considered by rock hounds to be among the world’s finest, is found along gravel bars of the Yellowstone River from the mouth of the Bighorn River downstream to Sidney.

Agates are formed by bubbles made from gasses within cooling igneous (volcanic) rock. The bubbles form plume-like cavities that fill with silica tinted by iron and other minerals. As the silica hardens, it forms colorful organic shapes in the translucent stone. Also known as picture agates, moss agates can be cut and polished to exhibit shapes and colors that resemble trees, sunsets, and rivers.

On the outside, the agates look much like any other rock. Before searching, examine photographs online so you’ll know what to look for.

Where: Sandbars along the Yellowstone River from the Bighorn River confluence to Sidney. The river and banks are public lands. Gain access from bridge crossings, from fishing access sites, or by asking private landowners.

When: Midsummer just after runoff has scoured gravel beds and exposed new agates.

Bonus: Have your agates tumbled and polished at local rock shops found in many towns along the river. Many shops also sell polished moss agates and agate jewelry.


National Bison Range


See wild bison at the National Bison Range Wildlife Refuge

The world’s top spot to see bison is Yellowstone National Park. Unfortunately, very little of the park is in Montana. So if you want to see bison in the Treasure State, your best bet is the National Bison Range Wildlife Refuge north of Missoula. Technically the animals are not free ranging; the 18,500-acre preserve is ringed by a tall, sturdy fence. But the sight of several dozen bison wandering across the sagebrush hills is about as close as you can come to envisioning what a wildlife-filled Montana prairie looked like 150 years ago.

The National Bison Range, located near Moiese, was established in 1908 when the government bought land from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Using private donations, the newly formed American Bison Society stocked the range with 34 bison purchased from a local ranching family. Today the range is home to 350 to 500 bison, as well as 50 other mammal species and 200 species of birds.

Start your trip at the visitor center, which contains informative displays and handouts, restrooms, videos, a bookstore, and staff to answer questions and collect the refuge’s entrance fee.

Where: Roughly 35 miles north of Missoula off U.S. Highway 93

When: Spring, summer, and fall are best.

Bonus 1: The federal area is also loaded with other wildlife. In addition to bison, look for pronghorn, elk, mule deer, black bears, and bird species including waterfowl, shorebirds, golden eagles, and other raptors.

Bonus 2: Also visit nearby Pablo and Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuges, both packed with waterfowl, shorebirds, and other wildlife.


Fish the Blackfeet Indian Reservation lakes for monster rainbows

Trout as big and fat as footballs, some weighing 10 pounds or more, swim in natural lakes and small reservoirs on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, along the eastern border of Glacier National Park. The rainbows grow massive by eating native freshwater shrimp, which thrive in the calcium-rich waters. The fish generally hang out at the bottom, requiring a float tube and, for fly anglers, sinking line. Fly-fishing artistry this is not, especially when the region’s legendary winds are howling, which is most of the time. But the payoff can be rainbows over 2 feet long that weigh more than a steelhead.

Where:The reservation is east of the Rocky Mountain Front bordered by Canada and Glacier National Park.

When:From ice-out in late March through late September. The best nymphing is right after ice-out, and the best dry-fly action is in mid-June, when trout take damselflies near shore.

footballHOW: Some of the best information available on fishing reservation rainbows is in a 2008 article by Montana fishing guru Greg Thomas that ran in Fly Fisherman.

COST: Buy a reservation permit—daily ($15) or season ($50)—at local shops in Browning. You don’t need a Montana fishing license on the reservation.

Bonus:The wind here blows constantly, tearing road signs off posts and dropping temperatures 10 to 20 degrees below what it feels like in shelter. Dress warmly, then add a layer or two on top of that.

Harlequin ducks


See harlequin ducks

Trout anglers fishing high-mountain streams are occasionally surprised when a pair of odd- looking ducks flush from the swift current. These are harlequins, waterfowl that spend much of the year along the ocean but travel inland to breed. The ones found in Montana come from the Pacific Coast and nest along high-altitude creeks in the state’s northwestern region.

The duck is named for the classical European theatrical clown who wore a multicolored costume and face paint. The male is colored, the female a drab brown. Both sexes have a white spot on either side of the head. The species is also known on the coasts as surfer duck, and inland as mountain duck and glacier duck. Its high-pitched call has spawned the monikers squeaker, squealer, and sea mouse. Harlequin drakes and hens are known as lords and ladies.

In spring, mating pairs head inland for the seclusion of wild, remote, swift-flowing streams. Glacier National Park is home to one of the densest populations in the lower 48 states, and contains the best (but not only) harlequin viewing opportunities. Because these shy sea ducks may abandon a nesting area if disturbed, watch quietly from behind trees or shrubs.

Where: Spot harlequin ducks on Upper McDonald Creek in Glacier National Park along Going-to-the-Sun Road. Also search along streams on the Rocky Mountain Front, tributaries of the Lower Clark Fork River, and tributaries of the North, South, and Middle Forks of the Flathead River.

When: May and June. Note that at this time of year Going-to-the-Sun Road will still be closed to vehicles. But the road is open to bicycles then, and you can cycle up to Upper McDonald Creek and look for the ducks.

Bonus: The male’s white markings make him stand out along a mountain stream, but the bright spots provide superb camouflage when the duck is riding whitecapped waves in the ocean.

Wild horse Pryor


See wild mustangs

Many people love the notion of wild horses— free-spirited stallions and mares racing across the prairie, tails and manes blowing in the wind.

Not everyone is so enamored. Many ranchers consider wild horses feral livestock that eat grass meant for cattle. Wildlife professionals are of roughly the same mind, concerned that wild horses compete for grass with bighorn sheep and other native big game animals.

Wild horses at two sites in Montana are descendants of tame animals that escaped or were abandoned a century ago or longer. The horses, also known as mustangs, are wild in the sense that they are not branded or privately owned. But they are not wildlife.

The Pryor Mountain mustangs are stock from horses brought to the New World by Spanish explorers 500 years ago. The horses show traces of their Iberian lineage. They are small with a narrow, deep chest; some are marked with zebra stripes on the legs and with a black stripe running down their short, strong back.

Horses first appeared on Wild Horse Island, now a state park in Flathead Lake, about 300 years ago. Apparently Kootenai Indians tried to hide their horses from rival Blackfeet by swimming them from island to island. The horses established a wild population at one island, but were removed after settlers homesteaded there in the early 1900s. In the 1980s, FWP decided to officially restore wild horses to the site and adopted several from a feral herd in Oregon. The island herd is kept small to protect native grasses and other vegetation from overgrazing.

Where: The Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range is south of Billings near the Wyoming border. Wild Horse Island is a state park in the southwestern portion of Flathead Lake, accessible only by boat.

When:Summer and fall are the best seasons to see horses at both sites. Summer in the Pryors can be brutally hot, so bring water and a wide-brimmed hat for shade.

Bonus: At the Pryors, look for the telltale zebra striping on the horses’ legs or black stripe on the back that indicates their Spanish ancestry. On Wild Horse Island, keep an eye out for bighorn sheep, massive mule deer bucks, and other wildlife native to the region.



94 Drive the Beartooth All-American Road

Like Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, this famous scenic drive allows you to take in breathtaking views and scenic panoramas while still in your pajamas (if you drive that way). The Beartooth All-American Road, also called the Beartooth Highway, is surrounded by the Custer, Gallatin, and Shoshone National Forests, parallels the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, and abuts Yellowstone National Park. Beauty and wildness abound. The route starts in Montana either in Red Lodge or Silver Gate, with much of the road (and the most scenic parts) in Wyoming. The highway is known for hairpin turns and switchbacks as you move up in elevation from Douglas fir and lodgepole pine to Engelmann spruce, then subalpine fir, and finally treeless alpine wildflower meadows covered in granite boulders and dotted with lakes. The highway has numerous pullouts where you can stop to gawk or park and hike.

Hiking is definitely encouraged. Wildflowers are abundant in midsummer, and mountain goats, moose, elk, marmots, mule deer, black bears, grizzly bears, and wolves may be spotted any season. If you leave your vehicle, bring a raincoat and warm clothes. Snow and storms can blow in any time of year. Carry bug spray in summer.

Where: Start at Red Lodge, 40 miles southwest of Billings on U.S. Highway 212, or at Silver Gate, reached by driving into Yellowstone’s northwestern entrance at Gardiner then continuing east through the park.

When: The highway is closed in winter. Depending on snow conditions, it usually opens Memorial Day weekend and closes in late September. Also, time your drive to reduce glare by traveling west to east in the evening or east to west in the morning.

Bonus: If you’re lucky, you might make the trip on an unannounced date each July when the Red Lodge Chamber of Commerce serves free pop along the side of the road at the summit, locally known as the “Top of the World.”

Beartooth Pass



Spot a grizzly

For many people, seeing a grizzly is the thrill of a lifetime. This beautiful creature is a symbol of wilderness, strength, and courage. It’s also highly unpredictable and potentially dangerous.

Though attacks by grizzlies are rare, they do happen. If you go out hoping to see one, be extremely cautious. Carry bear pepper spray and make noise so you don’t surprise an unwary bear (yes, that reduces chances of sightings but also of dangerous incidents). If you spot a grizzly, maintain a safe distance and do not approach the animal.

Where: Grizzlies live throughout western and central Montana in forested areas. Densest concentrations are in and around Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, as well as in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

When: Most sightings occur in late summer when the bears move around trying to find food to fatten up for hibernation.

NOTE: For more on safety around grizzly bears, visit the Montana Outdoors website and read "Becoming Aware of the Bear," and "A Wall of Protection."

Bonus 1: Learn to differentiate a grizzly bear from a black bear by taking FWP’s bear identification training and test at the agency’s website.

Medicine Rocks


Visit the badlands and rock formations of Makoshika and Medicine Rocks State Parks

Just outside Glendive, Makoshika State Park is a geologic wonderland filled with deep ravines and box canyons. Its 11,000-plus acres of heavily eroded badlands were formed by a geologic buckling that raised what were once sea beds hundreds of feet above the prairie. Eons of wind, rain, and snow runoff cut through layers of the Fort Union Formation to expose the even older Hell Creek Formation, in which entire dinosaur skeletons have been found.

Medicine Rocks State Park, 55 miles to the south, is named for huge sandstone formations carved by wind and rain into shapes and holes. Often resembling chunks of Swiss cheese, the stone is all that remains of sandbars created millions of years ago in an ancient river. The Lakota Indian name for the unusual stone formations is Inyan-oka-la-ka, or “Rock with a Hole in It.” Indians also called the area Medicine Rocks and used it for vision quests, as shelter from storms, and as lookout posts for spotting enemies and bison. It’s said that Sitting Bull and his warriors camped here before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, waiting for guidance from their medicine men.

Where: Makoshika State Park is 4 miles southeast of Glendive. Signs are abundant. Medicine Rocks State Park is 11 miles north of Ekalaka on Montana Highway 7.

When: Each season has its own beauty, but spring and fall are the most comfortable for hiking. Summer can be brutally hot with relentless sunshine and little shade.

Bonus: Though fossil collecting is discouraged, keep an eye out for dinosaur bones in Makoshika. At Medicine Rocks, look for old tipi rings.


See a western tanager

These small songbirds are so vibrantly colored they seem to belong in the jungles of Central America. In fact, many winter in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Each spring these and other tanagers make their way to breeding grounds in Montana, western Canada, and Alaska. They nest in open coniferous and mixed deciduous-coniferous forests containing lodgepole pine, Douglas fir, and ponderosa pine. During summer western tanagers can be found in these habitats across western and central Montana; during spring and fall migrations they show up throughout the state. Males are the most colorful and, during breeding season, the easiest to recognize: red-orange face and head; yellow body; black back, wings, and tail; and yellowish-white wing bars. Anglers regularly see western tanagers streamside, flitting from tree to tree in search of spruce budworms, beetles, and caterpillars.

Where: Open forests containing Douglas fir, lodgepole, and ponderosa pine throughout western and central Montana.

When: May through September. Peak spring migration is during the last week in May and first week in June.

Bonus: The western tanager breeds farther north than any other “neotropical” warbler (those living partly or year-round in Central or South America). Some western tanagers migrate as far as the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and southeastern Alaska, adding bright bursts of color to those northern climes.


BitterrootSee bitterroot in bloom

Spotting Montana’s state flower should be easy. It’s bright pink, with large concentrations on open hillsides sometimes visible from a quarter mile away. Yet the bitterroot, a member of the lily family confined to a limited range in west-central Montana, is often elusive even when flowering.

A small, low-growing plant, the bitterroot exists on dry rocky, gravelly, or sandy soil in sparsely vegetated hillsides often dotted with ponderosa pine. It first appears in spring as green rosettes of fleshy 1- to 2-inch leaves spread out from a central stem. When the plant blooms, from mid-May to early June, the pink petals obscure the succulent leaves, which quickly shrivel and seem to disappear.

Because the plant blooms only under direct sunlight, petals remain folded in morning and evening. The best time to see the blooms is midday, when seemingly from nowhere dozens or even hundreds of pink flowers show themselves.

Meriwether Lewis, who first officially described the plant in 1805, gave it its scientific name, Lewisia rediviva. Rediviva is Latin for “revived,” referring to the plant’s ability to survive even when dug up and transported long distances.

The plant’s common name refers to the bitter taste of the root, which for centuries was boiled and eaten by American Indians, along with Cous biscuitroot and blue camas.

Where: Around Helena, Missoula, and Dillon, and in the Bitterroot Valley

When: Bitterroot blooms from May to early June.

Bonus: The Montana Legislature designated the bitterroot as the state flower in 1895. Second and third place? The evening primrose and wild rose, respectively.


Visit Red Rock Lakes NWR

Tucked into the southwestern corner of the state, in a remote valley ringed with high, rounded peaks, this scenic national wildlife refuge is rarely visited by Montanans or tourists. That leaves it all the more enjoyable for those in the know.

SwanRed Rock Lakes is a remote series of high-altitude wetlands and lakes that first gained exposure in 1933 when biologists discovered a small flock of 66 trumpeter swans, thought to be extinct in the United States. The discovery spurred the federal government to establish, two years later, the nearly 50,000-acre national wildlife refuge, one of the nation’s first. Today the refuge is home to several hundred swans in summer and up to 2,000 in winter, when they congregate on lakes kept ice free by geo­thermal springs.

That’s not all. Rare combinations of habitat allow visitors to see prairie species like pronghorn and sage-grouse close to wetland forest wildlife such as moose and otters. The widely varied habitat also attracts elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, sandhill cranes, waterfowl, and another 150 or so other bird and mammal species.

Because much of the refuge is designated as a national wilderness area, it contains no developed wildlife viewing areas or designated hiking paths. Visitors explore the refuge by following game trails or striking out cross-country.

Where:From I-15 at Monida Pass, take County Road 509 east for about 20 miles to the refuge entrance. The refuge is also accessible in summer from West Yellowstone via a county road that goes over Red Rock Pass.

When: The refuge is open year-round.

Bonus:Just east of the refuge’s eastern border, near 10,203-foot Mount Jefferson, is the true source of the Missouri River. A spring bubbling up from granite boulders becomes Hellroaring Creek, which feeds into Red Rock Creek, which flows into the refuge and widens to become the Red Rock River. At Clark Canyon Dam, the river turns into the Beaverhead, then, at Twin Bridges, the Jefferson, and finally, joining with the Gallatin and Madison at Three Forks, the Missouri.

Boiling River hot springs


Soak in a hot spring

Coming from deep within the earth, hot springs are high-temperature water sources known for soothing sore backs and rejuvenating tired souls. In Montana, geothermal groundwater bubbles up at 61 known hot springs, ranging from remote streams plunging into backcountry rivers to developed pools equipped with waterslides and changing rooms.

People enjoy lounging in hot springs because the warm water relaxes muscles, and dissolved minerals such as sulphur and sodium are thought to provide medicinal benefits.

Where:The best source for finding a soaking hotspot, either commercial or undeveloped, is at The website lists the locations of all known hot springs in Montana. One of the most accessible and enjoyable undeveloped hot springs is the Boiling River, located between Mammoth Hot Springs and Gardiner in Yellowstone National Park.

When: Anytime, though hot springs are most fun and relaxing in cool weather

HOW: Soak until you begin to wrinkle. Dry off. Repeat.

NOTE: Be sure you aren’t trespassing when visiting undeveloped sites. Also, some wild hot springs can be too warm or too cool to enjoy. Ask around to find ones that are comfortable.

Now start your checklist! Use this checklist to keep track of outside activities you’ve experienced and sights you’ve seen. Keep it handy this summer as you explore Montana, and check off each new accomplishments. If you or others you know ever achieve all 100, let us know at

download Click here to view/print the Best 100 checklist