THERE’S SOMETHING about waking up deep in the backcountry, having carried all of your gear in to camp near a quiet lake or alpine cirque with panoramic views of the surrounding peaks.
You can find dozens of places like this in the Big Sky State. These are nine of my favorites, the ones I consider the “ultra-classic” Montana experiences.
Montana has incredibly varied terrain, so I’ve included different regions as well as different levels of difficulty and distance.
1. East Rosebud Trail (aka The Beaten Path)
Location: Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness
Arguably one of the best hiking experiences the Rocky Mountains has to offer in any state, the East Rosebud trail between Red Lodge and Cooke City has something for everyone, from wildlife that walks right up to you, to incredible fishing in lakes surrounded by craggy peaks, to trailside berries to munch on.
A strong hiker could make this 26 mile hike in one day, but if you want to get the most out of the trip, expect to spend three or more days out there. Though the trail gets its nickname from the mid-summer throngs of people, it’s far from crowded. Take any of dozens of side trails and you’ll find yourself in complete solitude.
2. Cottonwood Creek, Crazy Mountains
Location: Gallatin National Forest
Unlike many backpacking routes, this hike offers great mountain views right from the start. The trail follows Cottonwood Creek through prime moose habitat before climbing to excellent camping in the beautiful glacial tarn that embraces Cottonwood Lake.
Fishing is good at Cottonwood Lake, but another unnamed pond just below Cottonwood has water so clear you can watch the foot-long trout strike your line. Make sure you bring a stove to cook your catch as firewood is scarce.
3. Boulder Pass
Location: Glacier National Park
If you’re looking for a variety of interesting geological features Boulder Pass won’t disappoint. The beginning of the hike is marked by ample huckleberries along alpine lakes, lovely expanses of prairie and spectacular views of Harris Glacier. Waterfalls line the mountainsides as you make your way up to Boulder Pass.
Here, the geology gets more interesting. The terrain resembles a moonscape with lava pools and other reminders of the area’s volcanic past. The trail goes through Hole-in-the-Wall campground, said to be the most remote campsite in Glacier Park, and along narrow cliff-side trails Glacier is famous for.