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12 Best Small Towns in Montana

Written by Brad Lane
Oct 22, 2020

Pocketed across the state of Montana are scenic small towns to explore. These historic communities have stood the test of time to provide an authentic Montana experience. Among the old brick buildings and history on the streets, small towns in Montana shares a sense of the Old West at its front door.

At the backdoor of the best small towns, another common attribute is the easy access to the great outdoors. Miles of mountain ranges and trout-filled rivers complement many of the small towns in the state. These natural resources, and the towns surrounding them, attract outdoor enthusiasts from across the country every year.

Between wide-open spaces and plenty of room on the sidewalks, Montana's friendly communities offer the feeling of getting away. While any time of year makes for a great Montana getaway, the summer is what often turns visitors into long-term residents of the state.

Discover the top places to visit with our list of the best small towns in Montana.

1. Whitefish

Skiing at Whitefish

The adventure town of Whitefish is in far northern Montana, near the west entrance of Glacier National Park. This bustling city of under 8,000 residents attracts hundreds of thousands of annual visitors. The bountiful tourism adds up in Whitefish, though, with several extraordinary places to visit nearby.

Apgar Village, within Glacier National Park, is a 30-mile drive northeast from Whitefish. To the south, the town also offers easy access to Flathead Lake — one of the largest freshwater lakes west of the Mississippi River.

Whitefish has its own inviting body of water right at the city’s edge, Whitefish Lake, including an encompassing state park. Other attractions in Whitefish include the surrounding Flathead National Forest.

Perhaps the town’s most significant outdoor appeal is the ski slopes of the adjacent Whitefish Mountain Resort. This acclaimed winter sports destination features over 3,000 acres of skiable terrain. Alongside downhill pursuits, the resort offers overnight options like slope-side condominiums.

The growing popularity of outdoor tourism in Whitefish lends to a boom of art and culture throughout the town. Between adventures, things to do in Whitefish include dining out, perusing art galleries, and singing karaoke in the evening. Several lodging options are also available in downtown Whitefish.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Whitefish

2. West Yellowstone

Bison in Yellowstone National Park

While many small towns in Montana are gateways for visiting Yellowstone National Park, the charming town of West Yellowstone is by far the closest. Located between Idaho and Wyoming, West Yellowstone borders the park alongside the Madison River.

This proximity to the park makes West Yellowstone a prime basecamp when visiting Yellowstone. West Yellowstone flourishes with amenities like restaurants, shops, and art galleries. Events like bluegrass festivals and farmers markets also fill the community calendar.

Summer is an excellent time to visit West Yellowstone and the neighboring national park. The warmer months are a peak visiting time for the region.

Several other adventure activities stem from West Yellowstone. With proximity to some of the best white water in Montana, West Yellowstone is a popular launching point for rafting and kayaking trips.

Winter is another exciting time to visit, as West Yellowstone is also an excellent basecamp for snow sports. The Rendezvous Ski Trails are right on the edge of town, providing 35 kilometers of groomed cross-country ski trails.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in West Yellowstone

3. Hamilton

Bitterroot Mountains near Hamilton

Hamilton is a small town in the beautiful Bitterroot Valley. The city is a popular pit stop on Highway 93, between Missoula and Idaho. Hiking trails, campgrounds, and national forests line this highway of southwest Montana. One such hiking trail, Trapper Peak, is one of the best hiking trails in Montana. Hamilton is the largest community along this adventure corridor.

Many factors contribute towards tourists pulling over in Hamilton. The historic streets of the small town ring with character and charm. Local businesses like hotels, restaurants, and commercial outfitters also encourage tourists to stop in Hamilton. And spots like the historic Daly Mansion offer cultural insight and other things to do in town.

It’s not just Hamilton on Highway 93 that offers a fun place to visit. Several small towns along the route provide equal access to the Bitterroot Valley. To the north of Hamilton, communities like Victor and Stevensville offer a unique charm. To the south, Darby is a picturesque town with various cabins, hotels, and quaint places to stay the night.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Hamilton

4. Polson

Polson, Montana

This fertile small town is in the northern part of the state, and on the south end of Flathead Lake — one of the best lakes in Montana. Alongside a bountiful harvest of cherries in the summer, Polson and the surrounding region also have many cultural and outdoor things to do.

Flathead Lake is a worthwhile vacation destination by itself. As one of the largest freshwater lakes west of the Mississippi in the lower 48, the shoreline of Flathead Lake stretches for miles on the horizon. Boating and fishing are abundant on the water, and places like Wild Horse Island State Park provide fun places to explore on land.

Polson has a good selection of local eateries and shops. The area also has abundant places to stay, ranging from lakeside cottages to traditional hotels.

Community flavor is on full display in Polson, especially during the summer. For an event not to miss in Montana, the annual Flathead Lake Cherry Festival occurs in Polson every July.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Polson

5. Philipsburg

Philipsburg

Phillipsburg is on the Pintler Veteran's Memorial Scenic Highway in southwest Montana. This small town is halfway between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, making it a popular spot for a road trip between the two.

Philipsburg is also under an hour from Missoula — one of the best cities in Montana.

Philipsburg stands out as a place to visit thanks to its scenic surroundings and unique visitor resources. Sapphire gemstones are one such unique resource, which also helped build the foundation of the town in the 1800s. Today, visitors can pan for sapphires at gem shops, or visit surrounding ghost towns, like Granite Ghost Town, to indulge in the past prosperity of Sapphire Country.

Another indulgence and community resource of Phillipsburg is at The Sweets Palace in downtown. With an old Western facade and mercantile interior, this candy shop is renowned for its aromatic confections.

Other local businesses match the motif of The Sweets Palace. Modern shops mix well with historic buildings to create a beautiful downtown.

A big attraction of Philipsburg is the great outdoors. Alongside abundant sapphire lodes, the town is surrounded by hiking trails, ski areas, and hot springs. Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest surrounds all sides of Philipsburg, and the sparkling waters of Georgetown Lake are 15 minutes to the south.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Philipsburg

6. Fort Benton

Fort Benton

Also known as the Birthplace of Montana, Fort Benton is along the banks of the Missouri River in the central part of the state. Lewis and Clark made their way through Fort Benton on their historical quest. Later, the town’s central location along the river made it a crucial outpost in the country’s westward expansion.

History is alive on the streets in Fort Benton. Alongside historic buildings and commemorative statues, the town has a plethora of museums to explore. The Museum of the Northern Great Plains is one such institution, which delves deep into the last decade of life on the plains. The Missouri Breaks Interpretive Center is also of note, featuring exhibits dedicated to the powerful force of the Missouri River.

The outdoors is also easily accessible in this authentic Montana small town. The Missouri River is often a primary point of interest, including the Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River. This stunning body of water has captured visitors' interests for hundreds of years.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Fort Benton

7. Livingston

Livingston | Tracy Hunter / photo modified

Livingston is a lively mountain town and northern gateway to Yellowstone National Park. This spacious city of approximately 7,000 residents is well known for its access to the outdoors. Yellowstone Park is within an hour's drive to Livingston. Other activities like fly fishing and exploring Paradise Valley are also synonymous with the small city.

The beautiful surroundings of Livingston tend to attract quite the crowd. The small town has inspired famous poets and movie stars, who now call Livingston home. Visitors may bump into someone they know at any local shop or restaurant in the downtown area, and they can see a spectacular view of Livingston Peak above the downtown horizon.

History and culture are very much alive in Livingston. The two often combine via modern businesses making use of preserved 19th-century buildings. Places like The Murray Hotel and Sax & Fryer Co bookstore exemplify these modern treasures amid the history.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Livingston

8. Anaconda

Historic Smelter Stack in Anaconda

In southwest Montana, 25 miles west of Butte, Anaconda is a charming small town surrounded by significant mountain landscapes. Anaconda’s diverse history stems back to its industrious days of copper smelting, beginning in the early 1900s.

While the copper smelt closed in 1980, Anaconda still stands tall with historic roots planted throughout the streets.

The historic Smelter Stack also continues to stand tall in Anaconda. This 585-foot brick tower is one of the tallest such structures in the nation and is a monument for the region. Visitors get a closer look at the tower from Anaconda Smoke Stack State Park.

The streets of Anaconda bear more history to explore. The town has four historic districts lined with antique Western facades. The Washoe Theater in Anaconda is particularly aesthetic, with its historic Art Deco design. The theater plays modern blockbuster movies throughout the week. Much like the Washoe Theater, the rest of the city also offers modern amusements in historical settings.

A big draw to visit Anaconda is the surrounding iconic Montana landscapes. The Pintler Veterans Memorial Scenic Highway begins in Anaconda and heads 64 miles through a stunning mountain country. Other adventures nearby include Georgetown Lake and the surrounding Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Anaconda

9. Choteau

Choteau | Sam Beebe / photo modified

This charming little town in central Montana lies at the foot of the Rocky Mountain Front. Pronounced “SHOH-toh,” the town is a jumping-off point for big adventures.

The 1.5-million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex is right at the backdoor of this gateway community. Visitors can also access the encompassing Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest.

Outdoor recreation is nearly endless from Choteau. Activities like hiking, fishing, and horseback riding are rampant during the summer. Visits to Choteau in the winter usually include skiing or snowmobiling.

The area is also well known for its Jurassic history. Spots in Choteau, like the Two Medicine Dinosaur Center, uncover the dinosaur legacy left behind.

Choteau lives up to its basecamp status with local diners and unique places to stay. Other institutions like the Old Trail Museum offer in-town attractions between exploring the great outdoors.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Choteau

10. Red Lodge

Beartooth Highway

In the celebrated Beartooth Mountains of southern Montana, Red Lodge provides easy access to the outdoors. The town’s biggest claim to fame is the Beartooth Scenic Highway that stretches from Red Lodge to Yellowstone National Park. This 68-mile All-American Road features stunning roadside vistas and several trailheads to explore.

A trip on the Beartooth Scenic Highway inspires repeat visits. The combination of Red Lodge, the Beartooth Highway, and Yellowstone National Park makes for a great Montana road trip.

Between road trips and outdoor excursions, the city itself offers plenty of diversion on a weekend trip. Live music fills the downtown streets throughout the summer. Local eateries in Red Lodge range from casual bites to first-class meals.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Red Lodge

11. Big Timber

A train traveling through Big Timber | Jerry Huddleston / photo modified

Between Bozeman and Billings, Big Timber is a small town with an excellent reputation for outdoor adventure. The picturesque Crazy Mountains define much of the background of Big Timber. And the community is a premier access point into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

Adventures from Big Timber include backpacking, hiking, and exploring places like Natural Bridge State Park. The experience most associated with Big Timber, however, is fly fishing. Anglers from across the globe come to Big Timber to fish in the Yellowstone or Boulder Rivers. Several outfitters in Big Timber are happy to help make that happen.

The community and culture of Big Timber also adds to memorable vacations. The Crazy Mountain Museum is worth checking out on a visit. This educational space details the history behind Sweet Grass County, including visits from Lewis and Clark. Other attractions in Big Timber include Big Timber Falls and the Yellowstone River Trout Hatchery.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Big Timber

12. Lewistown

Storm clouds over the mountains near Lewistown

At the geographic center of Montana, Lewistown is a lovely small town that remains off the radar to most out-of-state visitors. This slight obscurity makes Lewistown even more attractive to visit. Lewistown offers a quiet Montana escape, with a quaint downtown district and sidewalks filled with a local feel.

Much like any best small town in Montana, the mountains aren’t far from sight in Lewistown. Several prominent ranges surround this town of approximately 6,000 residents, including the Big Snowy Mountains. Outdoor adventure, including fly fishing, hiking, and exploring ice caves are common from Lewistown.

Lewistown is a lively place throughout much of the year but especially come summer. Significant events and festivals bring Fergus County and the surrounding region together in Lewistown. Annual celebrations include the summer Chokecherry Festival and Central Montana Fair. Music on Main is another fun summer celebration that takes place each Wednesday in downtown.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Lewistown

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