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12 Top-Rated Hiking Trails in Montana

Written by Brad Lane
Nov 28, 2019

From jaw-dropping hiking trails in Glacier National Park to more off-the-beaten-path Big Sky adventures, hiking trails in Montana embody the wild and rugged nature of the state. Leading to stunning landscapes like glaciers, alpine lakes, and high mountain summits, easy day hikes and multi-day backpacking trails are spread across Montana. For the most iconic Rocky Mountain terrain, the state's western half is filled with wild natural spaces and hundreds of hiking trails.

The numerous national forests in the western half of the state are true hot spots for great hiking trails. From the giant cedars in Kootenai National Forest to the ice caves in Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, as well as the Crazy Mountains in Custer Gallatin National Forest, the abundance of public space in Montana is nearly overwhelming. Glacier National Park, also known as the Crown of the Continent, has over 700 miles of hiking trails to explore.

It's not just the western half of the state that's worth exploring—formidable badland formations offer unique hiking trails farther east towards the North Dakota border. Rivers, mountains, and painted sunsets are waiting to be discovered throughout the rest of the state, with Montana offering a true sense of remoteness found few other places in the country.

For thru hikes in Montana, the Pacific Northwest Trail and Continental Divide Trail both have terminuses in Big Sky Country. Plan your outdoor adventures with our list of the best hiking trails in Montana.

1. Highline Trail, Glacier National Park

Highline Trail | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Encompassing deep glacial valleys, imposing mountain peaks, and hundreds of shimmering alpine lakes, over 700 miles of trails cross through the Crown of the Continent in northwest Montana, also known as Glacier National Park.

Traversing steep mountain passes; stumbling upon hidden lakes; and crossing paths with numerous wildlife habitats including marmots, mountain goats, and grizzly bears, Glacier National Park offers a kid-in-a-candy-shop opportunity for hikers and backpackers. This abundance of hiking and outdoor exploring brings approximately three million visitors to Glacier each year.

One of the best hiking trails in Glacier, the Highline Trail departs from the highest point in the park accessible by vehicle, Logan Pass, located on the architecturally impressive Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Navigating a relatively flat 7.6 miles to the Granite Park Chalet, the Highline Trail is lined with stunning views of the massive mountains that make Glacier National Park an international destination. Hikers traverse a steep ledge for a short portion of the hike, as well as come across an opportunity for a side hike to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook.

The best campgrounds in Glacier lend easy access to the many hiking trails in the park. The Many Glacier region of the park, often considered the heart of the park, has a popular campground and a dense concentration of iconic hikes, including Iceberg Lake and Swiftcurrent Pass.

Farther south, on the east side of the park, the Two Medicine region offers slightly less crowds and thigh-busting day hikes including Pitamakan Pass.

Official site: https://www.nps.gov/glac/index.htm

2. Birch Lake, Jewel Basin Hiking Area, Flathead National Forest

Snow-topped lake in Jewel Basin | Forest Service Northern Region / photo modified

Thirty miles east of Kalispell in northwest Montana near Flathead Lake, Jewel Basin is a unique hiking and backpacking-only destination at the northern end of the Swan Mountain range. Over 35 miles of hiking trails wind throughout this alpine environment dotted with lakes, where stocked bodies of water invite anglers to pack their poles.

Birch Lake is one of the most popular lakes to fish and enjoy within Jewel Basin and is reached with a moderately flat three-mile hike from the Camp Misery Trailhead.

Hikers can extend their adventures from Birch Lake by continuing another three miles down the trail to the deeper waters of Crater Lake. A six-mile round trip to the top of Mount Aeneas can also be accomplished in a day from the Camp Misery Trailhead.

Despite its designation as hiking only, Jewel Basin receives quite the crowds during summer months, and visitors should expect to share the trails.

Official site: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/flathead/recarea/?recid=77671

3. Ice Caves Trail, Crystal Lake, Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest

Crystal Lake near the trailhead for the Ice Caves Trail

In the Big Snowy Mountain range of central Montana, thirty miles south of Lewistown, this unique trail leads to year-round ice caves that are accessible to visit. Departing from one of the best campgrounds in Montana, Crystal Lake Campground, this five-mile trail ascends over 2,200 feet in the first three miles before traversing the flat top of the Snowy Crest to the ice caves.

Alongside the slippery interiors of these unique caves, generous views of surrounding mountain ranges like the Crazy Mountains can be spotted while traversing the Snowy Crest.

Official site: https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/hlcnf/home/?cid=fseprd500269

4. Beehive Basin Trail, Big Sky

Hikers heading into the Beehive Basin

Not far from the chairlifts of Big Sky Resort—one of the best ski resorts in Montana—the hike into the Beehive Basin glacier cirque is consistently regarded as one of the best day hikes in the country.

From the Beehive Basin Trailhead, it's just over three miles to reach Beehive Basin with approximately 1,500 feet of elevation gain. The trail is well marked and well traveled, and the view of the imposing Lone Peak and pristine alpine meadows encourage hikers to take their time with a visit.

Another popular hike in the Big Sky area includes Ousel Falls, with a starting point located only 10 miles from the Beehive Basin Trailhead. Offering a family-friendly, two-mile round trip, the trail to Ousel Falls is wide and well-maintained and also located close to the Big Sky town center.

Farther north on Highway 191, the Lava Lake Trail offers a more challenging six-mile round trip with scenic lakeside views.

5. Holland Falls National Recreation Trail, Flathead National Forest

Holland Falls | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Flanked by the Swan and Mission Mountains in northwest Montana, the generous banks of Holland Lake are lined with natural and recreational appeal. Alongside a popular lakeside campground, Holland Lake also provides an easy day hike to a stunning waterfall with a great view. First following the even grade of the shoreline, this 1.6-mile national recreation trail ascends roughly 750 feet to reach the falls.

From the falls, the vantage point of Holland Lake, backed by the Swan Mountains, is simply breathtaking, and the 50-foot waterfall itself is easy to admire.

Plenty more breathtaking hiking trails can be found throughout the Seeley-Swan Valley between Big Fork and Seeley Lake, including the popular Morrell Falls National Recreation Trail located farther south along Highway 83. Traversing 2.7 miles to a 90-foot, double waterfall, Morrell Falls and the adjacent Morrell Lake offer equally stunning views of the Swan Mountains.

Official site: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/flathead/recreation/camping-cabins/recarea/?recid=66992&actid=50

6. Trapper Peak, Bitterroot National Forest

Trapper Peak | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Straddling the Idaho Panhandle in southwest Montana, the Bitterroot Mountains are part of the 1.6-million-acre Bitterroot National Forest alongside the Sapphire Mountains to the east.

Elevations in the Bitterroots span from 3,200 feet in the Bitterroot Valley to 10,157-feet at the top of Trapper Peak. A steep but relatively low-distance summit hike, the view atop Trapper Peak offers excellent insight into the surrounding mountain environment.

A few different routes can be taken to the top of Trapper Peak, with the standard hike departing from the Trapper Peak Trailhead and climbing nearly 4,000 feet in just over four miles to the summit. Steadily steep, the trail is well marked and not technically demanding until perhaps the very end, where a short but low-exposure scramble leads to the top. Alternative and more demanding Trapper Peak summit hikes lead past Gem and Baker Lakes and involve more wayfinding.

Other popular peaks to nab in the Bitterroot Mountains include Lolo Peak and St. Mary Peak. It's not just summit hikes in the Bitterroot Mountains, though, with other trails like the Kootenai Creek Trail and Blodgett Canyon leading to stunning waterfalls and other natural features.

Over 20 National Forest Service campgrounds are spread throughout the forest and close to trailheads.

Official site: https://www.fs.usda.gov/bitterroot/

7. Ross Creek Nature Trail, Ross Creek Cedars Scenic Area, Kootenai National Forest

Ross Creek Cedars Scenic Area

In far northwest Montana near the Idaho border, and within the Kootenai National Forest, the Ross Creek Cedars Scenic Area is home to trees that have been growing for over 1,000 years.

The best way to experience the Ross Creek Cedars is by taking a self-guided hike along the Ross Creek Nature Trail. Lined with interpretive information and other giant western trees, the nature loop is less than a mile in length.

For a bigger day hike, Ross Creek Trail continues from the grove for just over four miles.

Official site: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/kootenai/recarea/?recid=66084

8. Stuart Peak, Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, Lolo National Forest Editor's Pick

The view from Stuart Peak | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The university city of Missoula in western Montana is surrounded on all sides by great hiking destinations. Enticing both students and community members alike, the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area has one of the most popular and closest networks of trails to the city. Accessed with a six-mile drive (or bike ride) from Missoula, the Rattlesnake Main Trailhead offers numerous trails to explore, including a route to the prominent 7,980-foot Stuart Peak.

Within the Lolo National Forest, it's roughly 10 miles from the main trailhead up to Stuart Peak, with over 4,500 feet of elevation gain. A stout day hike, the trail is also well traveled by backpackers looking to spend the night next to alpine lakes.

Mountain bikers have the option to make quicker miles on the trail until the route crosses into the designated Rattlesnake Wilderness approximately seven miles from the main trailhead.

The trail to Stuart Peak utilizes the Spring Gulch trail, with other popular gulch routes in the area including Sawmill Gulch and Curry Gulch. Less strenuous hiking opportunities stem from the main trailhead, including the Main Corridor trail, which extends over 14 miles with minimal elevation gain.

For more hiking trails close to Missoula, both Pattee Canyon and Blue Mountain Recreation Areas are also within the Lolo National Forest and adjacent to the city.

Official site: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/lolo/recarea/?recid=10277

9. Sweetgrass Trail, Crazy Mountains

Road to the Crazy Mountains

An island mountain range in south-central Montana, the Crazy Mountains rise from a flat prairie environment with significant prominence and a plethora of alpine lakes to explore. Mainly within the Custer-Gallatin National Forest, the Crazy Mountains are dotted with privately owned parcels of land, where hikers are asked to stay on designated trails as they pass through. The most popular place to hike into the Crazy Mountains is from the Halfmoon Campground, located 25 miles from the city of Big Timber.

From Half Moon Campground, hikers start on the 2.9-mile Big Timber Creek Trail to access the Sweetgrass Trail. Popular with backpackers and strong day hikers alike, the near 17-mile Sweetgrass Trail spawns many side adventures into the Crazy Mountains, including destinations like Thunder Lake and Twin Lakes.

Hikers should familiarize themselves with a map of the area before heading into the Crazy Mountains to avoid trespassing on private property.

Official site: https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/custergallatin/home

10. Natural Bridges Trail, Terry Badlands Wilderness Study Area

Formations in Terry Badlands Wilderness Study Area

Forty miles northeast of Miles City in eastern Montana near the North Dakota border, the Terry Badlands present a unique and rugged landscape found in few other parts of the state.

Hikers wanting to visit the Terry Badlands have a couple of options to get here, including the Big Sky Backcountry Byway (State Route 253) or the non-maintained Calypso Trail (4WD recommended). The Natural Bridge Trailhead is found at the end of the Calypso Trail, and the namesake rock formations are discovered a mile from the trailhead.

11. Mount Sentinel "M" Trail, Missoula

Mount Sentinel "M" in Missoula | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Anytime you look at the giant "M" affixed to Mount Sentinel in Missoula, just above the campus of the University of Montana, you see people navigating the zig-zagging trail up to the white-colored insignia. It's arguably one of the most traveled trails in the state.

A relatively easy hike at only 0.75 miles long, the switchbacks test the legs of any hiker going up. Hikers can continue another steep mile up the trail to the summit, where the views of the valley are well worth the effort.

Missoula is not the only city with an iconic summit hike right outside the backdoor. For those visiting Bozeman, the College "M" Trail offers an equally steep trail to hike, as does the city of Butte atop the aptly named Big Butte.

Similar overviews of a city can also be found in Helena at the top of Mount Helena City Park. On the outskirts of Billings, Zimmerman Park offers cliffside views of the Yellowstone Valley.

12. Continental Divide National Scenic Trail

Chinese Wall on the Continental Divide Trail

For those looking to go the distance in Montana, the nation-spanning Continental Divide National Scenic Trail begins or ends in Montana (depending on which direction you head). It also passes through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Idaho, but arguably the most scenic section of this approximately 3,100-mile trail strides through Big Sky Country.

Crossing through iconic areas, including the Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the trail's northern terminus is located within Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.

Another thru hike that starts or ends in Montana is the Pacific Northwest Trail. Spanning approximately 1,200 miles between Glacier National Park in Montana and Olympic National Park in Washington, this rugged trail passes through a variety of outstanding terrain. While thru hikes of either the Continental Divide or Pacific Northwest Trail are multi-month endeavors, both trails host an array of day hiking opportunities.

Official site: https://continentaldividetrail.org

More Related Articles on PlanetWare.com

Hiking and Camping at Glacier National Park: Some of the best hiking trails in Glacier National Park lead to stunning places like Grinnell Glacier, Iceberg Lake, and the Ptarmigan Tunnel. Thanks to the abundance of space and hiking trails to explore in Glacier, as well as the semi-remote location of the national park, it's well worth the time to look into some of the best campgrounds in Glacier. To round out the experience, our guide to the Top Places to Visit in Glacier can help you plan out a memorable vacation.

Montana Cities to Discover: For an ideal basecamp to discover hiking trails in Western Montana, the city of Missoula is a great place to stick around awhile. Farther east and surrounded by the Custer Gallatin National Forest, the city of Bozeman is also filled with collegiate appeal and easy access to the mountains. For a true mountain town getaway, the city of Whitefish is popular to visit throughout the year.

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