Montana’s rugged mountains are no secret but a few ranges steal all the glory. While everyone should make a trip to Yellowstone and Glacier, the state is loaded with opportunities to explore off the beaten track in mountains that see less traffic but remain wild and filled with treasures.
1. Mission Mountains
Take a drive between Missoula and the popular Flathead Lake and the Mission Valley will leave you in awe. The valley is home to wonderful stops like the Garden of 100 Buddhas in Arlee and the National Bison Range just outside of Charlo. The mountains, however, are hard to miss and they create a dramatic backdrop of rugged peaks that jump straight up from the valley floor. While no shortage of cars passes through the valley, the mountains themselves are less visited. The hikes are steep and grizzly bears are prevalent but the mountain lakes and trails are well worth the trip.
2. Cabinet Mountains
Tucked in the remote northwest corner of the state, the Cabinet Mountains sit at a lower base elevation than any other range in the state but they rise sharply with the highest point, Snowshoe Peak, sitting at 8,634 ft. The lush Kootenai Clark Fork River valley offers rafting, fishing and spectacular views of the mountains as a backdrop. Head into the thick timber and you will find trails that are shared with trophy whitetail deer, elk, bears, and moose. After walking through the lowland cedar and fir forests, the high alpine zones are scattered with lakes, streams and mountain goats clinging to the cliff walls. Consider trekking the Cabinet Divide trail to really experience everything this range offers.
3. Big Belts
North-Central Montana has several mountain ranges that rise above the plains, creating island-like refuges for wildlife and wilderness. The Big Belts are one of these incredible places and the out-there location means they see much less traffic than other popular mountains like the Gallatin Range. While popular with hunters in the fall, the miles of trails that navigate forest service lands makes this a great place to escape. Summits like Big Baldy climb over 9,000 feet and you can expect to have privacy while exploring the beautiful backcountry. The drive through rural farmlands where pheasants and deer dart across dirt roads is a bonus en route to the trailhead.
4. Tobacco Roots
Southwest Montana is a major destination and places like the Madison and Gallatin valleys see fairly heavy foot traffic from hikers and tourists. The great thing about this region, however, is the numerous other mountain ranges worth visiting. The Gravelly Range sits opposite of the Madison Range and is well worth exploring. The Tobacco Roots are also situated in this area and they fly under the radar. From the road, the mountains are not all that impressive, especially considering they are often overshadowed by big peaks in the Madison Valley. Drive up one of the long dirt roads into the treeline and National Forest lands however and a different world awaits. The Tobacco Roots are rich with trails, streams, lakes, and peaks. They are also a little less Grizzly than the surrounding ranges, making them attractive if you want an area with less bear density. Hollowtop Mountain sits at 10,604 ft, offering views of several valleys and mountains in southwest Montana from the peak.
5. Sweetgrass Hills
The Rocky Mountain Front is essentially the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains in northern Montana. Small towns like Augusta and Choteau are scattered along the plains where the Rockies drop into the prairie. The views here are big and on a clear day, you can see a long-distance across the plains. Look to the north and a set of small hills are often visible on the horizon. These are the Sweetgrass Hills and although they look small from Chotaeu or even Conrad, the hills are a large expanse of grassland mountains situated on the Canadian border. The peaks are called Buttes and they are more strenuous to climb than the initial appearance from a distance. Composed primarily of grasslands, they also have pockets of timber and are rich with wildlife. Elk, deer, and antelope are all prolific. Public lands are available but knocking on doors for permission to cross private property opens a ton of excellent, unpopulated ground to explore.