“Oro y Plata,” meaning “Gold and Silver,” is Montana’s state motto and refers to the area’s rich mining history, but even though the Gold Rush has ended, the Treasure State still has many sights to behold. Like precious gems, the 55 state parks adorn Montana from the Northern Great Plains to the western slope of the Rocky Mountains. Here are a few to add to your exploration of the American West.
Created in partnership with Montana State Parks
Eastern Montana State Parks: The Great Plains
In the Eastern portion of the state, you will find yourself traveling through open grasslands, striated mesas, and sagebrush that stretches to the horizon. The Northern Great Plains make up more than half of Montana’s area and are home to a rich biodiversity of birds, deer, and at one point, even dinosaurs roamed the area! To catch a glimpse of the prehistoric inhabitants, visit Makoshika State Park. Also known as Montana’s largest state park, Makoshika is home to many fossils, including the Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops! Makoshika, meaning “bad land” in Lakota, offers hiking trails and scenic drives through the unique jagged rock formations that will take you back to a land before time.
Central Montana State Parks: Heart of the Rockies
As you make your way deeper into the heart of the state, you will discover the remnants of Montana’s human inhabitants. Located just west of Great Falls, you can explore the First People’s Buffalo Jump State Park and National Historic Landmark. The interpretive trail will take you to one of North America’s largest buffalo cliff jumps. In addition to paths leading you along the mile-long sandstone cliff, the visitor’s center has many educational offerings. Exhibits displaying the buffalo culture of the First Peoples, an outdoor amphitheater, and traditional game fields allow visitors to learn more about the community that once resided there.
Further south, near Helena, you can wander through history in the ghost town of Elkhorn. Elkhorn State Park preserves the remains of a 19th-century silver mining town. Although the settlement has mostly disappeared, two buildings are still standing. Bring a camera and a friend to tread into Montana’s mining past. Tip: Elkhorn State Park consists of two well persevered buildings, and the rest of the community is private property. Visitors are asked not to leave the area of the state-owned buildings and respect the property of other owners in the community.
Southern Montana State Parks: Yellowstone and Beartooth Region
The iconic Beartooth Mountains and Yellowstone River will welcome you as you travel through southern Montana. Learn about local Native American history by traveling south of Billings to the Chief of Plenty Coups State Park and National Historic Landmark. The Chief of Plenty Coups’ homestead, located on the Crow Indian Reservation, includes his log home, sacred spring, and farmland. Throughout the interpretive trail and visitor center, you can learn about the life of this incredible leader of the Apsaalooke (Crow) and their traditional ways of living. Bring a lunch and plan to picnic along the peaceful Pryor Creek.
If you are interested in exploring ghost towns, head further west to Bannack State Park, outside Dillon. The town of Bannack was the home to Montana’s first significant gold discovery, and today visitors can get a glimpse of what life looked like in the 1860s. The well-preserved Main Street displays over 50 buildings, and the park is open to tourists throughout the year. See Bannack come to life at Bannack Days, the parks signature annual event, which takes place the third weekend in July. See what living was like for a real Montanan!
Western Montana State Parks: Pacific Northwest Meets Rocky Mountains
As you traverse west into the river valleys and dense forests of western Montana, take a load off at Travelers’ Rest State Park and National Historic Landmark. Located in Lolo, this historic crossroads was a layover spot for several Native American Tribes and is one of the only verifiable campsites of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Tour the visitor center to see artifacts from the Corps of Discovery and other crafts and sculptures from local indigenous groups. You can also hike along Lolo Creek and have a peaceful afternoon watching for the variety of bird species that still call this area home.
Lastly, we head to the southwest corner of Montana, outside Conner, to Painted Rocks State Park. This tranquil oasis is a perfect family-friendly getaway, with ample space to hike, fish, and paddle around on Painted Rocks Reservoir. During your adventure, keep an eye out for the various local wildlife, including moose, elk, and black bears. Many bird species reside and migrate through, so bring binoculars!