Preparing for a Montana Vacation

A person hiking on the Continental Divide Trail

One thing many first-time visitors to Montana miss is that Montana is a vast state. If you overlay it on the northeast, it will stretch from Washington DC nearly to Maine. It is just about the size of western Europe. And the terrain varies widely. Because of the size of the state, it is helpful to choose a central location that has access to all of the activities you might want to try and all of the amenities you want. There are only six towns in the entire state with a population of over 30,000.

Which makes choosing your starting point and home base very important. Many visitors who fly in choose Helena, the capital of Montana, as the starting point of their vacation. It is located close to the center of the western part of the state, which is a short drive from nearly every outdoor activity you can imagine, from world-class hiking and fishing to Rockhounding, photography and even mountain biking.

Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks are probably the two most well-known Montana attractions, and Helena is centered between the two parks. Glacier is just under 200 miles depending on which entrance you choose and a beautiful 3.5-hour drive. While Yellowstone is about 180 miles and a 3-hour drive to either the Gardner or West Yellowstone entrances.

But what most people don’t realize is that Montana has 55 state parks and 11 national forests with millions of acres of pristine woodlands and prairie. It is also one of the most biologically diverse states, and in a single drive, you can experience soaring mountains, plains, and valleys.

Helena’s location makes it an ideal place from which to launch your exploration and adventures!

Montana is teeming with wildlife, and you can avoid the crowds in the national parks by exploring some of the lesser known but still extraordinary places found in the state’s parks and forests. One thing about wildlife is that it is not constrained by imaginary boundaries. You are just as likely to see an elk or moose outside of the national parks as you are inside.

Whether it is hiking, photography or just taking in the scenery from the comfort of your car, there is something for everyone within a short drive from Helena. It can also help to expand your activity plans beyond the most obvious activities like hiking, fishing, and mountain biking. Remember, you can do nearly everything in Montana. Some favorite local activities that you may not have tried are gold panning, Rockhounding, rock climbing, zip-lining, and horseback riding. Not to mention visiting one or more of the many historic sites and museums that dot the area.

When packing for your trip, it’s important to think about what kind of activities you’ll be doing. If you’re just planning on doing some easy hiking, for example, you’ll need to bring along a small amount of clothing and equipment versus if you want to camp or Rockhound in a backcountry area.

Most visitors want to experience the outdoors in some fashion, so it is helpful when packing to think about the type of Montana vacation you are taking. Below are tips for three popular adventures, hiking, Rockhounding, and photography.

Prepare for a Hiking Adventure.

Hiking is one of the most popular activities in Montana. It is a great way to slow down and really experience the outdoors. The equipment you will need will vary depending on the duration and difficulty of your hike, but the basics of almost any hike are well-fitting, comfortable hiking shoes, a hat, a light jacket, and water.

If you are going to do a day hike, prepare beforehand by finding out the difficulty and estimated time of the hike. There are dozens of hiking trails for all levels in and within a short drive around Helena. Mount Helena City Park has six trails and more than 600 acres to explore. Some of these trails even connect to the national forest and can be quite an adventure.

Make sure you understand the directions you need to follow. If you are a novice at outdoor navigation, consider utilizing a guide. A good map can be picked up at nearly every sporting goods store in Helena like The Base Camp, and it will be your best friend in choosing a suitable hike for your group. There are several different hikes to the top of Mount Helena that can accommodate just about every fitness level, and the view from the top will help you understand why Montana is nicknamed the “Big Sky State.”

Elevations vary widely in Montana from the lowest point at Kootenai Falls’ 1,820 feet to the top of Granite Peak, which soars to 12,799. The big elevation changes contribute to unexpected, fast, and dramatic weather and temperature changes. But overall, height is just one factor to consider. Change in elevation is also essential. How much uphill walking are you going to do?

Keep in mind that the higher you go, it can get chilly any time of the year. At higher elevations, even in the summer, it can rain, snow, and get hot in a couple of hours. Stay dry, bring layers, and plan for your trip to take a little longer than you might think it will. It really pays to be prepared for a sudden change in weather.

One of the most valuable pieces of equipment many people don’t think to bring on a hike is binoculars. There are large open spaces all around the Helena valley, and you will be surprised at how many times you will be able to see something exciting like a bald eagle, moose, or even the occasional black bear, a couple of hundred yards off the road. Binoculars can make the experience much more enjoyable.

The reality is there are many different types of wild animals in Montana. And very occasional close encounters can occur. They are unlikely but possible. Bear spray is for sale all around Helena, and it is your best defense (do not check bear spray into your luggage or try to carry it on the plane!).

Prepare for a Rockhounding Adventure

Suppose you are unfamiliar with the term Rockhounding. In that case, it is what many rock enthusiasts and amateur geologists call their search for unusual and exciting rocks and minerals. There are thousands of different rocks, minerals, gemstones, and even fossils to be found in Montana, and Rockhounds take their search seriously. Montana, and the hills and mountains surrounding Helena, are an ideal place for finding interesting pieces. The geologic history of Montana and the formation of the Rocky mountains have created many places for Rockhounds to explore in and around Helena. Rockhounding is allowed on most of the 2.5 million acres of public lands in Montana, but there are some restrictions, especially in fragile ecological areas and near waterways. Check with the forest service for specifics on whichever area you decide to explore.

The tools of Rockhounding vary but are simple. You can get started with little more than a rock hammer, tweezers, a magnifying glass, and a rock and mineral guide to help you understand what you are looking at. There are hundreds of possibilities, and keep in mind Helena was founded as part of a search for gold in the area. It is not unusual to find some “color” in gold pans and even a small nugget in local streams and rivers.

And, just a ten-minute drive outside of Helena is one of the largest sapphire mines in the country, the Spokane Bar Sapphire Mine. They are open year-round and are a family-friendly place to look for sapphires of all shapes and sizes. Kids love the Spokane Mine because you are almost guaranteed to find something special!

Prepare for a Photography Adventure

There are many photogenic places in Helena and the surrounding area. The movie, A River Runs Through It was filmed a half an hour drive outside Helena, and the varied terrain opens near-endless possibilities of photos. The entire area is a photographer’s dream. The contrast between wide open spaces and jutting mountains creates many opportunities for magnificent pictures.

Some favorite places are the top of Mount Helena, downtown Helena, and the Canyon Ferry recreational area. From the top of Mount Helena, you can see the entire Helena valley with Sleeping Giant Mountain, the headwaters of the Missouri, and Lake Helena in the distance. Just a short drive from downtown Helena, lake Helena and Canyon Ferry Dam feature some truly breathtaking views at both sunrise and sunset, as well as many opportunities to photograph local animals.

Buildings in historic downtown Helena date back to the late 1800s, when Montana was still a mining town. You can capture the evolution of architecture since the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries and now into the 21st century. Helena’s capital building and cathedral are also favorites and attract visitors from all over the world.

Planning a vacation to Montana may seem daunting at first. Still, with a bit of preparation, it can be an enriching experience. This beautiful state has something for everyone, so take your time and enjoy the incredible scenery and outdoor activities that Montana has to offer. If you have any questions about planning your trip, don’t hesitate to reach out to us – we’re happy to help!