The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest's 3.35 million acres make it the largest national forest in Montana, covering parts of eight southwest Montana counties. Administrative offices representing seven ranger districts are located in Butte, Dillon, Philipsburg, Deer Lodge, Whitehall, Ennis, Sheridan, Wise River, and Wisdom.
The combined forests, individually proclaimed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, now encompass a dozen+ mountain ranges, the Anaconda-Pintler and Lee Metcalf Wilderness Areas, Georgetown Lake, the Discovery and Maverick Mountain ski areas, and the ghost towns of Elkhorn, Granite and Coolidge. Both the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail and the Nez Perce Historic Trail traverse the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. Two driving tours—Lemhi Pass and the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway—provide scenic auto access.
The Beaverhead-Deerlodge Forest provides habitat for 246 birds, 85 mammals—including grizzly bears and wolves—and 15 reptiles and amphibians. Fifty campgrounds, 25 cabins, and hundreds of miles of hiking, horse, bicycle, snowmobile and cross-country ski trails for human access.
The Bitterroot National Forest encompasses 1.6 million acres in Montana and Idaho, almost half of which is made up of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, and the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness.
The Bitterroot offers winter sports from downhill skiing and snowboarding at Lost Trail Powder Mountain to cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling at Skalkaho Snowpark, plus almost endless backcountry opportunities. From spring through fall, the Selway, Snake, Salmon, and Middle Fork of the Salmon are nationally popular whitewater destinations. Hikers have 1,600 miles of trails to choose from in the forest's two defining mountain ranges: the Bitterroot, and the Sapphires.
The Bitterroot's four ranger districts (Stevensville, Darby, Sula, and West Fork) manage more than 35 campgrounds and picnic areas, and 8 rental cabins and fire lookouts.
The Bob Marshall Wilderness, the 1,009,356-acre centerpiece of a complex including Great Bear and Scapegoat wilderness areas, was designated in 1964, and named for forester, conservationist, and Wilderness Society founder Bob Marshall (1901–1939).
"The Bob" is one of the most expansive untouched ecosystems in the world, and hosts the densest population of American grizzly bears outside of Alaska.
The Bob's signatured feature is the Chinese Wall, a 1,000-foot-high escarpment running 22 miles up the 60 miles of Rocky Mountain spine encompassed by the wilderness. The north and south forks of the Sun River and the middle and south forks of the Flathead also rise in the Bob. Rafting the Flathead's middle fork is possible for those willing to pack or fly in, and is best in late summer. The Flathead's middle fork offers some of the state's wildest whitewater, especially during peak midsummer flows. Rafters generally put in at Schafer—the only landing field in the complex that's publicly accessible.
Early rifle season starts mid-September, and hunters show the fertile wilderness heavy use. More than 50 professional outfitters and guides operate in the wilderness.
For hikers and horseback riders, over 1,000 miles of trails dig deep into the Bob proper. The wilderness can be accessed via U.S. Highway 2 to the north, U.S. 89 and 287 to the east, and Montana Highway 200 and 83 to the south and west. Towns with services bordering the wilderness include Swan Lake, Seeley Lake, Lincoln and Hungry Horse to the west, and Augusta, Choteau and Dupuyer to the east.
Cooney State Park, on Cooney Reservoir less than an hour south of Billings, is one of south-central Montana's most popular play spots, especially in summertime, when you can expect the park's 72 campsites, divided among five campgrounds, to be full.
Motor-boating, water skiing, windsurfing and fishing for the lake's walleye and rainbow trout are popular summertime activities. Come winter, ice fishing, Nordic skiing and ice skating take over. The park is open year-round, but a concession offering necessities including soda, water, snacks, firewood, bait, ice, and emergency items for boats is open Thursday-Sunday, 8 AM - 8 PM, Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Camping facilities include all the usual amenities plus a few extras like fish-cleaning stations and, for afterward, coin-operated showers (open 5/01 to 09/30). Eleven campsites at the Red Lodge Campground have electrical hookups, and the Marshall Grove Campground is a no-pet zone for those who prefer their tent camping without late-night barking.
Custer National Forest comprises some 1.3 million acres in ten sections, primarily in eastern Montana. About 6 percent of the forest's acreage is in South Dakota. Almost 350,000 acres of the forest constitutes a third of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.
The Custer provides habitat for mountain goats, big horn sheep, elk, mule and white-tail deer, grizzly and black bear, cougar, and moose, primarily in the forest's alpine and sub-alpine western portions. Eastern parts of the forest are dominated by ponderosa pine and the Dakota Prairie Grasslands, which feature antelope and the country's largest concentration of the rare Merlin falcon.
The Custer includes three ranger districts. The Ashland District manages some of the most extensive grazing allotments in the country, and features four campgrounds and a rental cabin. The Beartooth District, officed in Red Lodge, Montana, features Red Lodge Mountain Ski Resort, cross country ski, hiking, and equestrian trails, and the Beartooth Highway National Forest Scenic Byway. The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness portion of the forest is located in the Beartooth Ranger District, and shares Montana's highest mountain, 12,807-foot Granite Peak, with the adjacent Gallatin National Forest. The Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Territory, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, lies within the Beartooth District. The Sioux Ranger District straddles easter Montana and South Dakota, and includes the Castles and Capitol Rock national monuments.
The Flathead National Forest covers 2.3 million acres, about 1 million acres are designated wilderness. The Forest provides habitat for approximately 250 species of wildlife and 22 species of fish. The forest contains 1,700 miles of roads and 2,800 miles of hiking trails.
The Flathead National Forest also has 34 campgrounds and 11 cabins for rent in the forest, and maintains local ranger district offices in Bigfork, Hungry Horse, and Whitefish.
South-central Montana's 1.8 million-acre Gallatin National Forest, established in 1899, encompasses six distinct mountain ranges and parts of two designated wilderness areas: the Absaroka-Beartooth and the Lee Metcalf. Granite Peak, Montana's highest mountain at 12,799 feet, straddles the border between the Gallatin and Custer national forests.
The Gallatin National Forest is home to grizzly bears, black bears, gray wolves, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, elk, mule deer, bison, moose, bighorn sheep, antelope, mountain lions, and the Canada lynx. The Gallatin River, the Madison River, and tributaries of the Yellowstone River traverse the forest, and plentiful trout make the forest one of the country's premier fly fishing hotspots.
Special attractions include Earthquake Lake, formed in 1959 when a massive quake-triggered landslide sent 80 million tons of rock crashing into a narrow canyon of the Madison River, and the 68-mile Beartooth Scenic Byway (closed by snow in winter).
The Gallatin features more than 2,290 miles of hiking trails, some connecting to trails in Yellowstone National Park. Forty vehicle-accessible campgrounds and 23 rental cabins serve overnighters. Snowmobilers often access the forest via the neighboring town of West Yellowstone.
Local ranger districts offices are in Big Timber, Bozeman, Gardiner, Livingston, and West Yellowstone.
Hell Creek is an arm of Fort Peck Lake, and a gateway to both boat-camping in the Wild and Scenic Missouri River Breaks, and pleasure boating, water skiing, wind-surfing and walleye fishing on the lake itself. During winter, ice fishing, ice-skating and Nordic skiing are popular. During summer, don't expect isolation.
The park sprawls over 337 acres featuring boat ramps, docks, pay phones, restrooms, water, showers, RV sump stations, a seasonal food concession, picnic tables, fire rings, and hike/bike/interpretive trails. There are 55 campsites, including 45 with electrical hookups. The maximum trailer length is 35 feet.
Lewis and Clark Caverns, one of the largest limestone caverns in the Pacific Northwest, is also Montana's oldest state park, and one of its most elaborately developed, with a visitor center, interpretive displays, and cabin and tipi rentals. Shower facilities, an amphitheater, food concession, gift shop, educational programs and guided tours are available during the summer months.
The 2,920-acre park accommodates activities from hunting to hiking, and provides foot access to the Jefferson River, but the star attraction is the cavern itself. The 160-acre underground site was discovered in 1892, and declared a national monument in 1908, though the cavern wasn't fully surveyed until 1911. Improvements to open the caverns to tourists were accomplished largely by the Civilian Conservation Corp during President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. The caverns were transferred to state management in 1937, and opened as Montana's first state park in 1941.
Lewis and Clark never actually saw the caverns, which take their name from the fact that the site overlooks about 50 miles of the explorers' route along the adjacent Jefferson River.
The caverns, decorated with colorful stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and helictites, were formed by the dissolving action of acidic groundwater percolating through beds of Madison Limestone during the ice ages. Now lit and traversed with staircases and walkways, the caverns offer an accessible underground wonder, and a unique challenge for photographers. Schedule about two hours for the tour.
"Makoshika," derived from the Lakota word for "bad land," is the largest and arguably baddest state park in Montana, sprawling over more than 11,000 acres of weirdly eroded eastern Montana, the state's analog to neighboring South Dakota's better known Badlands National Park.
Makoshika lies along the Montana Dinosaur Trail, and features an interpretive center featuring triceratops skulls and other fossils from early park residents including Tyrannosaurus rex. The park's somewhat incongruous second main feature is an 18-hole frisbee-golf course, widely considered one of the most difficult folf layouts in the country.
Otherwise, Makoshika offers a pretty typical, if expansive, lineup of state park-style amenities, including an archery range, several scenic drives, a 16-site campground, and outdoor amphitheater.
Be aware that metal detectors, digging, collecting and removal of artifacts are prohibited.
Medicine Lake is the state's smallest wilderness area, comprising 8,218-acre Medicine Lake itself and the 2,320-acre Sandhill Unit southeast of the lake. The wilderness, designated in 1976, lies within the 31,467-acre Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of a larger complex including the Northeast Montana Wetland Management District and Lamesteer National Wildlife Refuge in the glaciated plains and pothole wetlands of northeastern Montana.
Medicine Lake is a migratory haven for ducks, geese, swans, sandhill cranes, and the occasional whooping crane. White pelicans, great blue herons, double-crested cormorants, ring-billed gulls, California gulls, and other breeding birds are common. An estimated 100,000 birds layover at Medicine Lake during the spring and fall seasons, and more than 200 species have been identified.
Medicine Lake is also an important waterfowl production area. Some 30,000 ducklings are hatched in the Medicine Lake complex every year, and the pelican rookery is the third-largest in the nation. Each fall, 10,000 sandhill cranes spend a migratory week at the lake. Bird-watching and wildlife photography draw visitors from all over the country.
A 100-foot observation tower at refuge headquarters provides excellent views, as does a 14-mile driving route studded with vantage points. May, June and October are considered the best months for birdwatching.
Hunting for waterfowl, upland birds, deer and antelope is also allowed, and sport fishing—including ice-fishing for northern pike—is popular on Medicine Lake and several other smaller water bodies. Nontoxic shot is required for all shotgun hunting, and power ice augers aren't allowed on the refuge's designated wilderness tracts. Check with U.S. Fish & Wildlife for relevant and seasonal regulations before you go.
Camping isn't allowed in the wilderness or encompassing refuge, but lodging and commercial campgrounds are available in the nearby towns of Plentywood, Medicine Lake, Froid, and Culbertson.
A 7,822' summit in the Flathead Range climbed most frequently via the 12-mile Mount Thompson-Seton Trail. The remains of a fire lookout clutter the summit.
The Red Rock Lakes Wilderness consists of 32,350 acres of high-country wetlands (elevations range from 6600-9000 feet) at the western edge of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The wilderness, designated in 1976, accounts for more than three-fourths of the encompassing 50,000-acre Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.
The refuge and later the wilderness were originally set aside to preserve habitat for some of America's last known trumpeter swans, which are recovering nicely. Still, they're harder to see than the wildlife's other resident and migratory species, including white-faced ibis, sandhill cranes, curlews, peregrine falcons, eagles, hawks, marsh wrens, mountain bluebirds, tree swallows, western meadowlarks, vesper sparrows and owls.
Badgers, wolverines, bears, pronghorn antelope, moose, wolf, red fox, badger, and coyote are also present, as are native fish including Arctic grayling and westslope cutthroat trout.
Excepting nesting season, the wilderness' 14,000 acres of lake, march and creek are best explored by canoe. Roaming on foot is unrestricted, but there are no trails in the wilderness, and camping isn't allowed (though campsites are available in the Recreation Area acreage and nearby).
Fishing is an option spring through fall, and waterfowl and antelope are fair game in season. Check out the wildflowers in July; be ready for mosquitos all summer. And call ahead for breeding-sensitive seasonal closures.
A private hunting club near Missoula offering pheasant shooting from Sept. 1 through March 31.