When it comes to the joys of the American West, there’s not much better than a week-long Montana road trip, including Glacier and Yellowstone national parks.
Glacier National Park, in northern Montana, is quite simply an alpine wonderland. Amazingly clear water with a tint of blue from glacial runoff cascades through lush valleys surrounded by towering peaks. You can find wildlife here: bears, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, among others, but the real attraction are the views. There’s a good reason this park is nicknamed the “Crown of the Continent.”
While Yellowstone National Park has tremendous mountain views as well, this park’s real attractions are its thermal features and massive amounts of wildlife not easily found elsewhere. Located in southern Montana and northwestern Wyoming, this park sits atop a supervolcano that makes for the largest concentration of geysers, hot springs and other thermal features in the world. It is also home to the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48, including bison, wolves and elk. This park is often called America’s Serengeti.
We did this exact itinerary in September 2023 and had a great time. To be fair, we had the advantage of having gone to both parks before. So, it made it a little easier to plan and decide what to skip. Below, we’ll share our Montana road trip itinerary so you, too, can enjoy these two iconic national parks.
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The Struggles of Planning a Montana Road Trip
Seeing both Glacier and Yellowstone in a one-week vacation (9 days to count for both weekends) may seem like a lot but it is doable. You just have to make good use of your time and be prepared to spend some time driving. Montana is a big state and there is a LOT to see and enjoy. A lot of folks, myself included, will tell you to spend more time than just a week to see both of these parks.
They are right, of course. You could easily spend a week in Yellowstone alone and not run out of things to do. But we also understand that travel is expensive and not everyone can afford to take longer vacations.
So, we have planned out this Montana road trip as a nine-day itinerary. This is to make the most of a one-week vacation and help someone experience these two wonders of nature. If you have more time, there’s a lot more you could do in this area. I will point out some other things you can do at various points in this post.
One thing to note about this trip: staying inside these parks (or even driving into Glacier NP) requires prior planning. Make sure you pay close attention to when reservations become available.
Lastly, pay attention to the typical weather before you plan your trip. This itinerary is best attempted in the summer to early fall. If you go any earlier or later, snow becomes an issue on some of the mountain passes.
So, let’s get started with our Montana road trip itinerary!
Day 0 – Fly to Billings, Montana
I can already hear some Montana travelers saying, “Billings? Why Billings? Bozeman is closer to Yellowstone!”
Here’s why I recommend flying into Billings: 1) it is typically cheaper to fly into and 2) Billings is a great town in its own right. You can easily spend an extra day or two exploring the area, including a side trip to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Memorial or Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.
We flew from Atlanta to Billings on a Friday night and got in late. We took the airport shuttle to our hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn. Since we were getting in late, we decided to not pick up our rental car until the next morning. That saved us a day of rental car charges.
The next morning, we took the shuttle back to the airport, grabbed our rental car, hit the grocery store to pick up snacks and were ready to hit the road by about 10 a.m. It worked pretty well for us!
Pro Tip: the towns are spread out in this part of the world, so having some snacks makes it a lot easier when the restaurant you were hoping to grab lunch at is closed.
Day 1: Drive from Billings to Bear Paw Battlefield and on to Glacier National Park
Oh, man! It felt so good to get on the road in eastern Montana. Once we got north of Billings, the road opened up. We got to spend the majority of the day exploring this little traveled part of Montana. That’s one of the best parts about a Montana road trip: wide open spaces!
We traversed through a mix of Plains with the occasional pine forest along with some rugged mountains in the distance. We crossed the Missouri River, intersecting the route of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. Along the way, we traipsed through small towns and Native American reservations before making it to US 2 and turning west.
We really like US 2. Called the Highline, this road is the northernmost highway in the Lower 48. In fact, we wrote about taking a US 2 road trip in our book, USA RV Adventures. As you head west, you will run into the small town of Chinook, MT.
- Sinclair, Bonnie (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 560 Pages – 02/28/2023 (Publication Date) – Moon Travel (Publisher)
Visiting Bear Paw Battlefield
Once you hit Chinook, head south through town on Indiana Street and stop at the Blaine County Museum. That serves as the visitor center for the Bear Paw Battlefield. Here, you will learn about the history of the area and the Bear Paw Battle, which ended the Nez Perce War.
The Nez Perce ran into conflict with settlers in Idaho. They fled east, cutting through southern Montana and northern Wyoming (including Yellowstone NP). They then cut northeast trying to make it to Canada. Their 1,170-mile flight ended in the shadow of Bear Paw Mountain when the Nez Perce fought its final battle over five days.
It was here that Chief Joseph, who led the Nez Perce, gave his famous speech and said, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
After finishing at the museum, continue south on Indiana Street, which will dead end into Conner Avenue. Then turn south onto Cleveland Road and drive about 16 miles until you get to the battlefield, which is part of the Nez Perce National Historical Park.
There’s not much at the battlefield other than interpretive signs, a couple of monuments and a trail that loops through the battlefield. That said, it is the perfect spot to stretch your legs and see where Chief Joseph gave his famous speech.
When we were at the battlefield in September 2023, one of the bridges over the creek was washed out, making what should have been a quick loop trail into a much longer trail to see everything.
Continue West to Glacier National Park
When you are done, head back north to US 2 and continue west toward Glacier NP. Because there were no reservations available in Saint Mary when we went, we ended up staying in Browning, MT at the Glacier Peaks Casino and Hotel.
While the hotel was perfectly fine, there was not a lot to get excited about in the town of Browning and we definitely struggled with finding a good meal. Add in the driving time from Browning to Saint Mary or Many Glacier and we would recommend staying closer if you can get a reservation.
Day 2: Explore Many Glacier and the East Side of Logan Pass in Glacier National Park
On our second day, we got up early and drove north from Browning to the Many Glacier area of Glacier NP. Glacier NP is easily one of the highlights of any visit to Montana and there’s a reason it is tops in terms of stops on our Montana road trip.
In the past few years, Glacier NP has been piloting a vehicle reservation program to alleviate the crowded parking areas within the park. The vehicle reservation system is typically in place from late May through mid-September. Since it changes every year, be sure to check the park website for current information.
Since there were no vehicle reservations required when we went in late September, we made a point to get there very early knowing trailhead parking would fill up quickly. The Many Glacier area is home to several excellent trails and you can easily make an entire day of hiking here.
We chose to hike the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail out to Redrock Falls. At Fishercap Lake, we even spotted two moose! We have also hiked out to Grinnell Lake and turned it into an excellent loop trail by hiking around Swiftcurrent Lake.
I also highly recommend taking the time to visit the Many Glacier Hotel to see the inside of this magnificent lodge and have a drink on the back deck of the hotel to enjoy the amazing views. Alas, it was closed in late September, during our most recent visit.
East Side of Logan Pass
After lunch, I recommend driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road, often just called Sun Road, up to Logan Pass. If you can find a spot to park, great. The parking lot here is limited and it fills up quickly. If not, you can save hiking at Logan Pass for the next day.
While you are at Logan Pass, be sure to hike the Hidden Lake Trail, which is a bit steep but has amazing views!
From there, work your way back down to Saint Mary Visitor Center, stopping at the various pullouts along the way. Be sure to stop at the Jackson Glacier Overlook for views of one of the few remaining glaciers in the park.
I also recommend stopping at the Saint Mary Falls Trailhead to hike this trail out to Saint Mary and Virginia Falls. Two other great stops are Sunrift Gorge and Sun Point (which has great views of Saint Mary Lake).
For dinner, you need to stop in at the Park Cafe and Grocery in Saint Mary for a meal and try one of their amazing pies!
Day 3: Explore the West Side of Logan Pass
Day 3 is for driving fully across Logan Pass and marveling at the views along Going-to-the-Sun Road. There are a lot of pullouts along the way so be sure to take your time and catch all of the views on the west side of the park.
Again, if you could not get into Logan Pass yesterday, get up early and make a point to hike the Hidden Lake Trail.
As the road flattens out, head to the Avalanche Creek area of the park. This area is home to two excellent trails: the Trail of the Cedars and the Avalanche Lake Trail. These two trails connect with each other. The Trail of the Cedars is relatively short and flat and has signage as a nature trail. The Avalanche Lake Trail is an uphill trail that follows the incredibly picturesque Avalanche Creek up to Avalanche Lake, which is gorgeous!
We have also done the Apgar Lookout Trail (a lot more strenuous) and the Johns Lake Loop, which is a nice trail that takes you along McDonald Creek. If you have additional time, these are both great hikes.
Be sure also to check out Lake McDonald, which is just as gorgeous at Saint Mary Lake. The Lake McDonald Lodge area and Apgar Village both have restaurants and stores.
On your way out of the park, be sure to stop at Glacier Distilling Company to sample some of their excellent whiskies.
Where to Stay on the West Side of Glacier National Park
In 2023, we stayed at The Pine Lodge on Whitefish River, which turned out to be an excellent hotel and well worth the point redemption we got through Citi ThankYou Points transferring to Choice Hotels. While we would certainly stay here again, this is NOT a hotel to use as a base for exploring the park. It is just too far, time-wise, from the park. For this itinerary though, it works perfectly.
The same is true of the hotel we stayed at in 2012, the Hilton Garden Inn in Kalispell. It was a perfectly good hotel, just too far from the park to serve as a base but it would work for this trip.
If I were driving back into the park, I would have opted for one of the hotels in West Glacier, despite the cost OR stayed at one of the lodges in the park. Sadly, the lodges were closed when we visited in late September.
If you have extra time, you can easily spend a couple more days in the park exploring the Inside North Fork Road and the Two Medicine Area OR simply spend more time on the trail!
Day 4: Visit the Bison Range and Drive to Yellowstone National Park
Driving south from Whitefish, we made a point to stop at the Bison Range on our way to Yellowstone NP as part of our Montana road trip. We are so glad we did. This used to be known as the National Bison Range when it was part of the National Wildlife Refuge system and operated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
When it was created, however, the land was simply carved out of the Flathead Reservation without the consent of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation (CSKT). The tribes took over the refuge in 2022.
Drive the Red Sleep Mountain Drive
Make sure to read up on the tribe’s story at the visitor center and then take a drive on the Red Sleep Mountain Drive, which loops through the refuge. Take your time and keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. We spotted bison, mule deer and a black bear on our drive. The refuge is also home to several other mammals, including an elk herd.
At the top of Red Sleep Mountain, be sure to stop at the informational signs about Glacial Lake Missoula, a massive lake that covered this whole area during the last Ice Age.
Along the road, you will also find two short hiking trails, which are great for stretching your legs. Just be careful! When we were there, about to hike on the longer of the two trails, that’s when we spotted the bear.
As you continue the loop through the refuge, keep an eye out on the north end for elk, which like to hang out near Mission Creek. We didn’t spot any on our visit but the folks at the visitor center warned us that the area was prime elk territory and there had been plenty of photographers there for the elk rut. Alas, we seemed to have just missed the rut by traveling during the third week in September.
We also did not see any large herds of bison, except way in the distance. Thus is the nature of bison. You can never really predict what they will do or where they will hang out.
Driving to Yellowstone National Park
After you visit the Bison Range, continue south towards Missoula and then east towards Bozeman on I-90. If you have more time, you can certainly spend a day or two each exploring these two iconic cities on your Montana road trip.
But your drive today will take you past both to Livingston where you will turn south on US 89 and drive through Paradise Valley. If you have ever seen the TV show Yellowstone, Paradise Valley is the setting for the Dutton Ranch. You can easily see why this area is called Paradise Valley. With mountains towering over both sides and the Yellowstone River snaking through, this area is truly breathtaking.
For our first night, we stayed in Gardiner, MT, outside the park, at the Ridgeline Hotel at Yellowstone, which was also a point redemption of Citi ThankYou Points through Choice Hotels. While it was not as nice at the Pine Lodge on the Whitefish River, it was perfectly comfortable.
If you have time following your drive, we suggest grabbing a sandwich from the nearby Gardiner Market and heading into the park to enjoy some wildlife with your dinner. We ended up driving all the way to Lamar Valley and really enjoyed watching the bison we spotted.
Days 5, 6, 7 Explore Yellowstone National Park
When it comes to planning out your visit to Yellowstone NP, a lot of it will depend on where you stay, what the weather is like and what you feel like doing. Since the driving distances are far in the park, I am going to group activities together so you can make the most of your time in this park on your Montana road trip.
Unlike Glacier NP, which involved staying on the east side and then the west side of the park, you can stay pretty much anywhere but unless you are staying in the middle of the park, your driving times will be significant.
Don’t feel obligated to do everything. There just simply isn’t enough time with this one-week itinerary and you never know what cool thing you might spot wildlife doing. You might end up watching two bears fighting over a mate or get stuck in a bison jam. Just see what you can and plan another trip if you fall in love and want to see more (which we expect you will!).
Pro tip: Get up and be in the park early. When it comes to dinner, eat early and head back out afterward. Wildlife is most active early and late in the day.
Day 5 – Explore the Thermal Features on the West Side of the Park
For this day, I suggest you spend your time exploring the thermal features on the west side of Yellowstone. Make sure you visit the following:
- Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin
- Midway Geyser Basin and Grand Prismatic Spring
- Norris Geyser Basin
When it comes to thermal features, these three spots have some of the highest concentrations and best features to see.
If you have more time, add on these sites:
- Biscuit Basin
- Lower Geyser Basin
- Fountain Paint Pot
- Artists Paint Pot
- Gibbon Falls
- Sheepeater Cliffs
In addition, there are two one-way drives in the area, the Firehole Canyon Drive and the Virginia Cascade Road, which are both worth it if you have time.
To be fair, this is a lot to see and do. Don’t feel like you have to see everything. But, still, there are some amazing sights at each of these locations.
For this day, I recommend you stay on the west side of the park at a lodge at either Old Faithful Village or Grant Village. Alternately, you could stay in West Yellowstone. This will reduce your drive time for the next day.
Day 6 – Explore Yellowstone Lake, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Mammoth Hot Springs
For your second day, drive down to the southern end of the park. Be sure to go to Craig Pass to see Isa Lake. While Isa Lake does not get a ton of press, it is a geographic oddity. It is the only natural lake that drains into both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
For the rest of the day, spend your time exploring the following:
- West Thumb Geyser Basin
- Drive east of Lake Yellowstone to Sylvan Pass and back (keep an eye out for grizzly bears)
- Watch for wildlife in Hayden Valley
- Check out the Upper and Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone… Be sure to go to Artists Point for our favorite view.
- Stop at Tower Fall
- Turn west and head to Mammoth Hot Springs
- Explore the old Fort Yellowstone at Mammoth Hot Springs
- Check out both the Lower and Upper Terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs
These are some of the grandest views in Yellowstone NP. If you run out of time exploring these sites, don’t worry! You should have a little extra time in the next two days for you to see the stuff you missed.
In terms of where to stay, I suggest either staying in either the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins or head back out to Gardiner.
Day 7: Explore the Blacktail Plateau and Lamar Valley
This day is all about checking out the natural wonders of the north end of the park and catching anything you missed earlier. Start by heading east from Mammoth Hot Springs towards Tower-Roosevelt Junction. Along the way, make a point to stop at the following:
- Undine Falls
- Wraith Falls
- Take the short interpretive Forces of the Northern Range trail
- Drive the Blacktail Plateau Drive and keep your eyes peeled for wildlife, especially black bears
- Keep heading east into Lamar Valley, again keeping your eyes peeled for wildlife
- Stop at Soda Butte
- If you have time, hike the trail up to Trout Creek
As you drive through Lamar Valley, keep an eye out for “wolf peepers.” These are folks who set up with spotting scopes to watch wolves in the park. You might also spot them in Hayden Valley or along the road to Slough Creek Campground, which is north of Lamar Valley. Oftentimes, they will let folks look through their scopes if you ask nicely but don’t expect it. Still, wherever they are is a good place to look if you want to look for wolves. Just understand that you might not see anything with the naked eye or even standard binoculars.
Use the remainder of the day to see anything you missed and keep your eyes open for wildlife.
For this night, stay at either the Roosevelt Lodge or Canyon Lodge if staying inside the park. Both of these lodges are great for spending the evening in Lamar or Hayden valleys watching wildlife. If staying outside the park, Cook City, MT would be convenient for the next day’s drive.
Where to Stay and Eat in Yellowstone National Park
When we went in September 2023, we stayed at the aforementioned Ridgeline Hotel in Gardiner for three nights. While the hotel was nice enough, the location outside the park meant a lot more driving than staying inside the park. That is a decision you’ll have to make for yourself, though – stay in one location for several nights and drive more or move hotels every night or two and drive less. There are pros and cons to both.
We also stayed at the Lake Hotel on this trip for one night and enjoyed our stay. The rooms are nice, the dining room was great and the lounge area is the perfect place to relax and enjoy a view of Lake Yellowstone. It is also relatively centrally located.
In terms of food, the lodges and cafes are all good. In particular, we love the dining room at the Roosevelt Lodge at the north end of the park. The food has a refined cowboy vibe to it and we love the Roosevelt or Rosey Beans. Be sure to grab the recipe while you are there!
Day 8: Drive the Beartooth Highway to Red Lodge and Return to Billings
The Beartooth Highway runs from the Northeast Gate of Yellowstone National Park through the Beartooth Mountains to the town of Red Lodge. It is 68 miles long and ascends from around 5,000 to 10,947 feet at the top of Beartooth Pass.
Pro Tip: Check the weather before driving this road. Snow can fall on the Beartooth Pass 12 months out of the year. We did not get to drive this road in September 2023 because snow hit the night before and closed the pass.
As you drive the road, be sure to stop at Top of the World Store for some snacks and souvenirs. Also, be sure to check out all of the pullouts along the road, especially the views of the Beartooth Pass. There’s a good reason why Charles Kuralt called this the most scenic road in America.
Once you get to Red Lodge, take a moment to get out, stretch your legs and grab a meal before you continue on to Billings.
For our final night in Montana, we found a great deal at the DoubleTree in downtown Billings, which was quite comfortable. After unloading the rental car (saving another day’s rental costs), we took it back to the airport and availed ourselves of the airport shuttle back to the hotel.
There are plenty of good restaurants within walking distance of the hotel but we ended up at the Montana Sky restaurant, located on the top floor of the hotel. We had a good meal with an excellent view of the city of Billings. After a long week, it was tasty and effortless.
Day 9: Wrap Up Your Montana Road Trip and Fly Home
The Billings Logan International Airport is not huge. There’s not a ton there, either. There is a restaurant outside of security and a food court inside of security. The staff for Delta Airlines barely got to the luggage check kiosk two hours before our flight.
Getting through security, however, was a bit tedious. While TSA PreCheck got us through fairly quickly, we were both stopped for additional screening so they could inspect the electronics in our bags. We travel with a lot of camera and computer gear but we were surprised we both got flagged… and it took a while for the TSA agent to complete the inspections.
Still, we had about an hour to kill before we boarded our flight and were glad for it… We found a couple of great souvenirs at the gift shop.
Final Thoughts on a Montana Road Trip to Glacier and Yellowstone
While Montana is huge and there is no way to see the whole of the state in one week, you can certainly see some of its most beautiful attractions: Glacier and Yellowstone national parks.
This road trip allows you to experience those two parks as well as a few other sites along the way, giving you a meaty taste of Montana scenery. There truly is nothing like the wide open skies, massive mountains and verdant valleys to capture both the imagination and the soul.
We hope this itinerary will inspire your own Montana road trip so you can taste what this amazing state is all about. Because once you have seen it once, you will want to come back again and again.
What do you use to find a flight?
We use Skyscanner to find deals on flights. Skyscanner has a great interface and compares tons of airlines for the best pricing and routing. That said, it does not always have every airline and some airlines will have better deals on their website. Still, Skyscanner is a great place to start.
Click here to search for a flight.
What do you use to find a hotel?
We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. You can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.
Click here to book a Hilton property.
We recently partnered with Stay22 to add interactive maps to each of our destination posts. This will allow you to see a plethora of hotels and vacation rentals all in one responsive map of the area.
What if I need more space than I can get at a hotel?
We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
Click here to search for a vacation rental.
Who do you use for rental cars?
How about booking a cruise?
What if I want to rent an RV?
We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
Click here to rent an RV.
What do you use for booking tours?
Do you use anything to get discounts on the road?
We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
Click here to get a Good Sam membership.
We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.
Click here to get a AAA membership.