Home to millions of acres of wilderness, massive mountain ranges, and thousands of miles of forest service roads and off-road trails to explore, Montana is one of America’s premier destinations for overlanding and off-roading.
The challenge for Montana overland adventure seekers is choosing from the many possible regions, destinations and routes in the state. While we can come close to covering all of the possibilities this guide will help you get oriented and highlight a few top destinations.
Montana Overlanding Overview
Montana’s state motto is “Oro y Plata,” or “Gold and silver.” An artifact from the region’s mining history, it’s still fitting, as even today Montana rewards intrepid treasure hunters–the gold to be found nowadays is wilderness adventure.
Montana is defined by its vast and remote landscapes, much of which is undeveloped backcountry. The fourth-largest state by geographical area, it is one of the third most sparsely populated.
Federal and state agencies manage over 31 million acres of public lands in Montana, including:
- Two of America’s most iconic national parks, Glacier and Yellowstone
- 11 national forests, encompassing nearly 17 million acres
- 8 million acres of BLM land
- 54 state parks
This guide provides an overview of the many options for Montana overlanding and off-roading. It’s really just a snapshot to point you in the right direction, as Montana offers too many backcountry areas and rugged roads and trails to cover in one post.
Taking the widest view, Montana is split into two distinct regions, the Western Mountains and Eastern Plains. These are separated by the Central Front range, which follows the Continental Divide and extends north by northwest across the middle of Montana.
The western part of the state and Central Front are dominated by the Rocky Mountains, which are broken into around 100 named subranges, some soaring to 13,000 feet in altitude. The eastern side is mostly prairie and badlands broken up by hills and isolated smaller mountain ranges.
Another highlight of exploring Montana is its thousands of creeks, rivers, and lakes. These not only offer numerous recreational activities, from whitewater kayaking to fly fishing, but also provide access to water for camping needs (with appropriate filtration of course).
Montana’s climate and weather patterns vary depending on where you are in the state. Generally speaking, summers are short, warm, and sunny, while winters are cold, overcast, and snowy.
One thing to keep in mind is that the state is situated fairly far north and in winter temperatures can get extremely cold. Montana holds the record for the coldest temperature ever recorded in the lower 48 US states, -70 degrees in 1944 at Rogers Pass. Winter storms can make both paved roads and backcountry travel treacherous. Plan accordingly and be safe.
The climate of Montana west of the Central Front is milder than the eastern portion of the state, with warmer winters and cooler summers, and lighter winds. Montana gets nearly 50 inches of snow annually, with local snowfall varying across the microclimates.
Montana Overlanding Destinations and Routes
Montana’s tourism authority recognizes six distinct regions, which are helpful for researching and planning trips. These divisions roughly split the state along longitudinal and latitudinal grid lines. They are Glacier Country, Central Montana, Missouri River Country, Southwest Montana, Yellowstone Country, and Southeast Mountana.
Located in the northwest corner of Montana, the area around Glacier National Park is one of America’s most dramatic landscapes. In addition to the national park, the area is home to several national forests and numerous forest roads and trails. As with all the regions of Montana, there are far too many places to explore to capture here, but below are a few ideas to get you started.
One thing to keep in mind about this part of Montana is that in peak visitation months in summer, it gets crowded with tourists from around the world. Even the North Fork area mentioned below, which once flew under the radar, has become an overflow adventure from the main park. If you are looking for solitude, head further into the lesser known national forests.
North Fork Flathead River Area
From its headwaters in Canada, The North Fork Flathead River flows south southeast through northwestern Montana, passing along western edge of Glacier National Park.
Beginning in Columbia Falls, Montana, you can follow the river north, which will bring you into a rugged and scenic part of the state. One possibility is to enter the West Glacier entrance of the park and then head North on Camas Road at the Apgar Visitor’s Center near Lake McDonald and the town of West Glacier. This 11.7-mile two lane road brings you through some dramatic scenery before exiting the park where it intersects with the North Fork Flathead River.
Crossing the river here, you can head north on North Fork Road and make your way to the remote outpost of Polebridge, Montana. The highlight of the town is Polebridge Mercantile, a rustic bakery and supply store. There are many lakes in this region. Bowman Lake and the surrounding wilderness in the national park is a nice basecamp and hiking and paddling. If you are heading into the national park from Bowman during peak season, you’ll need to arrive early in the morning to get in.
Alternatively, you could take Highway 426 north from Columbia Falls to get to North Fork Road. Either way, as you head north along the North Fork Flathead River, you’ll pass numerous roads branching off to the east into Flathead National Forest. There are hundreds of miles of forest roads, many of which are rarely used and will get you far from the crowds of the national park. In addition to 32 designated campgrounds, dispersed camping is allowed throughout the forest. It’s a good idea to check with the local rangers station about road conditions. Many of these roads won’t be accessible in winter.
Going to the Sun Road
While not an off-road trail, scenic Going to The Sun Road, or “Sun Road” as the locals call it, is worth a drive while you’re in the region. It’s the only road to pass completely through Glacier National Park. It reaches a peak altitude of 6,646 feet as it crosses over the Continental Divide at Logan Pass and offers fantastic views.
You can get on Sun Road at the West Glacier entrance of the park or at the Saint Mary entrance. Stop at Logan Pass to do some hiking. This scenic drive (also closed in winter) could be linked up with an adventure in the North Fork Flathead River area outlined above. During peak season, you’ll need a prearranged pass to enter the park.
In the video below, a husband and wife check out Going to the Sun Road:
Magruder Corridor Road
If you are looking for a rugged, remote, and somewhat technically demanding overland route in Montana, look no further than the Magruder Corridor Road. This 101-mile truck trail winds between Red River, Idaho and Darby, Montana, passing through a vast and remote alpine landscape. The road snakes between the 1.2- million acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness to the north, and the 2.3-million-acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness to the south.
Originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s, Magruder Corridor Road is narrow, rocky, steep and winding, with few turnouts for passing oncoming vehicles. You’ll want a truck or high-clearance SUV or a dirt-road friendly motorcycle. The Forest Service does not recommend towing trailers because there are several hairpin turns along the route. RVs with low clearance should not travel the road.
There are several primitive campgrounds along the route and dispersed camping is allowed in a number of areas. Plan for the trip to take at least two days. The National Forest Service page on the route has a lot of helpful information.
Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest
The largest of the national forests in Montana, the Beaverhead-Deerlodge covers 3.35 million acres in the southwest and south central portions of the state. Beaverhead-Deerlodge has 50 designated campgrounds and allows dispersed camping. There are numerous forest service roads to use for exploring. You could also check out the named backcountry routes: Gravelly Range Road and Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway.
Gravelly Range Road
Gravelly Range Road is a 72 mile long route that includes a 32 mile stretch on a scenic high-altitude plateau. The route connects the town of Ennis with Centennial Valley to the south, a unique high elevation drive along the crest of a southwest Montana mountain range. The paved stretch between Ennis and Black Butte Mountain offers particularly spectacular scenery.
The road becomes dirt and gravel as it descends into Centennial Valley, a remote and mostly empty part of Montana – no stores, fuel or cell service are available. If you want to explore further, check out the Centennial Valley Backcountry Road. There are many offshoot roads to explore in Gravelly Range and Centennial Valley. Take your pick.
Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway
Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway is a paved road that follows the Wise River along the length of the Pioneer Mountain Range in Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. The route starts on Montana State Highway 43 in the town of Wise River and travels south approximately 49 miles over Forest Service Highway 73 to County Highway 278. The road is closed from December 1 through May 15 between Pettengill parking lot to the north and Elkhorn Hot Springs to the south.
As you travel the byway, you’ll see granite peaks topping 10,000 feet. The route passed through mountain meadows, lodgepole pine forests, and broad “willow bottoms.” The road gently ascends a 7,800 foot divide between Wise River, flowing north, and Grasshopper Creek, flowing south. There are several established campgrounds along the Scenic Byway. There are a number of side routes, including a 5-mile dirt spur to the ghost town of Coolidge and another to the abandoned Elkhorn silver mine.
While most of Yellowstone National Park lies south within Wyoming, the technical border and mountainous topography of the park extend north into Montana. The outdoorsy city of Bozeman anchors the civilized part of this wild region.
There are ample opportunities for overland adventure in the surrounding mountains, in particular in Custer Gallatin National Forest, which abuts the northern and northeastern sides of Yellowstone. An overland trip here could range through Custer Gallatin, then pass south into Yellowstone and further through the Teton mountains of Wyoming.
Big Sky Byway
The 105-mile Big Sky Back Country Byway begins in Terry, MT, and travels north and south covering badlands and rolling prairies. The byway ends in Wolf Point, MT, on the beautiful Missouri River, part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. The route is part of the National Scenic Byways Program, linking Terry with Wolf Point. Taking 2 hours one way, you can stop to take a look at the information kiosks in Terry, Circle, and Wolf Point, which describe byway attributes, local history, and culture. Visitors can enjoy the scenic badlands of eastern Montana year round from this all-weather road.
The Bighorn Mountain Range extends 200 miles from southern Montana into northern Wyoming and the great plains. The range and surrounding lands offer plenty of remote wilderness to explore in your overland rig. Billings Montana is a good launching point for a trip to the southeast through the Bighorns of Montana and into Wyoming.
Much of the mountain range north of the Montana-Wyoming border is contained within a Crow Native American Reservation and off limits. The Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, a corridor along the canyon, is managed by the National Park Service. It’s split into two parks, one in Montana and another in Wyoming. If you’re looking for a destination, Devil’s Canyon Overlook in the Montana portion of the park is worth a look.
Much of the land surrounding the reservation and the national recreation area is managed by the BLM land, and there are a number of truck trails in the area that can be explored in a high-clearance vehicle. In Wyoming, much of the bulk of the mountain range is contained within the Bighorn National Forest and offers plenty of overland routes and byways to explore, including Bighorn Scenic Byway, Cloud Peak Skyway, and Medicine Wheel Passage.
Montana BLM Lands
In the sections above, I focused on overland opportunities in Montana’s national parks and forests. There are also plenty of BLM-managed lands throughout the state that can be explore with a vehicle. Check out the BLM site for Montana for information on recreation and destinations.