Montana. Big Sky Country. The Treasure State.
Tawnya here, and I just got back from five days in beautiful western Montana. Known for its breathtaking landscape and rich history, Montana has been a desired destination of mine for many years and I’m elated that I was finally able to make it there.
My friend and I based our stay in Montana’s capital of Helena and took day trips. That, combined with the fact that we flew into Missoula and drove to Helena, means we were able to see a large portion of the western half of the state.
Montana surprised me in many ways, but the biggest surprise was just how inexpensive it is to tour Montana.
While tourism is a major part of Montana’s economy, it isn’t a hot destination for most Americans. In fact, most tourists likely come primarily to visit its two National Parks.
However, a little digging (Montana has a rich mining history) and you’ll find that Montana has much more to offer, and all at a reasonable price.
The following are the best inexpensive things to do in western Montana. This list is mostly comprised of things I did on my recent trip, but I’ve also included a few things that others might enjoy even though I didn’t personally have a chance to experience them.
But first, how to get to Montana on a budget.
Getting to Montana
The options for getting to western Montana will be different depending on where you live, but for those in the Pacific Northwest like me, the most inexpensive way to get there is to drive.
From Portland it’s about 8 ½ hours to Missoula, and about 10 hours to Helena.
The benefits of driving are two-fold. You save money on airfare and car rental, and you can also see more of the country.
However, if you live further away or don’t want to take the time to drive then you can also fly.
My friend and I chose to fly to Montana in order to maximize our time there. Furthermore, the flight wasn’t very expensive.
Several airlines fly in and out of Montana, but it’s important to check multiple airports as the prices can vary drastically. It’s also important to compare hotel prices for the same reason.
We chose to fly into Missoula on Alaska Airlines because the prices were significantly cheaper than flying into Helena. Furthermore, the hotel costs were significantly higher in Missoula compared to Helena.
With these differences in mind, we flew into Missoula and drove to Helena where we stayed throughout our trip. We were renting a car anyway, so the extra drive from Missoula only served to allow us to see more of the country and save some money on travel costs.
Long story short, make sure to compare flights/hotels across multiple cities to find the best deal. You’ll either need to drive your own car or rent one, so arriving in a city different from where you’re staying isn’t a huge deal.
Another money-saving tip is to stay at a hotel that offers breakfast, which will save you time and significantly cut your food costs.
Last Chance Tour Train
If you’re staying in Helena like we did, the first thing I’d recommend doing is taking the Last Chance Tour Train.
This tour lasts roughly an hour and a half and is a great way to see the majority of the sights in old town Helena along with learning a little bit of history.
The tour takes you past the capitol building, cathedral, governor’s mansions, notable houses and mansions, Reeder’s Alley and Last Chance Gulch, and the old Fire Tower.
Not only will you be seeing the majority of the historical sights and hearing the history behind them, but you’ll also be able to quickly determine which things you’d like to explore in more detail.
Another good reason to take the train tour first is that you’ll be given a coupon sheet for Last Chance Gulch. This coupon sheet is good for free gifts at many shops and 10% off food and drinks at several restaurants in the area.
See the sights, learn the history, and receive coupons to many local shops and restaurants, all for $10 per adult, $9 per senior, and $8 per child (under 4 is free).
Check it out and make your reservation here.
Reeder’s Alley and Last Chance Gulch
Reeder’s Alley and Last Chance Gulch were mentioned in the Tour Train section, and they are the heart and soul of Helena and its history. Last Chance Gulch is the sight of the gold strike and claims that lined the area and formed the original settlement that would become Helena.
Today, Last Chance Gulch serves as the main street of old town Helena as well as a walking mall filled with shops and restaurants.
Reeder’s Alley, just a few blocks away, is what remains of the original settlement buildings and is home to the 1864 Pioneer Cabin, one of the oldest structures in Helena.
The brick buildings and log cabin structures that make up Reeder’s Alley are open for walking tours year-round and are free to visit.
You can even get a glimpse of life in the 1800s by touring the Pioneer Cabin. If you’re lucky, your tour guide might even be a descendant of the cabin owners, as ours was.
And the best part is that both of these areas are available to explore for free.
Montana Historical Society Museum
If you take the Train Tour, you may as well pop into the Montana Historical Society Museum as well, as that’s where you meet for the tour.
The Montana Historical Society Museum is another excellent way to learn about Montana’s history and become acquainted with some of its famous artists.
The museum most notably features exhibits chronicling Montana life from prehistoric times until World War I and beyond. One thing I appreciated about the museum was that Native American life and their contributions to Montana were prominently featured. There is even a buffalo robe for visitors to try on.
Another notable museum exhibit is the Mackay Gallery of Russell Art, featuring around 80 pieces of art from the famous “Cowboy Artist” Charles M. Russell.
Admission to the museum is good for two days and can be had for $5 a person, $1 per child, or $12 per family.
Cathedral of St. Helena
I love historical and ornate buildings and what better way to combine these attributes than to visit a cathedral?
I’ve been inside many cathedrals throughout the U.S., but I’ve never seen one as ornate as the Cathedral of St. Helena.
Completed in 1924, the Gothic-style cathedral features twin spires rising 230 feet into the sky and two-story sets of stained-glass windows. The cathedral is the tallest building in all of Helena and can be seen from almost anywhere.
Guided tours are available at select times of the year, but anyone is welcome to visit the cathedral on their own as long as it’s open, all for free.
The second tallest building in Helena is the capitol building. Completed in 1912, the capitol building features many beautiful paintings, sandstone and granite construction, and a beautiful copper dome. As with other capitol buildings, Montana’s state capitol building is free to tour as long as the building is open.
Helena has a surprising number of mansions. For a time, during a gold strike in the last century, Helena had the most millionaires per capita of any city in the U.S.
While you’ll only be able to view most mansions from the outside, one mansion you can tour is the original Governor’s Mansion.
Unfortunately, touring the Governor’s Mansion was something I could not fit into my busy schedule. But for those looking for a window back in time, I highly recommend checking out this piece of Montana’s history.
Tours are available at select times for $4 per person, $1 per child, for a max of $10 per family.
Gates of the Mountains
The aforementioned activities pretty well cover Montana’s capital, so it’s time to head outside Helena to discuss some other inexpensive things to do in western Montana.
First up is the Gates of the Mountains boat tour, which I had the opportunity to do on my trip.
Located about 30 minutes north of Helena, this tour covers a stretch of the Missouri river dubbed the Gates of the Mountains by Lewis and Clark during their expedition to the Pacific Ocean.
This stretch of the river is now a lake due to damming, which allows for a much easier ride through the canyon.
This tour offers the chance to see wildlife, learn about the history of the area and Lewis and Clark, local lore, and even some ancient Native pictographs.
This two-hour tour can be had for $16 per adult, $14 per senior, and $10 per child.
Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to visit either of Montana’s buffalo jump state parks, mainly because I didn’t learn about them until I was already in Montana.
However, if you can work at least one of them, or any of the other buffalo jump sights, into your plans you’ll be able to witness an extraordinary part of Native American culture and history.
A buffalo jump is a cliff formation that Native Americans used to hunt bison. The buffalo were herded and driven over a cliff, immobilizing them so that other tribal members could close in for the kill.
Buffalo jumps were used as early as 12,000 years ago and slowly began to fade with the introduction of horses to the plains.
Today, you can visit First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park in Ulm to see one of the largest buffalo jump sites in the country. If you’re near Three Forks, you can visit Madison Buffalo Jump State Park.
Montana residents who pay the $6 state parks fee with annual vehicle registration pay no state park fees. Non-residents can pay $6 per vehicle or buy a yearly pass for $35.
Other buffalo jump sites in Montana include Too Close for Comfort in Havre and Camp Disappointment in Glacier County.
Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park
Of all the beautiful scenery Montana offers, some of the most stunning is found underground.
By far, my favorite inexpensive thing to do in western Montana was to trek through the caverns at Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park.
Featuring one of the largest limestone caverns in the Northwest, Lewis and Clark Caverns offers three different guided tours (easy, moderate, and challenging) May through September.
However, if you choose to take the moderately difficult tour, the Classic Cavern Tour, be prepared to duck, crawl, and balance on steep stairs with little to hold onto. This tour may be especially difficult for older individuals, those with balance issues, or those who are taller than 6 feet.
The easy and moderate tours run $12 a person, $5 for children 6-11, and free for children 5 and under. The challenging tour runs $30 a person.
Yet another inexpensive thing to do in western Montana is to visit a ghost town.
With 12 preserved ghost towns, 11 of which are in the western part of the state, you’ll have plenty of options no matter where your travels take you.
Ghost towns are the result of gold and other mineral strikes in the mid to late 1800s that later dried up, resulting in a boom and bust for these towns.
Garnet is the most well-preserved of the ghost towns in Montana and features 30 buildings and a visitor center. Garnet was also the only ghost town where it was safe to venture inside some of the buildings.
A $3 per visitor fee is required at Garnet, while the other two ghost towns I visited were free.
Last but certainly not least, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Montana’s two beautiful National Parks as yet another inexpensive thing to do in western Montana, even though I didn’t have a chance to visit either one on my trip.
I don’t have to explain the beauty of America’s National Parks, so I’ll simply let you know that Glacier National Park is in northwestern Montana near the Canadian border, and Yellowstone National Park is located on the southern edge of Montana, with the majority of the park being in the northwest corner of Wyoming.
Costs vary greatly depending on the park, with many charging no fees. However, more popular parks do tend to charge admission fees. It costs $35 per vehicle to visit Glacier and $25 per vehicle for Yellowstone. All entrance passes you buy at the parks are valid for 7 days, and an entrance pass for Yellowstone also gets you into nearby Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
However, there are many pass options available that can reduce the cost. There are annual passes for $80/year and lifetime senior passes for a one-time $80 fee. Plus, those in the military or who are permanently disabled receive free admission. Even 4th graders receive free admission for a year!
Other Tips To Prepare You for Montana
I loved my trip to Montana, and I highly recommend everyone go at least once in their life.
However, aside from the above list of the best inexpensive things to do in western Montana, I’d like to take a moment to help prepare you for your trip.
You see, Montana was nothing like I imagined it would be. I had visions of Brad Pitt fly-fishing and cowboys, and I was a little shocked by the reality.
As you may have gathered by my comment above, I expected all of western Montana to be like scenes from Legends of the Fall. It wasn’t.
In fact, we learned through one of the tours that the name “Montana” was hotly debated because many felt it didn’t accurately represent the state. The word Montana is derived from the Spanish word Montaña, which means “mountain” or “mountainous country,” and the vast majority of Montana is high desert or plains.
While Missoula was relatively mountainous, Helena and much of the areas we drove through were grassier and more open. Furthermore, the ponderosa pine common in the high desert of eastern Oregon dominated the hills and upper elevations.
Suffice it to say, the country was more like Dances With Wolves than Legends of the Fall.
Another thing I wasn’t prepared for was how small the cities were.
Coming from the Portland area, I expected the major cities of Missoula and Helena to be larger than they were. In reality, Helena has a population of just over 30,000, and Missoula is around 60,000, comparable to many smaller cities in Oregon.
Aside from the lower populations, neither Helena nor Missoula had any skyscrapers or other large buildings common in a major city. We already mentioned that the cathedral is the tallest building in Helena at 230 feet and it towered over everything else.
Some other quick things to note if you’re ever visiting Montana is that there’s no sales tax, you should be prepared to drive long distances between towns and sights, and things close early.
Almost everything other than restaurants and casinos will be closed by 5 or 6 PM on weekdays, so be prepared to get your shopping and touring done earlier in the day.
Montana is known as the Big Sky Country, but just because the sky goes on forever doesn’t mean your vacation budget has to.
In fact, Montana is a very budget-friendly destination where a little goes a long way.
Make sure you compare airfare and hotels between cities to ensure you get the best trip deal. In this case, staying in a different location from where you flew in is manageable since you’ll need a car to see the sights anyway.
Once you’re in western Montana, stop in Helena and consider the Last Chance Tour Train, Last Chance Gulch and Reeder’s Alley, the Montana Historical Society Museum, the Cathedral of St. Helena, the Capitol Building, and the original Governor’s Mansion.
Next, consider day trips to the Gates of the Mountains, a buffalo jump, Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park, ghost towns, and Montana’s two beautiful National Parks.
The best part? All the best inexpensive things to do western Montana will only cost you around $100 per person.