Montana’s national and state parks boast some of the country’s amazing landscapes. If you’ve been to Glacier National Park, then you know this for a fact. The park’s hiking trails are framed by beautiful alpine peaks and glacial lakes, and then there are the breathtaking views of the gorge when you cross over Avalanche Creek.
The scenes in national parks like Glacier and Yellowstone are stunning, but ever so often, the magic is dampened by the sheer volume of crowds at these places. If you’re someone like me who thoroughly enjoys their time around natural habitats, that’s not always an ideal scenario.
Thankfully, Montana’s state parks can provide equally glorious scenery, but with much less human noise and traffic. As a habitat conservationist who’s lived most of his life in the Last Best Place, I’ve been able to compile a list of state parks that are worth every inch of time spent.
These are the five best state parks to visit in Montana:
Medicine Rocks State Park
Photo: J.B Chandler
With impressive formations of rocks that look like Swiss cheese and up to 12 camping sites, Medicine Rocks is a quite picturesque location that’s worth visiting for a few days. Visitors can stay at the park for 14 days during a 30-day period. Being a primitive location that has hosted both indigenous dwellers and European settlers, it not only has historical significance, but is also free to use.
For wildlife, watch out for mule deer, antelope, and sharp-tailed grouse. One of the best activities to enjoy at the park is hiking the short 75-mile trail. Generally, the sandstone rock formations are the highlights, but if you’re looking for a bit of social fun, the campsites would suffice. They are equipped with fire rings, a group area, and picnic tables.
Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park
Perhaps the most popular state park in Montana, and definitely the first, Lewis and Clark Caverns is home to the famous limestone cave complex. The caverns extend to about 400 feet underground, and you would have to climb about 600 stairs to get to the belly of the complex. In my experience, it’s always a fascinating trip, but if you just so happen to want to do more walking, the park has up to 10 miles of hiking trails above ground.
Apart from the caverns, some of the more enjoyable activities include kayaking, canoeing, and fishing. The park is also open to campers, as it has about 40 campsites with parking spaces for trailers and RVs.
Wild Horse Island State Park
Photo: Cest La Vibe
This is one of the most engaging state parks to visit if you’re more into watching wildlife. Having been used to pasture horses by the Kootenai Indians, the park is home to a few wild horses. While watching the horses will already feel like a surreal experience, you can also spot grizzly bears, bald eagles, falcons, bighorn sheep, and mule deer.
The island is situated in Flathead Lake, which is the largest freshwater lake in Montana, so the landscape leaves little to be desired. Camping is not permitted on the island, but the variety of activities makes a day trip worth it. Visitors can hike, swim, kayak, and use sailboats.
Pictograph Cave State Park
Photo: T Bennert
With rock art over 2000 years old, Pictograph Cave is a place to fuel your interest in ancient history. The park used to be home to prehistoric hunters who left behind over 100 pictographs of animals, warriors, and rifles. It also housed thousands of prehistoric artifacts that were excavated from the site in the 1930s and 1940s.
The state park has three caves as its main attractions, namely Pictograph, Middle, and Ghost. A historic landmark, Pictograph Cave is the largest of the caves at about 160 feet wide. There is no camping, but the park is perfect for a day trip. I’ve found it’s one of the best locations for bird-watching in Montana.
Painted Rocks State Park
Photo: Scott Elliott/Flickr
Surrounded by western pine forests and the beautiful Bitterroot Mountains, Painted Rocks is a very scenic location to go camping. The granite cliffs along the West Fork are covered in an eye-catching array of green, orange, and yellow lichen, hence the name. The popular activities to enjoy are kayaking and fishing, but you can also have a great time watching wildlife such as elk, black bears, and bald eagles.
There are 25 campsites with vault toilets, public restrooms, grills, and fire pits. Two of the sites have parking spaces for RVs and trailers. It’s a more socially accessible park, so you can have picnics and bring your dog along.