Planning a photography trip to Montana and wondering where to spend your time? Here are few of my favorite locations throughout the state that I revisit year after year for amazing landscapes, wildlife, and to experience the diversity of Big Sky Country.
Montana is our fourth largest state in the US but it feels much bigger partly due to its large open spaces and much like Alaksa it’s one of the least populated states, topping just over a million people for the entire state. Definitely more cows than people here, in fact more than double.
What really makes Montana stand out even more than its big wide open spaces is its diversity. Spend your time in the northwest and you’ll find expansive wilderness areas, millions of acres of national forest and mountains, big mountains. The Continental Divide cuts right through here creating an impressive backdrop from Glacier National Park down to the southern border of the Rocky Mountain Front.
Venture east and you begin to head into the plains where rivers like the Missouri and Yellowstone snake their routes through the state joining in the northeast to continue their journey to the Mississippi. When you get out this way you get an understanding for what “Big Sky Country” means and you also get a sense of how small you are in the great wide open of eastern Montana.
Below are just a few of my favorites places to explore that represent a good cross section of the state if you’re looking for some key locations during your travels. I have left out Yellowstone, because technically almost all of it’s in Wyoming (although many of us still secretly consider it a part of the state).
Glacier National Park
If you can only visit one destination in Montana, Glacier National Park is the place to go. I find my time spent here is usually some of the most productive of anywhere else and for good reason. You simply can’t beat the dramatic landscapes and abundant wildlife. The mountains rise up from the plains in the east and tower over you with sharp jagged ridges, glaciers, and sweeping vistas. The blue waters tinted with glacier silt of the many lakes reveal their multicolored rocks, like candy under the turquoise surface and wildflowers erupt in an epic display of color throughout the park.
There’s also only one road though Glacier and it’s probably the most jaw dropping 50 miles you may ever experience. Literally blasted out of the cliffs, hugging the mountains with thousands of feet of empty space below, it joins the west and east side of the park climbing in the middle to the top of Logan Pass. Completed in 1933 after nearly three decades of construction it’s a real testament to the determination and ingenuity of the men who constructed it and put in place a scenic drive that seemed an impossibility.
Bringing your long lenses? Grizzly & black bear, moose, big horn sheep, mountain goats are just a few of the large mammals that call Glacier home. Head to the northeast for some of the highest concentration of grizzly bears in the lower 48 or head up high and hang out with mountain goats as you point your camera over sub alpine meadows dotted with wildflowers and stunning backdrops of some of the parks 10,000ft peaks.
Best time to visit is July-Oct, the rest of the year main access to the interior of the park is closed due to snow.
Makoshika State Park
Head east, far east in Montana, to the small town of Glendive nestled up against the North Dakota border where you will find Maksoshika State Park, a surreal landscape and one of our coolest State Parks (in my opinion) in Montana. Makoshika is relatively small, only about 11,000 acres, but it sits in an area that is unique geographically and gives a glimpse into our prehistoric past. The park is an ancient exposed seabed that has been shaped by wind and water over millions of years and gives you a sense as you’re hiking through that you’re wandering in some sort of martian-like landscape.
Makoshika in Lakota translates to “Bad Land” or “Bad Earth”, which seems appropriate as it’s situated in the badlands that stretch between Montana and North Dakota connecting up in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which is a short drive east from Makoshika. The badlands in this area can be beautiful in late spring as the rains come and green starts to dot the brown parched landscape. In early summer, awesome thunderstorms make their way through bringing lightning shows and dramatic weather that can make for some fantastic landscape photography.
To get to Makoshika head to the town of Glendive just off of I-94. There is some camping inside the park and also lodging in town. Late spring through fall is the best time to visit, but be prepared in mid summer for hot temps and drier conditions.
Are you searching for the perfect fall location to explore in Montana? Wondering where the best time is spent for great colors and epic landscapes? When fall arrives there is one place I head every year and that’s the Seeley-Swan Valley located in western Montana, a short 45 min drive northeast of Missoula.
The valley is bordered by two distinct mountain ranges, the Missions to the west and the Swan Range to the east. On the other side of the Missions lies Flathead Lake and the Mission Valley and to the east past the Swan Range lies the famous Bob Marshall Wilderness. What makes the Seeley-Swan Valley so special?
One, it’s home to a chain of lakes that stretch from north to south, some large some small, providing great landscape opportunities, especially with fall reflections. Second the valley is thick with larch or “tamaracks” as the locals call them, the only deciduous conifer and one that turns a brilliant orange in the fall, one of the primary reasons for photographing the area. Third are the mountains. Both ranges provide great backdrops, especially when the snow comes to the high country, adding nicely fitting snow capped peaks into the scene.
Not only are the views amazing, but you have some great wildlife opportunities with both grizzly & black bear, moose, elk, and other large mammals. Not to mention some birding opportunity as well with bald eagles, loons, waterfowl and other migrating birds.
The best time to visit if you’re coming for the larch, is mid-late October.
Rocky Mountain Front
What can I say about the Rocky Mountain Front? Well if I had to sum it up in into one word, I think it would be “Wild”! That’s the sense I get every time I make a trip into this incredible wilderness area. The “Front” in Montana stretches from just south of Glacier to the town of Lincoln and the two main towns that border this area are Choteau and Augusta. The mountains here rise up dramatically from the plains towering over the foothills where ranchers graze their cattle and grizzly bears still wander onto the plains just as they did before these lands were settled.
One of the main draws of the Front is the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Just beyond the front range lies one of the largest roadless wilderness areas in the lower 48. Home to the second largest migratory elk herd in the United State and also the largest band of Big Horn Sheep it encompasses some of the most important and protected lands we have here. For day hikes or multi-day trips you can explore endlessly here with jaw dropping views and wildlife just about everywhere you turn.
In the late spring I like to visit the Front as huge blooms of wildflowers appear carpeting the foothills and making for some awesome foregrounds. Late May into early June can be the best time, especially when the rains arrive. As you explore here whether driving the backroads or hiking in, you rarely see many people, giving you a sense that you have this whole place to yourself. I liken it to Glacier without the crowds.
The National Bison Range
The National Bison Range is located just north of Missoula next to the small town of St. Ignatius in the southern end of the Mission Valley. The Mission Mountains provide a spectacular backdrop all along the valley in the east and extend to the Bison Range. The National Bison Range was established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt to provide a natural habitat where bison could roam, protected. The Bison Range is just over 18,000 acres and is home to about 500 head of bison.
What makes the Bison Range such a special location for photography is it also has some of the best elk and white-tailed deer photography around. Visit in the fall and you will have the elk and deer in rut, which is pretty amazing with some huge bull elk bugling everywhere you turn. The range also is home to black bear, bighorn sheep, and a fantastic bird habitat.
The reason I like to visit here so often is the combination of great close-up wildlife photography combined with the scenery of the Mission Mountains. It’s a productive area to work both early morning and late evening, with the latter providing the best lighting for your mountain backdrop. There’s one scenic drive that goes through the range with the upper portion being a one way tour taking you up into the higher elevations.
Best time to visit is Spring-Fall, with special attention to Bison, Elk and White-tailed Ruts.