Sitting atop the active Yellowstone Caldera supervolcano, the park contains fully half of the world's known geothermal features, and standouts including Old Faithful Geyser and Mammoth Hot Springs are popular tourist attractions. Geologically, the park encompasses lakes, canyon's rivers, and mountain ranges. Yellowstone Lake is one of the largest high-altitude lakes in North America. The Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, at 308 feet, is the tallest of the park's 290 waterfalls.
Biologically, Yellowstone National Park anchors the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the largest intact northern temperate ecosystem on the globe. Sixty species of mammals live in the park, including gray wolves, lynx, grizzly bears, black bears, bison, elk, moose, mule deer, white-tailed deer, mountain goat, pronghorn, bighorn sheep and mountain lions. Wildlife management, especially of the nation's largest public herd of bison, has been controversial.
Eighteen species of fish call Yellowstone home, including the highly prized Yellowstone cutthroat. Many waters inside the park are open to fly-fishing only, and native species are restricted to catch and release fishing. A Yellowstone-specific fishing license is required. Hunting is not permitted in the park.
Recreational opportunities in Yellowstone include cycling, cross-country skiing, hiking on more than 1,100 miles of trails, snowmobiling, lake canoeing and kayaking, and wildlife watching. The park contains nine hotels and lodges with 2,238 hotel rooms and cabins for rent; twelve road-accessible campgrounds offer more than 2,000 campsites; backcountry campsites accessible by foot or horseback require permits.
July is typically the park's busiest month, accounting for almost half of Yellowstone's 2 million annual visitors. During high season, crowds concentrate around Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. For the most relaxed experience, the fall season offers the best combination of weather and elbow room. But even on the most crowded summer day, peace and quiet can usually be found by taking a short walk down any trail. Be advised that Yellowstone Park is one of the last strongholds of the grizzly bear in the lower 48 states, and the usual precautions apply in dealing with bears, bison, and all of the park's wild creatures.
Whitefish Lake State Park is a little 10-acre lakeside plot, just outside of Whitefish, studded with 25 tent and RV campsites, including several new hiker/bicyclist sites.
The park's prime attraction is a sandy swimming beach and boat launch to access the lake's typically placid water-skiing surface. Its prime detriment—depending on your sleeping preference—is the sound of trains passing nearby.
Whitefish Lake is otherwise relatively secluded, and in addition to boating, bird-watching and shore-side picnicking, visitors can check out some of the high-end residences recently constructed on its sought-after shores from the privileged vantage of the water. Just remember: it's not polite to stare, and one should never point binoculars in the direction of anyone's windows, even if you are just trying to identify a distant warbler.
The maximum RV combined length is 35 feet, and services are available May 1 through Sept. 30.
Wayfarers State Park, near the town of Bigfork at the northern end of Flathead Lake, is best known for stunning views of the lake, especially at sunset, and wildflower blooms that run from spring through fall.
The park's 67 acres encompass a mixed terrain of grassy fields just begging for a picnic blanket, mature forest ribboned with hiking trails, and rocky outcrops overlooking the expansive blue of Flathead Lake.
Thirty campsites accommodate overnight visitors. Seven are reserved for tent-camping only, and several are located on the shoreline for campers arriving by boat. A dock, boat ramp, firewood and ice concessions in season, bear-resistant storage lockers (don't forget to use them!), a comfort station with showers, and the usual complement of campground conveniences round out the amenities.
Thompson Falls State Park is a semi-secluded 36-acre patch of mature mixed pine forest on the river-right bank of the Clark Fork River near the town of Thompson Falls, just downstream from the Clark Fork's Noxon Reservoir.
Fishing and boating are the top recreational dogs at Thompson Falls, as the park's boat ramp (a second, larger ramp for motor boats is available half a mile from the park), landlocked kiddie-fishing pond, and riverside access trail make clear.
The park also offers low-key camping 17 primitive sites with easy access to shore-fishing and bird-watching. Maximum combined RV length is 30 feet.
North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park, just across Montana's eastern state line, may be the only national park in the country completely surrounded by a 7-foot fence, designed both to keep bison and feral horses inside the park, and to keep neighboring commercial livestock out.
The park is divided into three distinct and noncontiguous units: the South Unit, the North Unit, and the more remote Elkhorn Ranch Unit. Combined, the units encompass 110 square miles. Parts of the South Unit Scenic Loop Drive and North Unit Scenic Road may be closed in winter. The Little Missouri River runs through all three units.
Three visitor centers—the year-round South Unit, and the seasonal Painted Canyon and North Unit—service visitors. The South Unit's Cottonwood Campground is open all year, as is the North Unit's Juniper Campground. The South Unit's Roundup Group Horse Campground, aimed at equestrians, is open seasonally. Backcountry camping requires a free permit.
The park is host to 186 species of birds, plus bison, feral horses, elk, white-tail and mule deer, pronghorn, and prairie dogs. Geology, though, is the park's main attraction. Prairie, grasslands, juniper woodlands, floodplains and seeping springs are all represented. But the wildly eroded Badlands are the park's piece de resistance, described by Roosevelt as "so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth."
More than 200 fossil sites have been identified in the park, and pertified wood is common. Be aware that collecting fossils, petrified wood, and rocks in the park is illegal.
Cross country skiing and snowshoeing (on ungroomed park roads and riverbottoms) are popular ways to see the park in winter. Dark night skies and occasional northern lights make it a haven for stargazers. The changing play of light off the tortured Badland landscape is perhaps the park's most compelling single feature. Catch it at sunset if you can.
Smith River State Park and corridor isn't a discrete state park per se, so much as a collection of pearl-like campsites strung along the otherwise private banks of one of Montana's crown fishing-and-floating jewels.
Several characteristics distinguish the Smith River from its peers in a state full of great rivers. For one, there's no public access whatsoever between the put-in at Camp Baker and the take-out at Eden Bridge, 59 miles downstream. For another, the Smith is the only Montana River managed under a permit system by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. To float the Smith, you'll need to apply for and win a permit in the annual FW&P-run lottery. For more information, check out the Smith River Floating page.
Once you're on, the envy of your friends who applied and failed, you're in for a treat. The river's remoteness and FW&P's permitting system mean you'll be able to enjoy a relatively uncrowded river for what's typically a 3- to 4-day trip. Twenty-seven boat camps with 52 campsites give floaters plenty of breathing room, and each camp's primitive toilet is famously located for maximum privacy and expansive views.
The Smith's narrow canyons, sharp turns, and generally quick water are well suited for rafting fishermen and canoeists prepared to pay attention, and both the wildlife-viewing and the fishing are extraordinary. Taking a trout at sunset beneath the glowing wall of Sunset Cliffs may be enough of a quintessentially Montana experience to last you a lifetime.
The West Shore campground is located on 129 acres perched above the lake on rock outcrops carved by ice-age glaciers, and though the park's beaches are rocky, a boat ramp and docks provide boat access, and swimming is popular in summer. The campground above, meanwhile, offers fine views of the Swan and Mission mountain ranges across the lake. It's considered one of the quieter of the multiple state parks ringing Flathead Lake.
West Shore has 31 campsites, 7 of them tent-only, a maximum combined trailer length clearance of 40 feet, and the standard complement of vault toilets, fire rings, tables, and a firewood concession.
Boaters be aware: the park's floating docks may be removed from mid-December through January during freeze-up. Check with FW&P at (406) 752-5501 for status.
Sluice Boxes State Park is about as primitive as state parks get—there are no RV hook-ups, no firewood concessions, just a vault toilet near the trailhead and a warning to hikers: the 8 northernmost miles of Belt Creek Canyon that make up the park are undeveloped, steep, climatically unpredictable, and not much suited for fair-weather hikers.
Visitor access to the park is provided by the abandoned railway grade that once served the canyon's placer miners and prospectors. You'll have to ford Belt Creek, which is not something you want to try during spring runoff, so hikers generally tackle Sluice Boxes from mid-July through September, when the water is less pushy.
Unmaintained trails provide access to the creek for fishermen and adventurous floaters, who should be practiced and competent before messing with Belt Creek's cold, rocky flow.
Sluice Boxes features no developed campsites, and a backcountry camping permit is required of overnighters. Get permits from the FW&P office in Great Falls, at 406-454-5840 or 406-454-5857.
Many people who live in the vicinity of the Bitterroot Mountains have heard of Sky Pilot, elevation 8,792’, though few recognize its prominence from the valley floor. Situated at the north end of one of the most beautiful hanging valleys in the Bitterroots, this peak was christened after the flower of the same name. This mountain is perched directly on the Montana/Idaho state-line, a long way from any trailhead.
The most-used path to this summit begins at the Bear Creek trailhead then proceeds westward on the well-maintained stock trail meandering along Bear Creek.
Bryan Lake, with its many camp sites, is eight miles from the trailhead. Situated hard against the bottom edge of the slab-granite and craggy ridge-crest of the Montana/Idaho state line running along its west side, this cutthroat-filled lake is one of the most beautiful backcountry lakes in the Bitterroots.
From the lake the trail continues north up and over a series of benches to a saddle at Bear Creek Pass. The route (Class 2+) then goes off-trail as it ascends the west ridge to the summit.
Despite the mountain's remoteness, numerous aspects have been skied. The views from the summit area are simply astounding.
Salmon Lake, a natural impoundment of the Clearwater River, is just downstream of Seeley Lake. This 42-acre park is directly adjacent to Highway 83 as it travels up the Seeley-Swan Valley.
Twenty campsites feature access to flush and vault toilets, fire rings and grills, picnic tables and interpretive displays. Maximum RV length is 25 feet. A two-lane concrete boat ramps services motor-boaters and water skiers
During the summer months, Salmon Lake State Park hosts weekend educational programs at the outdoor amphitheater. Call 406-677-6804 for information and schedules.
The Red Rock Lakes Wilderness consists of 32,350 acres of high-country wetlands (elevations range from 6600-9000 feet) at the western edge of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The wilderness, designated in 1976, accounts for more than three-fourths of the encompassing 50,000-acre Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.
The refuge and later the wilderness were originally set aside to preserve habitat for some of America's last known trumpeter swans, which are recovering nicely. Still, they're harder to see than the wildlife's other resident and migratory species, including white-faced ibis, sandhill cranes, curlews, peregrine falcons, eagles, hawks, marsh wrens, mountain bluebirds, tree swallows, western meadowlarks, vesper sparrows and owls.
Badgers, wolverines, bears, pronghorn antelope, moose, wolf, red fox, badger, and coyote are also present, as are native fish including Arctic grayling and westslope cutthroat trout.
Excepting nesting season, the wilderness' 14,000 acres of lake, march and creek are best explored by canoe. Roaming on foot is unrestricted, but there are no trails in the wilderness, and camping isn't allowed (though campsites are available in the Recreation Area acreage and nearby).
Fishing is an option spring through fall, and waterfowl and antelope are fair game in season. Check out the wildflowers in July; be ready for mosquitos all summer. And call ahead for breeding-sensitive seasonal closures.
Placid Lake, impounded on a stretch of the Clearwater River, is known for easy trout and glassy water-skiing. Its interpretively signed shores are better known for the massive larch stumps left behind by historical logging in this part of the Swan valley.
A horseshoe pit, volleyball court, boat ramp, trailer parking, docks, a firewood concession, public phones, nicer-than-average restrooms, picnic shelters and the usual assortment of fire rings and grills at the 31-acre park's 40 camping sites mark Placid Lake as a popular summertime oasis, with an emphasis on boating, fishing, and swimming.
Fees for day use and camping. RVers note the max. combined trailer length of 25 feet.
Beautifully nestled between the Mission Mountains to the west and the Swan Range to the east, Seeley Lake offers year-round opportunities for angling and recreation. Although it's only one of numerous wonderful lakes in the valley, 1,031-acre Seeley Lake seems to be the primary draw for visitors, with two forest service campgrounds along the shore, enjoyable public beaches, and excellent boat launch facilities. Numerous private cabins surround the lake and fill the nearby woods.
Anglers target kokanee, perch and trout. Illegally introduced Northern Pike are attracting increasing interest from sportsmen, particularly among spear fisherman, who snorkel the shallows stalking the fish. Reliable ice usually forms by late December and supports an active angling scene through the winter.
Seeley Lake also offers 18 kilometers of excellent cross country ski trails, many of which are groomed almost daily by the Seeley Lake Nordic Ski Club. The club also hosts skate and classic clinics and after school programs for kids. Two major races are held each year: the Seeley Lake Challenge Biathlon and the OSCR 50k.
Beyond classic XC, many backcountry opportunities surround Seeley Lake as well including Yurtski. Seeley's cross country trail system is challenging, but well-maintained and well-marked, including three kilmeters of easy loops, 12km more difficult, and three kilometers of most difficult terrain. Trails begin at Forest Road 477. Dogs and snowmobiles prohibited.