Being the fourth-largest state in the nation didn't stop Montana from feeling small in 2020. Cooped up by a pandemic, city dwellers hit the road in search of outdoor spaces, many of them parking their vans and RVs in Big Sky Country, home to Glacier and Yellowstone national parks and wildlife such as grizzly bears and gray wolves.
Visitors are finding out what we locals have always known: Montana is an excellent place to spend time outdoors.
I live in Whitefish, a Glacier gateway town of 7,700 full-time residents. During my first post-vaccination haircut, I overheard another patron claim we would be experiencing a 300% increase in tourism this summer. It was salon gossip that was later confirmed as an exaggeration, but the concern isn't without merit.
Last year, a squeeze was felt when the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council closed the eastern entrance of Glacier to protect their community from COVID-19 as Native Americans topped the list of those most affected by the virus. Tourists congregated on the west side and became frustrated to find the empty wilderness they expected throttled by traffic and crowds.
But this isn't a new issue for the region. It was shortly after the advent of Instagram in 2010 that Explore Whitefish, the town's visitor bureau, ceased marketing summer tourism. The pandemic has exacerbated this as visitors have increased but resources have diminished.
Now something has to give. That's why, for the first time ever, Glacier National Park has instituted a ticketed entry system to drive on Going to the Sun Road, a scenic byway transecting the park, to manage crowds.
Everyone in Montana is going to have to plan ahead to enjoy what the state has to offer this summer. And if visitors adopt a local mentality to do so, the trip will be better for everyone.
Do as the locals do
Recreating like a Montana resident isn't simply a matter of knowing the best fishing hole or the lushest huckleberry-picking spot. While it's true Montanans choose to live here for many of the same reasons people like to visit, traveling like a local also means adopting a neighborly attitude, getting creative about exploration to avoid crowds and respecting nature.
Lauren Oscilowski, owner of Whitefish-based Spotted Bear Spirits and chair of the Sustainable Tourism Committee for the city, says traveling like a local means coming with a sense of curiosity about Montana's cultural values, "in reverence for the outdoors, respect for neighbors, in the ways we communicate, in ways we show up in community and in the wilderness."
Taking time to understand the way Montanans operate, from driving rules to leaving no trace, can even lead to better pointers about where to go.
"If you're respectful, and you're mindful of our community — yeah, we're going to tell you a little more about the spots you could go," Oscilowski remarks.
Locals are protective of their go-to outdoor locations, so those who embrace our way of life are much more likely to get in on the word of mouth that drives local exploration. The visitors that don't are pointed right toward Avalanche Lake, perhaps the most popular hike in Glacier.
Go beyond the national parks
Montana is huge, and escaping the crowds is easily accomplished. The national parks are undoubtedly remarkable, but there is so much more in the state to see that is sure to delight visitors. Other managed systems are ready to welcome guests searching for dramatic mountain views and iconic Western wildlife.
Just outside of Glacier is the expansive Bob Marshall Wilderness, a 1.5-million-acre complex known locally as The Bob. Spotted Bear, for which Oscilowski's distillery is named, sits on the border of Glacier, beyond the Hungry Horse Reservoir. Here, dramatic, snow-capped cliffs can be seen, wildflower-lined trails can be hiked, and even grizzly bears can be spotted, unencumbered as they are by officially designated borders. Swan and Flathead Lakes are also well-established summer tourism sites in the area that are worth checking out.
In southern Montana, Yellowstone typically commands more than 4 million visitors a year, with most coming during the summer. The greater Yellowstone area expands far beyond the park boundaries, with so much to explore. Driving the Beartooth Highway, accessible from the park's northeast entrance, offers 68 miles of unencumbered wilderness views, including rugged peaks and dramatic valleys, plus wildlife from mountain goats to bald eagles. The drive is thoroughly undeveloped and sure to scratch the itch of those seeking Yellowstone's characteristic reflection of a wild America.
To get a taste of the Western history for which Montana is famous, head to Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site, where the state's ranching history is preserved. The park is free to visit.
"Wide open spaces, the hardworking cowboy, his spirited cow pony and vast herds of cattle are among the strongest symbols of the American West," says Julie Croglio, chief of interpretation and education of the site.
Most of Montana's local and visiting population keeps to the western part of the state where the mountains, parks and towns are. However, that doesn't mean there's nothing to do or see elsewhere. Southeast Montana is rich with most of what makes Montana such a special place, including hiking, wildlife spotting and unfettered wilderness access. Makoshika State Park is a site particularly worth visiting, characterized by badland formations and dinosaur fossils.
Meanwhile, Yellowstone may be known for its geothermal activity, but that's not the only place to find it. Head outside of Yellowstone to Ennis, Mont., for a soak in the Norris Hot Springs, among many other hot springs resorts in the area. Up north, the aptly named town of Hot Springs is a great place to unwind after a long day of hiking. Nearby Quinn's Resort in the town of Paradise is especially lovely for an overnight visit.
Explore Glacier and Yellowstone differently
Drive seconds into Glacier or Yellowstone and it's clear why they've been designated as places in need of preservation: They are spectacular. Understandably, crossing them off the bucket list may be nonnegotiable for some. With crowds and environmental impact in mind, there are ways to enjoy the parks sustainably.
Visiting during the shoulder seasons — spring and fall — helps avoid crowds, while winter is particularly breathtaking in Yellowstone. True, most of the park is closed, but the road that is open brings visitors to where wildlife congregate during snowy months. Animals can also be easier to spot against the white backdrop of winter.
If summer is the only time a trip can happen, look at going beyond the most popular spots. This summer, for example, only a park pass is required for entry into Glacier National Park at the Many Glacier, Two Medicine, and Polebridge entrances; no reservation ticket required.
These spots tend to be less frequented, with access to trails and roads that are more likely to take you away from the crowds. You can also search Glacier trail traffic by "light" on the AllTrails app to learn where people tend to frequent less.
(A local tip: Arriving at any entrance of Glacier National Park before 6 a.m. or after 5 p.m. does not require a reservation.)
Let the pros lead the way
Wilderness exploration doesn't come naturally to everyone, so hiring a local guide can be the way to go. Guides can keep guests safe while teaching them the skills needed to spot wildlife.
Nathan Varley owns and operates Yellowstone Wolf Tracker, a wolf-focused tour company based out of Gardiner, Mont.
"Especially in Yellowstone, there's a quality in knowing where to look and how to look for it," Varley says. "The nature of wildlife watching is such that a lot of the animals that you maybe hope to see, like a wolf or a bear, they're not often going to be visible to the naked eye."
Yellowstone Wolf Tracker provides binoculars, scopes and access to a network of park professionals monitoring wildlife movement, which means their guests end up making the most of their visit to Yellowstone.
Plus, tour guides are able to teach Leave No Trace principles and how to properly engage with wildlife, easing the impact of the Parks' popularity.
Get immersed in Montana's native cultures
Native American culture remains prevalent in Montana, though it is often ignored in favor of more modern colonial introductions like cowboy culture. Montana has the fifth-largest proportion of Native American residents in the United States, with 6.5% of the state's total population coming from the Assiniboine, Blackfeet, Chippewa, Cree, Crow, Gros Ventre, Kootenai, Little Shell Chippewa, Northern Cheyenne, Pend d'Oreille, Salish and Sioux tribal nations.
Exploring Glacier with Glacier Sun Tours (to be determined on May 17 if they will operate this year) offers a more in-depth level of interpretation of a place sacred to Blackfeet Nation. These tours take visitors beyond the superficial to explore the park's deeper history, as well as wildlife species, plants used in medicine and nutrition, and the Blackfeet peoples' philosophical and spiritual perspectives.
The Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning, on the Blackfeet reservation, is another place to explore the history and culture of Montana's original locals.
To experience a historic look into life for Native Americans in Montana, head to Madison Buffalo Jump State Park. This is where tribes would stampede bison off cliffs, a unique hunting style that ended only 200 years ago. Remnants of the jumps can still be found here.