The Basics

Montana's National Forests

The national forests and grasslands of Montana stretch from the prairies and badlands of far eastern Montana to the rolling hills and isolated ponderosa pine woodlands of the middle part of the state, to the rugged mountain tops and steep timbered canyons in the west.

Recreation opportunities are as diverse as these lands. Everything from sightseeing to motorcycling; horseback riding to picnicking; hunting to snowshoeing; and cross-country skiing to kayaking await the outdoor enthusiast.

You can get away and experience the solitude and challenges of wildlands. On the other hand, campgrounds and visitor centers provide opportunities to associate with other people and enjoy the convenience of facilities.

Take your pick of the special places available in Montana to enjoy our forests and grasslands.


A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. From the Wilderness Act, September 3, 1964.

Wildernesses in Montana encompass more than 4 million acres of rugged and beautiful mountain landscapes. Here, in relative solitude, visitors find areas maintained in their natural and undeveloped state providing relief from the pressures of today's society.

Northern Region Wildernesses:

Absaroka Beartooth
Anaconda Pintler
Bob Marshall
Cabinet Mountains
Gates of the Mountains
Great Bear
Lee Metcalf
Mission Mountains
Welcome Creek
Wildlife & Fisheries

From elk herds roaming the forested mountains of western Montana to antelope racing across the eastern plains, the National Forests are home to a magnificent wildlife and fish resource. Chinook salmon, grizzly bears, northern grey wolves, bald eagles and over 600 other kinds of fish and wildlife thrive here.

There is no place like this vast unspoiled country where wildlife is so diverse and so easily found. It's a great place to watch or photograph animals, large and small. Bighorn sheep, songbirds, moose and prairie dogs are not limited to zoos and refuges. They live everywhere and are part of everyday life.

Some of the best hunting in North America is also found in the region. The state carefully regulates hunting to ensure wildlife populations and quality recreation for future generations.

More stream miles criss-cross this region than any other in the lower 48 states. Names of famous blue ribbon trout streams like the Big Horn, Big Hole, and Madison, roll off the lips of fishermen like priceless jewels. Hundreds of lakes and reservoirs provide exceptional fishing as well. Want help finding the best place for photography, hunting or fishing? State licensed guides and outfitters know the country and have the gear to ensure an enjoyable trip even in the rugged, remote country.


Trails provide the primary access to most of the undeveloped wildlands and millions of acres of wilderness.

Over 15,000 miles of trails provide a variety of challenges and scenic vistas to hikers, backpackers, horseriders, and cyclists. Most trails are open for recreational use year long; however, in some areas, seasonal restrictions are imposed to protect resources.

Winter Activities

The national forests of Montana are a winter wonderland.

The 16 alpine ski areas provide slopes for every talent. Winter sports areas have been developed in cooperation with private industry and are operated under national forest special-use permits.

In addition to spectacular downhill runs, there is a vast and diverse landscape for cross-country skiers and snowmobilers. Cross-country skiers can follow over 600 miles of designated ski touring trails of varying difficulty across timbered slopes, open meadows, and ridgelines. Or experienced skiers, with appropriate precautions, can do some exploring on their own.

Snowmobilers can tour thousands of miles of designated snowmobile trails. In some areas, wildlife winter ranges are closed to snowmobiling. There are many rustic cabins and lookouts available for rent, some accessible to only the skier or snowmobiler in winter. A directory is available. The harsh conditions of winter can turn an outing into a tragedy. Knowledge of the area, weather, route, and the limitations of your body and equipment-plus a little common sense-can ensure safe and enjoyable outings.

Scenic Drives

There are thousands of miles of roads available within the Region's national forests and grasslands. Some roads are high standard paved routes, and others are low-standard jeep trails. Seasonal closures to protect resources, such as calving elk or water quality, may affect the use of certain roads. Information about motorized access and road restrictions for each national forest is shown on the forest visitor map.

Scenic drives abound throughout Montana. A few of the more popular routes include the drive around Hungry Horse Reservoir on the Flathead National Forest; the scenic loop around Lake Koocanusa behind Libby Dam on the Kootenai National Forest; and the route around Georgetown Lake on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. These roads take you through the rugged, scenic country and provide access for fishing and boating as well as to camping and picnicking sites.

For other driving adventures, follow the trail of Lewis and Clark across the Bitterroot Mountains on the Lolo and Clearwater National Forests. Or follow 27-mile Pioneer Mountains National Forest Scenic Byway, along the Pioneer Mountain Range on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. Or visit Porphyry Peak Lookout on Kings Hill Pass on the Lewis and Clark National Forest. Travel the fabulous Beartooth Highway across 10,942 foot Beartooth Summit on the Custer, Shoshone, and Gallatin National Forests. Whether you are seeking solitude or scenic splendor, a national forest road will take you there.

Camping & Picnicking

Visitors can camp and picnic almost anywhere on the national forests and grasslands. For those seeking more convenience, hundreds of developed sites usually contain a parking spur, table, fireplace, and toilets. Water is also provided in some areas. Some sites are accessible to the handicapped or disabled. Showers, laundry facilities, electrical hookups, and hot water are not provided.

Campgrounds requiring a fee for use are signed and limitations on the length of stay, if any, are posted. Horses and the shooting of firearms in developed campsites are prohibited.

For the more venturesome, there are numerous isolated roadside and backcountry picnic and campsites. These sites do not contain improvements like toilet, table, or fireplaces.

No matter where you are camping or picnicking, help keep the area clean.

Lewis & Clark
1101 15th St. No. Box 871 Great Falls, MT 59403. 406-791-7700

Like two forests in one package, the Lewis & Clark National Forest of west-central Montana has two distinct divisions. The rugged mountain peaks of the Rocky Mountain Division often hold snow for ten months of the year. This long backbone of a mountain range stretches south of Glacier National Park with seemingly endless paralleling ridges and valleys. The six mountain ranges of the Jefferson Division appear to be islands of forest dotting expanses of wheat and ranch lands. Each range has its unique character, from gently rolling hillsides to rugged, rocky peaks. The Lewis and Clark is truly a forest for everyone to explore.

P.O. Box 130, Federal Building Bozeman, MT 59771. 406-587-6701

Yellowstone! Gallatin! Madison! The headwaters of these rivers, world-renowned for blue ribbon trout fishing, flow through the heart of some of Montanas most spectacular public lands the Gallatin National Forest. Located just north of Yellowstone National Park, the 2.1 million acre Gallatin is rich in wildlife, scenic alpine vistas, rugged wildlands, and a spectrum of recreation opportunities. Forest visitors can enjoy wildflowers, trout fishing, big game hunting, photography, alpine and Nordic skiing, snowmobiling, camping backpacking, river floating, horseback riding, and more!

1310 Main Street P.O. Box 50760 Billings, MT 59105. 406-657-6361

The lands of the Custer National Forest and National Grasslands lie scattered across 20 counties in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. Elevations range from less than 1,000 feet in the Sheyenne Grasslands to 12,799 foot Granite Peak, the highest in Montana. The vast distances across which this Forest is spread result in a very diverse landscape. Ancient sand dunes covered with grasslands, rugged badlands, densely wooded forests, and carpets of alpine wildflowers all await the visitor to the easternmost portion of the Northern Region.

506 U.S. Highway 2 W. Libby, MT 59923. 406-293-6211

The Kootenai National Forest lies in the northwest corner of Montana. Its high craggy peaks, deep canyons, and mixed conifers stretch from the Canadian border to the Clark Fork Valley. Several U.S. and State Highways allow easy access to some of Montana's scenic treasures: the Purcell Mountains, the Yaak River, Ross Creek Scenic Area Giant Cedars, the Kootenai River, Lake Koocanusa, and Libby Dam. Where roads stop, wilderness begins. The heart of the Kootenai is the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness, where majestic peaks tower over the surroundings. The Kootenai is a great place to go to get away from it all!

420 Barrett Street Dillon, MT 59725-3572. 406-683-3900

The Beaverhead portion of the Beaverhead- Deerlodge National Forest lies tucked away in a great mountainous bowl. The rugged Bitterroot and Centennial Mountain ranges flank the western and southern boundaries. To the east towers the Madison Range. Valley bottoms are about 4,500 feet while many of the peaks exceed 11,000 feet. Cottonwoods and willows line the river bottoms, while grasses and sagebrush carpet foothills. Lodgepole pine and Douglas-fir trees, interspersed with large grassy parks, cover mountain slopes. The Deerlodge portion straddles the Continental Divide in the heart of richly historic mining country. Many old mines and the ghost town of Elkhorn silently speak of Montana's frontier heritage. The snow-capped peaks of the Pintlers and grassy slopes with scattered timber provide excellent habitat for elk and enjoyable hiking and camping. Georgetown Lake offers good fishing, winter or summer.

1935 Third Avenue East Kalispell, MT 59901. 758-5200

The Flatheads spectacular, rugged terrain lies adjacent to Glacier National Park and west of the Continental Divide. The vast expanse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex offers forest visitors primitive recreational opportunities. This wild country provides habitat for endangered gray wolves and threatened grizzly bears. The Flathead Wild and Scenic River, a favorite of white-water rafters, and the Swan River dissect the beauty of the Mission, Swan, and Flathead Mountain ranges. Glaciated peaks and alpine lakes beckon summer users to hike, camp or fish. Fresh powder challenges the alpine enthusiast on The Big Mountain ski area, while Nordic skiers and snowmobilers seek the solitude of the backcountry. Try the undiscovered Flathead year-round.

2880 Skyway Drive Helena, MT 59626. 406-449-5201

Montanas Capital City Forest, the Helena National Forest provides a rather open atmosphere to the visitor, with many grassy parks interspersed amidst lodgepole pine and Douglas-fir forests. Highlighting the forest, the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness remains as impressive a sight as when Lewis and Clark described them on their journey up the Missouri River. Mountains of the Continental Divide and spectacular alpine scenery characterize the Scapegoat Wilderness and the western portion of the forest. Wildlife and recreational values dominate in the Elkhorn range, southeast of Helena. Montanas rich mining and ranching history are an important part of the Helena National Forest.

Building 24, Fort Missoula Missoula, MT 59804. 406-329-3750

The Lolo National Forest surrounds the western Montana community of Missoula. The crest of the Bitterroot Mountains divides Montana from Idaho and serve as the forests western boundary. The Continental Divide through the Scapegoat wilderness defines the forests eastern boundary. Four major rivers and their streams offer some of the best fishing in the Rocky Mountains. The topography varies from remote, high alpine lakes to whitewater streams and from heavily forested ridges to smooth rolling meadows. The Rattlesnake National Recreation Area offers many recreation opportunities right on the edge of Missoula.

1801 North 1st Street Hamilton, MT 59840. 406-363-3131

Two major mountain ranges separated by the Bitterroot River valley in southeastern Montana and Idaho comprise the Bitterroot National Forest. Breathtaking scenery is provided by 30 deep, rocky, glaciated canyons breaking the sharp face of the Bitterroot range at regular intervals to the west. Most of this rugged range is wilderness. To the east, the Sapphire range presents a gentler horizon. The forest has plentiful big game, high-quality water, and backcountry recreation opportunities including wild rivers.

The above information on the National Forest System in Montana is reprinted from U.S. Forest Service information.

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