Budget Travel

Montana's free things to complete include not only mountains

Montana is legendary because the gateway to Yellowstone and Glacier National Park, but there's plenty to do within the state that doesn't cost you a cent. From art walks and wild trekking to ghost towns and farmer's markets, Montana's vastness hides a variety of intriguing methods for budget-conscious travelers to pass through time.

As an added plus, Montana isn't generally a pricey destination, with the exception of luxury mountain resorts such as Yellowstone Club. On a very modest budget, you can wander the large Sky state just like a real frontier explorer, getting in touch with the cultural heartbeat of America's beautiful back-country.

Here are 11 of the best ways to experience what Montana has to offer without opening your bank account.

Drive the Beartooth Highway

The Beartooth Highway – a stunningly scenic stretch of US-212 – spans both Montana and Wyoming, but no matter which direction you are available in from, it's liberated to drive. We recommend from Red Lodge, a lively adventure hub in the southern part of Montana, keeping an eye out for mountain goats, grizzly bears, and stunning mountain views as you meander through the epic scenery. There are many pull-ins at scenic viewpoints and hikes of every length, providing use of Yellowstone-style terrain without the accompanying national park fees. At 68 miles, it should take around 3 hours to drive the Beartooth Highway entirely, though it's a good idea to allow an extra couple of hours for stops.

Hit the farmer's markets

It's said that there are more cattle than people in Montana, and it's certainly true that their state is really a major agricultural hub. With so many commercial and hobby farms operating across the state, there are many opportunities to pick up fine, fresh organic produce, sample local foodstuffs, and look for homemade crafts at weekly farmer's markets. Farming is ubiquitous through the state, so check to ascertain if the town you're headed to is hosting an industry in the near future.

From spring through fall, farmers within the northwest from the state are particularly active in showing and selling their wares. Every Tuesday night in Whitefish, foodies gather at Depot Park to purchase fresh organic veg from Two Bear Farm and fully loaded acai fruit bowls from Mountain Berry Bowls. On Thursday, neighboring Columbia Falls has a great lineup of vendors in a rustic-chic outdoor location along the main road. Note however that many markets shut up shop during wintertime.

Go with an art walk

With its picturesque mountains and glittering rivers, Montana is an inspiring place, and also the state attracts artists working in every medium. Many cities and towns in Montana host regular art walks to showcase local talent. with appointments with local galleries and studios to peruse the job of local artists while sipping on wine and beer and munching small snacks. Of course, the aim is to sell art, but there's no obligation to buy, and lots of people join the walks simply to see the types of work on offer.

Art Walks typically occur monthly on a set day of the week. In Bozeman, walks run on the 2nd Friday of each month from July through September. In Missoula, walks are on the first Friday of the month, while Whitefish's Gallery Nights take place on the first Thursday from the month. This is as simple as no means an extensive list, so be sure to ask about local art walks wherever you're headed.

Look for ghosts in Virginia City

Virginia City is really a classic Old West ghost town, sitting frozen over time within the countryside southwest of Bozeman. And unlike other similar abandoned towns in Montana, that one is free of charge to explore. Gold was discovered within 1863, and Virginia City briefly became a boomtown for prospectors. Confederates fleeing the south ended up here during after the Civil War, giving the settlement a unique Southern vibe.

Although hobbyists still scour the nearby countryside in the hope of striking it rich, today Virginia City is predominantly a relic, an intriguing assortment of well-preserved buildings reflecting an iconic time in American history. It feels a little like a Western movie set, only here the buildings would be the real deal.

Visit your garden of One Thousand Buddhas in Arlee

The Flathead Indian Reservation may not seem the obvious location for a large-scale Buddhist shrine, but Montana is filled with surprises. This peaceful religious center sits on 10 acres of grounds, encompassed by rolling hills, using the eponymous thousand Buddhas and lines of Tibetan-style chortens (stupas) creating a circular pattern evoking the eight-spoked Dharma wheel. With the peaceful country setting, many people do indeed find a sense of peace wandering this tranquil monument. Your garden is just north of Missoula and can be visited during daylight hours every day of the year.

Go sledding in winter

Many of Montana's most widely used winter activities come at a price – this includes skiing, dog sledding, and ice fishing (which needs a permit). Sledding, however, is free for anybody with something to slip on and access to a snow-covered hill. Snowfall in Montana tends to be fluffy and plentiful, and thanks to the mountainous terrain, there are many hilly slopes to hurry down. If you don't have a sled, these may easily be and cheaply procured at local grocery stores.

Break out the binoculars to look for birds

Wildlife is full of Montana, because of ample regions of wilderness and a relatively small human population. Even just in the greater densely populated areas of the state, wildlife is frequently spotted, from bears to beavers. Birdwatching is especially excellent throughout the state, so keep the eyes focused on those big skies. At any time of year, there's a chance of spotting bald eagles, golden eagles and ospreys, plus many other birds of prey. Springtime migrations bring in species such as sandhill cranes and purple martins. Montana Audubon offers more information about which species visitors to the state can expect to see at different times, and where the best birding hotspots are available in every region.

Attend the Flathead Cherry Festival

Cherries are one of several fruits that thrive in Montana, thanks to the long, warm days and short, cool nights of summer, and there's a lively festival in Polson in July celebrating that bounty. Each year, cherry growers and cherry lovers convene at the southern end of Flathead Lake, with vendors selling freshly picked cherries, cherries a part of pies or jarred into preserves, and a nearly endless choice of crafts adorned with cherry motifs. It's a delightful and free event, and a success for local and visiting families and other cherry aficionados.

Search for huckleberries

Related to blueberries, huckleberries would be the pride of Montana, growing wild in mountainous areas of their state, and they come ripe at the end of summer. They're notoriously hard to farm, and that's why foragers go to the hills every August looking for these purple beauties within the wild. Picking huckleberries could be complicated, as locals are often reluctant to share intel on in which the best berries are located. If you can't get any tips, spend time searching gentle slopes, particularly forest clearings with direct or partial sunlight. Bears are big huckleberry fans too, so bring your spray along.

Take a hike

Many of Montana's wonderful state and nature charge an entry fee for hikers, but there are plenty of trails through other wilderness areas that are free for public use. Some are well-organized, like the Whitefish Trail, 55 miles of walking and cycling tracks with the forests on the outskirts of Whitefish, just north of Kalispell's Glacier Park International Airport.

Other walks have a more backcountry approach, calling out to serious outdoors types. If you'd like some company around the trails, the organization Wild Montana runs a well known program of wilderness walks from May to August. Whether you follow the map or go off-piste, be sure to let someone know your hiking plans, including when you plan to return, and carry bear spray for protection.

Go to the Missoula Art Museum

The goal of the Missoula Art Museum would be to make art accessible to everyone, including those residing in rural communities. It's liberated to explore the interesting exhibitions inside, as well as the art-filled park outside, though donations should help keep art a fundamental element of the Montana narrative. Artworks on display tend to reflect life within the American west, with an focus on Indigenous expression. The museum can be found in the city of Missoula, worth a trip simply by itself, but it's closed every sunday and Mondays.

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