Montana at a Glance
A state of big skies, great falls and wide-open spaces, Montana is an American treasure all its own. As rich in minerals as it is in history, the real jewels of the Treasure State are the stories that wind their way out of the Rocky Mountain river valleys, echo through the Badlands, and settle in the Great Plains. Montana has an outsize share of the country’s natural beauty. With gold and sapphire in its riverbeds and two of the nation’s most prized national parks, Big Sky Country has long attracted residents with big dreams, high hopes and serious know-how.
While it would be hard to find a Montanan who didn’t love some form of outdoor recreation — hiking, flyfishing, snowboarding or whitewater rafting — there’s more to the state than its inspiring mountain ranges, rushing rivers and freshwater lakes. The state of Montana is a critical part of the U.S. economy, particularly when it comes to agriculture and livestock. This Western gem also has two tier-one research institutions, the University of Montana and Montana State University, both of which make important advances in science, medicine and the arts.
So, if you’re moving to Big Sky Country, your fortune awaits. What form that takes is entirely up to you.
What It’s Like Living in Montana
If you love big skies, big snow and big spaces, Montana may be the perfect place for you. The state of Montana is home to only 1.1 million residents. With an average of only seven or eight people per square mile, it also has one of the lowest population densities in the country.
But that’s not all the Treasure State has to recommend it. It was listed in the top five in the nation for overall well-being. At nearly 95%, Montanans’ high school graduation rate is one of the highest in the country. And unemployment remains relatively low — it stood at 2.9% in November 2022, roughly in the middle of its nearest neighbors.
However, the state does have a higher cost of living than Idaho, Wyoming and the Dakotas. The average household income in Montana is $60,560 — over 10% less than the national average — and median home values also skew slightly higher, to $263,700. Home values rose sharply in Montana during the market surge in 2022, at one point cresting at $420,000. Fortunately, though, the state has stepped in to provide assistance to homeowners and renters.
The Montana job market in general is trending upward, with most industries holding steady or adding jobs. The state’s agriculture and livestock industries are dominant in every respect — cattle and wheat comprise 75% of Montana’s agricultural revenue and 16% of Montanans work in an agricultural field. The state is the #1 producer of organic wheat in the nation. Montana also produces an outsize number of lentils, chickpeas, sugar beets, and oilseed crops. Interestingly, it is also a leading producer of wool, which comes in very handy during the long (and frigid) winters.
The non-agricultural payroll rose to 507,000 in October 2022, amounting to an increase of 400 jobs in one month. Industries leading the state are trade, transportation and utilities, education and health services, government, and leisure and hospitality. Not surprisingly, Montana relies on tourism to national parks, dude ranches and ski slopes for a strong hospitality sector.
Weather in Montana
As the fourth-largest state in the union, Montana’s climate varies noticeably from the eastern side in the Great Plains to the mountainous west. Precipitation is the single greatest variant, where lowland areas can see as little as seven inches of annual rain, while the highest elevations receive upwards of 35 inches per year. Winters are frigid across the board — notoriously so.
The coldest temperature on record for the continental U.S. was set in Montana, when the mercury plummeted to −70 F at Rogers Pass in 1954. For those living east of the foot of the Rockies, January brings an average temperature of 10 F and a solid 200 days of frost, though not nearly as much snowfall as those residing west of the Great Plains. Mountain regions can expect 300 inches or more of snow each year.
Another of Montana’s famous extremes? The Chinook winds interrupt winter with sudden, warm air — often at sustained high speeds. This rapid warming can be alarming: In 1972, the single greatest temperature change occurred in Loma, when the thermometer’s temperature rose 103 degrees in just 24 hours, from an unthinkable -54 F to a balmy 49 F.
No matter where you settle in Montana, you can generally expect cool summers. The arid central and eastern regions see average summer temperatures in the 70s F, but heat waves can send the mercury skyrocketing to well over 100 F on occasion. The mountainous west has consistently mild summers, with averages only in the 60s F.
The state does experience occasional tornados, but thunderstorms are not its biggest threat. That comes from flooding and wildfires, which are happening with greater frequency. In June 2022, a catastrophic, 500-year flood inundated Yellowstone National Park, rapidly destroying roads, buildings and essential infrastructure.
Best Cities to Live in Montana
Montana’s boundless spaces are punctuated by charming, Western mountain towns and cities with chill and friendly vibes. The best thing about living in Montana? You can experience them all!
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Bozeman led the population explosion in the state. The city’s 16,000 new residents amounted to a 43% increase over the last 10 years, bringing its total up to 54,539. Located in southern Montana, Bozeman is the home of Montana State University’s (MSU) flagship location, the state’s largest educational and research institution. MSU is known for its STEM programs, particularly those in agriculture, biology and animal science, geology, and paleontology.
Housing in this small city can be expensive. The median home value tops $466,000 and the median gross rent exceeds $1,200 per month. But it’s hard to beat the location. Bozeman is just north of Yellowstone National Park, so its residents are within reach of prime hiking and skiing.
And the city itself is lively and culturally rich. The Museum of the Rockies (which has a renowned dinosaur collection), the Gallatin History Museum and the American Computer & Robotics Museum are all located in Bozeman, and the Montana Science Center is an ideal spot for hands-on STEAM learning. You’ll also find great restaurants and bars in town, as you might expect from the college scene.
In the northwest part of the state, Kalispell, a town of 26,110, also saw a notable population rise in the last decade — the number of its residents increased by 23%. Kalispell is situated just north of Flathead Lake, one of the largest natural bodies of fresh water in the country.
The town also has easy access to Glacier National Park to the northeast. You can explore the historic sites on foot with a virtual guide and see gems like the Conrad Mansion Museum, a 13,000-square-foot residence and gardens once owned by the town’s founder, Charles E. Conrad. Plus, there’s the Hockaday Museum of Art, which occupies the 1901 library building, as well as galleries and artist co-ops showcasing contemporary works, including those by Montana residents.
Kalispell has a close-knit feel without being confining, and it really has everything you need — bookstores, outfitters, yoga studios, spas, restaurants and breweries. But there are big box stores on the edge of town … so, you know, it’s still easy to by a 24-pack of toilet paper. Beyond that, it’s just jaw-dropping wilderness in all directions. The median home value in Kalispell is $277,000 — higher than the U.S. average — but at $849 a month, the average rent here considerably lower.
If there is any city in Montana that bustles, it’s Billings. The largest city in the state, Billings (pop. 117,445) has grown by 12.4% since 2010. The median home value in Billings is $248,8000 and rent averages $965 per month.
The terrain here, on the edge of southeastern Montana, is different than in the western part of the state. While the mountains of Yellowstone are easily in reach, Billings resides in flatter country. Situated at the base of the Rimrock Mountains with the Great Plains spreading out to its east, Billings is rich in history.
A great way to take it in is on horseback. You can embark on a guided tour with an expert; skilled riders can also set out on their own adventure. No matter how you travel to them, three sites in the area not to be missed: the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Pompeys Pillar National Monument and Chief Plenty Coups State Park.
If you’re looking for more ancient history, head out for a hike through Makoshika State Park, where you can hike the Badlands and learn about the area’s largest original residents: The dinosaurs. But the easiest hike in town is the Billings Brew Trail, which consists of 1.5 miles of cider, spirits and suds. Pause at the Montana Brewing Company, Angry Hank’s and the Undamned Distillery (because being angelic is really overrated).
There are plenty of other attractions to explore within the city, including the Downtown ArtWalk, the Yellowstone Art Museum, Zoo Montana and the Riverfront Park, which has a jogging path along the Yellowstone River. The industries driving Billings’ economy are primarily agriculturally related.
Frankly, it’s surprising that Billings isn’t called Sugar City — beets are a multi-million dollar market here and you can practically taste the sweetness in the air when they’re being processed. Oil and coal are still driving forces in the regional economy, and there are two major refineries in the city. MSU also has a location in Billings, which is a great and stabilizing resource.
Known as the Garden City, Missoula is one of Montana’s lushest and most beloved towns. Tucked into the mountain valleys of northwest Montana, and wrapped by the Bitterroot and Clark Fork Rivers, Missoula stands out as one of the most sophisticated and down-to-earth mountain towns in the U.S.
You can literally walk out of town and straight onto a trailhead or stroll into the university and hear an award-winning poet read from his latest collection. The University of Montana has 12,000 students enrolled and has stellar programs in diverse areas of research. Some of its best areas are environmental sciences, wildlife, forestry and conservation — a natural fit for an institution surrounded by this exceptional environment.
Missoula proves to be one of the best-educated cities in the state, with a 97% high school graduation rate and over 50% of residents earning a bachelor’s degree or higher. With a population of 74,822, Missoula has grown 10% over the last ten years and remains the state’s second-largest city. But housing costs here are elevated: The median home value is $324,700 and rent averages $971.
When residents aren’t enjoying the spoils of untouched nature in their kayaks or waders, they’re sipping a craft cocktail in town, seeing a concert at the Wilma or viewing works of art. One of the best places for that is the Missoula Art Museum, its collections emphasizing contemporary Montana artists, especially Indigenous practitioners. If you’re looking to learn, the Montana Natural History Center is a fun and educational resource for budding naturalists. All told, Missoula is one of the coolest places in the state to call home.
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Things You Can Only See and Do in Montana
The first national park in the world, Yellowstone National Park was established on March 1, 1872, on the border of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. Each year, more than 4.8 million people visit the 2.2 million-acre park for a chance to glimpse the bison and bears (but not get eaten by them), hike the whitebark pine forests and watch Old Faithful sound its barbaric yawp into the wilderness. Yellowstone is home to more than half of the world’s active geysers, and the park’s most famous hydrothermal feature is just one of roughly 500 geysers in the park.
Visitors to this geologically dynamic expanse also come to see the dramatic falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, where the waters rush through the ancient, ever-deepening caldera. And no visit is complete without fixing your eyes on the travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs, where the rocks look as though they’ve erupted with toasted marshmallow. Be assured, they do not taste like marshmallows. Stick with the jet-puffed variety for your campfire. Although most roads in Yellowstone close for the coldest months, winter is still a wonderful time to explore, when the park offers snowmobile and snow coach tours to prime sites.
In northwestern Montana, adjacent to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and the Canadian border, lies Glacier National Park, one of the most beautiful sites in North America. The park’s most popular feature is Going to the Sun Road — a windy, scenic route traveling east to west through clouds, mist and waterfalls. It also takes you by some of the park’s best attractions, like Avalanche Creek and Bird Woman Falls.
If you’ve come to see the actual glaciers in this land of ice, it’s best to visit in August and September when the snow has melted and the glaciers’ visibility peaks. Glacier is also an International Dark Sky Park, so it’s a prime spot for amateur astronomers. But watch out — you won’t be alone out there in the dark. Much of the park’s wildlife is active at night, including bears and mountain lions. If you’ve planned an evening of stargazing and s’mores, just remember that grizzlies are not good sharers.
Both Yellowstone and Glacier offer experiences for people of all ages and abilities. There are hikes and views that are accessible by car or wheelchair-friendly paths. There are also extraordinarily challenging backcountry trails for seasoned hikers.
Of course, Montana is home to numerous state parks, which draw smaller, local crowds. Whether your favorite outdoor activity is hiking, paddling, ice fishing or birdwatching, you’re certain to find a Montana state park to accommodate you.
Adrenaline junkies will want to sign up for the Zip ‘N Dip, a combination whitewater rafting and zipline tour, which will give you a rush in and out of the water. If even that doesn’t meet your octane level, try flyboarding at Whitefish City Beach. In this watersport, you strap into a hydro-powered board, attached to a giant hose that’s attached to a jet ski. The jet ski then shoots you into the air, keeping you there for as long as you can handle and remain above water.
If your idea of a rush is more like reeling in a lunker from a fast-moving river, you’ll find no better park to fly fish for trout than the Smith River State Park. It’s really like winning the lottery, because you have to put your name into an annual draw to secure a permit to fish here. The 59-mile stretch of the Smith River allows non-motorized crafts only, and the multi-day float trip for lucky permit-holders gives them a quiet and nearly solitary immersion into this serene river canyon.
Outside the state parks, the Yellowstone River is often touted as the best spot for fly fishing in the state, but the Blackfoot River — made famous by the movie A River Runs Through It (based on Norman Maclean’s book by the same name) — might be what introduced America to this meditative sport. Or is it a way of life? Lake fishing is also good at numerous parks, including Beavertail Hill State Park, where you can camp in Sioux-style tipis.
Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park is another special site in Big Sky Country. It was the first state park in Montana, not to mention one of the largest limestone caverns in the region, filled with otherworldly stalactites and stalagmites. Lost Creek State Park offers the chance to see bighorn sheep and mountain goats while viewing the picturesque falls.
Of course, the outdoor fun doesn’t stop when the snow arrives. Montanans enjoy the full spectrum of winter activities: Downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and ice skating, to name a few, and there are sites from Billings to Bonners Ferry to check out. You’ll find everything from ritzy resorts to mom-and-pop ops to suit your family’s needs and your budget. Check the snow report to find the best spots near you and to see what conditions are like that day.
Off the slopes, residents in the northwest town of Whitefish host the Whitefish Winter Carnival — weeks of events ranging from a family-friendly pie social, scavenger hunt and penguin plunge to an adults-only disco party, complete with a costume contest.
One of the most important aspects of Montana’s culture are its 12 Indian Nations, including the Blackfeet, Crow, Sioux and Northern Cheyenne, many of which reside in seven reservations across the state. If you’re interested in learning more about their diverse history and contemporary cultural practices, the best way is through a Native-led tour of Indian Country. Some tours will give you an enriched appreciation of well-trod spots, like Glacier National Park; others focus on historical battles, like Little Big Horn. There are even eco-tours on horseback, one of the most authentic ways to experience the Montana landscape.
Part of Montana’s unique history is the Gold Rush, and there are numerous ghost towns across the state that bear witness to the industry’s collapse. One site of note is at Bannack State Park, which marks the site where gold was first discovered in the state in 1862. Over 50 historic structures remain in this abandoned mining town, including the school and a hotel. In July, the annual Bannack Days brings re-enactors and other fun and educational activities to the site.
In Great Falls, you can get a deeper look at Montana state history at the C.M. Russell Museum, which shares the art and life of its namesake, Charles Russell, and works by other important Western artists, including those practicing today. The museum is also home to the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame. Just be sure to check out the actual waterfalls in town, too — they really are a sight to behold.
For a really deep look at Montana history, take a trip to one of the state’s museums to see the dinosaur and fossil collections. The preeminent site in the state for this research is the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, where specimens of the strange-looking Allosaurus (whose name means “different lizard); the horned Triceratops; and several terrifying T. Rexes are on display. Careful — those are carnivores, remember, and they all still look hungry. If you want to get your hands dirty, sign up for a fossil expedition at the Two Medicine Dinosaur Center. You and your family can participate in a real dinosaur dig with paleontologists at an active fossil site.
Certainly, you cannot reside in Montana without catching a rodeo or two. One of the classics is the Missoula Stampede Rodeo, held each August at the Western Montana Fair. There, you’ll see some of the best, most daring riders on the circuit. The fair is a multi-day festival of agriculture, livestock, culinary, creative and Native arts. The fairgrounds have been recently revitalized and now have year-round attractions like a tropical butterfly house, gardens and a demonstration kitchen, paving the way for loads of hands-on family fun.
If you’re looking for some more amped-up action, the World Famous Miles City Bucking Horse Sale is the event for you. Also known as Cowboy Mardi Gras, this spring annual has events for the tiniest riders — like the six-and-under Mutton Bustin’. There’s plenty for the professional set as well, including the Bronc Ride, where for three years running, the winner survived a ride on “Lunatic from Hell”. To clarify, that’s the horse’s name, but it suits the riders equally well.
What to Eat in Montana
Owing to its vast and diverse terrain, Montana is known for a range of local foods, from flora to fauna. As ranching country, the state is known for meat — beef, bison, elk and other game — but you’ll also find tantalizing (and sometimes eyebrow-raising) preparations, like nut burgers (topped with a blend of crushed nuts and Miracle Whip); huckleberry burgers (slathered in huckleberry BBQ sauce); Catholic burgers (with onions griddled in pickle juice); and wagon wheels (a patty almost hermetically sealed between two pieces of white bread). You’ll find some of the best burgers at The Burger Dive in Billings, famous for imaginative patties like the “Blackened Sabbath Burger,” where the beef is blackened, topped with blue cheese, an onion ring, and garlic mayo, or the “Juicy Lucy,” where the cheese is molten and on the inside. There’s even a burger with bourbon and Coke sauce.
If you want your meat unfettered, head to one of Montana’s best steak restaurants. Open Range in Bozeman offers a true fine dining experience. All of its steaks are hand-cut in-house and seared on cast iron for an unbelievable salty crust. You can even order bison tartare as a starter.
Buffalo Block Prime Steakhouse at the Rex in Billings sets itself apart with appetizers like the wild game sampler, which comes with roasted bison bone marrow, quail, an elk filet, venison sausage and even rattlesnake and rabbit sausage — all served with a side of huckleberry jam. Yes, we did say “snake sausage”.
In the “other meats” category, you’ll also find Rocky Mountain Oysters (deep-fried bull testicles) in certain establishments. Montanans also make delicious jerky of all kinds, including smoked elk stix. But what Montana takes special pride in its pasties — savory hand pies stuffed with aromatic ground meat and served with brown gravy. The town of Butte is famous for its pasties, though the ones at Brannigan’s in Kalispell were impressively flakey.
Montana’s primary crop is wheat, and there’s no better way to eat that than in a tasty piece of fry bread. You can find this at tiny stands like Big Dan the Fry Bread Man, from vendors at powwows and the Apsaalooke Community Market, and at stand-alone restaurants, like The Crow Hop, where you can get it with tortilla soup or even made into a taco.
And, speaking of bread, Biga Pizza is one of the best spots to hit if you’re in Missoula. Everything is prepared in its brick oven, using locally sourced ingredients whenever they’re available. Two of its best pies with real local flavor are the Flathead cherry, which comes with house made sausage, cherry chutney and smoked gouda, and the number topped with sweet potato, bacon and maple chipotle, which features
a regional bacon.
Truly, Missoula is one of the best cities for food in the state. Other popular places include contempo-casual Plonk, which serves an unbelievable local pork chop with hot mustard ice cream, and Camino, a go-to for sopes with chicken and mole manchamantel, as well as cochinita pibil with achiote-marinated pork and plantains.
The official state fruit of Montana is so popular, it seems there isn’t a product free of huckleberries. There are the anticipated jams and jellies, huckleberry syrups and pancake mixes, but you’ll also encounter huckleberry margarita mix; huckleberry-scented candles, lotions and lip balms; the unscented but spirited “Huck Yeah!” shot glass; and truly unholy huckleberry coffee.
Giving huckleberries a run for their money, Flathead cherries are another favorite fruit, one that thrives in the microclimate surrounding Flathead Lake. Several varieties are cultivated in Montana, including Sweet Ruby, Rainier and Sweethearts.
One unexpected food found in Montana is Bozeman’s Southern restaurant, Roost. Hewing close to its Tennessee origins, the restaurant’s fried chicken is as darn good as they claim, and you can get it Nashville hot or classic Southern. They’ll even pack you an all-day fishing box. Who can say no to that?
If you’re in Helena, the capital of Montana, and are looking for elegant Italian fare, Lucca’s has been voted the state’s best restaurant three times running, and it’s committed to expert preparation of traditional favorites like veal piccata and cioppino.
How to Move to Montana
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