Known as Big Sky Country, Montana is one undervalued state that will knock your socks off. From horses to ghosts, from forests to rivers, there are plenty of outdoor adventures waiting for you. So grab your boots and trusty steed, and get ready to let the great state of Montana amaze and delight your traveling family.
10 Awesome Family Adventures in Montana
Recently our family took a one week vacation to southwest Montana, and what we discovered blew our minds. We live in the Pacific Northwest, so we know natural beauty, but the adventures and breathtaking scenery we found in Montana quickly made us fall in love with this underrated state.
Horseback riding was the most popular adventure for our whole family. We’re a bunch of city slickers I suspect, but you’d never guess it from the experience we had horseback riding through the wild country of Montana. Our family booked a private guided horseback ride with Wolfpack Outfitters to the Axolotl Lakes area.
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We met our guides on a tiny dirt road and followed them up to our starting point for our ride. A few things were running through my mom brain, including “Is this safe for my kids?” and “How long are we going to have to listen to directions?” Turns out those things weren’t even issues. The guide and his son quickly unloaded the horses and mounted each one of us on our horse. Then he gave a two minute talk on what to do. Honest, that’s it. Turns out the horses are smarter than most city slicker riders, and they know their route really well.
Why this adventure is a must-d0 for your family? My girls were smiling the entire time. As I write this I’m smiling remembering their smiles. At one point after her horse spontaneously took off to try and take the lead, my oldest shouted out to me, “This is better than Disney World.” I cannot truly put into words what it’s like to head into the country with your family on horseback, and share that kind of unplugged adventure together.
Panning for Gold
No vacation out west would truly be complete without having a chance to pan for gold. On our adventure to Virginia City and Nevada City we had our chance to strike it rich. Spoiler alert, we didn’t. But we had a lot of fun hoping and trying!
We tried our hand at panning at River of Gold in Nevada City, Montana. We were staying at the Nevada City Hotel, and the River of Gold experience was included in our Family Stay and Play package. If you’re not using a package, the fee is $8 for your tray of dirt and a glass vial for collecting your treasures.
What’s my “been there” tip for families? Turns out there really isn’t any gold. You’re shown that you should be searching for garnets. This is great for young kids since garnets are bigger and easier to find than gold, but my husband was a bit disappointed we weren’t going to find some gold nuggets. There are flakes of gold that you can discover if you keep at it, but you’d need a lot of them to earn back your $8 fee, and some are probably just fool’s gold (pyrite). Still, the gold panning adventure was fun. We all enjoyed learning the process and collecting some garnet and gold flake treasures to take home.
Hike up a Mountain
On our first full day in Montana, we decided to tackle a mountain. Mt. Helena City Park is not too far out from the city center of Helena, and is the perfect start point for your adventure. The summit of Mt. Helena is 5,468 feet above sea level and about 1,300 feet above downtown Helena.
There are a few trails that your family can choose from, but the one I’d recommend is the 1906 trail. This is the classic, original trail and offers some great views and diverse surroundings. It’s a fairly easy 1.5 mile hike for families, with a few steep sections. The payoff is worth the work though. Amazing views of the Montana countryside, and a great overlook of the town of Helena. We took the Powerline trail down the mountain. This is very steep and not as pretty as the 1906 trail, but it’s a quick, straight shot back down.
Something that our family has started doing when we travel is geocaching. We have the geocache app installed on our phone, so when we’re in a new area with a bit of time on our hands, we open the app and search for a cache.
Quite a few spots around different parts of Montana had geocaches, so it’s a great way to spend some time in nature. The Montana State Parks system recently introduced a permit system to allow geocaches in state parks. This means that you can probably find one if not more in any of the Montana State Parks.
Geocaching is often paired with the exchange of trinkets. We don’t often travel with trinkets to leave in the geocaches we find, so we just have fun finding the cache and logging our find in the app. If you wanted to bring along some cute trinkets that perhaps represent your home state or country, that’s a fun way to leave your stamp on your Montana adventure.
Explore Caverns 300 Feet Below Ground
Another must-do adventure for families is a visit to the Lewis and Clark Caverns. This “amazing geologic wonder” is a Montana State Park that should not be missed. The cave tours are only offered during the summer months and during December for special holiday tours.
If you want to take a tour, they leave every half hour and last about 2 hours. Your family needs to know a few things for your visit. Be prepared for a bit of a hike up to the cavern. Also be sure to pack some sweatshirts, even on hot days, because the caverns are naturally air-conditioned and sit at a constant 50 degrees Fahrenheit. You’ll follow your guide deep underground and into tight squeezes as well as large, open caverns. It truly is a natural wonder that you need to experience.
Before visiting, here’s a fun question you can encourage your kids to answer: “Why are the caverns named after Lewis & Clark?”
We’ve already tackled gold panning, but you have another opportunity to try and strike it rich by sapphire mining. What I discovered on our trip is there are two “offers” for sapphire mining, so you need to decide which of the two suits your family best.
One of the sapphire mining opportunities is in the charming town of Philipsburg, Montana. Our family loved strolling along the main street of Philipsburg, where we discovered a huge candy store featuring homemade fudge and taffy, and a family-friendly brewery. On the main street is also a store for Gem Mountain, where you can purchase gravel to wash at their indoor station and search for sapphires.
We decided to take a more rustic approach and headed out directly to the Gem Mountain sapphire mine outside of Philipsburg. Once you arrive at the mine, after a beautiful drive, head into the small portable to buy your bucket of gravel. With your receipt in hand you head out to choose your bucket and get your instructions. After learning the proper screen wash method, you’re ready to dump over your gravel and start searching for sapphires. Our family found some lovely little gems, and had a great time searching together.
Walk in the Footsteps of Ghosts
Virginia City and Nevada City are like full-size, living history museums. The two towns are only about a mile apart from each other and connected via the Alder Gulch train, so it’s easy to take in both towns. They’re managed under a historical conservancy, and house over a million Americana artifacts.
For the fully immersive experience, you can stay overnight in one of their historical buildings, The Fairweather Inn or Nevada City Hotel & Cabins. We stayed in one of the Victorian Suites of the Nevada City Hotel. The girls couldn’t believe our room is kept as a museum viewing room when not booked.
When you stroll the town of Virginia City, be sure to peek into the windows. Many of the “shops” are like life-size shadow boxes, housing some of the great Americana artifacts. Be sure to pack some nickels because the whole family will love trying out the moving picture viewers inside the arcade store. And definitely check out the arcade’s historic Fortune Teller machine that is worth millions!
Horse-dDrawn Wagon Ride
Our first adventure after arriving into Helena was the Last Chance Ranch Wagon Ride Dinner. We met up with a bus that transported us deep into the country to the Last Chance Ranch. Once we arrived at the ranch the real adventure began. The group was divided up into three horse-drawn wagons for a ride up to the dining hall.
Our dining experience started with a salad and some live country tunes sung by the owner, Bruce Anfinson. The next course was the feature, prime rib with sides of potatoes and succotash, all served family style along our picnic dining tables. After some delicious dessert of huckleberry cheesecake and cowboy coffee, we headed outdoors for more guitar music. The whole experience was about four hours long.
I was shocked to discover my girls were the only kids on the trip. There is a bit of downtime, which our girls spent playing outside the dining hall and picking wildflowers. Perhaps the cost is a bit high for a family, but I can say my girls loved the wagon ride, and I think it’s a great experience for families.
Zipline Over a River
The original plan was to have a river float trip adventure on the Madison River. However a miscommunication meant we missed the pick up, and since the river was still chilly in June, they offered us a ziplining trip instead. So off we headed to the Gallatin River, a stream famous for fly-fishing, and the area where some of the movie A River Runs Through It was filmed.
Our family was part of a 10 person group that took on the Gallatin River Classic Zipline Tour. This tour features three lines, three towers, and a ladder climb. This was our very first experience with ziplining and we all loved it. My only comment is that 10 people seems like too many for that short of a trip. Most of our time was spent waiting for the rest of the group, with the actual adventure being but a couple of minutes of the two hour tour.
TravelingMom Tip: If you’re wanting to book a ziplining tour I would recommend one of two things. Either splurge for a longer tour that offers more lines and towers, or find a tour operator who books no more than six people in a group.
Discover a Waterfall
As we come to the close of my list of adventures, it should be fitting that I name our final family adventure from our trip to southwest Montana. We went in search of a waterfall. Heading back to another Montana state park, we ventured to Lost Creek State Park after our sapphire mining.
This adventure is a great lesson in family travel. We headed into the park and noticed a spot that said it was for parking for the Lost Creek State Park Trail. My directions had shown that the waterfall was a “short hike” from the parking lot, so we figured this trail was where we needed to go. At the trailhead we noted the sign that showed a one mile trail and an eight mile trail. A mile seemed longer than a “short hike,” but off we headed.
Just as we approached the one mile marker we ran into some other hikers coming back our way, so we asked if they had just left the waterfall. They then gave us the news – we were above the waterfall. To see the waterfall, they said, we just needed to drive a bit farther into the park past the parking spot we parked in. Well okay then. We finished our one mile hike, and found a beautiful spot where we dipped our hands into the fresh Lost Creek water and took a family photo, then headed back down the trail.
Once back in our car we drove a little bit further down the road and found the main turn out for the park info sign. It was here that we found a “very short” path (honestly, it was probably about 40 feet) from the road to a beautiful lookout over the 50-foot waterfall.
What does this adventure teaches about family travel? Every discovery doesn’t have to be planned and plotted. Sometimes it’s the mistakes that help you find the most amazing memories!
Montana has truly captured our hearts, and I hope it will capture yours. These 10 adventures are just a taste of all that Montana has to offer. Hopefully you’ll plan an adventure to Montana. You’ll discover there’s so much to do in Montana, including Glacier National Park and Yellowstone!