The state's 145,552 square miles are amazingly diverse. Think of it in three distinct parts: the starkly beautiful eastern plains; the ecosystem in the high-altitude Yellowstone; and the northwest's thick timberlands. While the high lonesomeness of the Plains is worth experiencing, most visitors (and this guide) choose to concentrate on the state's western half along the crest of the Rockies. Bozeman and Missoula have enough amenities to satisfy almost any out-of-stater. Many of the smaller communities are seeing explosive growth in line with the high-end developments in Colorado. Nonetheless, the do-it-yourself and live-and-let-live ethos of the state still runs straight and true.
WHEN TO GO
During June, July, and August you'll find temperatures in the 70s and 80s and clear, cloudless days befitting Montana's nickname, the Big Sky State. If you plan to hike or fish and want to be sure snow has cleared off mountain trails, it's best to wait till mid-June. Even in the height of summer, 40-degree swings in temperature are not uncommon between daytime and nightand snow is always a possibility in the backcountry, so pack accordingly. September is underrated, with decently warm temps and no crowds.
If you plan to ski or board, January usually dumps the most snow, but March is far more reliable when the base has had time to build up. Big Sky and Big Mountain average about 400 and 300 inches respectively each year.
HOW TO GET THERE
The state's major airports are in Bozeman (www.gallatinfield.com) and Missoula (www.msoairport.org), with daily flights from the major airlines connecting to a half-dozen hub cities. Book well in advance, as these flights are often on smaller planes and fill up quickly. The Billings airport, Logan International (www.flybillings.com), is two hours east of Bozeman and tends to be outside most people's itineraries. Still, it occasionally offers up deals or scarce seats.
Unless you're staying at an all-inclusive lodge or road-tripping into the state, renting a car at the airport is your only option. The interstate and highways are well maintained, but you might consider upgrading to an SUV if you're headed into rough territory. Because of its size and scant population—Montana has fewer people than Rhode Island—drive time between marquee destinations can be long. Give yourself time to get around. The state's biggest draws, Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, are separated by eight long (but beautiful) hours of windshield time. First-time visitors usually try to cover too much ground, letting much of the state blur past at 75 mph (forget what you heard, there are speed limits). If you want to see and enjoy both parks, give yourself at least a week.
The state's tourism board has an excellent and comprehensive website (www.visitmt.com) or can be reached at 800-847-4868.