Believe the hype: MONTANA really is Big Sky country, a region of snow-capped summits, turbulent rivers, spectacular glacial valleys, heavily wooded forests and sparkling blue lakes beneath a vast, deep blue sky that seems to stretch for a million miles. The Blackfeet and Shoshone once hunted bison here and today the state remains a bastion of Western culture, a land of cowboys, ranches, small cities and nineteenth-century ghost towns (when the gold ran out so did the people). In Montana, so the jokes go, locals keep snow tyres on till June, you can drive at 75mph but you’ll still be passed on the highway and half the licence plates are Canadian. Cheap Charlie Russell prints line every wall, and all the railway stations are now bars, offices or restaurants. Grizzly bears, elk and bighorn sheep are found in greater numbers in Montana than just about anywhere else on the continent.
The scenery is at its most dramatic and heavily trafficked in the western side of the state, especially the phenomenal Glacier National Park and the surrounding mountain chains, landscapes that featured heavily in 1990s movies A River Runs Through it and The Horse Whisperer (both filmed in part on Dennis Quaid’s Montana ranch). In contrast, the eastern two-thirds is dusty high prairie – sun-parched in summer and wracked by blizzards in winter – that attracts far fewer visitors.
Each of Montana’s small cities has its own proud identity, and most of them are conveniently located off the east–west I-90 corridor. Enjoyable Missoula is a laidback college town, a glimmer of liberalism in this otherwise libertarian state; the historic copper-mining hub of Butte was once a union stronghold; the elegant state capital Helena harkens back to its prosperous gold-mining years; and Bozeman, just to the south, is one of the hippest mountain towns in the USA, buzzing with out-of-towners in the peak months.