Explore Montana: Local Tips, Outdoor Adventures, Sounds and Memories

With this first blog in the “Explore” series, we’re launching into an exploration of the state of Montana. It’s the home of Xplorer Maps and a place full of outdoor “treasures” - but also a place with lots of emotional significance for the XM family. Here’s our very own local advice to help you make the most of your time in the state, from the best places to visit for outdoor enthusiasts to more indulgent stops, food, and cultural activities. 

An Ideal Day in Montana

There are, of course, lots of good resources for designing an ideal day out in the Big Sky Country. But we thought we’d ask the locals for their recommendations, from our very own XM family to those who have made a career partly from being ambassadors of the state, such as NBC Montana’s Laurel Staples.

Montana map being held in front of Glacier National Park.
Xplore Montana Memories with our hand-drawn state map


Everyone agrees on the magic of Montana rivers. To connect with nature but also take a break from the everyday grind, you can float peacefully downstream on your rafts or black inner tubes, whitewater kayaking, or just take in the breathtaking scenery while sitting by the shore. Montana locals count themselves lucky to be living so close to safe, clean, and spectacular outdoor recreation opportunities, and for good reason. So, why not plan your day enjoying the Clark Fork River or the peacefulness of Flathead Lake? You can then top this off with a mountain bike ride in the afternoon to get the legs moving. After all, Montana is also a fantastic place to ride at pretty much any level.

Take daring downhill tracks in Big Sky Resort south of Bozeman, where you can use lifts in the summer to save you the effort of riding uphill. Or settle for more relaxed rides on Forest Service roads. Near Missoula, you can find lots of different routes by using the MTB Missoula guide. Ease yourself into the local scene in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, then end the day on a high with a scoop of Big Dipper Ice Cream back in town.

  Did You Know… The Clark Fork River runs right through Missoula, MT, offering so many recreation opportunities to locals and tourists. It also supports over 350,000 people in the communities it passes through and plays an important role in the health and well-being of Montanans. In fact, Xplorer Maps and the Clark Fork River are closely linked through our partnership with Clark Fork River Coalition, who work to protect and restore the river basin, protecting clean water, restoring degraded waterways, and engaging and educating people about their work. We recently hosted Executive Director Karen Knudsen at a Cartography Comes Alive event in Missoula, where she talked about the legacy of the Coalition.


For those who’d rather explore urban Montana, there’s an eclectic mix of downtowns to take in. Bozeman is a great base for exploring hikes and fly fishing locations, known also for being the sweet pea capital of the nation. It’s also fast becoming a go-to spot for hip bars, exciting new restaurants, and unique stores. The community connection is strong here - bars share some of their sales with local nonprofits, while stores hold repair workshops and educational events for kids.

This approach is visible throughout Montana, in fact. In our hometown of Missoula, initiatives like Missoula Gives are all about strengthening the community by raising funds for key nonprofits in the area. 

Other exciting Montana downtowns include Whitefish, with its ski town charm and excellent dining spots; Philipsburgh with quaint shops and mining museums; and the fairy-tale scenic Red Lodge, at the start of the gorgeous Beartooth Highway into Yellowstone. 

And finally, we can’t think of a perfect day without food - a true Montana specialty. At XM, we love a bit of grass-fed bison burgers or cooking our own pronghorn backstrap over an open fire out in the wild. But there’s another standout common ingredient: huckleberries! You can’t go wrong with stopping for huckleberry pie at the Two Sisters Café near Babb if you’ve been visiting Glacier National Park. XM Co-founder Greg will add huckleberry ice cream for dessert after a burger with pommes frites at Montana Ale Works in Bozeman. And our XM Storyteller Mandela recommends “to die for” huckleberry milkshakes from Charlo.

Fresh fruit is also on Laurel Staples’ must-have list - cherries from Flathead Lake in particular, as a dessert after indulging in two favorite spots in Butte: The Freeway for a Wop Chop sandwich and the historic Pekin Noodle Parlor for dinner. 


Montana - A Place for Memories

A visit to Montana combines downtown vibes, outdoor pursuits, and a quintessential way of discovering the state - road trips. Bozeman, Whitefish, Philipsburgh, Red Lodge, Ennis are just a few places we can recommend for awesome energy and encountering small businesses that are fast making a name for themselves. Xplorer Maps is proud to be part of a strong network of local businesses in Missoula, with a presence at all our local events, part of Missoula Gives, and supporting unique ventures like the International Wildlife Film Festival.

As for the outdoors, Montana has such a vast array of Public Lands to delight with, depending on your favorite hobbies. Visit the “big ones” - Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks - in late May or mid-September. You’ll face fewer crowds and have more of a chance to see wildlife (migrating birds arrive in May, while the elk rut begins mid-September). You can enjoy fishing, camping, hiking, wildlife sightings, and so much more, all the while being close to bustling city centers and great urban hotspots. 


Mand fly fishing at Yellowstone National Park in the Madison River


As Greg puts it, “to experience this juxtaposition [between city and nature] simultaneously will immediately help visitors understand why everyone who is from Montana or lives here always loves ‘coming home’ no matter where they’ve been, or for how long.”

XM Montana Memories

We’ve asked our XM family to share some special memories of their lives and experiences in the state. Here’s what they had to say.

Tara Shisler, Marketing Director

“During July, my family makes it a tradition to go cherry-picking in the beautiful region of Flathead. There's something special about being connected with the local community. As we wander through the orchards, we can't help but appreciate the stunning scenery that Montana has to offer.” 

Greg Robitaille, Co-Founder and CEO

There are so many since I moved here more than 30 years ago. Stopping along the banks of the Clark Fork River learning to fly-fish while riding my bike to and from "work". Daily swims from May through October in the same river with my yellow lab, Roxy (and now with my wife, Julie, where we spend as many late afternoons as possible having our "sundowners"). The common theme is obviously WATER; anytime; anywhere; anyhow. Just play! Rattlesnake Creek is where we live and where I proposed to my wife, Julie. So, even though I am a very proud born and raised Canadian; Montana is my home!

Most importantly, I am eternally grateful and proud that my two kids (Hannah and Sebastian) were raised in Missoula and still, 30 years later, call it "home" and CHOOSE to live, work, and play in town with their partners and families.”

Mandela van Eeden, Lead Storyteller

“Backpacking and fishing with my mom in Glacier National Park. My mom has been going to Glacier since she was inside her mother's womb and it's a very special place for both of us due to our countless encounters with grizzly bears and epic trout. Another favorite memory was hunting for elk, deer, and pronghorn with my father on public lands in eastern Montana. I spent much of my childhood on a farm in Montana... riding my horse on country roads and fishing on high alpine lakes. I love this state more than I could ever put into words.” 

 “What are your Montana memories? Favorite sounds, places to unwind, adventures, city hotspots, or quiet getaways… share them with us on social media.”


Road Trips to Remember

A state the size of Montana is a challenge to cover if you have limited time to visit, but road trips can help you discover more. And it’s not for nothing that one popular Montana TV show, Laurel Staples’ “Road Trippin’”, covers exactly that. Laurel remembers starting the show “inspired by a love for travel, spirit of adventure, and excitement for exploring.” Laurel loves putting together new destinations based on a combination of factors, including time of year and weather.

Greg and Laurel Staples with NBC Montana
Greg Robitaille, Co-Owner of Xplorer Maps and Laurel Staples from NBC Montana's Road Trippin'

As we said above, spring and fall are times for a road trip through Montana. Must-see destinations include Glacier National Park, Flathead Lake, and Wildhorse Island State Park (you’ll need to drive to Dayton and boat or kayak to the island - another water-based adventure!).

Explore Glacier in the car on the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road and you’ll be stunned by the scenery. You’ll need to start near Lake McDonald at Apgar Village or at St Mary Lake and take your time stopping along the way to take it all in (otherwise, you could just blast through the trip in 90 minutes, but that’s not what you’re there for!). This road is accessible from early June until September and you’ll need a permit.

As for Flathead Lake, it’s the largest natural lake west of the Mississippi and can be explored on two roads on either side of its shores. Take Highway 93 along the western shore, stopping along in beautiful small towns like Polson and Big Arm for a meal or to rent a boat. A must-do festival here is the Flathead Cherry Festival on the last weekend in July.

Our third road trip recommendation is Beartooth Highway from Red Lodge to Cooke City. It's the best way to reach Yellowstone National Park. You’ll get big mountain views and marvel at glacier-carved valleys along the 68 miles, topping out at Beartooth Pass, from where you can admire Montana’s highest peaks. This road is open from Memorial Day to October 15th - perfect for that mid-September experience of the National Park and Montana road-trippin’.

Connecting People & Place - Festivals of Montana

When it comes to connecting people and place, one thing you can’t beat is Montana festivals. They range from delicious food-focused events to awesome music concerts, craft beverages, or everything all together.

XM recommends the Red Ants Pants Festival in White Sulphur Springs to connect with the spirit of rural Montana while supporting community grants and women’s leadership initiatives. Moving further west River City Roots Fest in Missoula takes over the city with bluegrass and roots music and a fantastic festival atmosphere including returning University of Montana returning students and friends. 

In Butte, the Montana Folk Festival brings together music and dance with a folklife area and a First Peoples’ Market showcasing the work of Native American artists and craftspeople. And, to better experience Native American heritage, why not experience a Pow Wow for the most incredible community event? You can choose from a range of them throughout Montana here.

If you like beer, Montana Brew Fest takes place in Great Falls, showcasing only local ciders and beers. And let’s not forget Under the Big Sky Festival, in Whitefish, set in a spectacular location on a 350-acre ranch allowing visitors to take in amazing views and great Americana music.


Bronze statue of a Sasquatch with a Xplorer Maps Glacier canvas tote bag.
 Discover Glacier National Park through a hand-drawn map by Chris Robitaille.

Explore the Sounds of Montana

With all this fantastic music diversity, surely the sounds of Montana are made up by the tunes of these festivals? Yes, but this isn’t all. Some iconic music from and about the state can be found on our Xplore the Sound playlist. It blends folk, country, and rock’n’roll to give you a taste of the locals’ talent and passions.

But, of course, audible Montana is made up of nature sounds like Laurel Staples reminds us: the chirping of Western Meadowlark, the bugle of an elk, cattle mooing on the ranch or the peaceful water sounds of Flathead Lake. It’s all the sounds you’ll uncover when you take that unique road trip or when you close your eyes and let your spirit connect with your surroundings in our beautiful National Parks. Or when you tune in to the Trail Less Traveled podcast, where you can learn about Bitterroot Alpine Guides and their work in the Bitterroot and Sapphire Mountains.

We’ll explore the importance of sounds in connecting people and place in an upcoming blog, where we’ll also look at the inspiration for Xplorer Maps’ Xplore the Sound playlists. If you have any sounds and music you’d like to contribute to better showcase the spirit of Montana, or any of the other states, please get in touch


John Steinbeck wrote that “Montana is a great splash of grandeur” - a rich land with grass, color, and mountains. We’d add that the richness is multiplied by its people and communities, putting together a unique combination of natural and human beauty, in all its formats.

To experience all this to the fullest, follow XM’s Mandela’s advice:

“Get off your phone. Look out the window. Take every opportunity to be outside. Go rafting. Go hiking. Support local businesses. Ride a horse. Ride a bike. Watch out for wildlife on our roads. Learn to fish. Lay on your back in an open field and stare at the Big Sky. And, most importantly, whenever you see a river -- take your shoes off and get your feet wet. Be present and give back to the public lands which you have the privilege to xplore... you can do this by becoming a member of Wild Montana.”

Women with an Xplorer Maps Yellowstone neck gaiter at the National Park.