Size is a relative concept in Montana. The mountains here could certainly be called big. But somehow, it seems like hardly an adequate way to describe ranges that reach thousands of feet toward the sky and stretch outward for hundreds of miles into the horizon. Big Sky Country, as it's colloquially known, is actually an understatement. The opposite is true of the population centers across the state. Bozeman (with a population around 56,000) and Missoula (with a population around 75,000) aren't just "big" by local standards; they're considered major cities in this part of the world.
Yet for many an outsider, anywhere in Montana is a small town. So, in compiling a list of the best small towns in Montana, we're not simply addressing the number of residents within these respective places. Instead, this collection takes into account the look and feel of what makes a tiny place so much larger than the sum of its parts. Small-town charm is a big part of what makes this state so great, and you'll find it writ large in these lovable Montana destinations.
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About an hour drive west of Glacier's main entrance, this quaint town has long served as the national park's unofficial gateway. Now a growing number of visitors are sticking around, validating its worth as a destination in its own right. Whitefish is perched under the shadows of the Northern Rockies, at the foot of its pristine, eponymous lake. This prime positioning affords easy access to all manner of outdoor play, regardless of the season. And a stroll down its lively downtown streets provides a portal to a surprisingly cosmopolitan collection of flavorful food and drink options. Check out Loula's Cafe for lunch, Tupelo Grille for dinner, and the Great Northern Bar & Grill for nightcaps.
Downtown Hamilton, in the heart of the Bitterroot Valley, is a postcard example of small-town charm. The facades of Main Street seem largely unchanged since the place was founded near the end of the 1800s. Make time for the Ravalli County Museum, which showcases local art and history of the region. Then, enjoy some healthy cuisine at Suzette's Organics, or savor some pub grub at Bitter Root Brewing, where 16 house-made beers are on always on tap and shift with the seasons.
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By now, you probably know all about Bozeman. As does most of the country, evidenced by the rising cost of real estate in the trending enclave. But about 25 miles east along Interstate 90, Livingston offers enviable quaintness with a fraction of the hype. The destination of approximately 8,000 year-round residents sits alongside the Yellowstone River at the foot of the Paradise Valley, which is as picturesque as its name implies. Tour the streets, talk with friendly locals, and get a sense of their sporting bonafides at the Fly Fishing Discovery Center. It's also home to the Yellowstone Gateway Museum, the perfect place to learn about the 150-year-old national park before you make the hourlong drive to its northwestern entrance. Just make sure to get some prime cuts of steak from Montana's Rib & Chop House before you go.
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As its name implies, this century-old former railroad stop abuts the western entrance of the world's oldest national park. In fact, it's the closest town to Yellowstone across all three states that it occupies. And it does a great job of preserving a Wild West motif. There's the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, offering visitors a chance to view live animals and learn about their conservation efforts. You might even spy some healthy herds of elk or buffalo roaming the outskirts of town. It can get pretty crowded in the heat of summer, but come in the wintertime and you'll be in the heart of snowmobile country. Rentals are available at half a dozen outposts.
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Ennis sure has a lot going on for a town of less than a thousand. Its Main Street crosses the Madison River — a fly fishing wonderland — and holds half a dozen taverns and saloons, in addition to a craft distillery and an old-fashioned soda fountain for those craving something a little softer. Most of the buildings downtown feature wooden facades, evoking a Wild West feel. It's emphasized in grandiose fashion by the backdrop: three separate mountain ranges hovering over the horizon in every direction.
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Not far from Ennis lies this former hub of the region's 19th-century gold rush. In its 1865 heyday, it attracted upwards of 10,000 prospectors looking for a piece of the action. Nowadays, it serves as time machine to that era, allowing visitors to look at live blacksmith demonstrations and historical recreations, or even pan for gold of their own. A National Historic Landmark District since 1961, this is a living, breathing slice of Montana's pioneer past.
Established in 1841 as St. Mary's Mission, this tiny town holds the distinction of first permanent non-Indigenous settlement in all of Montana. In fact, it's older than the state by some 48 years. Today, that history is on display in the architecture along Main Street, and the original mission is still standing. Nestled against the banks of the Bitterroot River, this is a great place to take in the local flora and fauna — just take a short hike on the interpretive trails of the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. If you get thirsty, head back downtown and sip some spirits from The Montana Distillery, where the award-winning vodka is distilled from native sugar beets.
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Most visitors arrive here by way of the Beartooth Highway, a 68-mile marvel traversing the eponymous mountain range on its way to the northeast entrance of Yellowstone. It's a memorable road trip for sure, and one that you can only do during the summer months. Just make sure you do more than merely pass through Red Lodge along the way. This idyllic destination of approximately 2,300 is home to disproportionate levels of charm. Historic Broadway runs through downtown and is lined with art galleries, artisan eateries, and its very own candy emporium.
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This former railroad town is the only entry from eastern Montana to make the list. As such, the terrain is quite less mountainous than the rest. Nevertheless, nature lovers will be compelled by the stark beauty of Makoshika State Park. It's home to totem-like rock formations and fossil remains of prehistoric origin. You'll get a better glimpse of the latter at the Glendive Dinosaur & Fossil Museum in the heart of town. If you still haven't had your fill of rock, check out Hell Creek Music & More, an indie guitar shop. Also lining these streets, straddling the Yellowstone River, you'll find a livestock exchange, a taxidermy shop, and The Gust Hauf, a beer hall filled with local ephemera.