A Realistic Guide to Getting the Most Out of Your Montana Summer

Summer is the season of expression. After the long dormancy of winter, suddenly the serviceberries are flowering, the chickadees are trilling, and everything is clamoring for your attention. If you have an adventurous streak, as I do, then innumerable hikes, bikes, paddles, and camping excursions begin to crowd into the vacant spaces in your summer schedule. There’s always more to do than you have time for. The task becomes picking and choosing what will help you get the most out of these precious long days under the Big Sky. Over seven summers of wandering Western Montana’s trails, rivers, and roads, I’ve developed a few criteria that help guide me in this decision-making process:

Don’t Try to Do Too Much

This is the hardest lesson for me to abide by. Every June, I’m overeager to check off a long list of adventures to go on, house projects to complete, and festivals to attend. At least half are never completed. The other half gets crammed into the twelve short weekends of summer. This leaves little time for a last-minute hike with a friend, an afternoon paddle down the river, or a day just puttering around the neighborhood. By September or October I’m exhausted and welcoming the shorter days when I am forced to do less. As I plan out my summers now, I try to leave “empty” time in my schedule—time to settle, to read, to reflect, and to be open to the spontaneous.

Don’t Go to Glacier or Yellowstone in July or August

Make no mistake, I do recommend visiting these two iconic landscapes if you haven’t done so. But if you are looking to experience their “wild serenity,” then the middle of summer, when millions of people from around the world flood their gates, is not the time to visit. To avoid sitting in traffic for the tenth time because a bison or goat came in sight of the road, visit in September or June. It’ll feel more like you’re getting out and less like everyone is following you.

Visit New Places

As the crowds descend on Glacier and Yellowstone, I tend to go off the signed path to find stunningly beautiful places that are surprisingly close to home.  Within two hours of Missoula, I can count eight mountain ranges I’ve explored, six rivers I’ve floated, and dozens upon dozens of hikes I’ve been on. And yet, I’ve only scratched the surface. Western Montana has something for every mood in the summer: If you’re hankering for cooler weather, head west to the cedars of the Great Burn along the Montana/Idaho border; if you want an easy paddle or a swim, visit the string of lakes in the Seeley-Swan Valley; if you’re eager to get into the alpine zone, take a jaunt into the Mission, Bitterroot, or Rattlesnake mountains. (Falcon’s Hiking Montana and Paddling Montana guides and Hike.WildMontana.org are good places to start.) Each summer, I challenge myself to explore a few new places off the beaten path, and as I explore more I realize how rich and diverse the wilds of Montana are.

Take It Easy and Look Around

Summer is a lavish time—it bursts with color and movement and energy. Although I love getting out to experience everything this great state has to offer, I also value spending quality time in the places I’ve chosen to visit. I might spend the whole weekend at one campsite or trim down my road trip destinations to focus on a few highlights. By the end of the summer, the places where I spend the most relaxed and present time tend to stick to my memory the tightest, teaching me that sometimes, the wanderer’s best tonic might be to stay put, take a few deep breaths, and really smell the flowers.