When you visit Bozeman, there’s so much to do around town that it makes it hard to prioritize day trips that take you outside city limits. But travelers who take the time to explore a little further afield have the wide-ranging spaces of Central and Southwest Montana to discover. And some of the gems of this area are Montana’s many state parks. From a base in Bozeman, be sure to check out these seven parks within a few hours of town.
When you travel east to Billings, Pictograph Cave is an important cultural site to explore. There are actually three caves here: Pictograph, Middle, and Ghost. The three caves span generations of prehistoric use, with art as old as 2,000 years. As many as 30,000 artifacts have been found at the site, and the visitor center welcomes travelers with interpretive displays and lots to learn.
Cooney State Park, 40 minutes south of Billings, is a popular spot for boating, especially with rainbow trout and walleye fishing. Its reservoir has three boat ramps for launch, so bring your outboard or paddleboard and set out for a lake day.
If you’re lucky enough to pull Smith River float permits in their competitive annual lottery, you probably don’t need us to sell you on the hype that is the Smith. But if you aren’t one of the lucky ones, you can still visit the park at the Camp Baker put-in and get excited about the possibility of future trips along this 59-mile remote stretch of river.
You can find the headwaters of the Missouri River in Three Forks, just 30 minutes from Bozeman. The water you see floating past here will make it all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. At Missouri Headwaters State Park, scenic trails take you up onto a bluff for views over the Gallatin Valley, or others lead you close to the water's edge.
This simple park might not have many facilities or a fancy visitor center. But the covered interpretive plaza at Madison Buffalo Jump gives you insight into the history of the place, where hunters would run bison off the cliff edge in the hunt. Follow in their footsteps while you hike up to the top of the bluff. Spring wildflower season gives you a feel for what Montana’s native grasslands have been like for generations.
This tiny ghost town on the way to Helena deserves a pit stop. This is Elkhorn: Montana’s smallest state park. But if that distinction isn’t a draw, you still might find the two historic structures from the town’s silver boom days interesting. Frontier architecture stands strong. Within the privately owned town, Fraternity Hall and Gillian Hall make up the state park.
Let your steps take you underground at Lewis & Clark Caverns, Montana’s first state park. Visit the caverns by guided tour, and experience the unusual spaces decked out in natural rock formations that twist and turn, piling high in the darkness. It’s not all about the cave here, though. The rest of the park (3,000 acres in total) holds ten miles of hiking and mountain biking trails winding through the desert and riparian ecosystems. See blooming cactus in June or spot bats dipping and weaving on a summer evening.
Bozeman had the benefit of being close to it all. When you’re ready to plan your trip to Big Sky Country, book your stay with Starry Night Lodging.