By Brian Jewell
Montana’s reputation as Big Sky Country may come from its vast expanses of wide-open space, but the rugged western end of the state owes its staggering beauty almost entirely to the Rocky Mountains.
Snaking from north to south across the western third of the state, the Rockies give Montana its name, along with some of the most enviable scenery in North America. These mountains, along with their peculiar geology and abundant wildlife, form two of the country’s most striking national parks and create abundant opportunities for memorable group travel experiences.
In the areas surrounding Glacier National Park in the north and Yellowstone National Park in the south, you’ll spend entire days outdoors soaking up the distinctive scenery. But the appeal of this region goes far beyond vistas: Groups can learn about pioneer history, visit with Native American tribes and have wildlife encounters during a tour of the Montana Rockies.
In the northwest corner of the state, the area known as Montana’s Glacier Country comprises some 22,000 square miles that include Flathead Lake, two Indian reservations and Glacier National Park.
“The park is the most intact ecosystem in the lower 48 states,” said Tia Troy, public relations and communications manager for the Glacier Country Regional Tourism Commission. “A lot of the park’s terrain was actually caved by glaciers. There were a lot o f high peaks and mountain valleys carved out. There are an estimated 25 glaciers in the park today.”
The most popular activity for groups in the park is to take a tour of Going to the Sun Road, a 50-mile-long road that winds over the continental divide and through some of the park’s most scenic areas. On a clear day, passengers can see Jackson Glacier during the ride, and they’ll always learn about the park’s nature and history from the well-trained guides who drive the specially made buses through the park.
For more immersive experiences, groups can stay overnight at one of several historic lodges in the park or take boat cruises on Lake McDonald, Swiftcurrent Lake or Lake Josephine. And for a more complete understanding of the park, there are numerous ways to learn about the Native American people who live in and around the area.
“Sun Tours gives an overview of the park from the Blackfeet tribe’s perspective,” Troy said. “It’s really interesting to do a [park service] tour and then a Sun tour, because the interpretation is vastly different. There’s also a program called Native America Speaks that’s held at various locations throughout the park. They have different speakers and musical performers that come and give a history of the Native Americans that lived there.”
Outside the park’s borders, the picturesque town of Whitefish makes a favorite stop for tour groups. Visitors can peruse the eclectic downtown shops, enjoy creative cuisine at numerous local restaurants or spend their time hiking at Whitefish Mountain Resort, which offers aerial adventure courses and beautiful views of Glacier National Park in the distance.