7-Day Southeast Montana Road Trip Itinerary

Southeast Montana is a hidden gem with tons of outdoor adventures. Follow my 7-day road trip itinerary to uncover the best things to see and do!

Road cutting through valley in Montana with tall peaks on either side

Most outdoor lovers know Montana for its two National Parks: Glacier and Yellowstone. But as the 4th largest state in the US, surely there is more to see in Montana than these two popular destinations, right?

I’ve done several road trips through Montana and I can attest that yes, Montana has no shortage of outdoor adventure. I particularly loved exploring Southeast Montana with its vast badlands, great hiking, world-class fly fishing, epic mountain bike trails, and gorgeous drives.

I fell in love with this beautiful area and I’m excited to share my Southeast Montana itinerary with you. Leave Glacier and Yellowstone for another trip and check out this lesser-traveled (but no less awesome! destination.

Southeast Montana Video

Here’s a short video I made of my Southeast Montana itinerary.

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My Southeast Montana Road Trip at a Glance

I spent a lot of time putting together this itinerary to make sure I hit all the best stops and adventures in Southeast Montana. Since I love exploring the outdoors, it focuses on hiking, biking, kayaking, and other outdoorsy pursuits. That being said, you can easily tailor it to your own interests.

If you want to add Yellowstone to your road trip, check out my guide to visiting Yellowstone and Teton National Parks.

Where you will visit

  • Beartooth Highway
  • Red Lodge
  • Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area
  • Little Bighorn Battlefield
  • Makoshika State Park
  • DAY 1: Explore Billings, Montana
  • DAY 2: Red Lodge & Beartooth Highway
  • DAY 3: Red Lodge
  • DAY 4: Bighorn Canyon
  • DAY 5: Bighorn River
  • DAY 6: Makoshika State Park
  • DAY 7: Drive back to Billings

Day 1: Explore Billings, Montana

Day 1 Overview

  • HIGHLIGHTS – Stroll around downtown, rent bikes and explore the trail systems, check out the Billing’s Brewery District
  • CAMPING OPTION – The Yellowstone River RV Park & Campground is close to town, but it’s expensive.
  • LODGING OPTION – We stayed at the conveniently located DoubleTree. It was clean, quiet, and comfortable, and it’s the tallest building in downtown.

If you’re flying into Montana, I recommend booking an early flight so you have time to explore the vibrant little town of Billings. We arrived in the morning, so we had plenty of time to walk around and see the highlights.

Here’s how I spent my day in Billings:

  • Coffee & a bite to eat: Unfortunately, the farm-to-table restaurant and attached coffee shop we fueled up at is no longer in business, but there are a number of cute cafes and great restaurants in Billings to grab a bite to eat before you start your day.
  • Biking: Next, we headed over to The Spoke Shop and rented bikes for the afternoon. Billings is a very bike-friendly city. Here are a few options for exploring on two wheels:
  • Heritage Trail System: Billings has an awesome network of bike paths called the Heritage Trail System that offers widespread views of the city and diverse riding.
  • Zimmerman Park: If you prefer dirt, head to Zimmerman Park, which is where we went. There were a few tricky spots I had to walk, but overall, the trail along the rim was friendly to beginners, like myself.
  • Swords Rimrock Park: If you prefer paved trails, Swords Rimrock Park will be your better bet, offering similar views to Zimmerman along with a few historical and sacred Native American sites.
Two mountain bikers at Zimmerman Park in Montana stopped on rock overlook to enjoy the views
We rode at Zimmerman Park, which has a great beginner-friendly mountain bike trail network
  • Billing’s Walkable Brewery District: In the evening, we took a stroll around Billing’s brewery district. This part of downtown has 6 breweries, 2 distilleries, and a cider house – all within a few blocks of each other! Download the self-guided brewery tour map here.
  • Dinner: We hit up Last Chance Pub & Cider Mill for dinner. They had over 8 ciders on draft (all made in-house) ranging from very dry to super sweet. The “Flathead Cherry “and the “Full Montana” were my favorites.
Flight of ciders on a wire table
The ciders at Last Chance Pub & Cider Mill were crisp and delicious

Day 2: Red Lodge & Beartooth Highway

Day 2 Overview

  • DRIVING DISTANCE – 63 miles
  • DRIVE TIME – 1 hours 30 min
  • CAMPING OPTION – Red Lodge has several Forest Service campgrounds south of town.
  • LODGING OPTIONTwo Bears Inn Bed and Breakfast. Or, if you’re into live music, stay at The Pollard in the heart of town, which has local bands playing more often than not.

On our second day in Eastern Montana, we woke up early and grabbed some homemade comfort grub at the Sassy Biscuit. They offer a variety of breakfast dishes from a refined spin on biscuits and gravy to a southern-style shrimp and grits. The food here is comforting and filling!

The Sassy Biscuit restaurant in Billings, Montana
Grab a tasty and filling breakfast at the Sassy Biscuit before starting your day

After fueling up, we hit the road for the hour-and-a-half drive to Red Lodge, a small town at the foot of the Beartooth Mountains, one of Montana’s highest peaks. This town is known for its friendly laid-back locals, beautiful scenery, and endless opportunities for outdoor recreation.

On our first day in Red Lodge, we grabbed some lunch to-go from Honey’s Cafe then headed up the Beartooth Highway which first opened in 1936. It’s quite literally one of the prettiest roads I’ve ever been on! The highway snakes its way up the side of massive cliffs and offers grand views the entire way until we topped out at nearly 11,000 feet. Once we hit the top of the pass, the road drops down into Wyoming, eventually leading straight into Yellowstone National Park.

Beartooth Highway winding through valley in Montana
The Beartooth Highway is one of the prettiest drives I’ve ever driven!

Tips for driving Beartooth Highway:

  • Beartooth Highway generally opens on Memorial Day weekend in May. However, because of a large snowfall the previous winter, the road was closed for another week when we visited. We parked at the top of the pass and walked around for a bit before heading back to Red Lodge.
  • If you’re lucky enough to visit when the entire highway is open, keep driving! The road on the other side of the pass is dotted with alpine lakes and a ton of hiking trails. You could easily spend an entire day gawking at the views and exploring the area.
  • For you skiers, the Beartooth Highway is also home to the only summer-only ski area in the country – Beartooth Basin.

Day 3: Spend another day exploring Red Lodge

We decided to stay another full day in Red Lodge because there is so much to do here. For hiking, there are dozens of great trails within a 20-minute drive of the town. You can find top-rated trails on my favorite hiking apps or better yet, stop by the Sylvan Peak Mountain Shoppe. They have tons of books and maps of the area, as well as bear spray, which you should carry if you plan on doing any hiking or camping in Southeast Montana.

Store sign for Sylvan Peak Mountain Shoppe in Red Lodge, Montana
Stop at the Sylvan Peak Mountain Shoppe for tips on hiking trails in the area

If you’re looking for more great shops in town, here are a few more that I enjoyed browsing:

  • Lewis and Barks Outpost, a great pet store
  • Kinzley Photography to see beautiful landscape photographs from around Montana
  • Grizzly Peak Outdoors for any outdoor gear you need
  • Beartooth Books

For dining in Red Lodge, if you want a taco fix, hit up Mas Taco. For fine dining and seasonal fare, Ox Pasture serves incredible Italian food.

Day 4: Float in Bighorn Canyon

Day 4 Overview

  • DRIVING DISTANCE – 125 miles
  • DRIVE TIME – 2 hours 30 min
  • CAMPING & LODGING OPTIONCottonwood Camp, a fly fishing lodge in nearby Fort Smith, has both cabins and reasonably priced campsites available. We stayed in the Drake Cabin.

Important tip! There are very limited services in Fort Smith. The closest restaurant is at the Garrison Stoker Resort about 12 miles north of Fort Smith. There is a market in town, but when we went, the shelves were completely empty. You also can’t buy alcohol anywhere in Fort Smith because it’s on the Crow Indian Reservation. I suggest stopping in Pryor on the way in to stock up on groceries and provisions and cook your own meals during your stay at Cottonwood Camp.

On day 4 of our Southeast Montana itinerary, we rose early again and made the 2.5-hour drive to the northern end of Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. Spanning 71 miles across the Montana-Wyoming border, Bighorn Canyon was flooded in 1966 after the construction of the Yellowtail Dam in Fort Smith, Montana.

Bighorn Canyon is a special place. A third of the canyon lies on the Crow Indian Reservation and it’s also home to tons of wildlife including peregrine falcons, wild horses, bighorn sheep, and black bears.

For our day at Bighorn Canyon, we wanted to get out on the water. We drove to the Ok-a-beh Marina, where there are pontoon boat rentals and even free guided kayak tours through the National Park Service.

We opted for a pontoon boat rental for the afternoon since we were limited on time, but we also threw a kayak on the back in case we wanted to explore any of the narrow side canyons.

Dog laying on blanket at the back of a pontoon boat on a river below tall canyon walls
Charlie, our dog, seemed to enjoy boating in Bighorn Canyon!

We found the canyon to be incredibly beautiful – sheer, colorful rock cliffs soaring thousands of feet above the lake covered in lush vegetation. The water was still quite cold in late May, but we were told later in summer it’s perfect for swimming.

We went 20 miles down the lake before turning around to return the boat by the 6 pm deadline and we only encountered a few other boats all afternoon. It was one of our favorite days of our trip!

Make it an overnight adventure: If you’re feeling adventurous, Bighorn Canyon has an extensive water trail system for overnight kayakers. You probably will want to bring your own kayak or rent some solid ones from Billings since the kayaks they have available in the marina aren’t gear haulers. If we come back again, we would love to do an overnight trip in the canyon at one of the boat-in campgrounds.

Sun shining behind tall canyon wall rising above a river
We spent several hours on the river exploring Bighorn Canyon – it was one of our favorite days of the trip!

If you don’t want to rent a boat or a kayak, you can drive several hours to the more dramatic viewpoints at the southern end of the lake. There are also some hiking trails here, but since we didn’t visit, I can’t offer any specifics.

Day 5: Go Fly Fishing on the Bighorn River

If you’ve ever wanted to try fly fishing, the Bighorn River offers one of the largest concentrations of wild brown and rainbow trout in the entire West. Cottonwood Camp offers fully outfitted and guided fishing trips right out their back door.

We were lucky to go out with Phil, the owner of the Cottonwood Camp, for an exciting day on the water. Ryan and I both have very limited fly-fishing experience, so we got a quick crash course at the Camp before driving 5 minutes to our launch point. Where you go and how you fish depends on the conditions. Our day was split between fishing from a drift boat and standing along the shoreline.

Man standing in a river fly fishing
Try your hand at fly-fishing with a guided tour from Cottonwood Camp

Throughout the day, we learned about the equipment, how to cast, mending the line, and how to land a big one. Ryan ended up catching 5 fish! I wasn’t quite as lucky, but the introduction to the sport left me curious for more.

If you are serious about learning how to fly fish, spending a few days with a guide at the Cottonwood Camp would be a great way to do it.

Many holding a spotted brown trout he just caught
We spent the day learning how to fly fish and even caught a few trout!

Day 6: Little Bighorn Battlefield & Makoshika State Park

Day 6 Overview

  • DRIVING DISTANCE – 237 miles
  • DRIVE TIME – 4 hours
  • CAMPING OPTION – Makoshika State Park campground
  • LODGING OPTION – Site #15 has a tipi. You’ll still need a sleeping bag and pad, but no tent. Site #21 has a large yurt that can sleep 6.

We had a bit of a drive today – about 4 hours northeast to Makoshika State Park. Early on in the drive, we passed right by Little Bighorn Battlefield where the most significant battle took place during the Great Sioux War of 1876, also known as Custer’s Last Stand. Unfortunately, we were on a tight schedule and didn’t have time to visit on this trip, but you’ll essentially drive right past it and I assume it would be a very worthwhile stop.

We arrived in Glendive, the home of Makoshika State Park, in the early afternoon. Our first stop was to grab some lunch at Bloom Coffeehouse & Eatery, an awesome cafe that doubles as a greenhouse and nursery. All the food is extremely fresh. Even my oatmeal was delicious!

Bloom Coffeehouse & Eatery set in a geenhouse in Glendale, Montana
Be sure to stop at Bloom Coffeehouse & Eatery in Glendale – the food and atmosphere are great

Makoshika State Park is Montana’s largest state park with a ton to see and do. There are badlands covered in pine and juniper forests, dinosaur fossils, isolated camping, and abundant hiking trails. Most of the trails right off the main road are short – less than a mile in length.

A few hiking trails that I recommend are:

  • The Diane Gabriel Trail. This 1-mile trail takes you to the top of a bluff. There’s only 127 of elevation gain, so you get nice views for not much work.
  • Cap Rock Trail is only 0.5 miles, but it offers views of a natural bridge that you can walk on.
  • The 0.9-mile Kinney Coulee Trail takes you down into a maze of interesting and unique geological formations.
  • Gunners Ridge (1.8 miles) and Hungry Joe Trail (4.6 miles) are longer trails that lead out to scenic overlooks.

We got unusually rainy weather on our visit, but we heard that sunsets and sunrises in the park are absolutely epic with the badlands lighting up in all kinds of colors. Try to catch at least one!

Hikers on remote trail surrounded by multi-colored badlands at Makoshika State Park in Montana
Makoshika State Park has a ton of great hiking trails through unique and interesting terrain

Tips for visiting Makoshika State Park:

  • If it’s been raining, the trails are extremely slick. They call it “gumbo.” It doesn’t matter how good your shoes are or how good of a hiker you are, you will slip around and it can be very dangerous, especially on steeper slopes. Stop in the Visitors Center and get some advice from them on where to go if it’s been raining.
  • If you find fossils when you are hiking, don’t touch or move them. Take a picture, mark the GPS coordinates on your phone if you can, and then go to the Visitors Center (or call them) and let them know you found something. Leaving the fossils exactly where you found them allows the scientists to come in and do their job to determine the species and era of origin.

Day 7: Finish Exploring Makoshika & Drive Back to Billings

Day 7 Overview

  • DRIVING DISTANCE – 225 miles
  • DRIVE TIME – 3.5 hours

I’ll start by saying I wish we’d had more time in Makoshika. If you have the time, continue crossing off some of the trails in the park. The Visitors Center is also worth a look, as they have a replica of a large Triceratops skull that was once found in the park along with a bunch of smaller fossils on display that you can touch.

Hands holding two ancient fossils
Stop by the Visitor Center to check out (and hold!) ancient fossils

Once you are done in Makoshika, hit the road back to Billings, Montana to catch an evening flight home to end your southeast Montana itinerary. It’s a 225-mile drive and should take about 3-3.5 hours.

Frequently asked questions

What’s the best airport to fly into?

The Billings Logan International Airport is the closest airport to fly into for this southeast Montana itinerary. There are numerous major airlines that serve this airport including Alaska Air, American, Delta, and United. You can also rent a car at one of the on-site car rentals located at the airport.

When is the best time of year to visit Southeast Montana?

I did this Southeast Montana itinerary in late May / early June. Temperatures averaged 75-90 degrees during the day with nights dipping down into the 50’s. These are average temperatures for most of June, July, August & September. 

October-May temperatures are significantly colder. It can also snow, rain, and sleet any time of year so you should be prepared for all types of weather.

Note: the Beartooth Highway is only open seasonally. On my late May trip, the road was open to the top of Beartooth Pass, but not down the other side.

How much time do I need for a Southeast Montana road trip?

I took a week for my road trip and while I fit in everything I wanted to do, I wish I’d had more time at Makoshika State Park. If I did this trip again, I’d skip the extra day in Red Lodge and spend another day at Makoshika.

If you don’t have a week, I suggest skipping the extra day in Red Lodge and choosing either fly-fishing or floating Bighorn Canyon.

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What are your favorite places to explore in Southeast Montana? Would you do this itinerary? Leave a comment below! 

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5 Comments

  1. Loved this .. and thank you for sharing. I grew up in Gkendive, and Makoshika was our backyard! Brought a smile to my heart.. and am hoping many others enjoy!!

  2. They don’t call Montana “Big Sky Country” for nothing. The state is one of America’s last frontiers, bursting with breathtaking scenery, an abundance of wildlife and unobstructed views of pure blue sky as far as the eye can see.

    Dubai Dune Buggy

  3. Hello, Loved reading this and the stops suggestions. Is there anyway to get this printed form?? Wife and I are coming in August (from Minnesota) and would love to mimic this trip.

    Thanks, Dave

    1. Hi Olga, Billings Montana is the closest airport & where we recommend you fly into. Enjoy your trip!