In vague order of preference, because in two months we’ll at long last be back on the edge of the Colorado Plateau, living in western Colorado. When we moved to Montana eight years it was for me to attend graduate school, the University of Montana was the best place to offer me admission, and Montana had made that list largely because of all the things M and I did not know about it. I think we’ve used our time wisely.
1: Big Wilderness
Aka the Crown of the Continent ecosystem of Glacier and the Bob Marshall complex, as well as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Selway-Frank Church complex. These are the three largest roadless areas in the lower 48, and are all at least partially in Montana. When summer roads are at their most open a strong hiker can cherry-pick trailheads and walk across any of the three in a day, but at the same time the hardest way through can even in the easiest of seasons take over a week of hard work. In the winter, all three grow several times larger. Outside Alaska or the northern half of Canada, there is in North America no substitute.
2: Few people
Montana recently pushed over a million, which is few only by warped contemporary standards, but that spars-ish population is both historically responsible for the three areas outlined above being undeveloped by the time the conservation movement grew to maturity, and for their continued integrity as large and wild. Yes, Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks form parts of the Crown and GYE, and see 3-5 million visitors annually, but that visitation is concentrated in the summer and close to the road. Even the trailed alpine backcountry of Glacier, for which it’s been increasingly difficult to obtain overnight permits, has big areas which see a few dozen sets of feet each year. Even the front country of those same parks has plenty of little islands, hidden in plain sight, where solitude can easily be found.
But the real significance here, and the real reason Montana remains so well-comported in this desperate age, is its distance from truly big cities. The city closest to Montana is not even in the United States, but in Canada, namely Calgary, which is just less than 300 km from the border, and at least 400 km from most prospective destinations. The closest US cities are Seattle (370 miles) and Salt Lake City (300 miles). Within Montana both Billings and Missoula clear the 100,000 mark when counted honestly (i.e. not sticking to within arbitrary city limits), and in our home of the past six years (the Flathead Valley) a further 100,000 live in four large towns and the 20 by 15 mile rectangle for which Whitefish, Kalispell, Columbia Falls, and Bigfork are the four corners. That’s a third of the states people locked up in a few small places, which means that there are many, many place in Montana which may have plenty of old logging roads blighting their appeal on the map, but also are also visited as infrequently as all but the most remote places within the big name Wilderness-es. Combined, these first two factors give Montana a vastly different feel than Utah, Colorado, or Arizona.
If you live in Montana and don’t hunt, big game, small game, or both, you are missing out on what is without question the most distinguished and outstanding aspect of the whole state and it’s massive pantheon of outdoor opportunity.
Resident hunting licenses are dirt cheap. As a resident you get a general deer tag and general elk tag, every year, which is good for both archery and firearms season, and is valid in 90+% of the hunting districts statewide. Additional doe and cow tags are available over the counter, and the number you hold is more limited by how much you are willing to drive than anything else. Still more deer and elk tags can be had via drawing, and many of those are almost guaranteed so long as you read the regulations and draw odds correctly. Montana has legit hunting opportunities for all other native big game species, save Grizzly Bears and Bison. Grizzly hunting will happen within the next decade, and bison hunting which doesn’t depend on winter migration out of Yellowstone got a foothold this year with a few early September permits for the headwater valleys in the Beartooths. Moose, Mountain Goat, and Bighorn Sheep opportunities are for residents at least as good as any other western state, including the only places in the US where Bighorn permits are guaranteed. For all of the above seasons are long, and generally speaking animals are well-distributed. The diversity of hunts and hunting opportunities is such that imagination and lifespan form more durable caps on opportunity than anything else.
Small game hunting in Montana isn’t as sexy, but also presents unique opportunities. For instance, three species of grouse reside in the mountains just north of our house, testament to the elevation change and diverse vegetation therein. One could, with a three grouse bag limit, fill it with one spruce, one dusky, and one ruffed. I haven’t done that, and likely never fill, but I’ve managed two of three on over half a dozen different occasions. With proper motivation and access to private land, non-native pheasant and turkey could be had in the same weekend.
This goes along with big wild areas which were developed late, insofar as outside the Montana/Idaho Rockies all the big, gentler rivers in the lower 48 already had a road (or railroad) along side when the age of conservation arrived. Whitewater outings like the Grand Canyon, or scrappy little creeks like the Dirty Devil, do not provide the same opportunity as the South Fork of the Flathead or (when the NPS removes head from ass) the Lamar and upper Yellowstone.
Relaxing, meditative travel away from roads and on non-technical terrain is one of life’s rare pleasures.
Another of life’s increasingly rare pleasures is a proper winter, which piles snow fast and deep and gives a human pause to reconsider implicit supremacy, by freezing skin and making it inadvisable to leave the house, even with four-wheel drive. As the world warms this will become and increasingly rare experience, and while increased latitude will protect Montana for a while, the states relative lack of high altitudes (compared to Colorado) will ultimately prove problematic. In other words, while the ski areas may hang on for a bit, nordic skiing will in many places shortly be a thing of the past. So enjoy the non-fatbike days while they last, and embrace the scary driving.
Coming next: The worst things about Montana.