Picture of a man looking out the window of the Gird Point Lookout cabin on top of a mountain peak in the Bitterroot National Forest near Hamilton, Montana

M. Sanjayan relaxes inside the Gird Point Lookout on top of a mountain peak in the Bitterroot National Forest near Hamilton, Montana.

Photograph by Ami Vitale

By Maryellen Kennedy Duckett

Rent a Rustic Cabin, National Forests

If you're into roughing it in the backwoods but want more than a tent over your head, a rustic cabin rented from Recreation.gov is just the answer. In Montana, there are just over a hundred rentable cabins and forest service lookouts built by agencies such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Forest Service. “When you step across the threshold of the door, you are stepping into a space that has been used for decades by firefighters, trail crew members, and rangers patrolling the forest,” says Dave Cunningham, public affairs officer for the Lewis and Clark National Forest. “You can imagine the whinnying of horses in the corrals outside as you slip back in time.” Cabin amenities vary. Most have some form of heat, plus cooking facilities and beds. A few have electricity and indoor plumbing. In the Lewis and Clark National Forest, one rental is the Judith Guard Station, which is more than a hundred years old and a national historic site. The first district ranger in the area built the station using materials from a mail-order house kit and local logs and stone.

Blacktail Ranch, Wolf Creek

Picture of Sandra Renner and John Frank standing outside their museum at the Blacktail Ranch in Wolf Creek, Montana
Photograph by Ami Vitale


The Blacktail Ranch is an 8,000-acre guest ranch located in the midst of Montana’s Rocky Mountains at the foot of the Continental Divide. First homesteaded by Gustav Rittel in the late 1880s, the property was a working cattle and sheep ranch for almost a hundred years. As more and more visitors came to stay, the Blacktail transitioned into a full-time guest ranch. The main lodge has seven family-style bedrooms that sleep one to four people. The property also includes four one-room cabins, plus the larger Raymer and River cabins. In the latter, you can fall asleep to the sound of the South Fork of the Dearborn River flowing by. “The Blacktail has a great deal of diversity to offer—an archaeological field school, fly fishing clinics, yoga retreats, unlimited horseback riding, family activities, and a healthy population of all kinds of wildlife, including great birding, and eight miles of mountain trout stream,” says ranch co-owner Sandra Renner. The highlight of the property is the large limestone cavern where University of Montana archaeologists discovered the well-preserved remains of 28 different Ice Age animals, such as large prehistoric bison, camels, elephants, and horses.

Family Camping at Lake Mary Ronan State Park

Picture of Lake Mary Ronan and Flathead Lake near Elmo, Montana
Photograph by Danita Delimont, Alamy


For families who want to give camping a try for the first time, Lake Mary Ronan State Park is an ideal place to start. The quiet, 120-acre park is a favorite with locals and offers parents and kids a manageable microcosm of wild Montana: a clear, cool lake; easy, wooded hiking trails; 25 shaded campsites (most with electric hookups); and possible black bear sightings. “The park is just enough off the beaten path that you feel like you are out in the wilderness, yet you’re really not too far away from anything,” says park manager Amy Grout. Neighboring Flathead Lake is the area’s big tourist draw in summer, so even when Flathead campgrounds are booked solid, sites are usually available—particularly midweek—at Lake Mary Ronan. The lake is known for fishing, especially for kokanee salmon, yellow perch, and smallmouth bass. A family-friendly bonus: It’s possible to cast a line and catch fish from the boat dock or shoreline. Adds Grout, “This is a great site for family camping. You are in nature, but you’re not roughing it.”

Recharge at Good Medicine Lodge, Whitefish

Picture of guests relaxing next to a fire at the Good Medicine Lodge in Whitefish, Montana
Photograph by Ami Vitale


Each Montana summer day is a new opportunity to get outside and get moving on a hiking or biking trail, on horseback or ATV, or in a boat, canoe, or kayak. Locals can pace themselves (they live here all the time), but visitors often make the mistake of creating a nonstop itinerary. A savvier strategy might be to save the last couple of vacation days for a dose of the “good medicine” administered at Betsy and Woody Cox’s aptly named Good Medicine Lodge in Whitefish. “Our care for our guests extends beyond meeting physical needs to providing the essence of 'good medicine,’” says Betsy, who along with her husband purchased the cedar-log bed-and-breakfast in 2002. "Our name and logo are borrowed from Native American beliefs and practices. The term ‘good medicine’ refers to whatever brings harmony to life.” The Cox’s philosophy makes upscale Good Medicine Lodge a good place for visitors (children ages 12 and up are welcome) to recharge before heading home. In addition to the soothing natural surroundings—extensive gardens, outdoor hot tub, mountain views from most rooms—guests also can access coin-operated laundry facilities, a particularly appreciated amenity at vacation’s end.


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