From vast prairies to icy lakes to otherworldly rock gardens frosted with snow, Eastern Montana’s diverse winter landscapes offer a little something for every off-the-beaten-track traveler. Winter recreation under the Big Sky is all about wide-open spaces, quiet snowscapes, and charming, friendly communities to warm you up after your adventure. With plentiful public lands, Eastern Montana has opportunities for ice fishing to stargazing and everything in between. These top destinations for popular winter activities are just the tip of the iceberg.
Go to: Fort Peck Reservoir
Huge (245,000 acres, with more than 1,500 miles of shoreline), deep (220 feet), and remote (in Montana’s little-tracked northeastern corner), Fort Peck Reservoir is a gold mine for ice fishing. With so much territory and so few anglers, your chances of landing some of the lake’s trophy-size lake trout, walleye, or northern pike are great. At the reservoir, which was created when the Fort Peck Dam was built on the Missouri River from 1933 to 1937, anglers can use live bait, set up to six tip-ups, or try jigging for trout under the ice. Local guides can help outfit you with gear and pinpoint the big ones.
Home base: Fort Peck
This little town on the northern shore of the reservoir was born to house the workers who built Fort Peck Dam, and it endures as a friendly adventure base. Make sure to check out the Fort Peck Interpretive Center to see dinosaur fossils, native wildlife exhibits, and historic materials from the dam-building era. For dinner, enjoy specials like prime rib and steamed mussels with a lake view at The Gateway Club.
Snowshoeing & Hiking
Go to: Makoshika State Park
Montana’s largest state park gets even more beautiful when the snow falls. Named for a variant spelling of the Lakota word for “bad land” or “bad earth,” Makoshika protects a unique landscape of dry, rocky badlands, arches, and stone hoodoos. Pull on traction devices (spikes are likely all you’ll need unless there’s a ton of snow on the ground) and hike one of the park’s signature trails, like Cap Rock Trail: This half-mile-long loop leads past some of the park’s most fascinating geology. Makoshika’s badlands are part of the Hell Creek Formation, one of the richest dinosaur fossil areas in the world, and the visitor center features fossils and dino exhibits.
Home base: Glendive
Sandwiched between Makoshika State Park and the Yellowstone River, Glendive is an ideal recreation hub. Toast your wintry hike with a heady Trans-Siberian Stout at Cross Country Brewing. If cocktails and wine are more to your taste, head to Bloom and Vine for margaritas, martinis, and a variety of wines by the glass.
Go to: Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge
Not surprisingly, the vast prairies, forests, and Upper Missouri River Breaks of northeastern Montana are home to spectacular wildlife. One area in particular—the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge—anchors a huge tract of public land where you can scope for animals like elk, pronghorn, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and if you’re lucky, mountain lions. More than 250 bird species migrate through or make their homes here, including bald eagles and sage grouse, plus bison restoration on adjacent lands. It’ll likely be just you and the wildlife when you visit in winter—just be sure to bundle up, as temps can dip to -20°F or colder.
Home bases: Glasgow and Lewistown
These two reserves span a considerable distance. If you’re checking out the eastern side of it, the small town of Glasgow is your best bet. Tip: The thin-crust pies at Eugene’s Pizza are a local favorite. If you’re exploring the western end of the reserves, base yourself in Lewistown. The historic Calvert Hotel right downtown is an excellent place to retire after a pint at Big Spring Brewing.
Go to: Medicine Rocks State Park
Far from the lights of any town, this park’s stunning night skies have earned it a place on the state’s Trail to the Stars network and an international designation as a Dark Sky Sanctuary (Montana’s only one). By day, hike or snowshoe among the park’s distinctive rock pillars, eroded into Swiss cheese-like patterns. But the real show starts when the sun goes down. Ready to experience winter camping? The park’s free campground is open year-round.
Home base: Miles City
This small town is a proud stop on the Southeast Montana Burger Trail, where the enormous stuffed burger at Tubb’s Pub earns “favorite burger” honors. Miles City is also known for art, from paintings and sculptures at the Waterworks Art Museum to fine leatherworking at Miles City Saddlery.