A mermaid bar, surfing in the middle of a city, the only on-site evidence of Lewis and Clark’s journey, a thousand Buddhas, a sacred canyon, and a mountain road with only one switchback.
What do all these have in common?
They’re all in Montana.
Now granted, Montana is huge, and you can fit a lot into its 147,040 square miles, but mermaids? Surfing? Montana seems the type of state where you’re more likely to find ranches instead of Buddhas.
You will find those, but you’ll also find a few things that will surprise you in this Big Sky country.
I’ve visited the state several times, and even married a Missoula man. In a state so large, it’s hard to narrow down my favorite adventures. But these are places that stand out because you’ll find them nowhere else.
Unique Things to do in Montana
Garden of 1000 Buddhas
North of Missoula is a place called Garden of 1000 Buddhas. Surprisingly, it’s located near Arlee on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
On most reservations, the land belongs to the sovereign nation. Flathead is different. The land belonged to the tribes after the 1855 Treaty of Hellgate, but in 1904, the U.S. Congress decided that whatever acreage wasn’t specifically allotted to tribal members could be divvied up among homesteaders.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai, the tribal residents of Flathead, were given first choice of 80- and 160-acre plots and the rest was opened up to non-natives.
That’s how a Buddhist monk came to purchase a sixty-acre sheep ranch in the middle of sacred lands.
It could have been fodder for another clash of cultures, but the natives’ new neighbor was a Buddhist, and his goal for his development was to spread world peace.
Gochen Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche, the Tibetan lama who envisioned the garden, made it clear to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes that he knew he was their guest.
Since the beginning, the tribes have participated in the garden’s annual peace festival in addition to other ceremonies.
A row of large charcoal gray monuments topped with spires, called stupas, parallel the gravel road. Gold carvings sit inside cavities in the sculptures.
Smaller white stupas sit on a wall that encircles a large figure perched on a pedestal. The statue is of Yum Chenmo, who represents Transcendent Perfection of Wisdom. She’s depicted as a woman because that wisdom is the mother of all Buddhas.
Eight spokes of white radiate from the center, each spoke topped with 125 Buddhas, fulfilling the garden’s name.
Around the dharma wheel, as it’s called, are quotes etched into boulders. There’s a pond decorated with tall grasses and colorful flowers, and in the distance, prayer flags flap atop a hill..
The Garden of 1000 Buddhas is peace in a valley. Whether you’re Buddhist or not, all are welcome.
Surfing in Missoula
If you think Buddhas in Montana are unusual, what about surfers?
Brennan’s Wave is a man-made wave on the Clark Fork River through downtown Missoula.
It was built in 2006 as an homage to Brennan Guth, a world-class kayaker from Missoula who died paddling in Chile five years earlier.
Don’t be surprised as you stroll by the Riverfront Trail and see kayakers spinning, flipping, and floating back to calmer waters only to do it all over again. Wet-suited surfers jump on their boards and balance as the river churns, holding them in one spot.
If you didn’t arrive in Missoula with your own surfboard, you can rent boards, booties, and wetsuits with Love Boat Paddle Co.
Surfing in Missoula definitely counts as one of the unique things to do in Montana.
Sip ‘N Dip Mermaid Bar
Mermaids? In Montana?
The O’Haire Motor Inn has a bar, and that bar is called the Sip ‘N Dip Lounge, and it’s called the Sip ‘N Dip because you can see into the motel pool while you’re sitting at the bar.
The lounge opened in 1962 during the height of the tiki bar craze, and while most of those bars sank, the Sip ‘N Dip stayed afloat. Why? Who knows? It could have been the appeal of bamboo decor and tropical drinks in a place known for thunderstorms and long, cold winters.
Since the mid-90s, it’s probably because of the mermaids. Up until that time, bar patrons might be treated to the sight of motel guests doing laps or swimming in their floaties.
But then bar manager Sandra Johnson-Thares included a mermaid in one year’s New Year’s Eve festivities; once you’ve had mermaids in Montana, there’s no going back.
It’s kitschy, sure, but it works. I mean, we went to Great Falls, Montana, and I booked a room at the O’Haire Motor Inn just so we could sit at the bar and wave to mermaids.
I always did like dive bars.
(You just groaned, didn’t you?)
The Going-to-the-Sun Road is a National Historic Landmark, and one of the few roads in the country to receive that designation. It’s an engineering marvel which took more than a decade and two million dollars to build the fifty-one mile stretch.
Dedicated on July 15, 1933, during the midst of the Great Depression, the scenic drive blends into the scenery. The original plan had fifteen switchbacks, but Tom Vint proposed a route that would have only one. That route is what we have today, and that one switchback is called the Loop.
If you’re there earlier in the season, you’ll most likely get to drive through a waterfall. The Weeping Wall results from a cliff that was created when they built the road, and there are drains to keep the road relatively safe.
As you drive Going-to-the-Sun Road, it’s easy to see why George Bird Grinnell christened this area the Crown of the Continent. Grinnell, who was the influential editor of Forest & Stream magazine, campaigned to declare the landscape a national park.
It’s also one of the most dangerous. At only 68.7 miles, this scenic route through the Rocky Mountains is another short drive, but it packs a lot into that distance.
Unlike Going-to-the-Sun Road, Beartooth Highway does have switchbacks, and lots of them. You’ll weave in and out of Wyoming, passing breathtaking natural beauty and alpine meadows.
By the time you’ve entered Yellowstone, you’ll have driven to nearly 11,000 feet elevation through one of the most stunning mountain ranges in North America.
Pompeys Pillar stands as a sentinel. At a relatively petite 120 feet above the Yellowstone River, it’s certainly not the tallest point in the state, but its history makes it one of these unique things to do in Montana.
Its distinctive shape made the rock a signpost, and Crow and other native peoples would use the area as a campground when they were on hunting, trading, or less peaceful expeditions. They’d leave their marks on this buff-colored bluff, providing evidence of their visits through etchings, petroglyphs, and pictographs.
In1806, William Clark and his party, which had split from Meriwether Lewis so they could cover more ground on their return from the Pacific Ocean, came upon the pillar. He noted in his journal on July 25 that “nativs have ingraved on the face of this rock the figures of animals…”
The explorer decided to add his name and marked the date as well. Today, it’s the only on-site physical evidence of the entire Lewis and Clark Expedition.
While you can’t literally stand where Clark stood due to erosion, you can see his signature along with thousands of others, etched in the sandstone.
Clark named the tower Pompy’s Pillar for Sacagawea’s son, whom he called Pomp. An editor of Lewis and Clark’s journals later changed the name to Pompeys Pillar.
A convenient thirty minutes from Billings, Pompeys Pillar National Monument is easy to get to. However, it’s only open during the summer months, between May 1 and September 30. Visit blm.gov for more information.
Makoshika State Park
Visit the largest state park, south of Glendive in southeastern Montana, and you’ll see a multi-layered, multi-hued panorama.
Makoshika is a variant of the Lakota’s mako sica, or bad lands. It’s a landscape of erosion, and paleontologists have found dinosaur fossils – Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex, to be exact – in its exposed history. You can see these fossils and other remains in the visitor center.
The main road passes a disc golf course at the entrance and radio towers at the top of a hill. Picnic areas perch on the edges of overlooks. Pine and juniper grow where they can.
In some places, the mesas have layers stacked one upon another, as defined as a picnic pie. Capstone rocks look for all the world like giant enoki mushrooms.
There are hiking trails and a campground with 28 camping sites.
Makoshika State Park, 1301 Snyder Ave, Glendive, MT fwp.mt.gov
Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area
Straddling Montana and Wyoming, Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area encompasses Bighorn Lake. It wasn’t always a lake; in 1966, the construction of Yellowtail Dam turned what had been a stream into a wider, deeper body of water.
You can see the dam itself from the visitor center, but the star of the show is the canyon itself.
People have made Bighorn Canyon their home for over 10,000 years. The Apsaalooke Nation, known also as the Crow, moved in during the early 1700s, and while there were many struggles, they’re still there. If you want to take a boat tour in the canyon, you can rent one from them at Okabeh Marina.
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument provides a sobering look at one of the defining moments in U.S. history.
This memorial is dedicated to the people who fought in one of the last large battles between Native Americans and the U.S. Army.
Until 1991, the Monument focused solely on Army casualties; now it recognizes everyone who fought. It’s an important site to visit to understand the forces that shaped the country.
Little Bighorn is most famously known as Custer’s Last Stand, but the monument tells much more than his story. The Visitor Center features a short video that provides context.
There’s also a museum in the visitor center with exhibits and timelines.
There’s a short half mile, and if you walk it, be aware that this is rattlesnake country.
The 4.5-mile tour road with accompanying audio guide helps you retrace the steps of the battle.
A significant stop on the drive includes the Indian Memorial, erected in 2003 to honor the fallen Lakota and Cheyenne who were trying to preserve their way of life. You can also see a stone marking Custer’s grave, but his remains are actually at West Point. Also on site is Custer National Cemetery.
Montana is much more than ranches and mountains. It’s a complex state that packs a lot into its acreage. Plan a trip and make sure to add a few of these unique things to do in Montana to your itinerary.