GREAT AMERICAN VACATION
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Space, one of Montana's most abundant natural resources, can make traveling between major communities and attractions tedious. The drive from Great Falls to Billings, for instance, takes four hours. It's tempting to rush the drive to get from point A to point B, but that tactic can make you—and your traveling companions—batty with the vehicular version of cabin fever.
Break up long drives with side trips and random stops. Even if the trip could take only four or five hours, give yourself the entire day. Survey your route on a map before you set out and choose two or three possible stops along the way. Between Great Falls and Billings you might pause in the Big Snowy Mountains for a brisk hike. Break up the drive from Great Falls to Havre with lunch in Fort Benton, at the Union Grille in the Grand Union Hotel. Don't hesitate to stop in the random small town. You may not find much more than a gas station and a diner, but the locals will almost always offer friendly conversation and a few tall tales.
There is plenty to do in the two largest cities on the Montana plains. Lake Elmo State Park, ZooMontana, and Pictograph Cave State Monument are good stops in Billings, and the C.M. Russell Museum, Giant Springs State Park, and the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center are must-sees in Great Falls. Both cities make good base camps for further exploration: most of the region's attractions are day trips from these communities.
If you have the time, explore some of the state's smaller towns. These mini-municipalities have few obvious visitor attractions. You just have to do a little creative thinking in these remote villages. It may look a little primitive next to its big-city counterparts, but don't hesitate to pay a visit to the local museum. Remember outdoor recreation opportunities, too: for example, Miles City may look a little dull at first glance, but it's the perfect base from which to float down the Yellowstone River to Pirogue Island State Park or kick around on the rocky shorelines for agates and arrowheads.
Indeed, the great outdoors are probably why you're in Montana to begin with. If you are unaccustomed to so much space, the state's endless plains and wide-open skies may become wearisome after a while, but they can be every bit as beautiful as the mountain peaks that tower in the distance. Appreciate the empty countryside while you can, and stop on the side of the road in this strangely deserted landscape and marvel at the scale of the sky and the horizon. Once you're back home, you'll miss it.