Eighteen hours and 32 minutes. According to Google Maps, that’s how long it would take to drive from Montana to Washington. Specifically, Bozeman, Montana to Bellingham, Washington with all of my planned stops.
And why did I want to do this to myself? Why in the world would I willingly drive almost twenty hours—for fun? There are two reasons:
- One: My friend had just moved to Bellingham but couldn’t fit everything in his car, so I volunteered as tribute. And no, I wasn’t about to participate in The Hunger Games, fortunately—I just offered to drive the rest of his furniture to him.
- Two (the actual reason): The Northwestern portion of Montana was calling my name, I’d never been to Idaho, and I’d always wanted to explore more of Washington. I kept saying I’d go to Washington last summer and never did—but now I had a legitimate excuse!
One of my other friends kindly offered to come with me so I didn’t have to make the trek alone. She flew out from California to meet me in Bozeman. Because she’d never been, I played tour guide for the first few days before embarking on our journey. I dragged her along on some of my favorite Bozeman activities:
- Hiked to the giant “M.” Bozeman is the home of Montana State University, and there’s some serious pride here—what better way to display it than spray paint a bunch of rocks into an “M” shape at the top of a mountain?
- Ate at the cowboy-themed Western Cafe, and I ordered Eggs Benedict as always
- Grabbed beers at MAP Brewing Company, because it overlooks a scenic lake it’s one of my favorite places to take visitors
- Soaked in Bozeman Hot Springs, although I’d recommend Yellowstone Hot Springs or Chico Hot Springs instead if you have time for the one hour drive
- Drove through Paradise Valley to look for bison and grizzlies in Yellowstone National Park
Pro Safety Tip: Yes, we have grizzly bears in Montana! Learn to identify them and bring bear spray. I would never hike or camp in grizzly territory without it. This video has a lot of great info about how to ID bears and use bear spray. If you’ll be here for a while, it’s worth getting a holster for easy access too.
After showing her as much of Bozeman as I could squeeze into four days, we played Tetris in my car (meaning, we shoved everything we could into the trunk). Our plan was to leave early the next morning and let the Montana to Washington adventures begin!
Day 1: Bozeman to Anaconda to Philipsburg to Missoula to Flathead Lake
Driving Time: About five hours and thirty minutes
Remember how I said ‘early’? Well…Our 8AM planned start time turned into 12PM. Whoops. But is it even a road trip if you don’t a) forget something important and b) plan to leave several hours earlier than you actually do?
On our way out, we stopped to grab groceries at the local co-op (Pro Tip: Grab a lavender Honey Mama bar—they’re all natural chocolate bars and are my fave), and made a last minute excursion to REI (a new cooler was in order). Then finally we hit the road.
First, we slithered through Anaconda, a small town with a snaking creek that winds through the middle. Our first stop? Georgetown Lake, a tree-lined shimmering blue body of water. Since it’s about two hours from Bozeman, it’s a great place to stretch your legs…And maybe even eat your Honey Mama bar. Then you can continue through Philipsburg.
- Grab a beer at Big Sky Brewing Company, home of the famous “Moose Drool”—a brown ale with the perfect Montana name.
- Walk along the Riverfront Walking Trail overlooking the Clark Fork River. Make sure you stop at Brennan’s Wave to watch people tackle the man-made wave!
- If you’re looking for adventure, you can float the river, rent a mountain bike and check out the nearby trails, or try your hand at fly fishing!
After checking out Missoula, you can continue on your way through several small towns. St. Ignatius in particular stands out in my mind—the view of the Flathead Mountains rising up behind it is one that’s seared in my memory. In a good way.
We stopped in Ronan at a small gift shop on the side of the road for, what else, Huckleberry products! Huckleberries are extremely popular in Montana, and while I’d never heard of them before moving here, I sure have now—you’ll find Huckleberry everything here. I can personally recommend the Huckleberry Honey. I brought it to my family gathering in Colorado and it was gone within a few days!
And let me tell you, Flathead Lake is GORGEOUS. My friend and I kept turning to look at each other with saucer eyes, mouths gaping, as we rounded yet another corner that we didn’t think could get any better than the last. But it did! If we’d had time, I would’ve loved to stay there for a couple of extra days to drive around the lake. And yes, you can swim in it! I’m definitely considering making another trip out there this summer to enjoy lounging on the shore.
We drove into Outback Montana RV Park to find our campsite, spirits high. And because it was a weeknight in late May, we were the only ones camping. We settled in, made shakshuka for dinner, and enjoyed the peace and quiet under the tall pines. That night, rain lightly pattered onto our rain fly (it’s Northwestern Montana after all—winter can last until June), but the sound was more comforting than anything. Camping in rainy, chilly weather isn’t awful if you’re prepared. For me, this means bringing my 0 degree sleeping bag with me everywhere. This ensures that I always stay warm and cozy, no matter how cold it is. Well, as long as it stays above 0°F (-18°C) that is…
Day 2: Woods Bay to Whitefish to Libby to Bonners Ferry to Coeur d’Alene to Praeder Ranch Resort
Driving Time: About five hours and thirty minutes
I really wanted to check out Whitefish on our drive from Montana to Washington because I’d heard great things about this ski town with a beautiful lake. Here’s what you can do in Whitefish:
- Wander around downtown and pop into some shops
- If you’re craving a coffee I can personally recommend Wild Coffee Company
- Glacier National Park is only about 30 minutes from Whitefish
- Hang out at City Beach and go for a swim
The drive from Whitefish to Bonners Ferry is absolutely STUNNING. You’ll be right next to the bright blue-green Kootenay River from Libby to Bonners Ferry, and will pass right by the Thompson Chain of Lakes (a group of 18 different lakes). I’d highly recommend stopping at one of them for a picnic!
Bonners Ferry is a cute little town, and I’d definitely recommend taking a break there to stretch your legs and walk around the downtown area. Coeur d’Alene has a huge lake, and the view is absolutely gorgeous. We stopped at Sanders Beach to relax for a bit after a long day in the car, and the sound of the small “waves” lapping the shore was the perfect way to unwind.
That night, we stayed at Praeder Ranch Resort just south of Coeur d’Alene. Once again, we were the only people camping (I’m noticing a trend here!), and had the campground to ourselves. We even met the owners! They were SO nice and, as a newer RV park, they’ve been working hard to create a fun and community-oriented atmosphere. They host movie nights on the giant projector in their main lobby, the indoor pool is perfect for family swims, and the outdoor dining set up is the perfect place to relax in the quiet evening air. They even have a bocce ball area!
Day 3: Worley to Spokane to Ellensburg to Bighorn Campground
Driving Time: About four hours
After a restful night listening to choruses of chirping frogs, it was time to leave Idaho and make our way to Washington. But first, my friend hopped in the pool and we took a much-needed showers. And nothing is better than a warm shower after a couple nights of camping. (Yes, that’s a scientific fact.)
Eastern Washington’s landscape is very different from Northwestern Montana and Northern Idaho, where we’d been driving the past couple days. The towering mountains, lush grasses, and tall evergreen pines were replaced with rolling hills dotted with pale green shrubs.
We made a quick stop in Spokane, the second-largest city in Washington. There’s plenty to do, including:
- Walk or bike part of the 40-mile long Centennial Trail in RIverside State Park (it ends in Coeur d’Alene—but you don’t have to hike the entire trail, of course)
- Explore Mt. Spokane State Park, one of Washington’s biggest state parks
- View Spokane Falls from Huntington Park or the overlook on Monroe Street Bridge
From there, we made our way to Bighorn Campground in Ellensburg. It’s located right along a river, and while we weren’t the only ones camping this time, the sites were spread apart so that we still have privacy. We thoroughly enjoyed the peaceful sounds of the water running next to our tent—it almost felt like we were actually on the river!
Day 4: Ellensburg to Leavenworth to Bellingham
Driving Time: About four hours
Day four on this route from Montana to Washington is totally optional, depending on your plans. However, we absolutely loved Leavenworth! This ski resort town is a Bavarian-inspired village, and it really feels like you’ve been transported to southern Germany. Their tourism website even lists an “Everything Bavarian” itinerary that suggests activities like drinking German beer and experiencing an “Alp Horn Greeting” every morning. Exciting!
Plus, the scenery along the route from Ellensburg to Snohomish is breathtaking. You’ll drive through mountains filled with staggering pines, rushing rivers, and trickling waterfalls. The fog was thick when we made the trek which only added to the epic-ness. We could definitely tell we were in the PNW!
We stopped in Seattle where I dropped my friend off at the airport so she could fly home. Then I drove 1.5 hours to Bellingham, where I’d spend a week with my other friend.
Bellingham, a city in Northern Washington, is full of exciting things to do. The most notable include:
- Chuckanut Drive, a gorgeous route with forest and ocean views. The Chuckanut Oyster Bar is a popular place to stop, and if you keep going, you’ll reach the charming community of Bow. I highly recommend grabbing tacos at Mariposa Taqueria, and I’ve also heard great things about Tweets, the breakfast joint next door.
- Whatcom Falls State Park, a large area with numerous trails crossing through bright green mossy trees, beautiful rivers and streams, and various waterfalls
- Fairhaven Historic District, a small district of Bellingham with old Victorian houses and stunning views of the waterfront
After seven days of soaking up the Bellingham sun—oops, I mean rain—I shot back to Montana in one day to pick up another friend from the Bozeman airport. I don’t necessarily recommend doing that—I was pretty exhausted after eleven hours in the car! But after spending some time in a bigger city, I must admit I was pretty stoked to come back to Bozeman’s slower pace of life.
If you decide to take this route from Montana to Washington, I promise you won’t regret it! Northwestern Montana, Northern Idaho, and Western Washington were my favorite regions. Mainly because I’m a sucker for pine and fir trees. I can’t help but feel that I’ve only scratched the surface though—I’m already itching to explore those areas further (and see more trees of course)!
Kelsey Frey is a freelance writer and full-time traveler usually found exploring the mountains somewhere in Europe or the USA. She’s always looking for a trail to hike or lake to jump into. If you’re curious about an honest account of life without a permanent address, you can follow her on Instagram @sightsbetterseen or pop over to her travel blog at Sights Better Seen to read more about her (mis)adventures.
Photo credit: Kelsey Frey