National Forests

Photo by Ian Cameron

Montana's National Forests

Nearly 20 million acres of trees, grasses, and pristine wildlife habitat

National Forests are federally owned and managed by the United States Forest Service, part of the United States Department of Agriculture. Unlike designated Wilderness and National Parks, these areas allow for commercial use, including timber harvesting, livestock grazing, water, wildlife, and recreation.

Across the country, National Forests add up to 193 million acres of wildlands, host 170 million visits each year, and sustain nearly 223,000 jobs in gateway communities. In Montana alone, which boasts 10 National Forests comprising 19.39 million acres, 3.4 million acres within National Forests are congressionally designated Wilderness areas. While they are open to industry, these forests support about 61.3 percent of Montana’s annual water supply.

Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest

Location: Near Dillon
Size: 3.32 million acres
Description: Spanning across much of southwest Montana, from the West Big Hole to the Madison Range, Montana's largest national forest encompasses eight mountain ranges and lies in eight southwest Montana counties. With towering mountains, vast backcountry, and broad valleys, the forest contains some of Montana’s wildest and most rugged country, and provides some of the best wildlife habitat in the state. The forest includes a mix of high alpine zones, grass range, old-growth forest and wetlands. The Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness area resides in this forest, as does a portion of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. High, sheer peaks covered in thick forests and painted with broad stream valleys give this forest its has a natural beauty. This forest's Wilderness areas are classic alpine country, with much of the forestland being gentle hills of grass and sage.

Bitterroot National Forest

Location: Near Missoula
Size: 1.6 million acres
Description: The Bitterroot National Forest encompasses 1.6 million acres, from the Idaho panhandle over the rugged Bitterroot Mountains to steep canyons that open to the valley floor. This mountain range is made up of rugged, remote terrain. Gentler than the Bitterroots, the Sapphire Mountains present a combination of grasslands and forested areas. The drier valley floor and lower foothills are an arid mix of grasslands and scrubland. Higher elevations receive more precipitation and are home to dense forests, alpine lakes, and clear, fast streams. The forest includes a large expanse of wilderness, including portions of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness.

Custer National Forest

Location: South of Billings
Size: 1.1 million acres
Description: The Custer National Forest is comprised of widely scattered pockets of mountains and plains from the Rockies to the Black Hills. It is an ecologically diverse area and includes Montana’s highest mountain, Granite Peak, which stands 12,799 feet tall and is located in the western portion of the Forest. This forest also boasts the breathtaking Beartooth Plateau. With its high peaks and alpine lakes, the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness soars above the landscape. To the east, the Pryors are a gentle range of limestone mountains that rise out of a high plain. These mountains include many cultural sites with burial grounds, pictographs and petroglyphs. Even farther east, the forest landscape consists of twisted ravines and rounded, low hills, which are home to many wild animals. The Custer National Forest and Gallatin National Forest make up the Custer Gallatin National Forest (CGNF), for which the U.S. Forest Service is currently revising its forest plan.

Flathead National Forest

Location: Near Kalispell
Size: 2.3 million acres
Description: The Flathead National Forest is Rocky Mountain high country. This forest has alpine meadows, towering peaks, rivers, lakes, wetlands, and an abundance of wildlife. It is built from block fault mountain ranges that were carved by glaciers and are covered with a rich thick forest. Precipitation on the Flathead ranges from 20-60 inches per year, creating widely varying zones of plant life and rich ecosystems for diverse wildlife. The landscapes range from the craggy reaches of bare rock in the Mission Mountains Wilderness to the green meadows on the northern edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Included in the Flathead are the Great Bear Wilderness, the lovely Swan Range and the myriad lakes, streams and rivers cradled in the valleys. There are 219 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers in the National Forest, including the North, Middle and South Forks of the Flathead River.

Gallatin National Forest

Location: Near Bozeman
Size: 1.8 million acres
Description: The Gallatin National Forest is 1.8 million acres of sparkling rivers, majestic mountains, and a wide range of wildlife. This forest is located in southwest Montana and contains six mountain ranges: the Bridger, Madison, Absaroka, Beartooth, Crazy, and Gallatin ranges. Meadowlands mingle with forests below dramatic mountains. More than half the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area is found on the Gallatin, as is more than half of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness area. This forest is home to 10,000-foot summits that rise from subalpine meadows and mix with hanging valleys and lakes. It is home to every species of North American big game animal, except the caribou. The blue ribbon trout streams of the Madison, Gallatin and Yellowstone Rivers are located in this forest. The Custer National Forest and Gallatin National Forest make up the Custer Gallatin National Forest (CGNF), for which the U.S. Forest Service is currently revising its forest plan.

Helena National Forest

Location: Near Helena
Size: 975,407 acres
Description: The Helena National Forest is a dramatic blend of mountains, meadows, and forests with limestone ridges capping the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness. This forest lies on either side of the Continental Divide in west-central Montana and boasts diverse climates and landscapes. The western portion of the forest straddles the Divide, starting at the southern tip of the Bob Marshall Wilderness and ending just east of Deer Lodge. The eastern side includes the lower, drier Big Belt Mountains. The Helena is home to a variety of wildlife and includes the canyon system known as the Gates of Mountains on the Missouri River, the Elkhorns, home to a designated wildlife management unit, and the Scapegoat Wilderness. The Helena National Forest and the Lewis and Clark National forest make up the 2.8 million-acre Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest (HLCNF), which underwent a forest plan revision in 2017. 

Kootenai National Forest

Location: Near Libby
Size: 2.2 million acres
Description: The Kootenai National Forest makes its home in the mountainous terrain of extreme northwestern Montana. Ranges of steep, rugged peaks give impressive views of the spectacular surrounding country with its variety of landscapes. Because the forest is sustained by a modified Pacific maritime climate, it is home to a profusion of trees. Fifteen species of conifers alone can be found here, as can a diverse community of wildlife. The Kootenai and Clark Fork rivers flow through this forest, which also contains more than 100 lakes. The landscape includes the Whitefish Range, Purcell Mountains, Bitterroot Range, Salish Mountains, Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, the beautiful Ten Lakes area, and the Ross Creek Cedar Grove, home to a grove of western red cedars, some of which are more than 8 feet in diameter and more than 400 years old.

Lewis and Clark National Forest

Location: Near Great Falls
Size: 1.8 million acres
Description: The Lewis and Clark National Forest of north-central Montana lies within the upper Missouri River system. The Jefferson Division, or eastern side of the forest, includes the Big and Little Snowy Mountains, as well as the Castle, Crazy, Little Belt, and Highwood ranges, which are smooth, rounded mountains surrounding semiarid windswept, grassy valleys. The Rocky Mountain Division lies to the west with its glacier-scoured headlands, hanging valleys, and rocky cirque basins. This region includes the Scapegoat Wilderness, the Great Bear Wilderness, and the renowned Bob Marshall Wilderness. The area is wild and diverse, with a variety of climate, elevation, wildlife, and landscapes. The Helena National Forest and the Lewis and Clark National forest make up the 2.8 million-acre Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest (HLCNF), whic underwent a forest plan revision in 2017. 

Lolo National Forest

Location: Near Missoula
Size: 2.0 million acres
Description: The Lolo National Forest lies between the Continental Divide and the Bitterroot Mountains. This national forest and the Rattlesnake Wilderness within it are just minutes from downtown Missoula. The Lolo is a high-diversity forest, ranging from wet bottoms to high alpine peaks and consisting of patchwork quilts of vegetation and a wide range of wildlife species. Water is plentiful and Rock Creek is considered one of the best trout steams in western Montana. This national forest provides access to four Wilderness areas: the Rattlesnake and Welcome Creek close to Missoula, as well as portions of the Scapegoat Wilderness and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.