National Forests

Photo by Ian Cameron

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.

Montana has 10 National Forests comprising 19.39 million acres across the state. While they are open to industry, the National Forests also contain most of the designated Wilderness Areas and Wilderness Study Areas.

Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest

Location: Near Dillon
Size: 3.32 million acres
Description: Beaverhead-Deerlodge is the largest of Montana’s national forests, embracing eight separate mountain ranges with miles of streams and lakes. 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 well as a portion of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. The Beaverhead has a natural beauty with high, sheer peaks covered in thick forests dropping to broad stream valleys. The wilderness areas are classic alpine country in a forest where much of the land is gentle hills of grass and sage.

Bitterroot National Forest

Location: Near Missoula
Size: 1.6 million acres
Description: 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 has extremely rugged, remote terrain. The Sapphire Mountains are gentler than the Bitterroot with a combination of grasslands and forested areas. The drier valley floor and lower foothills are an arid land 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: 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 located in southcentral and southeast Montana. Montana’s highest mountain, Granite Peak at 12,799 feet, is located in the western portion of the Forest as well as the breathtaking Beartooth Plateau. The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness with its high peaks and alpine lakes soar above the landscape. Moving east, the Pryors are a gentle range of limestone mountains rising out of a high plain. The Pryors include many cultural sites with burial grounds, pictographs and petroglyphs. Moving further east the forest landscape consists of twisted ravines and rounded low hills which are home to many wild animals.

Flathead National Forest

Location: Near Kalispell
Size: 2.3 million acres
Description: Flathead National Forest is Rocky Mountain high country including alpine meadows, towering peaks, rivers, lakes, wetlands and an abundance of wildlife. It is built from block fault mountain ranges carved by glaciers and covered with a rich thick forest. Precipitation on the Flathead ranges from twenty inches to sixty inches annually 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 River 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: Gallatin National Forest at 1.8 million acres includes many 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 lie interspersed with forests below dramatic mountains. More than half the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area is found on the Gallatin as well as more than half the Lee Metcalf Wilderness area. This forest is home to 10,000-foot summits rising from subalpine meadows interspersed with hanging valleys and lakes. It is home to all species of North American big game animals except the caribou. The blue ribbon trout streams Madison, Gallatin and Yellowstone are located in the forest.

Helena National Forest

Location: Near Helena
Size: 975,407 acres
Description: Helena National Forest is a dramatic blend of mountains, meadows and forests with limestone ridges that cap the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness. This forest lies on either side of the Continental Divide in westcentral Montana and has very diverse climates and landscapes. The western portion 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.

Kootenai National Forest

Location: Near Libby
Size: 2.2 million acres
Description: Kootenai National Forest makes its home in the mountainous terrain of extreme northwestern Montana. The ranges of steep, rugged peaks give impressive views of the spectacular surrounding country with its variety of landscapes. Since 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 well as a diverse community of wildlife. There are over 100 lakes in the forest and the Kootenai and Clark Fork rivers flow through. 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 of the one of the loveliest, grandest trees.

Lewis and Clark National Forest

Location: Near Great Falls
Size: 1.8 million acres
Description: Lewis and Clark National Forest in northcentral Montana lies within the upper Missouri River system. The Jefferson Division or eastern side of the forest includes the Big and Little Snowy mountains, and the Castle, Crazy, Little Belt and Highwood ranges, smooth rounded mountains around semiarid windswept, grassy valleys. The Rocky Mountain Division lies to the west with glacier-scoured headlands, hanging valleys and rocky cirque basins and includes the Scapegoat Wilderness, the Great Bear Wilderness and the renowned Bob Marshall Wilderness with their breathtaking scenery. The area is wild and diverse with a variety of climate, elevation, wildlife and landscapes.

Lolo National Forest

Location: Near Missoula
Size: 2.0 million acres
Description: Lolo National Forest is located between the Continental Divide and the Bitterroot Mountains. This national forest and the Rattlesnake Wilderness are just minutes from downtown Missoula. The Lolo is a high diversity forest ranging from wet bottoms to high alpine peaks 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, portions of the Scapegoat Wilderness and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.