National Parks

Photo by Ian Cameron

Montana's National Parks

Montana's two exceptional National Parks are the most-visited areas in the state

Two national parks exist entirely or partially within Montana's borders. Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first national park, and Glacier National Park, named for its beautiful ice-sculpted mountain peaks, are both protected wildlands managed by the National Park Service. While their characters are wild, neither of Montana's national parks contain designated wilderness areas.

Although they comprise a modest portion of Montana’s public lands, Yellowstone and Glacier are the most-visited areas of the state. For many, they provide an important introduction to public lands, serving as a gateway to a deeper appreciation for the critical importance of our wildlands.

Glacier National Park

Location: Flathead and Glacier Counties, east of Whitefish
Size: 1,013,322 acres
Description: The Continental Divide runs down the spine of Glacier National Park. Within the park’s boundaries, visitors can encounter more than 200 gemlike tarns, large glacial lakes, countless waterfalls, broad U-shaped drainages, and vertical relief of a mile or more. The rugged glaciated mountains along the Divide descend into alpine tundra, primeval coniferous forest, stands of deciduous trees, and grassland. The west slope is moist, with over 100 inches of annual precipitation supporting lush old-growth forests of Douglas fir, western larch, Engelmann spruce, and subalpine fir. Cedar, hemlock, and white pine thrive in the lower-elevation valleys. On the drier east slope, short prairie grass transitions into a forest of aspen, lodgepole pine, and high-elevation spruce. Grizzly and black bears, gray wolf, moose, elk, mule and white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, lynx, marten, and wolverine all thrive in this diverse ecosystem.

Historical tribal territories: The Niitsitapi (Blackfeet), Sélish (Salish), Qíispé (Pend d’Oreille), and Ktunaxa (Kootenai) tribes occupied the area around and within what is now called Glacier National Park. These tribes historically used the area to hunt, fish, gather plans, and hold ceremonies.

When white settlers arrived in the region, the Niitsitapi, a nomadic people, predominantly lived on the prairies on the east side of today's park; however, in spring, women and children went to the mountains to gather roots. Today, nearly 9,000 Niitsitapi people, members of the 17,321-member Blackfeet Nation, live on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, which shares its western border with Glacier.

The Sélish, Qíispé, and Ktunaxa people lived to the west of what is now Glacier, quarrying chert and hunting bison in the mountains. Historically, the territories of these tribes covered all of western Montana and extended into Idaho, Wyoming, and Canada. Approximately 5,000 members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes now live on or near the Flathead Reservation, which covers much of the southern end of the Flathead Valley.

Yellowstone National Park

Location: Montana-Wyoming border, south of Bozeman
Size: 2,219,791 acres (5% in Montana)
Description: America’s first national park, Yellowstone was established by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. With more than three million visitors spending time in the park in 2011, it remains one of the biggest natural tourist attractions in the country. Yellowstone is known for its variety of wildlife, including several endangered or threatened species, and is home to the oldest and largest public land bison herd in the United States. The park’s rich habitat also supports grizzly bears, wolves, and elk, all of which are popular with Yellowstone’s multitude of visitors.

Historical tribal territories: Archaeological findings from the Yellowstone area point to human activity as far back as the Paleoindian Period, 11,000 years ago. Traces of camps on the shores of Yellowstone Lake and the oral histories of the Sélish people indicate they occupied the area as long as 3,000 years ago. The Ka'igwu (Kiowa), Apsaalooke (Crow), and Lakota (Sioux) people also inhabited or travelled through the area before trappers and fur traders came to Yellowstone.

26 current tribes have ties to the Yellowstone area. Some, like the Shoshone, historically travelled to Yellowstone to gather obsidian to use to field dress buffalo. Others, like the Nimiipuu (Nez Perce), have a more tragic connection to the Park: in 1877, a group of 800 Nimiipu men, women, and children fled their homeland in what is now Oregon and Idaho, chased by the U.S. Army. Many members of the group were killed, but those who were able to flee took a route through Yellowstone, eluding the Army for 13 days. In 1986, Congress added the Nez Perce National Historic Trail to the National Trails System to recognize the flight of the Nimiipuu from their homeland. The trail follows the Nimiipu people’s historic flight, extending from the Wallowas in Oregon through north central Idaho and a corner of Yellowstone National Park before ending in the Bear Paws Mountains in north-central Montana.