Not all public lands are created equal, and when it comes to Montana’s national parks and national forests, the latter are often overlooked. But why? Our national forests boast impressive scenery, endless recreation, and diverse landscapes, just like the parks. Then again, Yellowstone stands alone in the realm of habitat restoration, ecological purity, and wilderness feel, once you get off the Grand Loop. Sounds like a debate that’s too close to call without closer inspection—time for a face-off.
At this point, accessing the landscapes that make up the national park and forest land within Montana is almost an afterthought. Paved roads, improved doubletrack, and endless trails crisscross the map, making it relatively easy to get where you want by car, foot, or bike. But Yellowstone only has four entrances, and only two of them are in Montana.
No one would argue that options are few in the parks or forests, but because of the wilderness quality of the parks, forests often allow for a more diverse array of recreational opportunities, such as mountain biking, hunting, and less restrictive fishing. While national forests do contain some more regulated Wilderness Areas, if your goal is to use the land in your own way, forests are where it’s at.
Montana’s national parks are among the country’s most famous and contain some of the most iconic sights in the world, like Old Faithful, the Lamar Valley, and Going-to-the-Sun Road. But the state’s highest peak is in a national forest, as are some of its most notable natural features and historic sites, such as Gates of the Mountains and the Beartooth Pass. Neglecting these sites would be doing yourself a disservice, and while they might not appear nightly on your TV screen, they are well worth a closer look. At the end of the day, though, more pictures have been taken of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone than all the national-forest views combined.
Our national parks have taken on a Disneyland-esque quality with long lines, big crowds, and lots of traffic. Forests are generally traffic-free (unless you’re heading up Hyalite) and rarely require year-long waiting lists for campsites. That being said, over three million people visited the Custer-Gallatin last year, making it the ninth-most-visited forest in the system. Bottom line: the secret’s out about Montana.
While both the parks and the forests can be cheap compared to beach resorts or city-centric vacations, parks have an entry fee, and forests generally don’t. To fish or hunt in either, you need a license, and established campgrounds often cost some dough regardless of which federal bureau is in charge. But once you’ve ponied up for those relatively small expenses, don’t expect to spend much more in the forests. Parks, on the other hand, abound with additional surcharges such as special fishing permits and backcountry campsite fees. And don’t forget about all the commercial vendors—restaurants, gift shops, et al—that will end up costing a pretty penny.
Yellowstone’s wildlife viewing is unrivaled anywhere in the country, and even from the car you are sure to see more megafauna than anywhere else. In fact, we’re so spoiled by the wildlife-viewing that unless we see a griz or Canis lupus, we’re disappointed. You have to work hard to see much on Forest Service land, which is rewarding in its own right, but the parks still give you more bang for your buck, no pun intended.
Earlier this year, a woman in Yellowstone tried to pet a bison. In fact, she did pet the bison, and somehow lived—only to be ridiculed across various social-media platforms. If your goal is to see stupid people doing stupid shit, go to a park. The cases in point are becoming embarrassingly frequent. If, however, you value the DIYers and aspire to be one yourself, head to a National Forest. While there is some level of support for the road-weary traveler, better not bank on agency officials, friendly tourists, and cell service to bail you out of a sticky situation.
Score: 4 to 2
Well, there you have it. While the parks get all the press, the forests are really where it’s at this summer. Either way, remember to be smart, considerate of other people and wildlife, prepare for the worst and hope for the best, and enjoy your time on Montana’s public land. Happy trails.