8 Best Places for Photography in Southern Montana
When someone thinks of Montana, one of the first things they probably think about is the mountains, and possibly not Montana photography.
But at a whopping 147,040 square miles, there is so much more to the state than mountains, and so much to photograph.
As the fourth-largest state in the United States, Montana stretches from the Rocky Mountains to the Great Plains and only has a population of just above 1,000,000, so there is plenty of nature to see.
Badlands, prairie, mountains, canyons, and rivers can be explored if you are willing to venture out, each offering its unique facet of Montana.
Fondly referred to as ‘the Big Sky state,’ these open, unobscured skies provide that extra ingredient for photographic success. For this location guide, we’ll focus on locations in the southern part of the state.
If you are looking to experience all that Montana has to offer, these photography spots will be sure to check most of your boxes!
1. Medicine Rocks State Park
This is probably the most isolated location on the list. At 100 miles from Miles City, Medicine Rocks State Park offers camping and hiking around the medicine rocks rising from the landscape.
Important to Indigenous tribes before modern times, it’s easy to see the significance and beauty of the area. Teddy Roosevelt himself remarked on this land when he visited!
Years of weathering have created unique shapes from the sandstone rocks throughout the park and make it easy to find something new and striking within only a short walk.
Wander around the stones to find otherworldly compositions, or search for wildlife to capture within the scenery. Wide-angle lenses can capture the greater landscape with the formations, and telephotos can focus in on the details.
Compositions can be found at all times of the day, but sunrise or sunset emphasize the “Big Sky” of Montana. The park is open year-round and is easily accessible in any season, so you are sure to find something to photograph in the heat of summer or the chill of winter.
Camping is first-come, first-served but is generally easy to find. Fees are $8 for out-of-state vehicles, or free if your Montana-licensed vehicle already paid the park fees at registration. To walk or bike in, the cost is $4.
2. Pompeys Pillar National Monument and Castle Butte
If you visit Montana and are familiar with the Lewis and Clark expedition, chances are you will want to stop at Pompeys Pillar National Monument.
Made famous as the only physical evidence left of the expedition, William Clark scratched his name in the stone on July 25, 1806.
The location served as a stopping point for many travelers and military expeditions as the United States grew, and many more names and dates were added to the monument.
The rock was important for local tribes and was referenced as ‘the place where the mountain lion lies’.
The meaning is not known for sure, but if you wander the area, you might see the shape of a mountain lion’s head in the rocks, and mountain lions have been known to be seen in the area!
Use the boardwalk to access the names or the top of the monument, walk the wooded river area, or go through the interpretive center.
There is a nice view from the road and bridge just to the east or from Highway 312 looking north. Even without entering the official monument, you can find something to shoot.
There is river access close by and cliffs form the river’s northern edge.
If you want to visit during operating hours, vehicle entrance is $7 for vehicles with seating for 6 or less, and the gate is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
If you want to visit outside of park hours or the season, it is only a short walk from the parking area by the ticket house.
About 15 miles north of Pompeys Pillar, the massive stone structure of Castle Butte emerges from the sagebrush desert. Significant to tribes in the area, be on the lookout for pictographs as you explore around the butte; many have been found here.
The structure stands out in the landscape simply because it’s the biggest thing around, and its dramatic size difference is easy to capitalize on.
The butte provides an excellent subject to add as foreground to any celestial object you might want to photograph, and you will most likely have it all to yourself. Dark skies are abundant in Montana, and this is a fantastic spot to check out.
To find Castle Butte, simply search for it with your map app and make sure the one that you find is almost directly north of Pompeys Pillar. It’s a dirt road to the location, but it is well-traveled and clearly labeled.
Read more: How to Use Foreground for Better Star Photos
3. Makoshika State Park
Roam with the dinosaurs and explore the badlands in Makoshika State Park, the largest park that Montana has to offer. Full of scenic drives and hikes, there is no shortage of landscape to get lost in.
Located right next to Glendive in the east, the park is easy to find. If you are familiar with the original Jurassic Park film, the area should remind you of John Hammond’s first meeting with Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler.
Among the layers of geology in the area, fossils are a regular find, and you can see many yourself, either in the Visitor Center or out in the park. Make use of the layers and interesting shapes of the land in your images.
I suggest camping in the park to get the full experience; you really do feel like you are in a prehistoric world as you ramble on these trails!
Summer season is 1st of May to 13th of September, and the Winter season is 1st of October to the 13th April.
Official summer hours are 9 am to 5 pm, and winter hours are 10 am to 4 pm, but you can access the park 24 hours a day. Of course, that may change, so be sure to call or check online for any updates.
4. Beartooth Pass
If you have had the opportunity to visit Yellowstone National Park anytime during late spring to late fall, then you may be familiar with the Beartooth Highway.
A scenic highway that weaves in and out of Montana and Wyoming, the road takes you up to 11,000 ft on the Beartooth Plateau, populated by lakes and peaks in some of the most beautiful terrain either state has to offer.
Be on the lookout for high alpine wildlife as you wind your way up the road. Down in the valley before the ascent, I have seen bears, deer, mountain lions, moose, and foxes. Up on top, you might spot mountain goats, pika, marmots, and bears again.
As you climb the road, the valley provides many great shots, and the views as you get past the timberline, peaks, and distinctive plateaus are truly awe-inspiring.
Make a stop at Rock Creek Vista to get a spectacular view of the stretch of the valley from north to south, or make a stop at any of the small pullouts along the way.
Depending on the time of year or recent weather, there are waterfalls that cascade down the mountain at turns in the road that can be a good quick stop.
You are free to hike on top of the pass as well. There are some designated trails if you prefer, or you can wander the high alpine meadows and explore.
Walk to one of the lakes, peek over the next ridge, or place yourself on the edge of the plateau overlooking the valley to gaze over Montana and Wyoming.
Of course, don’t forget to bring your bear spray. Anytime you’re in the mountains of Montana, it is a must.
The pass is easy to find. The Beartooth Highway runs directly south of Red Lodge and leads directly to the pass. You can also exit Yellowstone National Park and follow the signs to Red Lodge/Beartooth Pass.
The road is seasonal, and they try to have it open from the Friday before Memorial Day until mid-October, but snow can linger or come early, so check the road report if you find yourself visiting in spring or autumn.
Read more: 4 Steps to Shoot Beautiful Lakes at Sunrise
5. Crazy Mountains
Next is the first of what I would consider the two hidden gems of Montana.
The Crazy Mountains are a small range with a lot to offer. Right outside of Big Timber, the peaks provide a nice panorama visible from miles away, particularly to the east where the plains begin to stretch away from the Rocky Mountains.
The range has quite a bit of private land, but there are great spots to wander, and often you can traverse the private areas without any problem. The key is finding a good access point.
I recommend heading to Halfmoon Campground first and the 119 Trailhead. The campground is easy to find on the map or through a Google search, and the journey to the trailhead is filled with opportunities for photos.
The range stretches out before you for great panoramic photo opportunities, and you may see wildlife along the road. If you venture off the route to the trailhead, you can find many subjects to frame against the backdrop of the peaks.
Driving through the valley, you will notice a stark change from the foothills and open fields that you came from. The peaks rise dramatically above the valley floor, and the forest closes in. With each new turn, there is a new scene to behold.
At the trailhead, you will find the trail’s campground or parking area. The trail is well-defined and easy to follow.
If you have the time, hike and stay a night at Granite and Blue Lake and summit Crazy Peak (watch out for the false summits) just to say you did. Or spend a nice night at Twin Lakes under Conical Peak.
If you only have a short amount of time, Big Timber Creek provides lots of a great setting for photography. Big Timber Falls is a great shot and fun to explore. Be careful walking on the rocks though; they can get very slippery.
The area is free to access, but camping has a small fee. You can get here year-round as long as the snow doesn’t stop you. Even then, a little snowshoeing can be fun and good exercise to get you out during the slower months of the year.
Read more: How to Shoot Landscape Panoramas Handheld
6. Yellowstone River
Mostly contained within the state of Montana but running through Wyoming and North Dakota as well, the Yellowstone River offers great views at any point along its winding path.
The longest undammed river in the United States at 692 miles long, Yellowstone River originates in the park that shares its name with it and finally finds its end at the Missouri River (another significant river in Montana that begins in the state).
From Paradise Valley north of Yellowstone National Park to the open country of the eastern region of the state, the river is vital to everything around it.
I would recommend the Yellowstone River to anyone visiting Billings. Find a fishing access or a park along the river, or gain some elevation on the Rims north of Billings or the Four Dances Recreation Area on the east end of town and explore. You won’t be disappointed.
Each season brings something different for the river.
In the winter, you will find a nice composition with the ice; the spring brings high water; the summer sees a little cleaner water as the flow slows a bit, and things have been flushed out, and the fall river can be accented nicely with the color in the trees.
When you’re in an area that allows a drone, you can really see the shape of the river in the landscape for some nice compositions.
7. East and West Rosebud
The 2022 floods that surprised all of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem still have full access to East Rosebud shutdown. However, my hope is that by the time you have a chance to come and visit the area, it will be open and ready.
The East and West Rosebud Creeks flow from the Beartooth Mountains north to meet outside of Absarokee shortly before flowing into the Stillwater River. With each stream, there is a beautiful valley within the Beartooths.
Very similar but also distinct in their own way, either valley is great for hiking.
They are both popular weekend spots because the beginnings of each are easily accessible, but if you visit during the week or venture beyond the popular stopping points, you can find solitude and something new.
West Rosebud takes you up to Mystic Lake where you can play with lakeside photography, or continue to the lakes deeper into the wilderness.
To get to Mystic Lake, it is only about a 3-mile hike, and the trailhead begins right next to a power plant, so the road is maintained year-round. Of course, snow will determine if you can get up the trail or not.
As you reach the crest of the trail that finally gives you a view of the lake, the scene that greets you is truly remarkable. Most hikers get the view mid-morning or afternoon, but a sunrise entrance is the best way to go.
Walking the trail around the south side of the lake takes you into a fantastic new world where the trees frame the peaks around the water, and the trail steps in and out of the shadows. Frame the scene with the trees or find an island to bring to life.
Intuitively found to the east of West Rosebud and the magnificent valley is East Rosebud Creek and the equally spectacular valley.
The valley closes in a little closer on the drive to the trailhead, and the cliffs loom above, making for great subjects on your trek. Catch the valley on a misty morning for extra atmosphere and dimension.
The Beaten Path may be something that you hear associated with this hike, or Elk Lake, or East Rosebud, but they are all talking about the same thing mostly.
The Beaten Path describes the entire trail stretching from the trailhead near Alpine Lake to Cooke City. Elk Lake is the first lake along the trail, about 3 miles, and usually is the busiest stretch of trail. East Rosebud could encompass any part of the trail.
If you get out on the trail, I recommend getting past Elk Lake. Most of the hikers will have thinned out, and you will dive deep into the Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness.
The chain of lakes on the trail provides great views the entire way. Find something easy to shoot from the trail or wander a little off-piste and find something unique to you.
Both East and West Rosebud trails will take you under Granite Peak, the high point in Montana if you go deep enough. The distance is doable in a day if you are an experienced hiker in good shape.
Like any hike in the Beartooth Mountains, bear spray is recommended. Black bears and grizzly bears wander the area, so be prepared and safe.
If you plan to stay overnight, make sure you know how to properly store your food when you camp.
Both trailheads are accessible year-round, snow permitting, and provide great locations in any season.
8. Bighorn Canyon
The final spot I would like to mention for your trip to Montana is Bighorn Canyon. In the mid-60s, Yellowtail Dam was installed on the Bighorn River by Fort Smith, filling the canyon that the river had carved through the stone.
A popular spot for boating and fishing, the canyon offers great views from the water or from the top.
There are two ways to access the area, and I would recommend both. The first is through Fort Smith at the Ok-A-Beh Marina. A popular launching point for a summer day on the water, there are inspirational views all around.
On the road in, stop at a turnout to capture a shot down the canyon or of the cliff walls across. This north end of the canyon has the biggest cliffs of the 71-mile-long reservoir. Whether above or below, there will be something to inspire you for sure.
The second access takes you into Wyoming before tracking back into Montana to the Devil’s Canyon Overlook.
The overlook provides a panoramic view of the canyon and reservoir below and a view up Devil’s Canyon where Porcupine Creek joins the big water.
Spectacular at sunrise and sunset and great for astrophotography, you’ll find yourself wandering around and finding something different just a short distance away.
There is a fence around the main area for safety close to the edge, but there are small trails close by if you choose to explore for more shots. Wild horses have been known to wander the area, as well as other typical Montana wildlife.
Both areas are accessible year-round; just be careful during the winter on icy roads. Each location can be found easily with a quick map search.
As you explore these areas, I hope that you feel like you get to know Montana a little better. We all know that there is a difference between what is seen online and what is reality, but all of these amazing places do exist and provide inspiration for many.
With this short list of lesser-known places in Montana, you will leave knowing that you’ve gotten into the heart of this place, beyond the reaches of many who come to enjoy the Big Sky State.
If you happen to visit, send a message my way, and I’ll be glad to help point you in the right direction.