25 Picturesque Facts About Montana

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron / Chloe Effron

For most of the rest of the country, Montana is a mysterious state known largely for its lack of people (it has one of the lowest population densities in the U.S.), its ranches, and its scenic national parks. It turns out there's a lot more than that to learn about the Big Sky State. Don't believe us? Here are 25 facts to file away about Montana.

1. It’s got a lot of mountains. Montana comes from the Spanish word montaña, or mountain. The state is home to 64 mountain ranges [PDF], largely concentrated in the western part of the state. 

2. It’s on top of the Continental Divide, the mountainous drainage division that separates the U.S. into Pacific and Atlantic watersheds. There is a town called Divide, Montana, named after the feature. 

3. It’s the largest landlocked state, and the fourth largest state overall, after Alaska, Texas, and California. However, it ranks 48th by population density. 

4. Montana sent a greater percentage of its population to fight in World War I and World War II than any other state. During World War I, the U.S. government overestimated the state’s population, and drafted 28,000 men for military service. Another 12,500 volunteered, meaning that about 8 percent of the state’s population went off to fight [PDF]. Just before World War II, many people in the state signed up for the military to escape the poverty of the Great Depression, and 57,000 Montanans would go on to serve in the war [PDF], around 10 percent of the population. 

Jeanette Rankin in 1939. Image Credit: Harris and Ewing via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

5. The first woman to serve in Congress was a representative of Montana. Jeannette Rankin was elected to the House of Representatives in 1916, two years after women got the right to vote in the state. A devoted pacifist, she was the only member of Congress to vote against World War I and World War II.

6. It has the largest grizzly bear population in the lower 48 states. Only five states still have grizzly bear populations. Montana estimates that more than 500 live in the northwest portion of the state, while approximately 600 can be found in and around Yellowstone Park.  

7. Much of the state is public land. Montana has 30 million acres of state and federal land, including 16 million acres of national forest. It’s home to Glacier National Park and parts of Yellowstone. Protected lands make up about a third of the state.  

8. It has state-mandated Native American education. In 1972, the state adopted a new constitution that included a commitment to preserving Native American cultural integrity through education. In 1999, the Indian Education for All Act ordered the state’s educational agencies to work with Montana tribes to include information about American Indian history and culture in Montana schools. It’s the only state in the U.S. whose constitution mandates teaching tribal history. 

9. Montana gave us Gary Cooper. The classic Hollywood actor was born in Helena. He began his career as a stunt rider in Westerns, thanks to the horsemanship skills he learned on his family’s ranch in Montana. He went on to star in acclaimed Westerns like High Noon

10. Brad Pitt kickstarted his career in a movie that highlighted Montana fly fishing. A River Runs Through It (1992) was set in Missoula and on the Blackfoot River (famous for its fly fishing), and was mostly filmed in southwest Montana. 

St. Mary Lake, featured in the opening scene of The Shining. Image Credit: Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

11. It stars in the opening of The Shining. The aerial shots in the first scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film were filmed in Glacier National Park, though the Overlook Hotel was supposedly located in Colorado.

12. It’s home to the world’s first international peace park. In 1932, Canada and the United States merged Alberta's Waterton Lakes National Park and its across-the-border neighbor, Glacier National Park. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

13. In 1959, an earthquake created a 5-mile long lake in southwestern Montana. In August of that year, a deadly 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck just west of Yellowstone National Park; a subsequent landslide blocked the flow of the Madison River, creating Quake Lake, which now measures 190 feet deep

14. Montana served as the model for the wartime federal Sedition Act of 1918. The Montana Sedition Law forbade any criticism of the state or federal government or their programs, including the war. Some 200 Montanans were arrested under it. Later in the year, Congress passed its own sedition law. Seventy-eight people in Montana were imprisoned under the law, and in 2006, the governor finally pardoned them

15. The state’s motto is “Oro y plata,” Spanish for “gold and silver.” Gold was discovered near the now-ghost town of Bannack in 1862, and its capital, Helena, was founded by gold miners. During the late 19th century, it was one of the country’s top silver producers

Image Credit: Sheridan Press via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

16. Part of it almost became the 49th state. In 1939, some ranchers and farmers in Wyoming got fed up with the federal government and the New Deal, and decided to secede and form a new state. It would have been called Absaroka, after a local mountain range, and included a chunk of southeastern Montana, southwestern South Dakota, and northern Wyoming. While the movement didn’t gather much steam, they did make license plates (one is housed in the archives of the University of Wyoming). 

17. Some call the state the “last best hiding place.” It’s a play on the “last best place,” a phrase often used to refer to the open wilderness of Montana. But the mountainous state happens to be a decent place to hide out from the law. Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, hid out in a shack in the woods outside Lincoln, Montana, until the FBI arrested him in 1996.

18. It has a giant acid pit. The Berkeley Pit, formerly a copper mine near Butte, is now an intensely acidic pit of water. In 1982, the pumps that had previously been used to remove water from the pit mines were shut down, filling the area with highly acidic groundwater contaminated with metals from the mine. It is 7000 feet long, 5600 feet deep and has a pH of about 2.5, a similar level to cranberry juice (2.3-2.5). There’s a viewing platform and according to at least one travel writer, “they have a lovely gift shop!”

19. It’s home to a lot of Americana. The Miracle of America Museum bills itself as “a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of one of the largest collections of American history.” Lonely Planet calls that collection “at turns baffling and fascinating.” Founded in 1981, the 130,000-item museum features everything from tractors to antique music players to old gas cans. 

Helena National Forest. Image Credit: Montanabw via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

20. The coldest temperature ever recorded in the contiguous United States was at Rogers Pass near Montana’s Helena National Forest. In 1954, temperatures dropped to -70°F. The only colder temperature recorded in the United States was measured in Alaska in 1971, when temperatures at Prospect Creek reached -80°F. 

21. In 1972, Montana experienced a world record temperature change. Between January 14 and January 15 of that year, the temperature in Loma, Montana, swung from -54°F to 49°F, landing the record for greatest temperature swing in 24 hours. Browning, Montana, had held the previous record, with a 100°F change [PDF].

22. Scientist Willy Burgdorfer discovered the cause of Lyme disease while working at the Rocky Mountain Laboratory in Hamilton, Montana. While studying Rocky Mountain spotted fever, another disease transmitted by tick bites, he discovered the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. His 1981 discovery was the first connection made between the disease and tick bites. The bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi, is named after him. 

The Montana capitol building in Helena. Parkerdr via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

23. The origin of the Montana capitol’s dome-top statue remained a mystery for over a century. The statue was installed in 1900, six years after Helena was chosen as the state capital. Due to corruption, the first plan for a capitol building was scrapped in 1897, and the designs were tossed. The sculpture intended to top the building arrived at the local train depot anyway, but no one knew where it came from. The new capitol designers perched it atop the dome anyway. It was finally identified as the work of sculptor Edward Van Landeghem in 2006, when the artist’s granddaughter found a local newspaper clipping from Philadelphia featuring her grandfather and the statue. 

24. Montana pets have the nation’s highest average lifespan. A 2013 report from the Banfield Pet Hospital found that Montana cats live more than two years longer than the national average, making it the best state in the U.S. for feline longevity. It’s the second best state for dog lifespan, with its pups living a year and a half longer than the average (South Dakota was first). 

25. Butte, Montana is home to one of the nation’s best burgers. Hamburger expert Greg Motz (the man behind the documentary Hamburger America) has declared the nutburger from Matt’s Place, Montana’s first drive-in, one of his favorites. It’s topped with a mixture of Miracle Whip and crushed salted peanuts.