Geography of Montana

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“Big Sky Country” is one of several nicknames that the state of Montana Is graced with. Big Sky County is a reference to the state’s wide, open spaces. Montana’s landscapes can be viewed for long distances. 

The Fourth Largest State

Montana’s grand vistas are befitting for one of the USA’s largest states.

Montana’s land area is 145,545 square miles. Its size is comparable to countries such as Norway, Zimbabwe, and Japan.

With all water features included, Montana’s total area is 147,040 square miles.

Montana is one of the largest states in the United States of America.

Only California, Texas, and Alaska are larger than Montana. It has one of the lowest population densities in the USA.

Fact sheet with Landsat image for the state of Montana.
Geography quick facts about the state of Montana. Main image: Landsat, USGS.

Population of Montana

Montana has a population of 1,084,225 people, as of 2020. Its population density is 7.09 persons per square mile. 

This makes Montana the 8th least populous and the third-least densely populated state.

In 1889, Montana became the 41st state admitted to the United States. 

Where is Montana Located?

Montana’s geographic location is in the northwestern United States of America. It shares its northern border with the country of Canada.

Its vast size is reflected in the states and provinces that it shares its borders with. Its northern border is shared with the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.

In the United States, Montana is bordered by North Dakota and South Dakota to its east. Its southern border is shared by Wyoming. Montana shares its western border with the state of Idaho.

1881 map of Montana by Rand McNally and Company.  Source: LOC.gov
1881 map of Montana by Rand McNally and Company. Source: LOC.gov

Where Montana Gets its Name

Montana’s name is both ironic and not so ironic at the same time.

Montana’s name comes from the Spanish word, montaña, meaning “mountain”. In fact, when Spanish explorers trekked through the region, Montana del Norte was the name they bestowed upon the the region, meaning “northern mountains”.

View of grasslands on the Grant-Kohrs/Warren Ranch in Montana.
The National Park Service manages the Grant-Kohrs/Warren Ranch in Montana. The majority of the ranch is covered in grasslands, with native shortgrass prairie on the dry hills and cultivated pasture grasses on the irrigated lowlands and uplands. Photo: NPS / M. Surber, public domain.

Mountains are most certainly part of Montana’s geographic profile. However, 60% of Montana’s land consists of grasslands and prairies. 

Grasslands and Prairies of Montana

The grasslands and prairies that represent 60 percent of the state’s geography are located east of the Rocky Mountains. The Great Plains extend into the state of Montana.

Agricultural fields and an abandoned farmstead in eastern Montana in the Great Plains region.
Agricultural fields and an abandoned farmstead in eastern Montana in the Great Plains region. Since European settlement, the Great Plains region of the United States has seen major land use change, with enormous swathes of grasslands transformed to farming. Photo: Terry Sohl, U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain.

The eastern regions of Montana have landscapes that are similar to those of the neighboring states of North Dakota and South Dakota.

Montana also shares a geological formation with North Dakota.

One of the Largest Oil Fields in the United States

The Bakken Formation extends into eastern Montana. The Bakken Formation is a geological rock unit which has a vast source rock for petroleum.

Map showing the extent of the Bakken Formation and TPS (total petroleum system). Map: USGS.
Map showing the extent of the Bakken Formation and TPS (total petroleum system). Map: USGS.

The Elm Coulee Oil Field, in Richland County, MT, is part of the Bakken Formation. This is one of the largest oil fields in the United States of America and covers and area of about 750 square miles.

Badlands of Montana

In addition to prairies and an oil-producing geological formation, badlands are part of the landscape of eastern Montana.

Makoshika State Park, near Glendive, is representative of eastern Montana’s badlands. In fact, “Makoshika” is derived from the Lakota words “maco” and “sica” meaning “bad land”.

Badlands in Makoshika State Park.
Badlands in Makoshika State Park. Photo: Zach Franks/stock.adobe.com.

This is a reflect of the physical geography of the landscape.

The name also reflects the Lakota people. The Lakota people live in the northern portion of the Great Plains region, including eastern Montana. To define badlands, these are rugged, dry land formations that are formed as the result of erosion. 

Missouri Breaks

In northern-central Montana, there is a landscape that has inspired many painting about the Old West: The Missouri Breaks.

The Missouri Breaks are a region of badlands along the Missouri River, which starts in Montana.

Bluffs, rock outcrops, and grasslands characterize this area. The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument was established to protect the Missouri Breaks.

Artist Charles M. Russell lived in Montana, and some of his paintings were inspired by the Missouri Breaks. 

The Mountainous Geography of Montana

Towards the central portion of the state, the elevations increase, and the land becomes more rugged.

While prairie and grassland are still part of the region, the state becomes more mountainous.

Bison herd grazing on a hill in Montana with mountains in the background
Bison herd grazing on a hill in Montana with mountains in the background. Photo: Ryan Hagerty, FWS, public domain.

Sky Islands of Montana

There are some isolated mountains in the region, known as island ranges.

Among those island ranges include the Bears Paw Mountains, Highwood Mountains, Crazy Mountains, and the Big Snowy Mountains.

Part of the Big Horn Mountains, located in Wyoming, extending into southern-central Montana. These mountains stand out from the surrounding landscapes, and not only because of their relative heights.

In comparison to the surrounding grasslands, the island ranges are home to forests. Fir and pine trees are the main trees found among the forests of the island ranges.

Pronghorn antelope and black bears are some of the fauna that inhabit these mountain ranges.

Montana Rimrocks

Montana’s largest city, Billings, is located within the southern-central portion of the state. and has a population of 117,000. For Montana residents living east of Rocky Mountains, Billings represents a major economic hub for the region.

Surrounding Billings are the Rimrocks. The Rimrocks are geological formations consisting of sandstone, with sheer cliffs. 

Continental Divide

The Great Continental Divide goes through Montana. And with the Continental Divide going through the state, the Rocky Mountains go through Montana.

A sign marking the location of the North American Continental Divide in Yellowstone National Park. Photo: NPS, public domain.
A sign marking the location of the North American Continental Divide in Yellowstone National Park. Photo: NPS, public domain.

The Rocky Mountains make up the western third of the state. The Rockies themselves consist of several mountain ranges. The Bitterroot, Absaroka, Beartooth, Big Belt, Elkhorn, and Gallatin are some of the Montana mountain ranges that are part of the Rocky Mountains. 

Valleys of Western Montana

Western Montana is also punctuated with valleys located within mountain ranges. Those valleys are where most of Montana’s largest cities are located.

Missoula, the second largest city in Montana, is known as “hub of five valleys”.

View of St. Mary Valley looking east from Logan Pass with Going-to-the-Sun road visible to the left.
View of St. Mary Valley looking east from Logan Pass with Going-to-the-Sun road visible to the left. Photo: NPS / Tim Rains, public domain.

Five mountain ranges meet around Missoula. Missoula is situated in the eponymous Missoula Valley. Other cities in this region include Helena (the capital of Montana), Bozeman, Butte, and Great Falls.

Map with a birds-eye view of Helena, Montana 1875. Source: loc.gov.
Map with a birds-eye view of Helena, Montana 1875. Source: loc.gov.

Part of Yellowstone National Park (most of which is in northwest Wyoming) extends into Montana. The Rocky Mountains in Montana have several national forests, such as Kootenai, Flathead, and Helena-Lewis and Clark. 

In contrast to eastern Montana, there are more forests in western Montana. Higher levels of precipitation in the mountains (often in the form of snow) contribute to this.

There are many pine and fir forests in the Rocky Mountains.

In terms of fauna, large populations of bighorn sheep, moose, black bears, grizzly bears, and mountain lions inhabit the region.

Glacier National Park in Montana

Northwest Montana is home to Glacier National Park. Endangered species such as the Canadian lynx and wolverines call the park home. It is the easternmost point where western red cedars and hemlocks are found. It comprises a variety of ecosystems from tundra to forests and prairies. 

Montana’s Climate

Montana’s climate is shaped by its geography.

Eastern Montana has a cold, semiarid climate with very cold winters, and warm summers. Many of the valleys in western Montana have a similar climate.

The Rocky Mountains get much colder winters due to their elevations. The Rockies themselves play a role in a weather phenomenon known as a chinook.

Westerly winds descending from the Rocky Mountains, warming due to adiabatic heating. This can cause temperatures to rise quickly.

The largest 24 hour temperature change took place in Montana as a result of the Chinook wind. In Loma, Montana, the temperature rose from -54 Fahrenheit to 49 Fahrenheit on January 15, 1972. This is a change of 103 degrees Fahrenheit.

Longest River in Montana

The Missouri River is the largest river in Montana. It is also the longest river in the United States of America (the Missouri is 2,341 miles long vs the Mississippi River being 2,340).

The Snowden Lift Bridge over the Missouri River at Nohly, Montana. Photo: Brent Hanson, USGS. Public domain.
The Snowden Lift Bridge over the Missouri River at Nohly, Montana. Photo: Brent Hanson, USGS. Public domain.

The river rises out of southwestern Montana in the Centennial Mountains. The river rises on the eastern side of the Continental Divide.

For this reason, it flows east, until it reached the Mississippi River near St. Louis, Missouri. 

Montana is the Only Producer of Palladium and Platinum in the United States

Eastern Montana is a region of oil production and ranching. Western Montana is a region where gold and copper mining cities have developed. Butte is one such city. Butte was established as a mining camp and grew into a copper mining/smelting center. 

Montana is the only producer of palladium & platinum in the United States.  Palladium is a chemical element used for dental alloys and automobile catalytic converters. Platinum is also used for catalytic converters and is a favored metal for jewelry.   

The only palladium/platinum mine in North America is the Stillwater Mine located near Nye, Montana.

Stillwater mine tailings in front of the east side of the Stillwater River canyon, near Nye, Montana. Photo: Michael L. Zientek, U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain
Stillwater mine tailings in front of the east side of the Stillwater River canyon, near Nye, Montana. Photo: Michael L. Zientek, U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain

The Diverse Geography of Montana

Montana’s geography differs from east to west.

The eastern portion of Montana consists of the Great Plains.

The western portion of the state consists of the Rocky Mountains and several mountain valleys.

The central portion is like a transition zone between both regions, punctuated by isolated mountain ranges, badlands, and prairies.

Montana’s varied landscapes have made it a major draw for tourists, as well as people who seek to live there.

Agriculture, energy production, and mining are among Montana’s largest economic sectors. Tourism is a rapidly growing sector of Montana’s economy.

Astronaut photograph of Flathead Lake in Montana.
Flathead Lake, located within the Rocky Mountain Trench of Montana, is one of the largest freshwater lakes west of the Mississippi River in the continental United States. Source: NASA.

With the many rivers, waterfalls, and lakes in Montana, many people flock to Montana for fishing, kayaking, and whitewater rafting. Its mountains and forests attract hikers and skiing enthusiasts.

Geography is what defines Big Sky Country. The wide, open spaces reveal that geography. 

References

Chodosh, S. (2021, April 26). In a Montana town, a record-breaking 103-degree swing in 24 hours. Popular Science. https://www.popsci.com/one-wacky-month-in-montana/

Continental divide – Glacier National Park. (n.d.). NPS.gov. https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/education/continental_divide.htm

Custer Gallatin National Forest. (n.d.). US Forest Service. https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/custergallatin/home

Elm Coulee Oil Field: Birthplace of the Bakken Oil Boom. (n.d.). Montana Department of Transportation (MDT). https://www.mdt.mt.gov/travinfo/docs/roadsigns/elmcoulee.pdf

Graetz, R., & Graetz, S. (n.d.). The Crazies: A Dramatic Island of Mountains in Central Montana. University of Montana. https://www.umt.edu/this-is-montana/columns/stories/the-crazies.php

Mammals – Glacier National Park. (n.d.). NPS.gov. https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/nature/mammals.htm

The mineral industry of Montana. (n.d.). USGS. https://www.usgs.gov/centers/nmic/mineral-industry-montana

Montana is ... (n.d.). America’s Story from America’s Library. https://www.americaslibrary.gov/es/mt/es_mt_logan_1.html

Polzin, P. (2018, September 21). The economic impact of the Bakken. Montana Business Quarterly. https://www.montanabusinessquarterly.com/economic-impact-bakken/

Sosnowski, A. (n.d.). What are Chinook winds? AccuWeather . https://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/what-are-chinook-winds/339761

Ten of the rivers of Montana. (2021, November 4). Discovering Montana. https://discoveringmontana.com/montana/rivers-of-montana/

What are the Badlands? (n.d.). NPS.gov (U.S. National Park Service). https://www.nps.gov/thro/learn/kidsyouth/whatarebadlands.htm

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