The state of Montana in the north-central United States goes by many names. Over the years, this generous and impressive land has been called “Big Sky Country”, “The Treasure State” and “The Last Best Place”. All of these gracious designations reflect Montana’s resource-rich history, its Rocky Mountain charm, and the blending of two quintessential American cultures: Native American tribes and wild cowboys. But despite its universal appeal, Montana remains one of the least populous states (44th according to the 2020 census), which is actually part of the attraction. Here are the top ten cities where Montanans have put down roots.
1. Billing – 119,706
Located in south-central Montana on the Yellowstone River, Billings is the only city in the state with a population of over 100,000. It is the county seat of Yellowstone County, a former rail hub and continuing center of commerce for the eastern part of the state. In the early 1900s, Billings was nicknamed “The Magic City” for its rapidly growing population. That magic is still very much alive today. Between the 2010 and 2020 censuses, the population grew by 12.4%.
2. Missoula – 74,829
In western Montana, nestled between the picturesque Bitterroot Valley (to the south) and bustling Glacier National Park (to the north), lies the picturesque city of Missoula. Here, the Bitterroot River, Clark Fork River, and Blackfoot River flow through the city. Missoula is also surrounded by national forests and wilderness areas, with the Rocky Mountains rising to fill that beautiful, ever-present Montana skyline. This environment not only provides the state’s usual variety of outdoor activities, but also some of the social benefits that come from combining nature and a community that appreciates nature. Missoula is the county seat of Missoula County and experienced a 10% population growth between 2010 and 2020.
3. Great Falls – 60,830
Great Falls is the county seat of Cascade County in central Montana. It is located on the Missouri River, the source of five splendid waterfalls that give the city its name. The falls at Ryan Dam are perhaps the most magnetic, but each set deserves to be marveled at during a hike, bike ride or run along the banks. Great Falls is also known as “The Electric City” as it has made excellent use of its renewable natural resources by building hydroelectric dams at three of the five falls. Although growth has been relatively moderate (3.3% from 2010 to 2020), Great Falls remains one of the largest tourist attractions in Montana, receiving approximately 1 million visitors each year.
4. Bozeman – 56,495
This pristine southern Montana mountain town is a laid-back, charming place to enjoy natural beauty, attend Montana State University, soak up some eclectic culture, and hop on nearby attractions. Around Bozeman, visitors can try backpacking/camping, fishing, rock climbing, and all kinds of biking; Plus, there are outdoor festivals, street markets, rodeos, and nice patios to explore. Big Sky Ski Resort and Yellowstone National Park are just south of town, and a short drive northwest is Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park. Although it currently ranks fourth in terms of population, Bozeman takes the crown as the fastest growing city in Montana. Between 2010 and 2020, this Gallatin County seat grew 43%!
5. Butte – 34,688
Roughly equidistant between Bozeman and Missoula, along Interstate 90, is the city of Butte. Due to its favorable location, this Silver Bow County seat provides access to the same outdoor recreation as the latter two cities, but from a base camp that is even quieter and much more spread out. Given its large footprint, Butte’s population density is only 48.2 people per square mile. Initially, the city became famous as “the richest hill in the world”, due to the large number of copper deposits. The wealth this generated is evidenced by the Victorian residential district and the scattered opulent mansions.
6. Elena – 32,871
Helena is the capital city of Montana, the county seat of Lewis and Clark County, and is another example of Montana’s quite literal rich history. This gold mining community was founded in 1864, in west-central Montana, to capitalize on the gold rush. Given its lucrative exploits and blessed surroundings, Helena became known as the “Queen City of the Rockies.” The Victorian-era architecture is fit for royalty and continues to draw attention to the city. Unlike some sister cities, Helena still actively mines for gold and lead. Mining, combined with its duties as state capital and middle ground between the two major national parks, has contributed to continued growth over the years.
7. Kalispell – 25,484
Kalispell is the county seat of Flathead County in northwestern Montana. It is another perfectly located city for lovers of the outdoors. Immediately to the south is Flathead Lake, and a few minutes north is Glacier National Park and the start of its acclaimed Going-to-the-Sun trail. To the east is the Flathead National Forest, and a little further west is the Kootenai National Forest. As any classic mountain town should be, Kalispell has a lively downtown strip filled with great food, craft breweries and shops to support big adventures or laid-back evenings.
8. Belgrade – 11,074
Just eleven miles northwest of Bozeman, the city of Belgrade has also benefited from the influx of residents into Gallatin County. Though eclipsing a modest population of 10,000 people, since 2010, Belgrade has experienced the second-highest growth rate in Montana (41.6%). This city was named after the capital of Serbia in honor of one of the main financiers of the Northern Pacific Railway, who made the founding of the city possible. Belgrade is the site of the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport and acts as a suburb of the busier Bozeman. By the population density metric, Belgrade is the top dog on this list (3,218.5 people per square mile).
9. Anaconda – 9,445
About 25 miles northwest of Butte is the curiously named county seat of Deer Lodge. Founded by Marcus Daly in 1883, it originally pursued the name Copperopolis (to reflect the copper boom) before settling on Anaconda, the name of one of its successful mines. This site, once home to the world’s largest non-ferrous smelting and refining complex, was closed in 1980 before it was cleaned up and converted into a high-end golf course. Today, Anaconda’s economy relies on tourism (based on outdoor recreation and history) rather than extraction. The small population and significant land area give Anaconda the lowest population density on this list (12.8 people per square mile).
10. Le Havre – 9,372
Rounding out the top ten is this rural farming community in north-central Montana. Havre is just shy of the Saskatchewan, Canada border, putting it firmly in prairie territory, though it’s still easily within reach of the mountains. Students seeking a quiet life are drawn to Montana State University (North), while residents of all stripes can enjoy the unspoiled beauty of this laid-back railroad town.
A love of nature and a desire for anonymity are some of the main reasons people find themselves in Montana. There are certain areas that draw big crowds, namely Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park, but overall, Montana allows you to get away from the noise, get some fresh air, and truly explore one of the last great places.
The 30 Largest Cities in Montana
|eleven||Southeast Helena Valley||9,356|
|12||Western Central Helena Valley||8,828|
|22||falls of columbia||5,432|
|26||Northwest Helena Valley||4,949|
|30||Malmstrom Air Force Base||4,263|