The fanny pack felt a little silly when I strapped it around my waist. The manufacturer calls it a “trail runner neoprene bear spray holster,” but we all know it’s a fanny pack. If the hipster bonafides of the belted pouch weren’t bad enough, the bear spray within felt overzealous. Carrying it on a trail run felt like packing a harpoon for a shark attack while surfing. Nevertheless, the mortification that during a good grizzly mauling my final thoughts would be of the protective spray I’d left in the car in the name of vanity was too much to ignore. Even with the odds thoroughly stacked in my favor, I was happy to be packing some atomized pepper-spiced deterrent once I realized I hadn’t seen anyone in miles and that eerie sensation of being completely alone deep in the woods set in. Big Sky was big country, and getting away from it all was as easy as setting off into the wilderness.
I needn’t have worried about bears that day, just the ability of my legs to finish jogging the ambitious—for me, anyway—route from Big Sky Resort to the Big Sky Meadow Village via the Mountain to Meadow Trail. The stunning trail is popular among mountain bikers, hikers and trail runners, but on this weekday afternoon as drizzling rain transformed into early season snowfall, solitude was all around.
Montana can seem like a lifetime away. It’s an untamed place with landscapes grand enough to make you feel as insignificant as one of those dry flies getting eaten by a trout on the Gallatin River. But it’s only five and a half hours from SLC to Big Sky and less than 60 additional minutes to the comparative metropolis of Bozeman. Time to hit the road. We’re heading to Big Sky Country.
A River Runs Through It
The Gallatin River cuts a picturesque canyon through Bozeman and Big Sky. The river was named for Albert Gallatin, the Secretary of the Treasury during two presidencies and, notably, the Lewis and Clark expedition. I don’t know if the guy was a big fly fisherman or what, but today, anglers from around the world come to experience the blue-ribbon fisheries on the river bearing his name. Gallatin opposed the forced relocation of Native Americans, at least, so I suppose the moniker is less ignominious than some others coined during western expansion.
The evolution of Big Sky and Bozeman mirrors much of the American West as trapping and prospecting ultimately yielded to tourism and recreation. Where late 1800s loggers rode down the river atop felled trees to prevent jams, tourists now load into rafts to tackle the infamous “Mad Mile,” an extended stretch of class IV rapids. The aforementioned anglers cast along some of the same stretches, immortalized in A River Runs Through It. Up in the hills, a real estate developer purchased 100,000 acres of timberland and, after some land swaps with the U.S. Forest Service, created one of the world’s most expensive and exclusive ski and golf communities, the Yellowstone Club. Despite softened edges, Montana is still wild country with untapped potential for exploration. Just don’t forget the bear spray.
What to Do
The ideal starting point for exploring an area is by learning about its history and the people who came before. Stop in at the Gallatin History Museum, which is housed in the former county jail and has a wealth of artifacts from Southwest Montana’s past. These range from the curiously morbid—preserved jail cells and hanging gallows—to the scholarly—newspapers, maps and a 20,000-strong photo archive.
After studying the past, it’s time to enjoy the present. Don’t overthink it. Head out on the water for some world-class fly fishing with Gallatin River Guides. It is some of the best in the world with high catch rates for brook and brown trout. Even if the fish aren’t snapping at your flies with the frequency you’d prefer, it’s tough to have a bad day in such a picturesque setting. There’s a reason they made a whole movie centered around Brad Pitt casting on these waters.
After finishing up on the water, head to Big Sky Resort to explore the high country. The center of the resort, Lone Peak, is a towering laccolith that dominates the skyline at 11,166 feet. People of all ages and abilities can reach the summit on the half-day Lone Peak Expedition, where safari-style vehicles drive guests up the mountain’s flanks before they’re whisked to the top in the Lone Peak Tram. Those who prefer using sweat equity to reach Montana’s highest scenic overlook can hike up the Summit Climb trail, while the adrenaline seekers can enjoy the resort’s lift-served mountain bike trails.
Southwestern Montana is more than an evolved relic of western expansion; it’s become the creative capital of the state. Visit the Bozeman Art Museum to experience artwork representing the traditions, history and future of its people and cultures. Still, we’ve only scratched the surface. There’s that little-known National Park—widely regarded as the world’s first—called Yellowstone just down the road.
Where to Eat and Drink
A good day in the mountains around Big Sky starts with a solid caffeine kick. Caliber Coffee Roasters, has some great local roasts and breakfast options—it’s hard to go wrong with a chicken-fried steak in the morning. After some outdoor adventure, grab a different type of brew at the Lone Peak Brewery. Lone Peak has a huge selection of 14 beers on tap, and, with the best burgers in Big Sky, it’s more than just a spot for suds. In the evening, check out Olive B’s Big Sky Bistro. The menu has mountain classics like rocky mountain elk, lamb chops and a wild game Bolognese, but, with the chef’s New England roots, also features seafood like crab cakes and an absolutely decadent lobster mac and cheese.
When in Bozeman, enjoy the budding culinary culture. Whistle Pig Korean is home to authentic Korean dishes. The Dak Bulgogi with marinated chicken and the Kimchi Jjigae with tofu and pork stew is delicious, but there are also wonderful vegetarian options including a high-protein Bibimbap. Feast Raw Bar & Bistro is an upscale eatery offering locally sourced meats—try the bison carpaccio—and sustainably sourced fresh seafood—the daily ceviche and house poke are outstanding. Meanwhile, Colombo’s Pizza and Pasta is an old-school institution that’s been serving up authentic Italian cuisine for 26 years and is better than ever.
Where to Stay
You don’t get the full Big Sky Country experience by staying in some cookie-cutter, pseudo-luxury mountain lodge. Bodhi Farms is a unique lodging option allowing visitors to be part of the outdoors in complete comfort. The boutique eco-resort and permaculture farm is situated on Cottonwood Creek just south of downtown Bozeman with nine glamping tipis, a spa tipi, a wood-fired sauna, yoga classes and farm activities, all with incredible views of the Gallatin mountains.
While the name is hyperbolic, Hardscrabble Ranch is another great option for people looking to immerse themselves in the Montana mountains. The property has luxurious canvas glamping tents set alongside the scenic Brackett Creek, all featuring handcrafted beds and furniture along with decks to soak in the views of nearby Ross Peak. Hardscrabble also features two lodges with a hip, minimalist aesthetic. The rooms and shared spaces have modern mountain décor and wooden art installations for a quirky mountain vibe.
Built in 1919 and originally called the Halfway Inn because it marked the midpoint between Bozeman and West Yellowstone, Rainbow Ranch is a Montana classic. The lodge is set on the banks of the Gallatin River with a rustic yet elegant construction that is right at home in Big Sky. The infinity pool hot tub offers incredible views and is a perfect spot for a relaxing soak at the end of a long day exploring the mountains and rivers in Southwest Montana.
Road Trip 1: Glacier Country Trip
Start: Columbia Falls / End: Eureka
Things are bigger in Glacier Country. From the scale of the mountains in Glacier National Park to the limitless recreation opportunities in Whitefish, enjoy the expansive wilderness and vibrant outdoor activities unique to Montana.
1. Rafting the Great Bear Wilderness
Paddle outrageously scenic whitewater on the Flathead River with Glacier Guides. Eco-conscious trips in Glacier National Park are an unforgettable way to experience pristine wilderness. Spend the night at Two Medicine Campground and refuel at Two Medicine Grill with some huckleberry pie.
2. Travel the Going-To-The-Sun Road
The 50-mile long Going-To-The-Sun Road bisects Glacier National Park, crossing the continental divide at Logan Pass. Open only in summer, the scenic byway passes by glacial lakes, through cedar forests and into alpine tundra. It’s a remarkable place for a road bike ride or a gorgeous drive. There’s a free shuttle for hikers to try the 10-mile roundtrip Siyeh Pass Trail.
3. Explore Whitefish
The famed resort town is built along a seven-mile-long glacial lake with Whitefish Mountain Resort looming high above. Rent a mountain bike to explore the town’s network of singletrack trails or take a SUP or kayak from Paddlefish Sports out to Whitefish City Beach. Sample classic Montana fare like the Elk Meatloaf at Tupelo Grille.
4. Climb at Stone Hill near Eureka
Eureka is tucked into the far northwest corner of Montana, just six miles from the Canadian border. In this remote area near the Kootenai National Forest is the Stone Hill Climbing Area, where quartzite crags have more than 500 routes rated 5.10 or higher. Stop in at Rocky Mountain Outfitter in Kalispell for some beta.
5. Hike Kootenai Falls near Libby
Kootenai County remains wild. The Revenant and The River Wild were both filmed here for a reason. Hike to Kootenai Falls, the largest undammed falls in the state and take in views of the Kootenai River while crossing the iconic Kootenai Falls Swinging Bridge.
Road Trip 2: Hot Spring Heaven
Start: Boiling River in Gardner / End: Chico Hot Springs in Pray
Adventure in the mountains can be an exhausting endeavor, so why not partake in one of the most relaxing activities possible? The Treasure State is home to scores of natural, mineral-rich hot springs. Take a dip.
1. Boiling River
Immerse yourself in completely natural hot springs around the Boiling River. Set in Yellowstone National Park, there’s no resort or infrastructure, just hot and cool water entering the Gardiner River, creating the perfect temperature for a soak.
2. Spa Hot Springs
Flathead Blackfeet and Crow tribes considered the valley where Spa Hot Springs is located neutral ground so everyone could experience the healing properties of the water in peace. Today you can enjoy two outdoor pools, an indoor pool and a lodge on site.
3. Norris Hot Springs
Stay for the night at Norris Hot Springs where an onsite campsite, restaurant and live music have everything you need for entertainment and relaxation. The eco-friendly pools are drained each night and the water is recycled back into its natural spring.
4. Bozeman Hot Springs
For more than 100 years, people have rejuvenated with a dip in Bozeman Hot Springs in the heart of the Gallatin Valley. The springs range in temperature from 59 to 104 degrees so you can find the right temperature no matter where you prefer the thermostat set.
5. Chico Hot Springs Resort and Spa
Chico Hot Springs is the perfect base camp for outdoor adventure. Whether you want to explore Yellowstone National Park, go fly fishing or hike the mountains above Paradise Valley, the 103-degree pools and on-site lodging with cozy cabins mean you can end your day with a relaxing soak.
Road Trip 3: Big Horn and Beyond
Start: Billings / End: Billings
American history is written into the Montana landscape. Everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this road trip presupposes is maybe his legacy didn’t? With apologies to Eli Cash, hit the road from Bighorn to the Badlands with pictographs, cemeteries and canyons, following historic trails etched in time.
1. Pictograph Cave State Park
Leave Billings heading south to Pictograph Cave State Park to follow in the footsteps of prehistoric hunters who inhabited the area 2,000 years ago. More than 100 pictographs endure on the walls of Pictograph, Middle and Ghost Caves.
2. Pompeys Pillar National Monument
The 200-foot-tall sandstone rising above the Yellowstone River is a testament to western frontier history. The rock face is covered in drawings from over the centuries, and Captain William Clark carved his signature and the date into the rock. It’s the only site on the Lewis and Clark Trail where evidence of the expedition is visible to the public.
3. Range Riders Museum and Montana Bar
Eastbound to Miles City. Stop at the Range Riders Museum for exhibits on the town’s Native and pioneer heritage. Afterward, taste history at the Montana Bar. Opened in 1908, the authentic western bar is almost unchanged with steer heads and taxidermy on the walls, original Italian floor tile and wooden booths, and, of course, a steakhouse serving up Montana beef.
4. Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
Visit the site of Custer’s last stand, honoring the memory of the American Indian warriors and U.S. Cavalry soldiers who died during battle in 1876. Explore the area with Apsaalooke Tours, which employs Crow Indians as guides, from the Reno-Benteen Battlefield, where the battle began, to Last Stand Hill, where it infamously ended.
5. Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area
Turn south to the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, which is referred to as the “Grandest Canyon in the Northern Rockies.” More than 70,000 acres straddle the Montana/Wyoming border with numerous recreation opportunities, like trout fishing in the river below Afterbay Dam.
6. Chief Plenty Coups State Park
Nestled in the base of the Pryor Mountains, Chief Plenty Coups State Park is one of only three U.S. State Parks located on an American Indian reservation. Visit the home of Chief Plenty Coups—a National Historic Landmark—the last chief of the Crow. There’s no camping in the park, so head back to Billings for the evening.
Road Trip 4: Meander the Missouri River
Start: Fort Benton / End: Havre
From its headwaters at the confluence of the Gallatin, Madison and Jefferson Rivers, the Missouri River cuts a meandering swath across Montana. Journey through expansive landscapes to the relics of the Old West.
1. Canoe From Fort Benton
The historic settlement of Fort Benton was once the starting point for navigating the Missouri, and today it’s a popular launching point for recreational river trips. Adventure Bound Canoe rents all the gear you need or can lead guided trips down the Missouri, where you’ll float and camp in remarkable settings.
2. Fishing and Poetry in Lewiston
A ranching community in the center of Montana brings together western tradition and outdoor recreation like few other places. Anglers can enjoy outstanding brook trout fishing along the Judith River, while those in search of a more cultural experience can check out the Mountain Cowboy Poetry Gathering and the Western Music Rendezvous, both in Lewiston.
3. Birding and Beer in Malta
The Bowdoin National Wildlife refuge is home to more than 260 bird species. 84,000 acres of wetlands and native prairie provide habitat to an enormous variety of wildlife. Take in the sights through binoculars then tip one back at the Blue Ridge Brewing.
4. Play and Plays at Fort Peck
Fort Peck sits at the head of the 134-mile-long reservoir of the same name where the walleye and northern pike practically jump out of the water. After pulling up anchor, visit the historic Fort Peck Theatre to catch a musical or play.
5. History in Havre
The Bear Paw battlefield near Havre—one of the three sites of the Nez Perce Historic Park—is where Chief Joseph spoke his famous words, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever,” surrendering to the Army, ending the Nez Perce War in 1877. A groomed, mile-long interpretive trail winds through the historic battlefield. Afterward, head back to Havre for some wonderful baked goods and sandwiches at local favorite, Grateful Bread.
For more travel ideas head to visitmt.com. This is the travel feature from our September/October issue. Read our editor’s letter introducing the issue here and subscribe here. Explore our road trip series in Idaho, Colorado and Wyoming.