Montana, known as “Big Sky” country is aptly named. Even with all of the Rocky Mountains ranges that dot the skyline of this expansive state, the ‘sky’ itself invokes a majesty all its own. The experiences in Montana are as vast as the sky, so I will break up our 10-day road trip to Montana into multiple postings to properly capture the highlights of the trip. Our trip began in Arizona, and we made our way up through Utah, Nevada, Idaho and into Montana. Any one of these states can and will garner a need for their own post – but for now my focus is on Montana.
When you arrive into Montana, it’s like a calm settles over you – your heart rate drops and you breathe easier. People who visit and live here, choose this destination to inhale and enjoy what nature created over the centuries. Montana by land mass ranks as the 4th largest state, but ranks 44th in population. Montana’s largest city, Billings, comes in at 110,000 people – leaving an awful lot of land preserved in its natural state, allowing for wildlife to populate in numbers not seen in many places and lots of room for people and that wildlife to co-habitate together peacefully.
We entered Montana in the southwest corner of the state, driving by the very western edge of Yellowstone National Park. This stretch of Hwy 191 is beyond gorgeous. The two lane road winds through lush green forests of pine and birch, and low-lying meadows dotted with ponds and running streams – a perfect setting for some big Montana moose, but sadly we never spotted one. The air was as fresh as the setting was serene. Smiles settled in on our faces, as life’s stresses melted away the deeper we made our way into this beautiful state.
Our first stop in Montana was in Big Sky – a ski resort town, about a 30-minute drive south of Bozeman, that we had visited many times in the 7 years we lived in Montana back in the late 80’s and late 90’s. We were initially drawn to the area for the skiing because it has remained un-commercialized and un-congested unlike its Colorado counterparts i.e. Vail, Beaver Creek, Aspen. But the area shows its raw beauty even more in the summer months with no shortage of things to do: hiking, golfing, biking, fishing, rafting, horseback riding, tram and chairlift rides, zip lines, rock climbing, and the list goes on and on.
The entrance of Big Sky intersects the famed Gallatin River (think ‘A River Runs Through It‘) known for its great fly-fishing and white water rafting. Or in our case the place, some 20 years ago, where our chocolate lab puppy decided to test out her water dog skills. My husband was out fly fishing on the Gallatin and our new puppy so wanted to be near him, she jumped into the water, but the water was too strong for this little 8-week-old 12-pound puppy and she went swirling down the river. I never saw my husband move so fast through a fast running river, up onto the bank and down the river bank until he got ahead of where the puppy was in the water and reached down and yanked her out of the water like a fish on the end of a fly fishing pole!
Big Sky is separated into distinct topographies – the lower village (6,800’ elevation) or ‘meadows’ where some great golfing, shopping, galleries and lodging exists. And the upper village (7,500′ elevation) or ‘mountain’ where some of the best skiing in the US exists and most of the main resorts. The highest point of Big Sky is atop Lone Mountain Peak, boasting a tram that takes you across a wide bowl to its highest point at an elevation of 11,166 feet. Not for the faint of heart – this area above the tree line is double-black diamonds to get down the peak to were the bulk of the ski hill lies.
In the winter we went as far as taking the high-speed chairlift to the base of the tram. From there we pointed our skis downward into the single black diamond bowl before you ascend into the tree-lined slopes. Our last trip to Big Sky was to ski. Our son, 8, was a fearless snowboarder, taking black diamonds, through the trees, over jumps. Our, 10, daughter stuck with skiing and on one of our last runs she took off in front of us down into the bowl. In an instant she was tumbling ass over tea-kettle. Our hearts in our throats as we raced to where she had come to a stop – skis going in every direction, body in an upside down pretzel position. Instinctively my husband grabbed her around the waist to gently lift her up out of the contortion of body parts fearful to find our dainty daughter unconscious. Instead, a howl of laughter broke from her lips. She said that was the most fun she’d had all week and can we do it again! Suffice to say our mind was on a bottle of wine to calm our jangled nerves after that escapade! Kids!
But I digress – this trip (and post) is about our summertime fun at Big Sky – some 14 years later. We stayed at the rustic Summit Lodge – replete with log furniture, deer antler chandeliers, and bear skin rugs. With the lodge at the base of ski hill, we had easy access to trek up the mountain to access the hiking trails that meander up and through all the ski runs, over mountain creeks usually hidden by several feet of snow, and along logging trails that double as catwalks in the winter . Reaching some of the higher ridges, it was once again evident as to how the state and this specific ski resort acquired it’s title of ‘Big Sky’. The vistas are breathtaking and sky has no end in sight.
About halfway down the mountain, between the upper and lower villages, is a rustic but high-end resort, Lone Mountain Resort, where you can rent log cabins of multiple configurations and sizes. The restaurant is one of the best in Big Sky and is worth a stop for anything from a great brunch to a fine dining experience. As well as horse back riding in the summer, or sleigh rides in the winter.
A little closer to the lower village is another great area for hiking, called Ousel Falls Trail. It doesn’t have the breathtaking expansive views as the hikes up on the ski hill, but the lush beauty of trekking your way along the fast running South Fork of the West Fork of the Gallatin River and take a breather for a picnic with the Ousel Falls for a backdrop is equally enticing.
Down in the meadows of the lower village is an Arnold Palmer designed golf course. As well as multiple galleries showcasing many local artists, our favorite being Harry Koyama. My husband so fell in love with one of his paintings that served as the back drop to the reservation desk at the Summit Lodge, that I commissioned Harry to replicate the same picture (in a much smaller size) for a surprise birthday present for my husband and serves as the backdrop of his home office.
Interspersed between galleries and gift shops are a multitude of great restaurants. Most taking local flavors – such as elk or bison meat, huckleberries (my personal favorite), or fresh trout from the Gallatin River – and putting their own spin on recipes to satisfy even the pickiest palates.