Montana – Big Sky

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 pathway leading up into the hiking trails along the ski runs at Big Sky.

The zip line comes out into the open below the chair lifts on the backside of the Summit Lodge.

River rafting down the Gallatin along highway 191 between Big Sky and Bozeman.

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.

Lone Mountain Peak looms above Lake Levinsky and the blue Lake Condos at the entrance of Big Sky Mountain Village.

The runs at Big Sky show bright and green in the summer sun.

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.

The Summit Lodge at the base of the runs at Big Sky Mountain Village.

A large deer antler chandelier in the Summit Lodge.

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.

The entrance to Lone Mountain Ranch midway between upper and lower villages at Big Sky.

Log cabin accommodations at Lone Mountain Ranch.

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.

Ousel Falls Trail head just above the lower village in Big Sky.

A great picnic spot along the Ousel Falls of the South Fork River.

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.

Original painting by Harry Koyama, behind the reception desk at the Summit Lodge in Big Sky, called ‘Bruins of Lone Mountain.’

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.

Enjoy more beautiful pics of the very scenic Big Sky area in the Global Gallery under Montana.

 

Traveling is exciting, but “There’s no place like home!”

We’re not in Kansas anymore Dorothy! Oh wait, yes we are. That’s exactly where all our moves have taken my husband and I – back to Kansas, for the second time. As Dorothy so eloquently said in the Wizard of Oz, “There’s no place like home!” and I couldn’t agree more. And for me ‘home’ has culminated in many different locations. I may not have a pair of ruby-red slippers to take me back home, but as much as I love to travel there is nothing better than coming back home.

I have been very lucky throughout my lifetime to have some amazing places to come home to: Minnesota, California, Montana, Kansas, Arizona, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Some of these places are a little better known to the masses, but I found out through living in all these places each location offers up a set up unique characteristics that make them very embraceable places to live AND visit.

Minnesota: My beloved Minnesota. This is where I grew up, and for me that means this will always be home. I was born in Northfield – town of Cows (large agriculture community), Colleges (St. Olaf and Carleton) and Contentment. Inside the city limits an academic nature prevails, but as soon as you hit the outskirts of town you are enveloped in perfectly aligned fields of corn and beans; orchards that are ripe with scents from spring to fall; and cows, horses and other livestock roaming the succulent stands of grasslands. If all of that doesn’t spell ‘contentment’ I don’t know what does.

I spent many weekends with my family “Up North“, along the shores of Lake Superior. Downhill skiing at Lutsen; cross-country skiing on the Gunflint Trail; walking the streets of Grand Marais; hiking trails with amazing views of Lake Superior; and having walleye meals at the Lutsen Lodge.

My husband and I moved back to Minnesota in 1991, and our son was born there a year later. Many of our family members still live there and to me there are fewer more beautiful states. Minnesota showcases the four seasons better than any other state I have visited or lived in. There is nothing like the scent of the spring bloom of the lilacs mixing with the flowering crabapple trees; the summer ripened lush green fairways and thick forests of trees of golf courses; a drive along the St. Croix or Mississippi Rivers showcasing the vibrant colors of fall; or a walk through the snow packed backwoods roads of Minnesota with evergreens draped with a fresh snowfall.

The lush green fairways and thick trees that line Northfield Golf Club, Northfield, MN - "The Money Tree"

The lush green fairways and thick trees of summer that line Northfield Golf Club, Northfield, MN – “The Money Tree”

The fall colors of Minnesota

The fall colors of Minnesota

California: My husband and I married in 1986, and our honeymoon was driving from Minnesota to California – our first home away from home. We lived in Stockton, CA. The best feature of Stockton was its location. We were an hour to San Francisco for fresh crab and strong coffee; an hour to Napa Valley to replenish our wine supply; two hours to Yosemite National Park to float down Merced River. In the one year we lived in Stockton, we had more family visitors than any other place we have lived within the same time frame. Locally we played several great golf courses; took walks along inland waterways fed from San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean; visited a burgeoning local wine industry; and enjoyed great weather year round.

The rows of grape vines in Napa Valley, producing some of the best wines in the world

The rows of grape vines in Napa Valley, producing some of the best wines in the world

Montana: Big Sky country! And until you visit this massive beautiful state, you can’t comprehend just how accurate that state motto is. Being based out of Great Falls, which sits along the Missouri River, afforded a great location to visit the many highlights throughout the state. Head northwest to the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park – be sure to try some huckleberries; continue west into the quaint small western town of Whitefish that sits at the base of Big Mountain ski area; turn south along the great boating lake Flathead Lake; continue south into the Bitterroot Mountains of Missoula; veer a little southeast to the mining (past and present) town of Butte; continue east to fish the Gallatin River or ski at Big Sky or Bridger Bowl outside of Bozeman; then work your way back north along the Missouri River as it cuts through some of the most beautiful Rocky Mountain settings in the country. And to the east are the plains of Montana where Lewis and Clark trekked back in the 1800’s.

Big Sky country, where the (deer) and the antelope roam, Montana

Kansas: I first lived here 25 years ago, and my daughter was born here in 1991. Having never visited the area, I was in awe of the lush rolling hills of Kansas City. When I learned we were returning to KS, I had no reservations in returning – especially since KC straddles the Kansas/Missouri line, so you are getting the highlights of two great states at your fingertips. The people are a mix of Mid-western nice and southern charm and take great pride in the care of their properties; strong family and work ethics; and great cooking. The unique Spanish architecture of The Plaza (great shopping and eating) is a draw, especially as outlined in lights for the holiday season; the stately mansions of Mission Hills are tough to be replicated anywhere; not being a huge fan of BBQ, even I have to admit the BBQ in KC is “…to die for!”

One of the areas most well-known BBQ stops, be ready to wait – but it’s worth it!

Four must haves at Jack Stack BBQ: pork ribs, burnt ends, cheesy corn bake and hickory pit beans.

Arizona: I have lived in Arizona, specifically the Phoenix area, a couple of different times and it will be where my husband and I retire, but Arizona has been the preferred vacation spot for my family, going back almost 40 years – my how this place has changed in 40 years. The dry warmth was always an appeal for a winter getaway from the humid cold of Minnesota. And being avid golfers it was a natural choice. As noted in my previous post I lived there as a junior in high school, when no major highways through the valley existed, and often Tempe and Mesa would be cut off from the rest of the valley when the monsoons hit and the Salt River bottoms flooded.

With the development of several major freeways, the city is now easy to navigate. Besides golf (albeit some of the best golf in the country) and an opportunity for a great tan, the valley has much too offer the visitor. Hiking trails abound throughout the surrounding mountain ranges providing spectacular views; floating down the upper Salt River watching wild horses drink from the shoreline; never-ending supply of great eateries; shopping to rival any other major city; a plethora of beautiful cars adorn the roadways; concerts, theaters, museums galore to satisfy the cultural palette.

The views from atop one of the surrounding high points that line that Phoenix Valley

The views from atop one of the surrounding high points that line that Phoenix Valley

The night skies from the Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, AZ

The night skies from the Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, AZ

Saskatchewan: The year 2000 found us moving northward. At this stage in my life I assumed I would be working my way south to warmer drier climates. Instead we headed north to one of the coldest climates known to man, that has a population of more than a few hundred. Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan was our landing spot. It didn’t take long to realize that as challenging as it was to survive the winters, the people held a warmth to offset even the coldest of days. It was a great place to bring up our children.

The standing joke in Saskatchewan is that you can see your dog run away for 3 days – because it is so flat there. But you have to give the pioneers of Regina a lot of credit for making Regina a/k/a the Queen City a place worth living and visiting. Every tree in the city was hand planted in this once desolate plain, and Wascana Lake was created to be the center piece of the city with the stately provincial legislature building sitting proudly at its shores, and walking paths that take you along the lake and out into the surrounding neighborhoods. The Queen of England and all of her children have been visitors, since Canada is a Commonwealth of England; and there has been no shortage of great acts (ie. Rolling Stones, ACDC, Prince) through this city that sits on the one main highway through Canada – the Trans-Canada 1.

Downtown Regina serves as a backdrop to Wascana Lake and the Legislature building

Alberta: My stay in Calgary, Alberta was short-lived, only two years, but it wasn’t hard to make a real go of it in a city that sits in the foothills of some of the most majestic Rocky Mountain ranges in the world. Our kids were off to university by now, and so my husband and I took the opportunity to live in a high-rise condo, affording us amazing daily views. The weekend we moved there I sat on our 25th floor deck and listened to an outdoor concert, that was being held along the banks of the Bow River. The concert was part of the world-famous Calgary Stampede, based two blocks from our apartment when the whole city of Calgary turns into a cowboy theme park for the better part of two weeks.

While the city itself has a lot to offer, the proximity to places like Banff and Lake Louise make it an equally appealing place to live. Summer golf and hiking and winter skiing await you on a beautiful drive through a greatly untouched Bow River Valley, on a well maintained four-lane highway, past Cranbrook – stop in for a helicopter ride to reach new hiking heights. On into Banff National Park to get your fill of natures beauty: glacier fed turquoise blue lakes; snow-capped mountains even in the middle of summer; wildlife roaming over manmade animal bridges; clean fresh crisp air year round.

One of the many turquoise blue water lakes in the Banff National Park, Alberta - with snow capped peaks in this July picture

One of the many turquoise blue water lakes in the Banff National Park, Alberta – with snow-capped peaks in this July picture