After our extended stay in Big Sky, Montana it was time to venture further east to find other hidden treasures in the state often labeled the ‘treasure state.’ Once a hot bed for mining of gold, silver and sapphires back in the mid-1800’s, this state’s other ‘treasures’ lay in the natural beauty of the landscape – from the towering Rocky Mountain ranges to the low-lying running waters of cool rivers to hot springs and all points in between. Montana is a true destination no matter what direction you travel in this massive state.
We headed northeast out of Big Sky to Bozeman, home of the Montana State University Bobcats. Population is around 40,000, but it has the feeling of a small town that never lost touch with its old west roots. The main street is filled with boutique shops, restaurants, galleries and a great one-off ice cream spot selling our favorite huckleberry ice cream out of the back of an old airstream rv.
Bozeman is also home to another great ski area, Bridger Bowl, where I first skied ‘out west’ back in 1970 – during some of the worst winter weather I have ever encountered (and that’s saying a lot having grown up in Minnesota). This was so long ago I still had wooden skis. On our first day out skiing I was coming down a run my brothers built a ski jump on. The snow was swirling so much I couldn’t see the jump until I was right on top of it. I miscued, tumbled off the side of the jump and came down cockeyed breaking my skis. My Dad marched me right into the ski shop at the base of the hill and bought me my first set of fiberglass skis. Talk about making lemonade out of lemons!
Once again I digress – back to the summer road trip through Montana. We continued our trek into the eastern prairies of lower Montana to the largest city of Billings (pop. 110,000), where my niece and her family live. This was 4th of July weekend, and two of the biggest traditions in this part of Montana this are the Red Lodge 4th of July Parade, followed by the Home of the Champions Rodeo.
We all got duded up in our cowboy hats and cowboy boots and headed to the little one-horse town of Red Lodge. Nothing cuter than watching a parade through the eyes of little ones. My great-niece was 2 and in her glory watching all the floats, beautiful horses, marching bands and of course running after the hordes of candy thrown to the streets. Red Lodge is also the site where Sundance Kid and the Wild Bunch botched a bank robbery back in 1897. Reminiscent of the botched bank robbery of Jesse James and the James Gang in 1876 in Northfield, Minnesota – the town where I grew up, and where they hold an annual 4-day Defeat of Jesse James Days to commemorate this foiled robbery attempt.
The rodeo was the real highlight of the day. After making our way up into the wooden stands that circled the rodeo arena we settled into watch the amazing acrobatics of man and beast: bull riding, saddle bronc riding, calf roping, and most entertaining was ‘mutton’ bustin’ where the youngsters try to ride a sheep. And of course and appearance by the infamous cowboy monkey ‘Whiplash‘ who rides his trusty steed Boogie, a Border Collie, and shows how to properly round-up a herd of sheep around the arena.
The next day we ventured out for some much-needed R&R after a day spent in the hot, windy, dusty conditions of summertime in the west, to search out a couple of the highly acclaimed healing hot springs – of which there are apparently 61 in total throughout the state. On our way to the hot springs we consistently saw herds of upwards of 50 head of elk and/or antelope in several different spots. It had been a rainy spring and the prairies were lush green, which enticed these herds to come down out of the higher country to frolic and graze in these farmers crop lands and pastures.
The re-mastered western town of Gardiner is where we gained access to one of the hot springs, but it is also the northern and only year round entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Our first stop was at Bear Creek Springs – an area left in its untouched natural state where the hot springs bubble up from underground and run into the parallel waters of the cold running Yellowstone River. The key is to find where these diverse waters intertwine creating the perfect bath water temp. If you veer too far right the waters will chill you to the bone and turn you blue. If you veer too far left you will get scalded by hotter than hot tub waters and turn red. They are called ‘hot springs’ for a reason. It was interesting to watch how many people had to test just how hot is hot. A lot of burned fingers and toes went home that day – but luckily none in our group.
A little further back up the road, working our way back towards Billings, there is a place that has harnessed the natural hot springs into an easily accessible pool setting – Chico Hot Springs. A great little resort and spa with a large pool that is easy for any age or ability to navigate. After a nice long soak in the healing waters of the natural hot springs we stayed on at the Chico Resort to eat at their highly acclaimed fine dining restaurant. Known for using local produce, we wined and dined on bison and trout and huckleberries and garden ingredients grown on the property.
For a state that is better known for its mountainous regions like Big Sky and Whitefish, and it’s stunning National Parks like Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, there are plenty of hidden gems to search and add to your bucket list.