Montana See And Do
One of the country's prettiest pieces of road winds between Cooke City and Red Lodge, just outside of Yellowstone National Park. The 70 miles of Highway 212 known as the Beartooth Highway ascends into a landscape of high-altitude tundra, dwarf trees, and turquoise lakes. Near its midpoint, the road dips into Wyoming and passes the Clay Butte Fire Lookout, a decommissioned tower at 9,811 feet. It's an ideal picnic spot for gazing over the saw-blade ridgelines that define the area. Check the Montana government Website for the latest info on road conditions and seasonal closings,
Much to some locals' chagrin, it is no secret that Montana has great trout waters, with at least six world-class rivers. Picking the best one to fish can be difficult (and makes for a great way to spark an argument in a fly shop), but none is more accessible than the Gallatin River around Big Sky. Highway 191 snakes alongside the river through the Gallatin Canyon: Spy a fishing hole and just pull over. Summer evenings here bring reliable caddis hatches and 16-inch rainbows to the surface, but be forewarned: The river's got a heck of a current. For a more serene experience, stop by Dan Bailey's in Livingston. This world-famous fly shop will set you up in a McKenzie River Boat, a flat-keeled drifter that's perfect for floating down the lazy Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley (406-222-1673; www.dan-bailey.com). For the latest river report or a guide to tune your casting stroke, or if you'd like to venture further to the Madison or Missouri rivers, stop at the Bozeman Angler (800-886-9111; www.bozemanangler.com).
Tel: 406 888 7800
Due to a very limited road system and enormous swaths of backcountry, Glacier begs to be explored on foot. Comprising more than one million acres set hard against the Canadian border, the park is filled with imposing rock and ice, making Yellowstone's soft meadows seem benign. But before throwing on your pack and leaving the pavement, one drive is required: the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The 52-mile route crosses the Continental Divide and passes massive glacier-sculpted walls. The road is open only for part of the year, usually mid-June to November; check its status on the national park's Web site. Many Glacier, in the eastern part of the park, is a good starting point for excellent day hikes as well as longer backcountry trips. Its popular Grinnell Glacier trail accesses views of high peaks and green-tinted lakes before arriving six miles later at the retreating foot of one of the park's 26 glaciers.
The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area, a million-acre chunk of public forest, lends itself to Montana-size superlatives. The Beartooth is the largest alpine plateau in the U.S., with nearly 1,500 miles of trails, almost 30 peaks that spiral up to 12,000 feet, and hundreds of lakes (some two dozen are home to rare golden trout). The plateau is the kind of place where a well-equipped hiker with ample provisions and preparedness can disappear for days, if not months. But be wise: If you're not experienced, go with a guide, or you might disappear in a bad way. A good place to start is the East Rosebud Lake trailhead, west of Red Lodge. The relatively easy trail follows a chain of lakes and passes beneath massive rock buttresses; stop for a picnic three miles later at Elk Lake, or push on to Rainbow Lake for a longer outing (14 miles, round-trip). For a more challenging overnight trip, begin at the East Fork of Mill Creek, south of Livingston, and follow the strenuous trail eight miles north to Elbow Lake, where you'll camp beneath the towering alpine architecture of Cowen Cirque. For guide services, contact local guide Ron Brunkhorst (406-578-2155; email@example.com). For a more kid-friendly summer outing, amble through the Lewis and Clark Caverns, a popular state park also in southwest Montana, near Three Forks (about a half-hour drive from Bozeman). The charmingly corny guided tour through the spectacular limestone caves combines geology with local history.
Since most of Montana's dozens of protected wilderness areas and forests lack roads, one of the best ways to explore is by horseback. We recommend the guidance of a licensed outfitter. If you're up by Glacier National Park or the million and a half acres of rugged, isolated backcountry known as the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, call Swan Mountain Outfitters; they'll take you on a five-day ride-and-fish pack trip to some of the most remote lakes and streams in the state. If Yellowstone is your target, join Wilderness Pack Trips, located in Emigrant, just north of the Gardiner entrance to the park. Their trip into the park's Thorofare region—called by some the most secluded place in the Lower 48—is a nine-day ride of uninterrupted wildflower, elk, moose, bear, and wolf viewing. If you can't coutenance a week's worth of saddle sores, both outfitters offer dazzling one-day excursions as well. Neither outfitter has a standard two- or three-day itinerary, but they'll happily plan something for you if you call a week or so in advance.
Pray , Montana
The same geothermal features that entertain the crowds at Yellowstone's Old Faithful also heat the mineral waters in Chico Hot Springs, a perfect rehab for the body after hiking or skiing. It's located 23 miles south of Livingston at the foot of Paradise Valley's Absaroka Mountains (800-468-9232; www.chicohotsprings.com), and a night under the stars in the open-air springs is a local tradition. Expect rowdy, happy crowds.
Crow Agency , Montana
Tel: 406 638 3204
Almost no moment in western history casts a longer shadow than June 25, 1876, when General Custer and 262 men fell to Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors. The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, 55 miles east of Billings in eastern Montana's Crow Indian Reservation, has detailed self-guided walking tours. It's surprisingly interesting and thorough, taking guests through the desolate prairie and detailing each Indian encampment, doomed charge, and gun position. The trail wanders past white grave markers for fallen soldiers, culminating at the 7th Cavalry Monument and the Indian Memorial.
Snow has a tendency of lingering until mid-summer, which is the only reason the state doesn't have more fat-tire fame. Visit in early July to conquer the seemingly endless miles of singletrack. Stop at Chalet Sports in downtown Bozeman for bike rentals, maps, and trail recommendations in the nearby Bridger and Bangtail wilderness areas (406-587-4595; www.chaletsportsmt.com). We like the Emerald Lake trail, 20 miles southeast of Bozeman in Hyalite Canyon. Riders have to granny-gear up much of the five-mile climb to two alpine lakes and stunning meadows; flying down is another matter. Missoula also has good riding: Check in at Missoula Bicycle Works for the skinny on riding in the Rattlesnake National Recreational Area and the surrounding Lolo National Forest (888-888-2453; www.missoulabicycleworks.com).
Norris , Montana
Tel: 406 685 3303
It's called Water of the Gods for a reason. Located near the historical mining community of Norris, the hot springs heaven may be the only place where you can simultaneously eat, drink, and float in the hot water. From the pool, view wildlife, including bald eagles, antelope, and sandhill cranes, with the dramatic backdrop of the jagged Tobacco Root Mountains. On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, local bands provide a soundtrack to float to from the insulated domed poolside stage with bluegrass and soul. Visitors order food with their soak at an outdoor takeout window. The menu is eclectic pub fare, offering everything from burritos to toasted polenta triangles topped with roasted vegetables. Alcohol like organic wines and local brews Madison River Seasonal and Cold Smoke Scotch Style Ale are available poolside as well (designated drivers get a free pass for their next soak). Changing shacks are unheated and locker-free, so be sure to leave valuables at home—and change quickly, before you freeze.— Isabel Sterne
Open Wednesdays through Fridays 4 to 10 pm, Saturdays and Sundays noon to 10 pm.
Like everything else in Montana, rodeos are big. The season opens on the third weekend in May with the three-day World Famous Miles City Bucking Horse Sale, one of the state's most rollicking parties, with about 100 cowboys riding the horses and bulls that will be scored and sold to compete in summer rodeos (406-234-2890; www.buckinghorsesale.com). The season ends in early January with the Montana Pro Rodeo Circuit Finals in Great Falls, another three-day spectacle of bedazzled Stetsons and spurs. Held in conjunction with the Miss Rodeo Montana Pageant, where picture-perfect cowgirls compete to become the state's "First Lady of Rodeo," it's a welcome winter change from all that snow (www.montanaprorodeo.com). For an old-fashioned good time during the summer, head over to the July 4th rodeo held annually in Ennis; the hamburgers-and-Budweiser crowd cheers like crazy for the rodeo equivalent of a Triple-A baseball game (www.ennischamber.com/events.cfm). And most large towns—in Montana, that means more than a few thousand people—hold local rodeos all summer long. You can check the statewide schedule online.
Big Sky Resort, with 4,350 feet of vertical drop, has rightfully earned a reputation for gut-check steeps with its 50-plus black-diamond runs. Big Couloir (accessed from the tram) remains a terror-inducing badge of honor, while the newly opened Dakota Bowl is a backcountry powder paradise (800-548-4486; www.bigskyresort.com). Weekenders and couples should shack up in the basic but cozy slope-side Huntley Lodge; for larger families or extended stays, book one of the ski-in/ski-out Powder Ridge log cabins—you'll feel like you're borrowing a friend's cushy vacation home.
Since Big Sky joined its terrain with neighboring Moonlight Basin (877-822-0430; www.moonlightbasin.com), Lone Peak mountain has gained a notable distinction: the most skiable acres in the country, with 5,512 acres, 25 lifts, and 220 quad-searing runs. The combined area averages 400 inches of snow each season, much of it bone-dry powder. Moonlight's Headwaters lift brings you to the gullies on the north side of the mountain—when it dumps, the First, Second, and Third Fork trails are adrenaline heaven. But Moonlight's best runs are in the trees off the Lone Tree Lift; try Ulery's Trace and Whiskey. There's no shortage of luxury lodging at Moonlight; the four extravagant penthouses in the main lodge are perfect for a group of your billionaire friends, with restaurant-quality kitchens, hidden flat-screen televisions, and incomparable views of the Spanish Peaks. But the typical traveler should book a Cowboy Heaven Cabin: These cozy ski-in/ski-out two-bedroom log cabins are straight out of an L.L. Bean catalog, with gas fireplaces or stoves; big, fluffy beds; and groomed trails just outside the door.
To avoid the crowds, head to Whitefish's Big Mountain. Skiers and boarders get 91 trails covered with 300 inches of snow over 3,000 acres. With lots of glades and deep bowls, it draws downhillers from the Pacific Northwest but belongs to the locals (800-858-4152; www.bigmtn.com).
If you're a Nordic enthusiast, the Rendezvous trails in West Yellowstone are a favorite of Olympic biathletes—and the $5 day pass is a tiny fraction of what you'll pay for downhill. Stop by the Freeheel and Wheel in West Yellowstone to pick up a pass and a map (406-646-7744; www.freeheelandwheel.com).
The Gallatin River may be best known as a fly fisherman's dream, but punctuating all those fishing holes are some spectacular rapids (up to Class IV). Montana Whitewater's trips down the winding steeps of the Gallatin Canyon range from relatively mellow stretches upstream to the nonstop rapids of the aptly named and terrifying Mad Mile and the massive obstacle known as House Rock (800-799-4465; www.montanawhitewater.com). Both half- and full-day trips are available year-round; although the winter air temperatures are bitter cold, the same fissures in the earth's mantle that heat Yellowstone's Old Faithful keep the Gallatin River streaming all winter long. If you're bold enough to raft in January, you'll be rewarded with a view of the rimed canyon: Steam from the river freezes on the surrounding trees and cliffs to create a frosty wonderland beyond compare.