Big Sky Summer
Big mountain adventures in a little Montana town
Endless mountain views, expansive meadows, and a scenic "blue ribbon" river canyon all come together to make Big Sky the perfect Montana getaway. Renowned as one of America's premier ski destinations, Visit Big Sky invited us down to sample some of the area's more summery attractions. From hiking and horseback riding in the mountains, fishing and rafting in the river, and daytripping down to Yellowstone, we found a ton of things to see and do.
Known as the "Gateway to Yellowstone", the vibrant little town of Big Sky is located in southern Montana about halfway between Bozeman and the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Surrounded by the Gallatin National Forest and the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, there are some 60 hiking trails in the immediate vicinity of town, world-class trout fishing at its doorstep, and plenty of recreational amenities like zip lining, mountain biking, and whitewater rafting to boot.
Whether you stay at a campsite, bunk in a rustic cabin, or book a luxurious vacation rental, be sure to stroll the little town centre, stop in at the Compass Cafe or Hungry Moose for lunch, and enjoy a delicious dinner at one of the local institutions like Buck's T-4 or the nearby Gallatin River House.
Hiking Storm Castle Peak
The first hike on our list was the trail up Storm Castle Peak. It's an iconic landmark on the drive down from Bozeman, a stalwart rocky outcrop rising abruptly from the graceful bends of the river. The trail's unrelenting elevation gain is almost as famous as its silhouette, but in the cool of morning we didn't find the climb to be too bad. The views, in any case, more than reward you for your efforts. Expansive outlooks over layers of the Gallatin's mountain ranges, strange fossil-dotted rocks, and a neat natural bridge await you at the top.
One of the area's most stunning hikes is the trail to Beehive Basin. Meandering through flower-filled subalpine meadows to a little glacier-carved lake reflecting the Spanish Peaks, the trail is relatively short with only moderate elevation gain. Routinely voted one of the country's best hikes, rarely do you find so easy a trail with such a breathtaking payoff! It's a great destination for a quick jaunt or a fulfilling half-day picnic, and if you feel like scrambling up the rocks a bit further, you'll be rewarded with sweeping views over the valley.
Following the tumbling Cascade Creek up a thickly forested valley, the Lava Lake trail takes you deep into the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. You'll find plenty of delicious berries along the way and once you reach the end you're greeted by a big lake full of trout and surrounded high sloping mountains, most of which are more than 10,000' in elevation. A great place to go on a hot summer day!
With its abundance of cold, clear mountain waters Montana is one of the world's de facto capitals for fly fishing, and few rivers have become more iconic than the Gallatin. It's a beautiful river, surrounded in turn by picturesque mountain-framed meadows and steep canyon walls, and its abundant native trout population has earned the "Blue Ribbon" status. Not surprisingly, anglers from all over the world coming to fish these waters.
For some handy lessons (and an insider's scoop on some of the best places!) we booked the "Walk and Wade" tour with Gallatin River Guides. Our guide Josh was extremely knowledgeable and infectiously excited to be out fishing with us, giving us tips and anecdotes and hands-on pointers, which made it all the more fun. There's something very satisfying about fly fishing, about being on the water for long stretches of time and exploring new bends in the river, the way it mixes a goal-oriented pursuit with the feeling of relaxed downtime, the solitude paired with camaraderie, being alert to the seasonal shifts of insect hatches and currents, the almost meditative rhythm of casting flies — and of course being in such a beautiful place makes it even better still.
We weren't really sure where we'd be riding when we booked a 3 hr trail ride with Jake's Horses, but considering the beautiful open meadows surrounding town we knew it would be nice. It turned out we had vastly underestimated just how scenic it could be as we climbed high up into the Porcupine Meadows and rode a big loop across a ridgeline and back along the river. Filled with flowers and framed by distant blue mountains, the Porcupine Meadows were a delight, the kind of landscape you imagine when you try picture the perfect place for riding. Highly recommended.
While we can sing the praises all day about fishing on the Gallatin, the rushing white waters are also a great place to raft. We headed out with Montana Whitewater on one of their half-day "zip and dip" adventures, first paddling down the tumbling river in a boat then soaring across it on their zip line course. It was a ton of fun and they're kind of a one-stop shop for Big Sky adventures, offering everything from fishing tours to horseback riding as well.
Almost located within the village itself, the trail to Ousel Falls is a short and lovely hike. From the parking lot the trail quickly dips down into a little canyon and then follows the South and West Fork of the Gallatin River offering constant water features. It's a cool respite on a warm day, and one of the many signature Big Sky stops.
Chuck Wagon Dinner
Keeping the pioneer spirit alive, the 320 Guest Ranch offers a neat view into early days of the Big Sky region. Converted from a 110-year-old homestead, the ranch offers rustic cabin rentals, horseback riding, fly fishing lessons, and tasty chuck wagon dinners. We stopped by for dinner, hopping on a horse-drawn wagon to a little dining tent on the banks of the river, and feasted on a hearty meal of sirloin steak and barbecued chicken, beans, cornbread, and more.
Yellowstone Nat'l Park
Less than an hour from the west entrance to Yellowstone, Big Sky is a great basecamp to explore the park's wonders. From dramatic canyons and mountains to gushing geysers and steaming springs of impossible colours, Yellowstone encompasses a huge and highly varied area. Wandering among the bubbling volcanic features was a truly strange and otherworldly experience, and it was easy to see how these landscapes inspired the creation of the national park system and became the template for many of the world's protected areas. It is a truly spectacular area.
Driving a loop through the park, we passed countless world-famous sights including Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Spring, but the most unforgettable might have been seeing the bison-filled fields of the Hayden and especially Lamar Valleys. Such incredible creatures! And such a fitting end to our trip through breathtaking Big Sky.
Big thanks to Visit Big Sky for inviting us down and showing us around!