Get Your Western Fix in Big Sky Country

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Things to do near Yellowstone National Park include exploring Montana towns, museums, hiking, ATV, and more.
Spectacular scenery just outside Yellowstone National Park. Photo credit: Sarah Ricks

No more excuses! It’s time to get your cowboy on. Pull out the boots, dust off the hats, pack the suitcase and head for Big Sky, Montana. The best things to do in Big Sky Montana include getting lots of fresh mountain air, good food and exercise while exploring America’s first national park.

Big Sky, founded by famed NBC news anchor Chet Huntley, is one of the best places to visit in Montana. It’s a year-round resort away from crowds gathering in Yellowstone National Park and close-by surrounding communities.

Although it’s a four-season climate, each season may occur over a couple of compact days, even in the summer.

My 2022 trip to Big Sky was delayed 14 hours on Memorial Day weekend due to a freak snowstorm that dumped more than a foot and a half of snow on the road between Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.

People walking and chatting outside of Niseko Restaurant, one of the things to do in Big Sky Montana
Niseko Restaurant in Big Sky Village Center. Photo credit: Visit Big Sky

What Insiders Like

To get an insider’s look at the area where Wyoming and Montana meet, we talked with Liz McFadden from Visit Big Sky. A former concierge at the Big Sky Resort, Liz now works on marketing projects for the town’s tourism agency.

“I tell people to pack for four seasons,” she said. “Even in the summer, you could need cold weather clothes.”

Liz swapped her role looking at the ski lifts at the resort for her new gig in the Big Sky Town Center and brings with her all the concierge secrets for a fantastic experience in Big Sky country.

“You need to plan ahead, especially when coming during the peak months, winter or summer,” she said. “There is so much to do here for people who like the outdoors.”

Western Montana is just that way. The trick is finding things to do without all the crowds that pack into Yellowstone.

Planning Counts for Everything

“Reservations are needed in advance,” McFadden said. “Not just for hotels, but also for outfitters, guides and side trips. The number in the groups they take is limited. Coming to Big Sky? Do a little research on the Visit Big Sky website and make reservations before you come.”

Liz said the first question she’ll ask is, “How far do you want to drive today?” That question is essential almost anywhere in the West because it’s big.

“For a short drive, I’d send people to Hebgen Lake, a little over an hour down the road,” she said.

Kayaking on Hebgen Lake is one of the things to do in Big Sky Montana
Hebgen Lake, an hour south of Big Sky, has complete recreation activities on land and water. Photo credit: Eric Jay Toll

Hebgen Lake

The drive cuts through the Montana portion of Yellowstone National Park and the Custer Gallatin National Forest. The lake has places for picnicking, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, boating, camping and cabins.

This is a family-friendly destination to experience outdoor activities in an extraordinary Rocky Mountain setting. The lake is fed by and empties into the Madison River. For hikers, there’s a trek up the hill to Moonlight Basin, but for those not so adventurous, a Forest Service road gets you almost to the top.

Peak seasons at Big Sky are July through September, around Christmas and the New Year, and March-April for holidays and spring break. Even in the summer, it can snow.

The Gallatin River is one of the things to do in Big Sky Montana
The Gallatin River outside Big Sky, Montana. Photo credit: Visit Big Sky

Things to do in Big Sky MT in the Summer

One of the great early summertime activities is whitewater rafting on the Gallatin River and other places around Big Sky. Three whitewater outfitters are based along the river in Gallatin Canyon on U.S. 191 north of Big Sky.

Most offer zipline experiences as well. Early reservations are essential.

Rafting starts in mid-May, and many dates were already closed to bookings by early April.

Geyser Whitewater Expeditions has both rafting and ziplines across the summer months and is located in Big Sky. Montana Whitewater Rafting & Zipline has two locations north of Big Sky.

“There’s rafting, of course,” McFadden said. “I like horseback riding on the trails in and around Big Sky, and you can get deeper into the forest or even an expedition into Yellowstone by horse.”

Kids waiting to learn how to ride horses at Lone Mountain Ranch, one of the things to do in Big Sky Montana
Lone Mountain Ranch and other dude ranches in the area help guests learn to experience riding on a horse, or take experienced riders on adventures into the national forest. Photo credit: Lone Mountain Ranch

Horseback Riding

Back from a wagon ride to the North Fork Cabin for a wood-fired breakfast from its 1890 cast iron stove, I dusted my boots, put on the new Western shirt from the gift shop and stepped onto the porch at the Bitterroot Cabin.

Wisps of fog were still wandering between the cabins and over the (take a breath for this one) North Fork West Fork Gallatin River—a gurgling brook racing downhill toward Big Sky, where it joins the West Fork Gallatin River.

I walked across the broad meadow at Lone Mountain Ranch, a dude ranch stretching across a mountaintop and over a glacial moraine at the edge of the resort village, towards the corral for a morning ride into the Custer Gallatin National Forest.

“This is the funnest part of my job approving that stuff,” said Patrick McVey, general manager at the “roughin’ it” resort. “We make a personalized itinerary for our guests and have it all ready when they check in.”

McVey said that people expect their idea of a Western experience when coming to a dude ranch and that Lone Mountain and the other ranches in the area deliver that year after year.

Horseback riding in the forest was high on the list. There were eight of us bracketed by a wrangler in front and one in back as we headed single-file up the hill toward Lone Peak, the nearly 12,000-foot-tall crown jewel of the Big Sky Ski Resort.

We weren’t going to do the climb by horses, but beginning later this summer, the newly remodeled high-speed tram to the peak will open at the Big Sky Resort as a renovated scenic lift to the top of the mountain. Skiers can drop almost a mile on the way down in the winter or summer or winter, it’s a scenic lift round trip.

Group of people mountain biking, one of the things to do in Big Sky Montana
Many of the trails – outside of wilderness areas – are designated for mountain biking, as well as equestrians and hikers. Maps from services like GaiaGPS and AllTrails will show which trails are ready for two-wheel riders. Photo credit: Lone Mountain Ranch

Mountain Biking

After a couple of hours on a horse, it was time to shift muscles and saddle up a mountain bike for a ride on the many trails in and around Big Sky. Even with the sore legs, the mountain biking (slowly) was exhilarating on the Beehive Basin Trail.

The right-in-town trail offers a double experience. Mountain biking the first three miles to a meadow and lake with a gentle ascent of about 110 feet. The next few miles put some oomph into the ride pushing up another 400 feet in a steep climb toward an amazing view. At least, it’s downhill on the return six miles.

Enjoying a meal at the Horn & Cantle Restaurant at the Lone Mountain Ranch is one of the things to do in Big Sky Montana
A fine dining experience, the Horn & Cantle restaurant is open for guests of Lone Mountain Ranch and to the public. Its rustic design radiates the American West. Photo credit: Eric Jay Toll

A fine dining experience, the Horn & Cantle restaurant is open for guests of Lone Mountain Ranch and to the public. Its rustic design radiates the American West. Photo credit: Eric Jay Toll

At the end of the day. It’s time to settle into one of many restaurants in Big Sky. Lone Mountain Ranch boasts the Horn & Cantle restaurant, a fine dining experience also open to the non-guests. Try anything bison on the menu. Other restaurants with varying cuisines abound in the center of this mountain village.

Eat at the Gallatin Riverhouse Grill, one of the things to do in Big Sky Montana
The Gallatin Riverhouse Grill is known for American dining with live entertainment featuring local Big Sky area musicians. Photo credit: Visit Big Sky

Food, Drink and Music

At the dude ranches, in the restaurants and bars, it’s always possible to find live music in Big Sky. Visit Big Sky lists 10 places, including the Lone Mountain Ranch, Big Sky Resort and Gallatin Riverhouse Grill, typically featuring local live entertainment.

“Yeah, it’s fun living here year-round,” said the guy in line in front of me at Roxy’s Market in the village center. The grocery was laid out like a farmers market. “Sometimes it’s a struggle in the off-season, but I wouldn’t exchange this for anywhere else.”

“Whatever you want to do outdoors,” added the cashier. “You can find it right here or near here.”

Many “wilderness-seeming” trails originate right in Big Sky. The short under-a-mile hike to Ousel Falls on the Ousel Falls Trail is one example, but it’s not the only one.

“Spend time on the Bear Tooth Trailhead,” said visitor Mac Steer, owner and director at Simify in the San Francisco Bay Area. “This is one of my favorite spots in Big Sky because it’s close enough to town that it doesn’t feel like you’re in another world but far enough away that you can really get away from everything else around you!”

Viewing Old Faithful at Yellowstone National Park is one of the things to do in Big Sky Montana
Waiting in the cold misty Memorial Day afternoon with a temperature creeping into the mid-40s, a crowd stood by and watched as Old Faithful thundered 185 feet into the sky. Photo credit: Eric Jay Toll

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone is a magnet attraction no matter where you stay. Its diverse landscape, hot springs, geysers and geothermal features are unlike anywhere in the world.

The Ken Burns “National Parks” PBS television series describes how Yellowstone’s active caldera was “American-discovered” by a member of a surveying team separated from his fellows. He survived for a year in the wilderness and, when discovered, was considered crazy with his descriptions of what he found.

Read More: Complete Yellowstone packing list

Wildlife Alive in the Wild

Among Yellowstone’s many attractions is the abundant wildlife that appears everywhere. Drive carefully around curves because running into a vehicle stopped to let a moose cross the road or waiting for a herd of bison to make their way to the other side is an excellent way to ruin a vacation.

In two days in Yellowstone, photos of bison, moose, deer, bear, eagles and hawks were snapped. One bison close-up was the beast munching grass at the side of the road staring into the car. It was a quick reckoning with the realization that if he charged, he could flip my car.

Seeing a bear in real life was a thrill. One was rambling across a meadow below one of the many waterfalls in Yellowstone. Another was asleep behind a tree, blissfully ignoring two long lines of stopped cars while rangers kept visitors to the side of the road opposite the sleeping bear.

Hiker looking over Lava Lake in the Custer Galatin National Forest, one of the things to do in Big Sky Montana
A three-mile hike from U.S. 191 north of Big Sky with a gentle elevation gain takes you to hidden Lava Lake in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area in the Custer Galatin National Forest. Photo credit: Visit Big Sky

Hiking

Yellowstone and the Custer Gallatin National Forest offer hiking trails for every experience level. Hikers will find loops, in-and-out, mountainside tracks and places for backpacking.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Here’s everything you need for a backpacking trip.

Winter Activities in Big Sky MT

Big Sky is one of the most popular winter destinations, and the Resort ski area has runs originating at the very top of Lone Peak. Breakneck downhill skiing isn’t the only winter thrill. Liz rattled off a long list of things to do in Big Sky in the winter beyond downhill and cross-country skiing.

“Many people don’t realize you cannot drive into Yellowstone in the winter,” she said. “You can take a snowcat or join a noncommercial snowmobile group. Snowshoeing is also offered at places like Lone Mountain Ranch.”

Lone Mountain also has sleigh rides and sleigh rides with dinners. Snowmobiling is allowed in the national forest on a limited selection of trails, and Snowmobiling in Yellowstone is limited to four noncommercial groups per day. There are also opportunities for long and short dog sledding rides.

Getting to Big Sky

Getting to Big Sky means flying to Yellowstone Airport outside West Yellowstone, Montana, a little over an hour to the south. The airport with the most service to the area is Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, about an hour to the north.

Other airports serving the area include Jackson Hole, Wyoming, at Grand Teton National Park or Yellowstone Regional Airport in Cody, Wyoming. While the latter two airports are convenient to the national park, they are several hours further from Big Sky than West Yellowstone or Bozeman.

View inside a cabin at Lone Mountain Ranch, one of the things to do in Big Sky Montana
Accommodations at Lone Mountain Ranch and other dude ranches are usually private or duplex cabins built rustic and luxuriously appointed. Photo credit: Eric Jay Toll

Where to Stay in Big Sky

Lodging includes a selection of resorts, dude ranches and motels. In addition, many homes in Big Sky are available as vacation rentals.

One of the differences between conventional lodging and resorts and dude ranches is the latter two’s connections with outfitters, fishing guides and adventures in the area. The costs are higher than a motel, and the rooms are smaller than a vacation rental. Still, facility amenities and available activities can add a big bonus to a trip into Big Sky country.

Young girl fly fishing at Lone Mountain Ranch, one of the things to do in Big Sky Montana
Guests at Lone Mountain Ranch can arrange to connect with one of the Ranch’s fishing guides for lessons or expeditions to the rivers that run through the area. Photo credit: Lone Mountain Ranch

National Park Safety Tips

Give the Animals Some Space

The term “national park” is misleading. These are national preserves retained in generally pristine wilderness conditions. Wild animals – emphasis on wild – wander throughout the park, including along roads and developed areas.

These animals look docile but have their personal space. Anyone entering that zone is subject to being attacked. A one-ton bison can jump six feet into the air and clear a distance of ten feet faster than a human can react.

During my five days in Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, four people were killed by bison. All four violated the park’s basic tenet: Do not approach wild animals. A ranger at a national park once told me that half the job was keeping stupid people away from smart bears.

Geysers and Hot Springs Aren’t Hot Tubs

Geysers and hot spring pools often the temperatures of boiling water, even when little or no steam is visible. Putting hands or feet in the water can cause severe burns, and people have died falling into the geothermal features. Keep your dog under control and on a leash around them.

BYO Water and Snacks

Carry water and snacks. Yellowstone is a massive land area. At any point, you could be hours away from a store with either.

Keep Your Gas Tank Filled

Fill up before you enter the park because gas is very expensive inside the park. And keep your tank filled — gas stations are few and far between inside the parks.

A travel writer and photographer in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S., Eric Jay Toll has been writing for She Buys Travel from its earliest days. Specializing in the American West and outdoor adventures, Eric also treks in Mexico and Canada, and forays into Europe. He lives with his dog, Chaco, who occasionally joins road trips and camp outs, but tends to be a Downtown Diva.
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