The land of looming peaks, extensive glades, and sprawling slopes known as Big Sky, Montana, is gaining popularity with outdoorsy adventurers beyond the winter ski season.
Big Sky: This area of Montana is known around the country, even the world, as being a primo ski destination. “A skier’s ski mountain,” if you’re looking for a challenge. But I found many worthwhile attractions beyond snowy slopes when I visited Big Sky in the off-season.
Halfway between Bozeman and West Yellowstone, nestled around the iconic Lone Peak and next to the Gallatin River, is the Rocky Mountain community of Big Sky. Driving from Bozeman, you’ll pass the Gallatin’s rushing waters and heaps of alpine valley meadows: You’ve entered the world of outdoor adventure travel. While “downtown” is expanding in the midst of the construction boom of shops, restaurants, and housing, the area still radiates that small town vibe; there are just over 3,500 full-time residents. Beyond town center, the Big Sky’s vistas invite you to breathe deeper, look farther, and get in tune with your senses.
If You Only Do One Thing
If you’re looking to maximize time and funds for one special experience, Yellowstone National Park is the way to go. Backcountry Safaris provides options for full-day tours (half-days are only available in winter). I opted for the Upper Loop full-day route with an up-close and personal encounter with bison (why yes, there was a bison crossing, thank you for asking) and gob-smacking views of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. The tour company provides knowledgeable, passionate guides who save you the hassle of driving, allowing you to spend more time enjoying the picturesque landscapes of America’s oldest national park. While the Lower Loop trail includes Ol’ Faithful, a quintessential sight, just know there are fewer animals hanging around there. Hearty sandwiches from local favorite, The Hungry Moose, are included with your side of 360-degree views.
How to Spend Your Time
If you have the time, book a five-day trip in order to experience a range of activities, from the intense and adventurous (mountain biking, white-water rafting, Ziplining, horseback riding) to soft and serene (walking, fly fishing). Ousel Falls is an easy, short hike that leads to the eponymously named waterfall where you can take a refreshing dip; a more rigorous 6.5-mile hike to Beehive Basin includes a 1,650 foot elevation gain leading to mountain lakes.
Gallatin Fly Fishing has been taking folks out for decades all over the state. Beginners may start at the Gallatin River; a high trout density makes for fast action and high catch rates. Your guide will bring you to the perfect spot based on the season, weather, and time of day. After a methodical five-step instructional on how to maneuver the rod, you’ll cast away and maybe even catch a rainbow trout with the rushing Gallatin at your legs.
There are a few notable golf courses in the area for those who prefer sporting on solid ground. Moonlight Basin’s The Reserve (designed by Jack Nicklaus) and Spanish Peaks Mountain Club’s 18-hole championship course require membership, but Big Sky Golf Course, designed by Arnold Palmer at 6,500 feet above sea level, is open to all. During the summer, there’s rodeo entertainment, a very popular Wednesday Farmers’ Market in the town center (it was recommended to me by three different people), and local and national artists performing free outdoor concerts at Music in the Mountains on Thursdays at Len Park.
Where to Stay
For the something-for-everyone experience, stay at Big Sky Resort. They have access to the fastest chair lifts in North America (modeled after the European ski resorts) and a new tram on the way. The resort offers up a bevy of dining options, retail stores, and an on-site kids program to make the trip family-friendly. Adults can enjoy the Umbrella Bar with a roof that opens and closes in the shadow of Lone Peak. The resort’s Zip line course offers options 150-feet above the tree line, one that cuts right through the trees, and another that’s slower and closer to the ground — for the littlest daredevils.
The best views in Big Sky are accessible to everyone: the high-speed chair lifts don’t require advance booking. To log some coveted water time before the warm season is over, Lake Levinsky is on property to offer paddle boarding, kayaking, and pedal boats. In the heart of the resort, Mountain Village Plaza, meet for a drink, conquer an outdoor escape room experience, mine gemstones, bungee trampoline, or scout your next meal (my recommendation: Westward Social for their French onion dip with seasoned chips and shredded beef sliders with huckleberry gastrique). Big Sky Resort’s offerings make your daily agenda a hard choice between staying on property or getting out to explore.
On the higher end, the relatively new Montage Big Sky is a serene space with a full-scale spa that offers up all the usual suspects as well as atypical services (i.e. sound baths). The 150-room and suite resort provides daily complimentary activities through their Compass program, such as axe-throwing, lasso lessons, and fly casting. My Compass hike guide who led me to Ousel Falls made sure to point out the natural huckleberry bushes. If the weather happens to take a turn for the worst, head back to Montage for bowling (they’ve got the only alley in Big Sky), darts, and arcade games. Unique perks to the resort I’ve yet to see anywhere else: Gibson guitars on hand for inspired moments around the campfire, and free UPPAbaby strollers to lend to guests traveling with little ones.
Big groups looking for a truly memorable stay in nature should consider booking the resort’s Fire Lookout Tower. The six-bedroom, 360-view vertical building makes you feel at one with the land as you overlook the ranges of Lodgepole pine trees and sage bushes. Beyond this unique option, there are other, more rustic ones, like Covered Wagon Ranch and Lone Mountain Ranch (rates and availability vary according to season).
Where to Eat
There’s definitely no shortage of good food in this mountain town. After four days in the area, I left feeling I could have used another week. For a quick bite post-hike, I recommend Yeti Dogs at Big Sky Resorts. Their all-beef (or tofu) dogs are topped with a delicious mash-up of Fritos, chili, and pineapple. If you’re still trying to pack in some calories after an excursion, Yeti serves local Montana Wilcoxson’s ice cream in flavors like huckleberry, Graham Slam, and Moose Tracks. Another excellent casual option: Mi Pueblito Taco Bus, located in the ACE Hardware parking lot, with 51 plated options on its vast menu posted on the side of the school bus.
In the town center there’s Lotus Pad for fresh Thai food (customized to your spiciness preference), and, of course, the usual Italian joint, steakhouse, and pizza parlor. In the summertime, grab an ice cream sandwich at Scoops. Outside the town center, dig into your meat-of-choice — dry-rubbed, slow-smoked Hill Country Texas barbecue at Riverhouse BBQ, which also offers some of the best views overlooking the Gallatin. A fair warning, tables are first-come, first-serve. Go early or be prepared to wait.
Last year, pastry chef Christine Lugo-Yergensen opened Sweet Buns, a bright, vibrant pink bakery and catering business (you may find the pastry chef keeping watch on her rising macaroons; Big Sky’s high altitude creates a finicky baking environment). There’s also Montage’s Wildflower Market, helmed by a French pastry chef bringing a bit of Paris to the area with croissants, pain au chocolat, and cookies n’ cream cookies as large as your hands. If you can’t make it to the resort, Wildflower maintains a stand at the Wednesday evening Farmers Market.
Plan Your Trip
How to Get There
Most airlines fly into Bozeman; Big Sky is about a 90-minute drive north.
Many visiting folks choose the car rental option due to its affordable price point, but as a long-time city commuter, I opted for local transportation. It might be a more costly detail in the trip budget, but for comfort and peace of mind, local drivers here greet you with a friendly face and are more than eager to share their insider intel with you. All of my experiences were dependable and safe which seems harder and harder to come by these days with rideshare apps. If you need a ride to or from the airport, book with Big Sky Country Transport (you’ll meet Jon), and if you’re looking to get around town, book Lone Peak Taxi (you’ll meet Lane and his sidekick dog, Darby, who often rides passenger-side if there’s room).
When to Go
Plan ahead for winter peak season, when lodging will typically max out. The late spring through summer and early fall offer up a quieter time with less traffic on the road, barely any restaurant reservation battles, and trails with very little foot traffic.
What to Pack
Comfy hiking sneakers or boots, and a couple layers for the crisp nights. A reusable water bottle and a hat come in handy for practically every outdoor activity. It’s a casual atmosphere with a laid-back vibe, given most people in town are sporting flannel, T-shirts, and athletic wear.
What to Remember
The area is known for its huckleberry plant, which shows up on menus in the most intriguing ways. Keep a safe distance from wildlife: Stay 150 feet away from bear and bison.