Feast on jaw-dropping splendor, Western lore, and outdoor adventure in the great southwestern expanses of our fourth largest state

Montana majesty: feast on jaw-dropping splendor, Western lore, and outdoor adventure in the great southwestern expanses of our fourth largest state

Ellen Clark

DAZZLING, DRAMATIC, NATURAL, AND SCENIC.

So it is in southwestern Montana.

Oh sure, there’s history, good food, and a variety of places to stay, but the main attraction is the sheer beauty. It’s a land where everything seems intensified, in super sharp focus, richer in color, more majestic, more peaceful, and somehow closer to the sky.

Happily for travelers who prefer to avoid crowds, there’s plenty of elbow room. Montana may be the fourth largest state in area (145,550 square miles), but, at under a million people, it ranks 48th in population density.

The southwestern portion is one of the state’s least populated areas, most of it part of the 3-million-acre Beaverhead National Forest. Uncluttered, wide-open spaces means heaven for active types, with miles of trails for hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking: a vast choice of waterways for fishing, rafting, canoeing, and kayaking; and, in the winter, plenty of challenging mountain slopes for skiing and snowboarding.

Even Bozeman, the area’s largest town, is tiny by most city standards, counting fewer than 30,000 residents. A gateway to the natural areas that surround it, Bozeman is home to Montana State University and the Museum of the Rockies, which chronicles area history from the dinosaurs to the 20th century.

Though the rest of the towns in the area make Bozeman look like a thriving metropolis, they yield some surprises. Dillon, for example, which boasts a population of under 4,000, is unquestionably the place to go to get appropriately outfitted for the region. Stylish and well-made casual wear can be purchased at bargain prices at the Patagonia Outlet store. Ennis, population approximately 900, is home to The Continental Divide restaurant. Serving up creative cuisine for over 20 years, it’s been mentioned in such prestigious and far-flung publications as the New York Times and Gourmet Magazine, and you have to love a place that announces, “Blue jeans, tuxedos, and waders are the common attire–leave your ties at home!”

Anyone who’s ever been to Montana will understand how it got its moniker “Big Sky Country.” On a crisp, clear day the sky hovers like a giant bright blue canopy over seemingly endless stretches of open land. But what most people don’t know is that there is actually a tiny berg in southwestern Montana called Big Sky.

Sitting at the base of Lone Mountain, surrounded by the Gallatin National Forest, Big Sky is the ideal base for the active set. A magnet for skiers in the winter, Lone Mountain in summer offers challenging hikes, including a trek to the 11,166-foot summit for views of three states–Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. The nearby Gallatin River is the place to go for whitewater rafting and blue ribbon trout fishing.

Chet Huntley, the late NBC newscaster, is credited with founding Mountain Village, a self-contained resort complex at the base of Lone Mountain. From the village a gondola carries skiers, hikers, mountain bikers, and sightseers up to 9,025 feet. In the village itself, lodging options include fully equipped condominiums, hotel rooms, and luxury log cabins. A massage and steam at Huntley Lodge’s Solace Spa is guaranteed to get the kinks out, while video poker addicts can try their luck at the Alpine Lounge. Village and nearby restaurants serve everything from Asian fusion to Montana-sized portions of steak and potatoes.

Those looking for a more intimate and remote experience should check out area guest ranches. Lone Mountain Ranch is a great place for families and those who like to leave the planning to someone else. Besides the traditional summer and winter activities like hiking, horseback riding, skiing, and snowshoeing, there are photo workshops, llama treks, and kids’ programs.

Mountain Meadows Guest Ranch sits on 500-plus acres, within easy reach of Big Sky. Looking like a luxurious wood lodge-type private home, it’s a family-run place with seven individually decorated bedrooms, a lot of personal attention, and a daily rate that includes meals.

River Rock Lodge, just about five minutes from the Big Sky gondola, is larger (29 rooms) and less intimate. Tastefully decorated rooms are reminiscent of a boutique hotel and, though there is a breakfast buffet, there’s no restaurant.

Rainbow Ranch looks the most like what you’d expect a mountain lodge to look like. However, it’s not exactly out in the woods, but right on a highway that connects Bozeman to Yellowstone. Still, its rooms have a woodsy feel with boulder-style fire-places, the service is great, and the food is top-notch.

Just down the road from Big Sky is Montana’s entrance to Yellowstone National Park. West Yellowstone is a rustic little town surrounded by unbeatable scenery. To get a glimpse of grizzly bears and a gray wolf pack in their natural habitat, head for the Grizzly Discovery Center. For a virtual look at the park, check out the Yellowstone film at the IMAX Theatre.

For those who prefer their towns to be haunted by ghosts of yesteryear, there are some primo ghost towns. In the mid-19th century, Bannack, fueled by gold found in Grasshopper Creek, was a rousing town of 3,000 residents and briefly was Montana’s first territorial capital. Today ghostly, glamorously clad ladies are reported to have been seen walking the hallways of the Meade Hotel, while the cemetery contains the remains of vigilante victims who swung from the nearby gallows.

In 1865 the territorial capital moved to Virginia City, a thriving town of 10,000. Today Virginia City bills itself as a living ghost town with approximately 150 year-round residents and plenty of history. The main street is lined with vintage commercial buildings, such as the renovated 1864 warehouse that now houses the Roadmaster Grille restaurant. Other historic structures have been turned into period-decorated bed and breakfasts, such as the Stonehouse Inn and Gingerbread House.

Nearby Nevada City, linked to Virginia City by a narrow rail system that runs antique trains in the summer, was a mining ghost town on the decline until the Bovey family came along. They restored some of the existing buildings and moved historic buildings there from other parts of the state. Now more than 90 structures line the streets of Nevada City.

For those looking for a destination that’s long on scenery and short on people, southwestern Montana can’t be beat.

Contact: Travel Montana, (800) 847-4868, www.visitmt.com; or Big Sky Chamber of Commerce, (800) 943-4111, www.bigskychamber.com.

COPYRIGHT 2005 World Publishing, Co. (Illinois)

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group