Last summer, a group of friends met before dawn in Bozeman, Montana with a never-before attempted adventure in mind. They biked south of town, winding up a serpentine canyon to Hyalite Reservoir. There, at the edge of the water, they traded their wheels for wet suits, swimming across the reservoir before hiking up Blackmore Peak on the opposite side. At the top, nearly 5,500 vertical feet and five miles later, the group of friends paused long enough to take in the expansive vistas of Bozeman’s seven surrounding mountain ranges and refuel with a picnic lunch. Then they took off, retracing their steps and strokes back to town for a celebratory brew before sunset.
Their story was captured in The Picnic, the second short film in The Sky’s The Limit video series by the Montana Office of Tourism.
“The thing I love about Bozeman,” explains David Gonzales, the creator and instigator behind this adventure and other Picnics across the West, “is that you’re really only a couple miles from these totally wild, totally rugged places that seem really far from civilization.” Bozeman is only one of Montana’s many small-town basecamps that provide intrepid travelers unimpeded access to mountainous peaks, river carved valleys and wide open prairies.
Here are a few other Big Sky Country Basecamps.
The Bitterroot Valley:
The recently completed Bitterroot Trail connects Missoula, one of Big Sky Country’s cultural centers to Hamilton, along a cycle-worthy corridor between the Sapphire and Bitterroot Mountain ranges. From Hamilton, hikers can trek up Blodgett Canyon, nicknamed “Montana’s Yosemite” for its towering granite walls and formations on many climbers’ bucket lists. Farther south is Lake Como, where adventurous locals gather each year for the annual triathlon event. Bonus points are awarded to those who spend the night high in the Bitterroot National Forest, at the Gird Point Lookout.
Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley:
A well-known basecamp to the world’s first national park, Bozeman is also a mecca for recreation seekers. Home to five blue ribbon rivers and some of the state’s highest peaks, it’s no wonder David Gonzales and crew chose Gallatin Valley for their Picnic. Follow their path up Hyalite Canyon and choose from various hiking and mountain biking trails, or throw a line in the mountain-fed streams and high-alpine lakes that teem with cutthroat grayling. Locals live here for the same reason that others come to visit, and are quick to offer tips and advice to fellow adventurers.
Billings and the Bighorn Canyon:
An hour and a half south of Billings, Montana’s Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area offers unparalleled outdoor opportunities. Visitors can float, paddle, and fish the Bighorn River as it winds beneath thousand-foot-high canyon walls. Hikers and bikers can roam above on the Bad Pass Trail. And for those looking to spend the night, over 100 campsites offer prime wildlife viewing opportunities and scenic vista sunsets. Back in Billings, nicknamed “Montana’s Trailhead,” give the 406 Duathlon Challenge a try, or navigate the state’s longest brewery tour, featuring eight stops along a one-and-a-half mile trail.
Along the Highline
Tucked away in the northeast corner of the state is Fort Peck Reservoir, a body of water boasting a shoreline longer than the California coast. Here, visitors can fish for trophy-sized walleye, northern pike and paddlefish or cruise the rolling green hills of the high plains, stretching from the state’s eastern border to the Rocky Mountain front along Highway 2. Set pace with the locals and run across the largest hydraulic dam in the country during the annual Longest Dam Race and relax afterwards at the Fort Peck Theater. Don’t miss a pastel-colored sunset from the high bluffs along the Missouri River, a landscape that’s changed little with time.
Great Falls and the Missouri River
Over two hundred years ago, Lewis and Clark traveled west along the Missouri River, stopping at present day Great Falls to navigate the rapids that lay before them. Today, locals uphold that spirit of adventure, whether floating beneath the river’s scenic White Cliffs via canoe or kayak, biking the award winning River’s Edge Trail or exploring the lesser-known single track in the Highwood Mountains. A trip to Great Falls isn’t complete without heading over to the Sip ‘N Dip to drink a local craft beer (may we suggest the Pig’s Ass Porter) while watching the mermaids swim.
Butte and the Continental Divide
Visitor’s to Butte, once nicknamed the “Richest Hill on Earth” for its prospering copper mines, can tap into the area’s extensive Continental Divide Trail systems on foot, horseback or mountain bike. Just south of town are the colorful limestone cliffs and granite formations of Lost Creek State Park, where resident mountain goats, anglers and hikers picnic next to cascading waterfalls. Don’t miss the annual Evel Knievel Days, an extreme sports festival in Uptown Butte that honors the city’s homegrown and legendary daredevil. Want to join in the action? Sign up for the Butte 100, “the most difficult mountain bike race in the country” or spectate the nation’s only urban downhill, as skilled bikers careen through old mining shafts and over jumps along the city’s historic drags.
In Montana’s small towns, the sky’s the limit and recreational opportunities abound. Interested in writing about one of these or another story idea? We specialize in creating customized itineraries for journalists with inspired ideas and good outlets. Give us a holler.