Big Sky Exploration
South Central Montana
Consider this route a Montana sampler. Stay in one of the state's fastest-growing cities, learn about geology, go ziplining or flyfishing, check out ghost towns and see Yellowstone National Park's geothermal marvels.
BOZEMAN HAS ELEVATION WITH BENEFITS
The city's postcard-perfect views of the Bridger, Madison, and Gallatin ranges are true Montana, while downtown beats with an edgy pulse. Historic buildings house hip bars, beguiling art galleries, and cutting-edge restaurants. This city’s expanding population demands—and receives—a mountain-air lifestyle mixed with cosmopolitan perks.
Montana State University contributes to the city’s energy. On the MSU campus, the Smithsonian affiliate Museum of the Rockies holds a world-famous trove of dinosaur bones, including 26-foot-long Big Al, one of the most complete Allosaurus skeletons ever found, as well as an outstanding collection of dinosaur eggs. One mile away, the American Computer and Robotics Museum might seem like it’s just for tech geeks, but its displays strike a universal chord. Learn about our collective journey from the abacus to the smartphone, and look for your first PC among the computers, calculators and mainframes.
On Grand Avenue, the Emerson Center is the nexus of Bozeman’s burgeoning art scene, housing nearly 30 art studios and galleries packed with made-in-Montana sculptures, pottery, paintings and glasswork. Nearby is Jam!, where the corned beef hash has legions of fans, but the reason to put your name on the waiting list is the pancake flight. At dinnertime, nab a spot on Saffron Table’s outdoor patio and sample addictive garlic naan and fried paneer. The kitchen elevates elements of standard Indian dishes with locally sourced ingredients—try the wild-caught fish with hara masala.
When it’s time to unwind, the Instagram-worthy RSVP Motel caters to trend-conscious guests with boldly colorful rooms, oversize throw pillows and a playful vibe. In 2020, The ELM concert venue will open next door. More traditional B&B travelers stay at The Lindley House, its artfully renovated rooms decked out in restful neutrals.
In the morning, drive an hour south to Montana’s largest ski resort, Big Sky Resort. Winter is all about powder, but summer has its own fun, like bungee jumping, mountain biking and soaring across the zipline. Or lace up your hiking boots—the Beehive Basin Trail ascends through meadows to a glacial cirque ringed by 10,000-foot peaks. Refuel with lunch at Olive B’s Big Sky Bistro, or drive south on U.S. 191 to the Gallatin Riverhouse Grill for barbecue, honky-tonk music and a river-and-mountain view.
Keep heading south on U.S. 191 with the Gallatin River tumbling alongside you. West Yellowstone puts you within an easy drive of Yellowstone National Park’s geysers, hot springs and geothermal wonders. Check in at Elkhorn Cabins and Inn or sister property Evergreen Motel, where freshly renovated rooms have comfy beds and woodsy decor, then get up early and beeline to Yellowstone. Head straight for Norris Geyser Basin, a spectacular and ever-changing thermal area. Wander the Porcelain Basin Trail among terraced hot springs and geysers or the Back Basin Trail past Steamboat Geyser, famous for its 300-foot-high eruptions. At Midway Geyser Basin, marvel at photogenic Grand Prismatic Spring—a surreal rainbow of orange, yellow and green surrounding a vast cobalt pool. Nearby Great Fountain Geyser erupts on a fairly dependable schedule. If you can’t wait for the showery spectacle, go see Clepsydra, which erupts almost constantly. Back in West Yellowstone, learn more about the area’s wildlife at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, which is opening a new river exhibit featuring playful otters.
BIRTH OF A LAKE
Leave the park through West Yellowstone and drive north along Hebgen Lake’s shoreline to the Earthquake Lake Visitor Center, stopping to read the interpretive signs along the way and see ruins of cabins. Tour the site where a 1959 earthquake—registering a whopping 7.5 on the Richter scale—caused a devastating landslide. Earthquake Lake was created when several million tons of rock formed a natural dam.
The Madison River Valley’s fertile ranchland spreads out on either side of U.S. 287 as you head north to Ennis. Originally a supply town for Virginia City’s miners, this ranching community is now better known as the epicenter for the Madison River’s famous “50-mile riffle,” considered the most trout-rich water in Montana. Outfitters like Trout Stalkers can get you into the middle of the action.
LEGENDARY GHOST TOWNS
Virginia City was Montana Territory’s capital during the 1860s gold-fever days, when the town prospered with 1,200 buildings and 10,000 residents. When the gold ran out, so did most of the people. But several businesses still operate in this National Historic Landmark, including Montana’s oldest functioning county courthouse. Walk the town’s wood-plank sidewalks, catch a vaudeville show at the Opera House or belly up to the bar in the old Wells Fargo building. The narrow-gage Alder Gulch Short Line Railroad chugs 1.5 miles to Nevada City, another gold boomtown. Fourteen of the town’s original buildings remain, including an 1863 structure housing Star Bakery, purveyor of fried pickles and biscuits. The Nevada City Music Hall shows off Wurlitzer band organs, arcade-style music-makers and nickelodeons.
Your trip’s final stop is Three Forks, at the confluence of the Madison, Jefferson and Gallatin rivers. The three waterways join to become the mighty Missouri River, a merger celebrated at Missouri Headwaters State Park, where Lewis and Clark camped in 1805. Hike, bike, fish or canoe. End your trip on a posh note at Sacajawea Hotel, its white-pillared veranda beckoning travelers since 1910.