There’s a saying Big Sky, Mont., locals often share with one another when they are hiking under unbelievable blue skies or skiing through tons of snow. And if you visit, you’ll learn it.
“LTD,” they’ll say and smile. And you’ll look a little confused until a knowing local translates for you. “LTD is short for “Living the Dream,” she’ll tell you. And in that moment, you’ll feel exactly as she does.
The town of Big Sky is tucked in the flanks of the green mountains that roll up to Big Sky Resort, a huge ski area with 34 chairlifts and nearly 6,000 skiable acres. Born in 1973 when the ski resort was created, Big Sky is a relatively new town where you’ll find easy-going people who love sharing where they live with people who visit.
“You come here for the two Rs,” says local Candace Carr Strauss who lived in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Athens, Greece, before returning to Montana to settle in Big Sky. “The first is recreation like hiking, biking, rafting and in the winter, skiing. The other R is relaxation. You recharge. You rejuvenate before you go home.”
Big Sky is situated perfectly between Yellowstone National Park and Bozeman, Mont., the latter being a major hub for Yellowstone travelers to fly in and out of. In fact, the first place after entering the Gallatin Canyon on US 191 from Bozeman where you’ll find cell phone service and public restrooms is the Big Sky Visitor Center. Just 45 minutes from Bozeman and the park, Big Sky offers a range of restaurants, outdoor activities and lodging accommodations, the higher end of which you cannot always find closer to Yellowstone.
“In West Yellowstone and Gardiner, the lodging is what it is,” says Strauss who is CEO of Big Sky Chamber of Commerce. “We offer much higher end accommodations - some are downhome and middle-to-mainstream, but you also can rent the higher end.”
Having said that, Candace emphasizes that the town of Big Sky is no Aspen. You won’t find a Ritz-Carleton Hotel or high-end designer shops like Gucci in this low-key town.
“We’re not an Aspen or a Vail,” Strauss says. “We do not have five-star hotels. You don’t come to shop and consume. You come here to reconnect.”
Get Outside in Big Sky
There’s fewer places to reconnect with yourself and family than in the great outdoors, so hit the trails when you are in Big Sky. Just as in Yellowstone and Glacier, bring bear spray with you every time you hike as bears inhabit the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, of which Big Sky is a part. While hiking, make noise, so that wildlife can hear you coming and not be surprised to see you on the trail.
For an easy but pretty hike, head to Ousel Falls. It takes about 30 minutes to get to the falls, depending on how often you slow down to smell the amazing wildflowers along the trail. It’s 1.6 miles out and back. If you stop first at the Hungry Moose Market & Deli, 209 Aspen Leaf Dr., before you drive to the Ousel Falls trailhead, you can buy pre-packaged sandwiches and killer breakfast burritos to enjoy later on at the falls. Roxy’s Market, 20 Huntley Dr., also sells pre-packaged foods that you can put in your backpack and enjoy on the trail.
For a longer hike, do the Beehive Basin Trail that’s 6.6 miles round-trip. It’s an uphill hike to the top with 1,600 feet of elevation gain. But it’s well worth every step. After just over 3 miles, you’ll enter Beehive Basin with a clear lake with views of Lone Peak. Pack a lunch and eat at the alpine lake. Find the trailhead on Beehive Basin Road.
In the Gallatin Canyon, you can hike to Lava Lake, a 6-mile round-trip hike that climbs 1,600 feet above the canyon floor. It’s popular and gorgeous. The trail head is 15 miles north of Big Sky off US 191 at the Cascade Creek Bridge.
Raft or Ride in a Hot Air Balloon in Big Sky
Tired of hiking? Hit some of the best whitewater rafting or float trips in the West. Raft the Gallatin or float the Madison by rented inner tube complete with a floating cooler. Or experience the rivers in a different way by buying a fishing license, getting out your flyfishing rod and fishing at the headwaters of the Gallatin River.
Or head for the skies in a hot air balloon with Montana Balloon. Each balloon can fit 10 people. The exact flight departure location is determined the night before you fly, based on weather conditions.
Then head to Yellowstone, just 45 miles down the road and explore the world’s first national park. It’s close enough that you can head to the northern part of the park for the day and return to Big Sky in time for a late dinner- or at least dessert.
Where to Eat in Big Sky
A downhome place to hit after a day out on the trails that’s family friendly is the Gallatin Riverhouse Grill. You can eat onion rings or fried okra, play corn hole, sit by the outdoor firepit and listen to live music. Known for its BBQ, it’s got beef brisket, pork baby back ribs, pulled pork, smoked salmon, burgers flank steak sandwich and more. When you pair the food with the views of the river, you’ll feel like you’ve landed in paradise. It’s at 45130 Gallatin Rd.
Looking for a downhome Montana breakfast spot with a creative flair? Head to The Corral Bar, Steakhouse & Motel 5 miles down Hwy. 191 from Big Sky. Dave, the owner, will most likely be pouring your coffee. You’ll find buffalo sausage and eggs, along with your standard greasy spoon fare. Knotty pine chairs and tables line the room and an outdoor patio allows you to breathe in the fresh mountain air.
Treat Yourself at the Horn and Cantle
Looking for a more upscale meal in a gorgeous setting? Think beautiful wood-hewn bar, floor-to-ceiling windows and leather bound stools. The Horn and Cantle Restaurant is located at the Lone Mountain Ranch and is open to the public for breakfast and lunch and dinner. Chef Eric Gruber worked in La Jolla, Napa, Santa Barbara and beyond before following his dreams and moving to Montana.
In his Deadwood Pork belly dish with pickled cucumbers and mushrooms, he draws inspiration from the Chinese influence that has existed in the state since the mid-1800s as mining and railroad construction increasingly brought workers to the state. In fact, during the 1870s, 10 percent of the state’s population was Chinese. In his Coffee-Rubbed Rocky Mountain Elk Chop entree, he pairs sweet potato hash with brussel sprout, spiced butternut squash puree and huckleberry ancho chile demi glace.
At Rainbow Ranch Lodge along the Gallatin River, you can also have an upscale Montana experience, enjoying contemporary cuisine on a ranch resort first settled in 1919. Its wine selection is one of the best in the state, earning it “Best of Award of Excellence” from Wine Spectator from 2003-17. For an appetizer, try the smoked trout and herring farmers board with house-smoked trout, pickled herring, cured meats, house pickled vegetables, black pepper lavash and Flathead cherry jam. Then pair it with one of the lodge’s Montana Mules made with huckleberry vodka.
After your meal, you can sit back and enjoy the dark, clear skies and being in the moment.
“It’s like stepping back in time,” Strauss says.
For more information:
Visit Big Sky
(800) 943-4111, (406) 995-3000
55 Lone Mountain Trail, Big Sky, MT 59716