From a crowded-coastal American’s perspective, Montana is a brilliant meld of the familiar and the unfamiliar. The borderlines of neighboring and hallowed Yellowstone are somewhat arbitrary. Huge swaths of Montana that aren’t a national park, could be. Glacially chiseled mountains and valleys, snow-fed trout rivers, wildflower-filled meadows, predicted—steak, fish—and unpredicted cuisine, and a wildly eclectic music scene.

The fourth-largest state only pitches in three of Uncle Sam’s 538 electoral votes. Yes, there’s room to breathe here—and pursue endless and memorable ways to dazzle yourself. Here are five suggestions to explore during your next visit to Big Sky Country. Don’t be afraid to roam out of bounds.

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Bozeman

The city of Bozeman first landed on my radar when I gave a travel talk at Montana State University in 1998. After that presentation, a student in the crowd named Tim Neville invited me out for a brew and we ended up talking travel till the sun rose. Tim just wrote a cover story for Outside, but that’s another story.

This trip was me and Heather’s annual summer getaway, thus a long way from a wild guy’s night out. A romantic setting was in order, and that was immediately served up by the Lehrkind Mansion Bed & Breakfast, an impossibly atmospheric 1897 Queen Anne Victorian mansion.

The owner transported another historic gem of a building and moved it next door, making 10 rooms total, and spruced up the private flower gardens and several sitting nooks, porches and patios. Your host, also the owner, is a former Yellowstone National Park ranger, so there’ll be no shortage of info about his Victorian’s history or what to do here. I’m not always a fan of sometimes-forced conversations at b&b breakfasts, but this sanctified setting and complimentary organic gourmet breakfast made every guest ultra-chatty.

The mini campus is walking distance, just seven blocks, to downtown’s buzz of galleries, restaurants, breweries and whatever else any student, resident or tourist desires. A few favs were the Misco Mill Gallery, Montana Ale Works and off-the-main-drag Mountain Walking Brewery.

Livingston

A storied gateway to Yellowstone, Livingston is a freight train and river town settled by a medley of authors, artists and land crafters. It also happened to keep the legendary travel journalist vibe alive.

Heather and I managed some hang time with our favorite writer, Tim Cahill. This pioneering adventure-travel journalist is one of the founders of Outside and was a frequent long-form contributor to Rolling Stone during its heyday. Pass The Butterworms, one of his nine books, is another laugh-out-loud escapade that spans the world. And yeah, this guy knows how to spin a tale in person, too— he still has tapes from his 1987 Stanley Kubrick interview, also gave Heather his butter chicken recipe.

My first contact with Tim was in 1998 when he contributed his hilarious story, Mongolia: Adventures in You-Cut Hairstyling, to my travel anthology, In Search of Adventure. Famous travel writers who’ve seen it all typically end up living in the coolest places. Enough said.

Amber Jean — Montana’s Renaissance Woman
PHOTO: Amber Jean — Montana’s Renaissance Woman. (Photo by Bruce Northam)

Just down the road but a world away, we stayed at one of Montana’s wildest Airbnb’s, Cliff’s Cabin, found next to Granny’s Off-The-Grid. These authentic, cozy cabins are neighbors, yet secluded from each other, tucked into the woods at the end of a dirt road where they offer mountaintop views. A splendid retreat where it’s a huge bonus having former rodeo-clown Raymond and artist, speaker and writer Amber Jean as your hosts.

Amber’s incredibly creative resume includes transforming trees rescued from mountain forest-fires into 15-foot-high sculptures and carving onsite for the King of Bhutan. A true gem of a human, she’s an innately spiritual being who never needed any instruction on finding thyself.

Back in downtown Livingston, we truly enjoyed the Yellowstone Gateway Museum, the historic Murray Hotel and the adjoining Gil’s Goods restaurant.

Livingston’s Murray Hotel in Montana


PHOTO: Livingston’s Murray Hotel in Montana. (Photo by Bruce Northam)

Pray

With a population of just 700, Pray is home to modern-rustic Sage Lodge, a new luxury option in Montana’s Paradise Valley, the heavenly 40-mile Yellowstone River-hugging delta-swath between Livingston and Yellowstone Park. This fabled valley is saddled by two epic mountain ranges and cradles the longest undammed river in the Lower 48.

Created by outdoorsmen and elevated above a mile of Yellowstone riverfront, the lodge is a destination for yogis, hikers, rafters and anglers of all levels—from rookie rod-wavers to caddisfly-lifecycle PhDs. Open 365-days with as many views, the 34-room lodge and four stand-alone Ranch Houses meld the raw beauty of Paradise Valley with distinctive Montana hospitality.

There’s something for everyone, including spa enthusiasts, disc golfers, bikers, winter wolf watchers and hiking with llamas. We also slowed down to learn how to fly fish via Sage Fly Fishing, a crown-jewel fly-fishing experience. The classic river-dory float on the Yellowstone River was the highlight of our stay; one of these gorgeous flat-bottom river dories sits in the lodge lobby. At first, I thought it was a museum piece, but you can experience an amazing happy-hour excursion that anchors periodically and continuously enjoys epic 360-degree views on the river. Our pilot sat and rowed mid-boat between Heather and I and shared wine, cheese and local folklore.

Onsite dining options at the lodge include the riverfront wood-fired Grill and the mountain-range-facing and pondside Fireside Room, a casual indoor-outdoor restaurant and bar adjacent to the lobby and the place to sample grilled flathead lake trout. This Montana-magic campus is about generous public spaces, exemplified by the lobby’s double-sided King Kong-sized fireplace. You’ll have a King-Kong-sized good time here, too.

Big Sky

Apparently, Big Sky, MT isn’t just for skiing—it’s a year-round multisport goldmine. Montana’s highest scenic overlook (also beholds Wyoming’s and Idaho’s grandeur) is easily accessed by the Lone Peak Expedition that takes you up to its 11,166 summit where herds of mountain goats and ballsy mountain bikers traverse rocky cliffs.

Nearby, Lone Mountain Ranch accommodates all levels of horseback trail-riding. This 104-year-old ranch’s 24 spacious cabins lie at the end of a dirt road, giving it a middle-of-nowhere feel, yet it’s right near town and the mountain. The centerpiece of this forested wrangler’s campus is the Horn & Cantle, a classic Western restaurant with a twist—salmon and brown rice bowls.

A little further down the hill, go whitewater rafting on the Gallatin River with Geyser Whitewater. By now, you’re ripe for a CBD Therapeutic Massage at the Solace Spa & Salon, located in the Huntley Lodge, which is also a dandy, slope-side basecamp. You’ll need rations, too. The Gallatin Riverhouse Grill is Big Sky’s most popular BBQ joint and local hangout with indoor/outdoor seating on the bank of the Gallatin River. No, your waiter is probably not pursuing an acting career—more like a permanent outdoor lifestyle.

Sometimes, a trip is what happens between your destinations. Such as Old Sedan Church, found alongside Montana’s Highway 86, an undulating ribbon-like road where your radio-seek button discovers nothing but perfect silence.

old sedan church-montana
PHOTO: Old Sedan Church, alongside Montana’s Highway 86. (Photo by Bruce Northam)

White Sulphur Springs

Home to Snook’s Diner’s earth-shaking homemade beef barley soup and $4 milkshakes, White Sulphur Springs is a sleepy town with a population under 1,000. Every July, this little town’s populace swells to 16,000 for an outdoor music festival that perfectly fuses Western Americana with a storied musical lineup.

Montana’s annual Red Ants Pants Music Festival is an avant-garde outdoor concert melded with the best of a Wild West state fair. Along with showcasing remarkable American and Canadian musicians on two stages, the three-day 100-acre RV/camping party has a moustache competition, a coed crosscut log-sawing contest, a clinic on how to drive a horse and buggy, an army of food trucks featuring locally sourced and international fare, dozens of cutting-edge Western wear pop-ups, outdoor yoga and women’s leadership programs.

Red Ants Pants Music Festival in Montana
PHOTO: Red Ants Pants Music Festival in Montana. (Photo by Bruce Northam)

The festival’s foundation works to increase women’s leadership and also promotes rural communities and supports working family farms and ranches. The festival was founded and is produced by Red Ants Pants (Workwear for Women) owner Sarah Calhoun. Yes, a little Made in the USA pants company started a music festival—and you need to check it out. Many attendees camp on the 100-acre working cattle ranch. It happens again July 23-26, 2020; let NYX Camping supply your tent and all of your festival camping needs.

Moustache competition — Red Ants Pants Music Festival - Montana
PHOTO: Moustache competition — Red Ants Pants Music Festival. (Photo by Bruce Northam)



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