Midway between Bozeman and Yellowstone National Park, in the forested Gallatin Canyon, is Big Sky Montana, a destination resort that ranks with Sun Valley, Aspen and Whistler for its appeal to jet-setters and ski bums alike.
Along with the movie “A River Runs Through It”, some of which was filmed on the Gallatin River just downstream from Big Sky, this mountain community has transformed Bozeman. The primary draw is the downhill skiing at Big Sky Resort at the foot of Lone Mountain, but Nordic skiing, fly fishing, golf, whitewater rafting, hiking and proximity to Yellowstone have made Big Sky into a year-round playground for people around the world.
Less than 50 years ago, the only sign of humanity where the West Fork of the Gallatin River joined the river’s main stem was a few ranchers and loggers. Then in the early 1970s, former NBC News anchor Chet Huntley rode in on horseback with business partner. They first envisioned golf courses amid the grandeur of the Spanish Peaks. One look at towering Lone Mountain had them instead picturing skiers making turns in deep powder.
A half-century later the result is sprawling Big Sky Montana. The resort and unincorporated community now large enough to support a high school. Visitors arrive from around the world to ski (alpine and Nordic), golf, fish, hike, raft, mountain bike, visit Yellowstone National Park and generally kick back amid mountain bliss. Big Sky now attracts a wide-ranging clientele. It appeals to both the exceptionally rich with palatial homes in the gated Yellowstone Club to 20-something ski bums who hunker down with a half-dozen buddies in a condo.
Big Sky generally can be delineated by three clusters. First are the businesses at the junction of U.S. 191 and MT 64. Next are the Meadow Village and Town Center areas two miles up the hill. At the top is Mountain Village (Big Sky Resort/Moonlight Basin) near the base of Lone Mountain. Meadow Village is the epicenter, with the post office, theater, restaurants, lodging, businesses and other administrative facilities.
Although tourists often stock up in Bozeman or Belgrade, Big Sky provides all the necessary amenities. Winter recreation revolves around skiing; this itinerary is geared toward summer. We include the hot spots for Dining in Big Sky and Imbibing in Big Sky. We suggest checking with the friendly Big Sky Chamber of Commerce for information about this busy resort.
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Splash and Zip in Big Sky
Get your day off to a tasty start at Gourmet Gals in Town Center before warming up for the day’s activities with a scenic two-mile walk through the forest on the Ousel Falls Park Trail, It’s a manageable walk for kids, the falls are pretty and it typically has surprisingly little traffic for its proximity to Meadow Village/Town Center. Pick up the pace and views later in the morning at Zipline Tours at Big Sky Resort, where the level of adrenaline rush is up to you. Choose between seven ziplines that rise above the trees, including four “built for speed” and others suitable for kids.
After building up an adrenaline appetite, head to Lone Peak Brewery and Taphouse in Meadow Village. The pub grub is above average and it’s a great place to people-watch. Another excellent option: The Wrap Shack, a lively little hole in the wall in Town Center.
Folks come to Big Sky as much for the Gallatin River as they do the mountain and golf courses. The Gallatin was the setting for key portions of the film “A River Runs Through It”. If it’s late spring or summer, make a reservation with one of three rafting companies that float the Gallatin. Join a paddle-raft crew on the “Mad Mile”, featuring House Rock, or try the milder floats upstream. Keep in mind that during late May and June the river is typically rip-roarin’ from snowmelt. If you’re not into whitewater, grab a fly rod and cast for trout. The fishing is exceptional; the bigger water and bigger fish are just a bit downstream from Big Sky.
When you’re off the river, celebrate your rapids successes amid the energetic crowds at the Gallatin RiverHouse Grill on the river. For more formal dining, Olive B’s Big Sky Bistro is an upscale, trendy and spendy restaurant across the street from the chapel in Meadow Village. If wine is an important part of your dining experience, the menu at By Word of Mouth Restaurant in Town Center speaks volumes.
A Walk in the Park and on the Links
Carbo-loading for a day of activities begins with breakfast at Blue Moon Bakery in Big Sky Town Center. They have goods to go – or go in for the home-baked deliciousness. Another local favorite before teeing off is Bugaboo Café, at the junction of US 191 and MT 64.
Start your morning before the dew is off the first tee at the public Big Sky of Montana Golf Course. The 18-hole course at Meadow Village was designed by Arnold Palmer. It’s mostly flat and modestly challenging, but the views are supreme and your gallery might include moose browsing on willows. Not a golfer? Lace up your boots for one of several outstanding Gallatin Canyon Hikes or Big Sky Area Hikes.
From the Corral, you’ve got a head start for an afternoon on remote Yellowstone National Park Trails just up the road. For 25 miles, US 191 bisects the isolated northwest corner of the park, passing a half-dozen trailheads, all but one going east from roadside parking areas. You can’t go wrong with any, but we suggest an out-and-back on the Bighorn Pass Trail as it follows the meandering upper reaches of the Gallatin. It’s kid-friendly and you might catch a glimpse of river otters frolicking in the clear waters. Ambitious hikers can go 4.2 miles to the confluence of the Fawn Pass Trail and return the six miles to US 191 that way; it’s about a 1.5-mile walk along the highway back to the Bighorn Pass trailhead. Grizzly and black bears frequent the area, so try to travel in groups of four or more, make noise and carry bear spray!
On the way back from a half- or full-day hike in the canyon or Yellowstone, it’s a ritual to stop at the Corral Bar & Steakhouse. It’s a burger ‘n beer type of place, (or homemade soup, if you prefer) with friendly tenders and sports memorabilia smothering the log walls. On US 191 south of Big Sky, the Rainbow Ranch Lodge is an elegant place to dine. Its entrees are exquisite and you can watch the Gallatin River glide past outside picture windows. In the same vicinity, and along the Gallatin, the Cinnamon Lodge is a spicy-Mexican steakhouse. Don’t miss the cactus margarita and decadent sopapilla dessert.
Family friendly Big Sky: Kids will like the swimming pools, the bungee trampoline and a “giant swing” that’s 30 feet above the ground. For a more low-key experience, Lone Peak Cinema is open year-round and shows two or three contemporary films a day while staging special events such as cocktail hours, premieres and a movie trivia night. The outdoor rink behind the theater is an outlet for young skaters and hockey players.
The Big Sky Big Bluegrass Festival in February, Big Sky Classical Music Festival in August, and Professional Bull Riders (PBR) outdoor event in late July or early August, Music in the Mountains every July and August, and Big Sky Brewing Summer Concert Series.