Three Days in Montana
By Annette Brooks
Just how big is the sky in Montana? We have some pretty big skies right here in Texas, so I’ve always wondered. Anyone who has driven to Lubbock, for instance, has likely taken in a 360-degree view of the horizon. You can practically see the curvature of the earth if you look hard enough. So I caught a flight to the Treasure State and stayed in a town aptly named Big Sky to view the expansive firmament firsthand and decide for myself on the “bigness” of it.
Located 50 miles south of Bozeman on the northwestern edge of Yellowstone National Park,
Big Sky is a natural outdoor playground for all ages, from thrill seekers to families with young kids who want to unplug and get away from it all. The draw to Big Sky in wintertime is downhill skiing, but I visited in late spring and horseback riding was at the top of my activity list.
Admittedly, the last time I climbed onto a horse was in grade school during a family vacation in Colorado. My horse, Rusty—I remember his name to this day—decided to leave the trail and take off on his own at a good trot. Scared to death, I held on for dear life until the guide came to my rescue. After avoiding horses for decades, I figured it was high time to get over my fear.
The trail rides at Jake’s Horses range from an hour to a full day. I scheduled a three-hour ride and it couldn’t have been more enjoyable. My anxiety evaporated when I learned several in our group hadn’t ridden in years either, and the great people at Jake’s paired each of us with the perfect horse for our size and riding ability. As we clip-clopped along the trail in the fresh mountain air, our guide shared a wealth of knowledge about Montana history and the life cycle of the plants and wildlife in the surrounding area. Riding through meadows and pine forests, and up and down rocky trails with breathtaking views at almost every turn, I couldn’t help but think about the settlers who first laid eyes on this majestic land, and the joys and hardships they shared.
Arriving back at Jake’s safe, sound, and sans saddle sores, I returned to the rustic luxury of my hotel to enjoy a pampering high altitude hydrating facial and beehive honey wrap at the Solace Spa. Unlike some outdoorsy destinations, Big Sky is replete with upscale hotels as well as extravagant home rentals that accommodate large families and groups of friends.
Teed up for the second day was an afternoon of golf, but first I wanted to get a bird’s eye view of the area from Montana’s highest scenic overlook at 11,166 feet. Getting there meant taking the Swift Current Scenic Chair Lift up to the halfway point on Lone Mountain. A number of families with youngsters were riding the lift, too, and taking the aerial tram with me to Lone Peak. Standing at the summit on a crystal-clear day, the panorama stretched over three states, two national parks, and many mountain ranges. Peering through the binoculars provided by the tour, I marveled at the vast expanse before me, feeling small and humbled by the glory of this beautiful planet we inhabit.
An afternoon on Big Sky Resort’s award-winning 18-hole par 72 golf course was a great way to spend the rest of a sunny day. The Arnold Palmer-designed course, which sits 6,500 feet above sea level, offers long drives and spectacular views. After a decent game I decided to eat at chef-owned Olive B’s Big Sky Bistro and ordered the French onion soup. Maybe it was because I was totally famished, but the bubbling cheese-covered crock of goodness ranked up there with some of the best I’ve had in my global travels.
Saving the best for last, I splurged on a private full-day tour of Yellowstone with Scenic Tours for my third and final day in Big Sky. With only a day to see this family-favorite National Park, it was one of the best decisions I’ve made. My knowledgeable guide knew how to avoid the crowds and traffic, taking me to the best vantage points to see the attractions, often going off the beaten path. All I had to do was relax and drink in the dramatic and sometimes strange beauty of Yellowstone. It was a truly unforgettable day.
Dinner that evening was at the family-owned Cabin Bar & Grill, which features many locally-sourced ingredients. After indulging in the house-ground bison meatballs with pomegranate molasses barbecue sauce as an appetizer, I enjoyed a delightfully light entrée of pan-seared Yellowstone River rainbow trout. (A family-oriented restaurant, the Cabin also offers standard fare and a menu for children 12 and under.)
As I savored every bite, I mentally compared the Montana skies to those of Texas. Was one truly bigger? Maybe not in the exact physical sense, but the majesty of Montana’s countryside set against the wild blue yonder makes it a special place, and one that has rightly earned the moniker of Big Sky Country.