1. Catch the Fire in the Sky
According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, 2013 and 2014 are ideal years for viewing the Northern Lights. Scientists predict these glowing, horizon-wide arcs, bands and wisps will occur more regularly and frequently in 2013 and 2014 than at any other time in the past decade. Try to predict the aurora’s occurrence using the K-index, a measurement of the relative fluctuation in Earth’s geomagnetic fields. The higher the K-index (on a scale of 0 to 9), the better your chances of viewing the Northern Lights and seeing them at lower latitudes. Locate the current K-index at spaceweather.com.
2. Howl With The Wolves
Wolves were native to Yellowstone National Park when it was established in 1872, but by the 1930s — park records indicate the last wolves were officially killed in the park by rangers in 1926 — wolves were rarely reported. In the 1970s, scientists found no evidence of a wolf population in Yellowstone and this trend persisted until re-introductory programs in the mid-1990s when 31 wolves from Canada were released in the park. As of March 2013, 71 wolves roam YNP with an additional 16 spending a significant part of the year in the vicinity. Catch a glimpse of this survival story first hand.
Leaders of the pack:
- Natural Habitat: Adventures: Spend three days in the Lamar Valley tracking wolves and observing them during winter. Led by naturalists, you’ll snowshoe to an abandoned wolf den and meet with local wolf photographers. 800.543.8917; nathab.com
- Yellowstone Wolf Tracker: Try multi-day guided trips in winter, autumn and spring or hire a private guide year-round. They also offer custom classes that examine ecology, research and management. 406.223.6634; wolftracker.com
- Yellowstone Safari Company: These two-day trips focus on observation of wolves and bears during their normal routines. 866.586.1155; yellowstonesafari.com
3. Fish the Wild Blue
Montana is one of only five states to qualify its best fisheries as Blue Ribbon Rivers, a designation established in 1959 based on premium productivity of game fish, aesthetics and public accessibility. Catch a “Blue Ribbon Grand Slam,” a fish from each of the 12 Blue Ribbon Rivers in one year. You’ll need to hit the Yellowstone, Gallatin, Madison, Missouri (from Holter dam to Cascade), Big Hole, Beaverhead, Bighorn, Rock Creek, Blackfoot, Flathead (the main stem and north forks), and the Kootenai (below Libby dam).
4. Run the River Wild
Kootenai Falls is the largest undammed falls in Montana located between Libby and Troy, offering breathtaking views as the Kootenai River loses about 30 feet in elevation. Kayakers frequent the area around and just under the falls, and downstream a swinging bridge provides access to additional hiking paths and fishing. It’s such a picture-perfect stretch of whitewater that Hollywood took notice and filmed parts of the 1994 movie “The River Wild” there.
5. Seek Architectural Inspiration
Recognized by the American Institute of Architects as “the greatest American architect of all time,” Frank Lloyd Wright believed that “form and function are one,” using nature as the best example of this integration. He designed a few structures in the Northern Rockies region, two of which have already been demolished in Montana. Here are those that still stand:
- The Lockridge Medical Clinic in Whitefish, Montana
- Archie Boyd Teater House in Bliss, Idaho
- The Quintin Blair House in Cody, Wyoming
- Judge Charles P. McCarthy House in Boise, Idaho
- Alpine Meadows Ranch in Darby, Montana
6. Ride the Divide
The entire Continental Divide Trail (CDT) corridor is about 3,100 miles long, extending from the Canadian border in Montana to the Mexican border in New Mexico. Select a single Northern Rockies state, grab your bike and call it a dream vacation. The CDT includes a large section of rangeland in the middle of Wyoming, as well as the Wind River Range and Absaroka Range in the northwest. Be warned that some of the trail is incomplete in the southern part of the state. The trail also traverses a large portion of the southern half of Yellowstone National Park. In Idaho, enter the Centennial Mountains and for the next couple hundred miles the trail follows the boundary line between Idaho and Montana, until it diverts east through the Anaconda Mountain Range. The Montana portion of the trail is almost entirely in mountain ranges, and approximately 110 miles of the trail traverses Glacier National Park.
Photo by Steven Gnam
7. Have a Fish Fry
The warm rivers, lakes and reservoirs of central and eastern Montana offer some of the region’s best fishing for channel catfish, walleye, smallmouth bass and other species. Fun to catch, good to eat. Try the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers for catfish, the Fort Peck and Canyon Ferry reservoirs for walleye and Horseshoe Lake and Tongue River for smallmouth bass. Visit fieldguide.mt.gov for more information.
8. Spot a Grey Owl
Great gray owls — also called great gray ghosts, phantoms of the north and the spectral owl — are the largest owls in North America and call the dense coniferous and hardwood forests of the Northern Rockies home. They feed almost exclusively on small mammals and have a talent for detecting and seizing prey under thick layers of snow and ice using their extremely sensitive hearing. With their superb camouflage, silent flight and nocturnal nature, these birds seem to exist mostly in the imagination. Montana’s Natural Heritage Program has kept track of great gray owl sightings since 1970, and since then only 438 sightings have been recorded. Join the lucky few.
9. Make Music in Montana: Play the Ringing Rocks
Located approximately 18 miles east of Butte, there is a large, jumbled pile of boulders. Nondescript on first glance, the rocks in this unique geological formation chime melodically in different pitches when tapped with a hammer or another rock. Curiously, if a boulder is removed from the pile, it no longer rings. And reportedly, there are only seven known sites like this in the world. Visit the Bureau of Land Management’s website for precise directions.
10. Find the Largest Larch Tree in Montana
The current record-holder towers 153 feet over the placid waters of Seeley Lake. Find this tree and other gentle giants on the American Forests’ National Register of Big Trees, a conservation movement to locate, appreciate and protect the biggest tree species in the United States.
11. Traverse the Lonesome Highway
Take the scenic route along one of Montana’s open roads, preferably by motorcycle or convertible for the added romance. From Lewistown it’s 262 miles to Sidney on MT-200.
12. Go for the Glory
The Gelande Championship is a two-day ski jump event that attracts powder hounds from across the country to Snowbowl in Missoula, Montana, each year during the last weekend in February. Competitors use long downhill skis with a fixed heel to launch off a 200-foot jump, winning points for the length of a jump and their style. On that Sunday, the winner receives an $8,000 cash prize and an unknown jumper sails naked through the air. Visit montanasnowbowl.com or call 406.549.9777 for more information.
13. Follow the Dinosaur Trail
There are 14 sites and museums across Montana on The Dinosaur Trail, a paleontological road trip across the state, starting in Bynum and ending in Ekalaka. Pick up a passbook that you can stamp at each location. Visit mtdinotrail.org for more information.
14. Run With The Sheep
They are much softer than bulls and Reed Point, Montana, is much closer than Pamplona, Spain. The annual Great Montana Sheep Drive features hundreds of sturdy Montana-bred woolies charging down Main Street. The small-town event, held annually the Sunday before Labor Day, includes a parade, vendors, live music, a petting zoo and more. For information, call 406.326.2315.
15. Art of the West
Take an art history road trip. Pick a unique museum from each state to visit.
- Museum of the Rockies: Bozeman, 406.994.2251; museumoftherockies.org
- C.M. Russell Museum: Great Falls, 406.727-8787; cmrussell.org
- Yellowstone Art Museum: Billings, 406.256-6804; artmuseum.org
- Holter Museum of Art: Helena, 406.442.6400; holtermuseum.org
- Boise Art Museum: Boise, 208.345.8330; boiseartmuseum.org
- Ski & Heritage Museum: Ketchum, 208.726.8118; ksvhs.com
- Idaho Museum of Natural History: Pocatello, 208.282.3168; imnh.isu.edu
- Museum of Idaho: Idaho Falls, 208.522.1400; museumofidaho.org
Photo by Lynn Donaldson
16. Write a Cowboy Poem
Poetry brings together the wit, wisdom, humor and humanity of the cowboy heritage. Born out of long, lonely rides on the range and nights spent together around flickering campfires, the art of cowboy poetry continues to thrive in the Northern Rockies region with a number of events throughout the year. Recite what you write at one of these gatherings:
- Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering: Lewistown, 406.538.4575; montanacowboypoetrygathering.com
- Lost in Lava Cowboy Gathering: Shoshone, Idaho; 208.420.9730; lostnlavagathering.weebly.coml
- Encampment Cowboy Gathering: Encampment, Wyoming; 307.326.8855; grandencampmentgathering.org
17. Paint en Plein Air
- Driggs Digs Plein Air Festival: Teton Valley, Idaho; 208.313.7715; www.driggspleinair.org
- Plein Air Fest at the National Museum of Wildlife Art: Jackson, Wyoming; 307.733.5771; wildlifeart.org
- Plein Air on the Yellowstone with the Livingston Center for Art and Culture: Livingston, Montana; 406.222.5222; livingstoncenter.org
18. Take in a Bird's Eye View
Northern Rockies Helicopter Tours:
- Glacier Helitours: 800.879.9310; glacierhelitours.net
- Canyon Lake Helicopters: 406.360.6842; canyonlakehelicopters.com
- Kruger Helicop-Tours: 800.220.6565; krugerhelicopters.com
19. Spend the Day at the Bray
The Archie Bray Foundation for Ceramic Arts, in Helena, Montana, is a one-of-a-kind nonprofit educational institution founded in 1951 by brickmaker Archie Bray. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 26-acre former brickyard is internationally recognized as a gathering place for ceramic artists. Chat with resident artists’ take a pottery workshop or purchase fine art ceramics in the gallery. Visit archiebray.org or call 406.443.3502 for more information.
20. Plunge into Winter
Spend New Year’s Day at Flathead Lake in Polson, Montana, or at Woods Bay in Lake County, Montana.