Winter 2014: Big Sky List

1. SUP

THE CALM WATERS OF JACKSON LAKE in Grand Teton National Park are perfect for stand up paddlers to take in the surrounding views. Hikes, waterfalls, fishing and ultra-photographic landscapes abound, but along the western shore of the lake there are quiet bays and isolation with awesome views of Mt. Moran. Nearby the trio of Jenny, String and Leigh lakes are smaller and even gentler, providing a perfect afternoon paddle. For board rentals or SUP lessons on flat water and river waves, look to the well-established folks at Rendezvous River Sports (jacksonholekayak.com).

2. Canoe the Mighty Missouri

Follow the oar strokes of the Lewis and Clark expedition down the bend and swathe of the Mighty Mo through some of the most scenic river terrain in the Northern Rockies. Little has changed along the Upper Missouri (uppermissouri.com) which has been dedicated nationally as a Wild and Scenic River, including the 300-foot, chalk-white cliffs between Coal Banks to Judith Landings. For canoe rentals, shuttle service or a complete guided trip, try the Missouri River Canoe Company (canoemontana.com).

3.  Go Glamping

The original “glampsite” is the 100-year-old Sperry Chalet  (sperrychalet.com) in Glacier National Park. Arguably the only backcountry “hotel” in the U.S., this rustic chalet is accessible only by foot on the 6.7-mile Sperry Trail, which starts at Lake McDonald Lodge and climbs 3,300 feet. It is a strenuous hike that takes about 4.5 hours on average, but this off-the-beaten-path provides access to some of Glacier’s most remarkable wilderness. 

Many visitors hike back on the Sperry Trail, but some extend the trip by leaving on the Gunsight Pass route and utilizing the park’s shuttle service. This alternate trail is 13.5 miles long, drops 3,300 feet, and can take eight to 10 hours to complete. Reservations are essential; Sperry Chalet will open July 10 through September 11, 2015.

If this sounds a little too much like roughing it, try out real glamorous camping (hence, the word glamping) at Paw’s Up Resort (pawsup.com) near Missoula; The Ranch at Rock Creek (theranchatrockcreek.com) near Phillipsburg; or Wyoming’s Fireside Resort (firesidejacksonhole.com) in Jackson.

4. Zip a Line Across the Rockies

In Montana the thrill of the zipline craze has caught on. Adventure-seekers can soar across the expanses of alpine terrain in Gardiner or across the Gallatin River in Big Sky with experienced guides through Yellowstone Zipline and Canopy Tours (yellowstonezip.com) or Montana Whitewater Raft Company (montanawhitewater.com). In Whitefish, zip through the canopy of Whitefish Mountain Resort (skiwhitefish.com) with astounding views of the greater Flathead Valley.

5. Get a Balloon’s Eye View

Each summer the towns of Victor and Driggs, Idaho, team up to unfurl the colors of the rainbow over the mountains for the annual Teton Valley Balloon Rally (tetonvalleyballoonrally.com). Held at the Teton Country Fairgrounds over the July 4th holiday, the event highlights balloon rides, parade, an art walk, craft fair and live music and, of course, balloon rides, over a three-day celebration.

Never to be outdone, for 20 years the community of Cody has hosted the Cody Wild West Balloon Fest  (hotairballoon.com/wild-west-balloon-fest/) the first weekend in August. Held in Mentock Park and launching at sunrise on Saturday, balloonists participate in competitions such as the Hound and Hare race and Pole Grab. 

Later in August, the Spirit of Boise Balloon Classic (spiritofboise.com) hosts 50 balloons at Ann Morrison Park. In addition to balloon rides, kid’s day and a group launch on the final morning, the most memorable moment is arguably the Nite Glow, where all of the balloons are tethered and lit up like giant lanterns in the night.

6. Go for the Birds

From the annual Bridger Raptor Festival  (bridgerraptorfest.org) at Bridger Bowl outside Bozeman each autumn to the migration of the snow geese from Montana’s Freezeout Lake in the spring, the Northern Rockies’ bird populations offer milestones of wildness throughout the year. Join regional Audubon Society citizen scientists for the annual Christmas Bird Count (mtaudubon.org/birds/cbc) scheduled between December 14, 2014 and January 5, 2015.

7. Bike the Big Sky

Topping every respectable cyclist’s bucket list, the classic Beartooth Pass ride begins in Red Lodge, Montana, switchbacks for 30 miles into Wyoming onto a plateau with unparalleled scenery for an elevation gain of 5,500 feet up to the summit of Beartooth Pass at 10,940 feet. Requiring good weather, the ride is accessible when the road is clear of snow, typically from Memorial Day through October. For updated seasonal conditions, call the Red Lodge Area Chamber of Commerce (406.446.1718) or the Cooke City Chamber of Commerce (406.838.2495).

Fifty miles sounds like a very long ride on two wheels with your legs and lungs doing all the work. But riding the Going to the Sun Road, the only road through Glacier National Park, Mont., promises an exhilarating descent and breathtaking views. After winding around curves that snake up the Continental Divide at Logan Pass, at “the turning point” you’ll stare for miles at the jaw-dropping views in all directions. During the early season, the road is open exclusively to cyclists and hikers in May. Once the tourist season is in full swing, bicycles are prohibited on the route to Logan Pass from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. However, during the full moon, many a cyclist makes up for that closure by taking a night ride (helmets, reflectors and headlights are required). For weather and road conditions visit the park’s website (nps.gov/glac). 

8. Dance the Powwow Trail

Traditional Native American ceremonial dancing is on the rise throughout the U.S. With seven Indian reservations in Montana alone, there is a powwow for nearly every season of the year.

Launching the annual American Indian Council Powwow (montana.edu) with the grand march of dancers each spring in Bozeman at Montana State University, a diverse gathering of tribes hits the stage with vibrant song and dance in honor of Native traditions. Celebrating 40 years, the event also includes a Miss Indian pageant, AIC basketball tournament and a Native singing competition. Traditional food and craft booths add to the lively atmosphere of the festivities.

In Wyoming each June at Cody’s Buffalo Bill Center of the West is the annual Plains Indian Powwow (centerofthewest.org) with more than 200 dancers and 28 tribes represented. Dancers, drum groups and artists from many Northern Plains tribes gather to celebrate vibrant cultural traditions.

Held over the first weekend in July you can experience the rich cultural heritage of the Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai tribes at the Arlee Powwow (arleepowwow.com). For well over a century tribes have gathered in tiny Arlee, Mont., for this lively celebration.  

Lining the Little Big Horn River with a village of 1,000 teepees, the best-known gathering of the region, Crow Fair and Rodeo (crow-nsn.gov), is approaching 100 years of tradition. Featuring lively dance competitions, bareback riding races and rugged rodeo, the four-day gathering is a bucket-list experience.

The “Dance for Life” Powwow (powwows.com) in Lewiston, Idaho, draws serious competitors who vie for $30,000 in prizes each October. Featuring adult, teen and children’s categories, it’s a chance to witness the intensity of the men’s Grass Dance; women’s Elk Tooth Shell Dress Dance; girls Jingle Dress Dance; boys Traditional; team dancing; and the raucous three-man stick game.

9. Catch Some Air

The Greater Yellowstone’s breathtaking scenery is elevated to new heights from the seat of a helicopter. Views of mountainscapes and sweeping valleys, lakes that look like paintings and wildlife running across the endless expanse of land are promises that Rocky Mountain Rotors, can keep. Based in Belgrade, Montana, (rockymountainrotors.com) this company offers scenic rides and photo tours throughout the year. Some of the most spectacular vistas can be seen from the high alpine air.

10. Go Cross Country

The Northern Rockies’ Nordic trails abound. From the flats of Seeley Lake, Mont., to the base of Wyoming’s Grand Tetons, the list is long.

Long-time favorite, Lone Mountain Ranch (lonemountainranch.com) trails snake through the meadows and rolling hills of Big Sky, Mont., to provide one of the most extensive trail systems in the region. On a clear day the view of Lone Peak in the distance is nearly reward enough along the acres of pristine groomed trails. 

Just minutes from Whitefish, Mont. Stillwater Mountain Lodge (stillwatermtnlodge.com) grooms 25 kilometers of Nordic trails that wend through the foothills of the Whitefish Range. In addition to skate and classic skiing, there are even 15 kilometers of “dog-friendly” trail, allowing four-legged friends to go for a run with their skinny-ski-humans — or try ski-joring. 

Join the fun at the Yellowstone Ski Festival at the Rendezvous Ski Trails  (rendezvousskitrails.com), November 25 to 29 in West Yellowstone, Mont.

In Cody, Wyo., rustic Pahaska Teepee’s  (pahaskateepeeresort.com) groomed trail system dips into Yellowstone National Park. 

Jackson, Wyo., offers some of the region’s most spectacular views for Nordic skiers; Teton Pines (tetonpinescrosscountryskicenter.com) has long offered some of the best groomed trails at the base of the Tetons. The newest addition is the Turpin Meadow Ranch (turpinmeadowranch.com) with groomed trails that start at the doorstep of rustic cabins and swoop through terrain in the shadow of the Tetons north of Jackson. Jackson Hole Resort (jacksonhole.com) also offers some of the most scenic trails in the valley at the Shooting Star Nordic Track.

11. Ride Along the Rockies

There’s nothing like the open roads of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming for motorcycle travel. Broad vistas and light traffic on most byways make the road trip unforgettable. Red Lodge’s Beartooth Rally (beartoothrally.com) has drawn motorcycle enthusiasts to this mountain town for 20 years. Bone Daddy’s Custom Cycle (bonedaddyscustomcycle.com) is the headquarters for the event. Belgrade’s Yellowstone Harley Davidson (yellowstoneharelydavidson.com) sells and rents bikes for grand tours and rally’s throughout the region.

Out of Great Falls, some riders recommend the Big Loop Ride (centralmontana.com/motorcycle_rides), which encompasses four mountain ranges and more than 400 miles of scenery as far as the eye can see.

12. Be a Tree Hugger

Montana claims the world’s largest Western Larch, known affectionately as Big Gus. Standing taller than the Statue of Liberty at 153 feet, it can be found just outside Seeley Lake and is estimated to be 1,000 years old. The Western Larch is the deciduous pine tree that lends dramatic fall color to the hillsides of western Montana and up to Canada.

Marked by a sign, Gus towers over the surrounding larches, which average about 600 years in age. To find the tree, head west on Boy Scout Road in Seeley Lake. The parking area for Girard Grove is on the west side of the road just past Camp Paxon. An easy mile-long nature trail leads visitors through the grove.

13. Fish the Spring Creeks

It takes a special brand of patience and expertise to stalk trout in the pristine spring creeks of the region with a fly rod. The cast and presentation of the perfect fly are keys to the kingdom of small water treasures.

The free-flowing Yellowstone River is Paradise Valley’s queen, as we all know, but Armstrong, Depuy and Nelson spring creeks, south of Livingston, are the jewels in the crown and have welcomed some of the best anglers in the West. Armstrong  (armstrongspringcreek.com), on the O’Hair Ranch, offers 1.5 miles of riffles and pools of wily trout living in steady 55-degree water. The emerald greens of Depuy’s (depuysspringcreek.com) lush cutbanks provide perfect cover for browns, rainbows and Yellowstone cutthroat. It’s the most diverse of these private streams in terms of habitat and is the only one to boast a fly shop on site:  Spring Creek Specialists (springcreekspecialists.com). With three miles of ambling water that feeds into the Yellowstone, Depuy’s is an essential experience in an angler’s fly box. The old saying, “match the hatch” is essential on Nelson’s (nelsonsspringcreek.com), the smallest of the Paradise Valley creeks, at three-quarters of a mile in length. Anglers learn that the trout are smart and easily spooked.

All three fisheries are accessible by reservation only, but it’s a good idea to take a guide if it’s a first experience on these tricky creeks. The local standouts are big names in Livingston: Dan Bailey (dan-bailey.com); Yellowstone Angler (yellowstoneangler.com); and Montana Fly Fishing Guides (montanaflyfishingguides.com). Without a guide, simple rod fees drop by 50 percent during the off-season months from October to March.

Masters of technique with small dry flies rise to the challenge on the privately held O’Dell Spring Creek (rainbowvalleylodge.com/madison-river-fishing/odell-spring-creek) in Madison Valley. Either you’ve got a friend along this stretch of cool water that feeds into the lower Madison River or you can pay for access, but veteran flat water anglers say it’s worth the price of admission. 

The thickets of willow lining the banks along Warm River, a tributary of the Henry’s Fork, offers good cover for small, active trout year-round and bigger fish who spawn in this stream during the fall months. Located near both Henry’s Fork and Ashton, Idaho, Warm River’s counterpart is the Buffalo River, which is renowned for abundant big rainbows. Try Henry’s Fork Anglers (henrysforkanglers.com) for more details.

Flat Creek, just north of Jackson, Wyo., wends its way through the National Elk Refuge. Word is that the cutthroats are clever and put up a fight to reward an angler’s sight casting efforts. Try Jack Dennis’ High Country Outfitters (jdhcoutfitters.com) for more tips.

14. Get Fat (Tires, that is!)

As if there isn’t enough to do in the winter, the newer sport of snow biking is on the rise. Grand Targhee Resort’s (grandtarghee.com) extensive mountain biking trails don’t close down when the snow flies; instead fatter tires allow all-terrain bikes to float across wintery trails. The Idaho communities of Driggs and Victor and Alta, Wyo., have formed Teton Valley Trails and Pathways (tvtap.org), a nonprofit dedicated to creating an extensive public trail system.

15. Feed the Bears

At the gates of Yellowstone National Park the warnings of grizzly bear danger effectively illustrate the point that the wildlife in the Park are wild and should be left alone. That’s why programs such as the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center (grizzlydiscoveryctr.org) in West Yellowstone play a key role in educating the public further about native wildlife while offering an up-close experience. The nonprofit is a sanctuary for bears that had to be removed from the wild; placing the animals into captivity has saved them from certain death. With a mission to educate the public and protect wildlife, the center offers many programs throughout the year. Specifically, the Keeper Kids program, designed for ages 5 to 12, is a unique hands-on, 30-minute presentation in which kids learn first about grizzly bear eating habits then accompany the naturalist and animal keeper into the bear habitat to hide food for some of the resident bears. After the food is hidden and the kids are brought safely out of the enclosure, the grizzlies are released and can be watched as they use their sense of smell to search out the food.

16. Reach for the Stars

Appreciate Big Sky Country under the darkest skies by watching for the Perseid meteor shower that is most 
visible on clear nights in mid-August each year. For 2015 details, visit timeanddate.com/astronomy/meteor-shower/perseid.html.

17. Cheer for the Dragons

The Dragon Boat Festival (montana.racedragonboats.com) on Flathead Lake is heading into its fifth year with a growing fan base that cheers for these traditional Hong Kong-style dragon boats that stretch 46 feet long, with 10 dual seats for 20 people. The fast rhythm of the team member in the drum seat sets the pace at the helm, while another guides the boat with the steering oar in back. These 22 people make up a dragon boat team. The stroke is unlike any other (the most similar is outrigger canoe) and these boats cover approximately 1,000 meters on race day in the Flathead Lake Lodge bay. People love it — the thrill, the teamwork, the adrenaline, the interaction in the boat — and it’s one more way to enjoy the mountain air near Bigfork. 

18.  Follow the Art

Fine art collectors can make a grand loop through Montana and Wyoming in search of historic and contemporary artists. Starting the year off right in late January, the Yellowstone Art Museum (artmuseum.org) in Billings throws its annual art auction to raise crucial support for the exhibitions and educational programs that the museum presents to the community year-round. YAM has been a home for contemporary and regional art for half a century. 

Anchoring the tradition of Western art, the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, is the center of the event-packed Western Art Week (westernartweek.com) every March. Collectors get their art fix in an array of venues that provide works from deceased masters to the best current working artists, including The Russell art auction for the museum; March in Montana, a two-day fine art and collectibles auction; and the Out West Art Show, where premiere artists showcase their best work. 

The first half of September in Jackson is packed with the Fall Arts Festival (jacksonholechamber.com/fall_arts_festival). Opening with a fashion show for the Western Design Conference, the festival is a 10-day extravaganza of art events that melds interior design, visual arts, performance and culinary delicacies together into one gorgeous mountain town. The National Wildlife Museum showcases a unique array of wildlife art at the Western Visions exhibit and sale; watching artists create paintings and sculptures is an exciting experience at the Quick Draw Art Sale and Auction on the square downtown; and lively gallery walks throughout the festival bring landmark works to town. Lastly, the Jackson Hole Art Auction finishes neatly with astounding quality works up for bid.

Rounding out September is Rendezvous Royale (rendezvousroyale.org) in Cody, where the Buffalo Bill Art Show & Sale; Cody High Style furniture makers; Quick Finish art sale; and Patron’s Ball all benefit the Buffalo Bill Center of the West (centerofthewest.org).

19. Experience Yellowstone’s Backcountry on Horseback

Seeing the grandeur of America’s first national park on a horsepack excursion is the best way to access wilderness in a short period of time. From high-country vistas to remote fly-fishing hideouts, exploring this rugged country over the course of a week can be a life-changing experience. Several seasoned outfitters offer multi-day trips into Yellowstone, but the guides at Rockin’ HK Outfitters (rockinhk.com) may be the only ones who serve lemon meringue pie! Roughing it doesn’t need to be rough and the best outfitters make sure your experience is comfortable with classic canvas tents, gourmet meals and expert guides to lead you on the trip of your life. 

20. Get Pie-Eyed

At the Cherry Festival in Polson, Montana, the locals head down to Main Street for the annual Pie Eating Contest to celebrate the Flathead cherry harvest season. Further up north at Trout Creek’s annual Huckleberry Festival, held each August, don’t forget to fill out your pie eating contest application, as space is limited. Winners earn a blue ribbon and bragging rights for life.

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