Our visit to Big Sky, Montana was a serendipitous surprise. I had never heard of it until three young women from Wisconsin told us on the Yellowstone River that they were planning a vacation to “hang out” there. We looked it up on the map, discovered that it was on our route, and phoned for reservations. We found that we could get a “deal” and decided to stop over. We weren’t there an hour before we had decided to extend our stay for another night. It was a delightful reprieve from what was otherwise a very busy road trip.
Visiting a ski resort in the summer is a bracing experience. There is no snow, but the major lifts are operating and sightseers can reach the summit with minimum effort. Guide Pete Owens took a tour of three (including me) to the top of Lone Mountain. He recounted in great detail stories of the local scene, including the origins of the exclusive Yellowstone Club, which we could see on the adjacent mountain. Riding the first chairlift was no big deal. Clearly, Big Sky is a mountain bike paradise and many bikers were going up with their bicycles sent ahead to roar down the mountain on two wheels. Once we had reached the first plateau, we were then loaded onto a bus which then drove 20 minutes over a narrow mountain road to the base of a gondola to the summit. We were half way up the gondola when Pete told us that the base had been built on a glacier that had moved several feet since it was first installed.
Lone Mountain at Big Sky offers the highest vertical foot ski drop in the United States. At 4,350 feet, skiers sign in at the Jackass Creek Saloon on the summit and only four skiers every fifteen minutes are allowed to descend down the trail. We’re told that skiing that particular run is an unparalleled experience. In the summer, we can only stand in awe at the heights. We were also blown away by the young couple we met at the summit who had climbed to the top in less than three hours.
A local guide is an invaluable resource. Pete recommended we eat at the RiverHouse Grill on the Gallatin River, just south of the Big Sky turnoff. It was a super restaurant with barbecued steak, ribs and chicken, potato salad and fresh corn to die for. We arrived early and were well into our meal before many families descended for the food and for the large playground by the river where young people and adults played volleyball until dinner. Not a bad way to spend a warm summer evening.
My husband and I have just returned from a short road trip to Cody, Wyoming, via Washington State, Idaho and Montana. For him, it was a sentimental journey to show me the wilderness near Yellowstone National Park where he and his buddies spent fifteen summers backpacking. We were not backpacking, but we did visit the campsites and trailheads they had used for their hikes. Even without this personal connection, the mountain roads and vistas of the area are breathtakingly beautiful, sometimes totally scary, and well worth the trip.
Apart from what we saw, this trip taught us some significant life lessons. We had booked a lovely cottage beside the Yellowstone River near Columbus Montana, just off the I-90 interstate, for our first night in the area. To get there, we drove twelve straight hours, over 1030 kilometres, travelling at 75 mph interstate speeds. We were utterly exhausted. My husband and his friend used to drive to Cody from Toronto in a day and a half, with only one short stopover at a roadside motel, and think nothing of it. We knew as soon as we stopped, and probably hours earlier, that driving so far was a big, big mistake, and we vowed never to do that again.
We also packed camping gear, thinking that we might spend a couple of nights camping in the Beartooth Mountains. Sitting on the patio beside the Yellowstone River that first night, we realized that we had forgotten to bring any Muskol or mosquito coils, to protect us from bugs. It also poured with rain, something we had not anticipated. And, of course, we had not brought a tarp. Those were the obvious omissions of essential equipment we knew about. Probably, there were many others we would discover at our peril. Clearly, camping was not on.
We have talked for years about buying or renting a camper van, or a tent trailer, so that we can continue the itinerant summer lifestyle we enjoy for as long as possible. That is now off the table. Our old Nissan is a comfortable touring vehicle which we will keep. Anything more elaborate would be more than we could handle.
So why this definitive decision?
Three young women I met beside the Yellowstone River told me that they were going to Big Sky “to hang out.” Big Sky? I’d never heard of it. It turns out that Big Sky is a huge ski resort, the largest terrain and the highest vertical drop in the United States. It is one hour north of the west gate of Yellowstone in southern Montana, right on our route back north. I phoned the resort, using my first-ever Bell text and call (no data) roaming plan, and discovered that the luxurious Huntley Lodge had a summer deal which included breakfast and all the amenities. It was located right at the mountain village at the very base of the chairlift. We booked it, finished our sight-seeing in Cody, and then drove there at a leisurely pace. One look and we readily decided to stay a second night.
Two days later, we booked into another ski resort, the Morning Star Lodge at Silver Mountain in Kellogg, Idaho, just off the I-90. It was a very manageable five-hour drive further up the road. There we had a studio condo with a kitchenette at a most reasonable rate. It also had a balcony and, on the adjacent rooftop patio, a pristine hot tub, with a view of the mountains, which we had to ourselves. Camping was never like this.
This little road trip has been a revelation. Carrying an iPad, we can find lodgings as we go along, using booking.com or phoning ahead. We have learned that ski resorts have ample availability in the summertime, offer wonderful facilities and ready access to the mountains. We can look for efficiency cabins and condos, to give flexibility and the capacity to cook for ourselves. These were the facilities which made travelling in New Zealand such a pleasure, and which we can undoubtedly replicate here. Oh yes, and carrying a night-light which we can plug in provides for greater safety. Clearly, our camping days are over.
More posts and pictures on this trip to follow.
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