In the winter, Big Sky is a snowy playground boasting a luxury ski resort high in the Madison Mountains. I’m not a skier, so I visit Big Sky during the warmer months and still enjoy a wide array of outdoor adventures.
Before visiting Big Sky, it helps to know that it has three distinct areas. The heart of the ski resort, Mountain Village, sits atop the valley at 7,200 feet. The resort hosts many activities here during the summer, but they focus on more extreme adventures like mountain biking and ziplining. Town Center is about a 12-minute drive down the mountain. As the name implies, it’s the center of Big Sky full of shops, galleries, and restaurants. Meadow Village is a collection of some shops and restaurants, but also private homes and office buildings.
Some of the experiences profiled in this article were part of a recent press trip on which I was hosted by Visit Big Sky. All opinions are my own.
1. Hike The Ousel Falls Trail
Whether you’re a casual walker or an experienced hiker, the Ousel Falls Trail is a great way to start your exploration of the Big Sky. You have two options for getting to the trailhead for the hike to the falls. You can walk or bike the paved 1.7-mile path that begins in Town Center along Ousel Falls Road ending at Ousel Falls Park. You could also drive to the ample parking lot at the park. From the park, the trail descends to a fork of the Gallatin River, crossing a wide wooden bridge, and continuing up and down for a total of 0.8 miles to roaring Ousel Falls. Look for wildflowers along the trail and the American dipper bird, also known as the water ouzel, bobbing in the river’s ripples. The trail is designated as handicap accessible, but I think that’s a stretch. The path is wide and smooth in most places, but the big gains and drops in elevation can make it fairly treacherous for someone in a wheelchair or unsteady on their feet.
Pro Tip: Despite the proximity to town, this is bear country. Be aware of your surroundings and it never hurts to bring bear spray.
2. Fly Fish The Gallatin River
The Gallatin River runs parallel to Highway 191 just three miles down the road from Big Sky. Shallow pools that hug the grassy shoreline are the perfect place to cast a rod and hook a sleek rainbow or brown trout. You can fish on your own or you can hire an experienced guide from one of the many guide services in the area. I recently enjoyed morning fishing with a guide from Gallatin River Guides. When I arrived at the office, I met up with my guide, Daniel, who helped fit me with waders and boots. He provided all the equipment, drove us to his favorite spots, and patiently taught me all the techniques I would need to ensure a catch. All I had to do was cast my line. Four hours and three rainbow trout later, I was ready to add fly fishing to my list of favorite outdoor activities.
Pro Tip: Whether you’re on your own or with a guide, you are required to obtain a Montana fishing license before setting out. Visit Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to purchase a license online or find a provider in the area.
3. Raft The Gallatin River
If you’re looking for a little more excitement on the river, whitewater rafting is the way to go. The river offers a wide variety of experiences from Class IV white-knuckle rapids to relaxing floats in the calmer waters. Whichever experience you choose, you’re granted stunning views of cliffs rising above the river, and a chance to see elk and moose along the banks and osprey and bald eagles soaring overhead. Two rafting companies offer trips on the Gallatin close to Big Sky, Geyser Whitewater Expeditions, and Montana Whitewater. My last experience was with the folks at Geyser. Class I and II rapids are more my speed so I chose the scenic half-day float. After suiting up, my raft mates and I were driven by our guides to the put-in site. Following detailed safety instructions, we set out on the river. Each rafter was given a paddle, but we only had to use them occasionally as the guide saw fit. Twelve miles later, we pulled up to shore slightly wet and tired, but filled with awe of the beauty of the Gallatin.
Pro Tip: I highly recommend paying the additional charge to rent a wetsuit and booties. The river water is cold and you will get wet.
4. Tour The Historic Crail Ranch
When you’re ready for a break from the excitement of rafting, head to the Historic Crail Ranch located in Meadow Village tucked within a quiet neighborhood. It is on this spot that the Crail family settled in 1902. The grounds consist of lovely gardens and two original cabins, one of which houses the Crail Ranch Homestead Museum. You can walk the grounds any time during daylight hours, or time your visit to take a guided tour on Sundays from noon to 3 p.m. No matter when you visit, take time to take solace in the quiet of the meadow and enjoy the same view the Crail family enjoyed a century ago in the shadow of the majestic mountains. The grounds are wheelchair accessible, but entry into the historic cabins may be difficult for someone with mobility issues.
5. Tee Up At Big Sky Golf Course
While at the Historic Crail Ranch, take a look just past the cabin and you’ll see the Big Sky Golf Course. Designed by Arnold Palmer and sitting at an elevation of 6,500 feet with stunning views, you’ll soon realize that this is not your average course. Tee times start early at 7:30 a.m. to beat the summer heat and run into the early evening. Experienced golfers can jump in the cart and hit the course. If you feel you need a little help from a pro, you can book an individual or group lesson, or participate in one of their weekly clinics. Calloway clubs are also rented on a first-come basis if you happened to leave your clubs at home. Once you’ve built up an appetite, head to the on-site Bunker Deck & Grill for a Bunker Burger or Caprese Salad and toast to hitting par with a Bunker Old Fashioned or the gin and fruit-filled 19th Hole.
Pro Tip: Be sure to review course rules regarding attire and the size of parties allowed on the course before booking a tee time.
6. See Big Sky On Horseback
Several outfitters in the Big Sky area offer the chance to explore Big Sky in true western fashion from atop a horse. Enjoy a leisurely ride through Gallatin Canyon while taking in the stunning landscape and keep an eye out for wildlife. Trips range from hour-long trail rides to multiday pack trips to the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park. Cache Creek Outfitters even combines horseback riding and fly fishing if you’d like to have two adventures rolled into one. Wranglers take care to fit riders with horses that match their experience as well as try to keep the number of riders to a minimum for safety purposes and so each rider can get the attention they need.
7. Explore Town Center
What better way to get to know Big Sky than to live like a local? Town Center is the heart of Big Sky where both residents and visitors can shop, dine, and play. Town Center is well-contained and easily walkable and ample parking is available. Shop for handcrafted jewelry and home goods at Trove West. Get the gear you need for all your adventures at Grizzly Outfitters, and the gear you need for a night on the town at Rhinestone Cowgirl. When it’s time to grab a bite, fill up with a panini and salad at By Word of Mouth or a Mexican feast at Alberto’s.
During happy hour you’ll find the locals sipping craft cocktails at The Standard and locally brewed beer at Beehive Basin Brewery. If you’re in town at the right time, Len Hill Park hosts some great community events each week. Bring a blanket and catch a free live concert every Thursday evening at Music in the Mountains. Get a good stretch on with yoga sessions every Monday at noon. Get to know local artists and their crafts at the farmer’s market on Wednesday evenings.
Pro Tip: Before you visit Big Sky, be aware that there aren’t many options for places to stay, and the available places can be pretty pricey. There are a few lodges on the mountain like the Huntley Lodge. The Wilson Hotel is located in Town Center. The Whitewater Inn is just outside of Big Sky, but still within a short drive of all these activities.
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