It can be so easy sometimes to slot places – even places that sit close to each other – into seasonal tourism categories. Take Yellowstone National Park and the bit of central Montana that borders it to the north.
Yellowstone remains one of the US’s premier summer destinations, with the visitor numbers to prove it. About 50 miles to the north, the area around the resort community of Big Sky is largely known as a winter spot, a more down-to-earth answer to the trendy ski resorts of Colorado.
But while a summer trip to Yellowstone is absolutely one of those quintessential American vacations, it’s also worth heading north up US 191 to an area that offers equally spectacular scenery with significantly fewer crowds.
Yellowstone celebrates its 150th anniversary this year; President Grant signed it into existence in 1872, before there was a National Parks Service or really, much concept of “national park.” (It’s believed to be the first national park in the world.) After poachers failed to respect park boundaries in its early years, the US Army actually set up camp in the park and maintained it for several decades until Teddy Roosevelt created the system of parks we know today.
Despite its remote location more than 300 miles from the nearest major city, it also remains one of the most visited national parks, attracting nearly 5 million people in 2021. The vast majority of those people visit during peak summer months, and that can create problems for visitors. Booking early is essential, and still difficult, if you want to stay in the park. If you’re staying outside the park, the lines at the entrance gates are a lottery; you might find yourself parked for quite a while with what looks like a good proportion of those other 5 million visitors. Once inside, you might find the traffic on parts of the park’s famed Great Loop Road resemble something familiar to any Fort Lauderdale resident who’s ever tried to navigate A1A when the snowbirds are in town. (One difference: in Yellowstone, traffic jams can be caused both by tourists and by herds of bison crossing the road.) Seating areas around the park’s most famous landmark and possibly the world’s only celebrity geyser, Old Faithful, pack out like there’s a sporting event about to happen.
None of this is meant to imply that this American gem isn’t worth visiting. If you’re an experienced backcountry hiker, you can still get into parts of Yellowstone where you’ll be alone with your thoughts and spectacular scenery in July and August. And if your tour is more of the drive-and-reasonable-walk variety, the park’s popular spots dazzle even if you’re seeing them with plenty of others. The raised walkway over the Great Prismatic Spring can be a slow walk because of the crowds, but you’ll want to take your time anyway as you look at the wildly vivid colors of one of the planet’s largest natural hot springs. You won’t have a picnic area on the banks of Lake Yellowstone to yourself, but you’ll still be able to find a little spot of your own for lunch.
But of course, the gorgeous scenery and opportunity for outdoor fun in this part of the world doesn’t stop at the Yellowstone borders. This is the part where it’s useful to get acquainted with a ski resort’s summer charms.
Big Sky sits between Yellowstone and Bozeman, Montana, home to the region’s main airport. (And usefully also home to a direct JetBlue flight from Fort Lauderdale.) Big Sky, the community, is home to the Big Sky Resort. The popular ski resort sits underneath the imposing Lone Peak and transforms itself into a summer spot that’s a perfect jumping-off point for outdoor adventures – with a selection of heated pools and excellent bars and restaurants to relax in when the day’s adventuring is done.
If you’ve got sturdy boots and a desire to do some walking, the Beehive Basin Trail is one of the Big Sky area’s most popular hikes. From the trailhead it’s a little more than three miles to the basin and its shallow mountain lake, making the out-and-back hike about six-and-a-half miles. The incline on the way up is gentle and steady enough that there’s no one spot that’s too overwhelmingly taxing, making this a popular hike for families. Views include sweeping vistas – plenty of great vantage points for Lone Peak and surroundings – and more up-close pleasures as the trail is known as one of the best places to see the area’s vivid wildflowers. (Early summer is the best time for floral scenery.) The lake’s a perfect picnic spot, so pack a lunch.
There’s plenty of hiking in the resort itself as well, thanks to trails cut around the ski slopes. Two-wheeled adventurers can also have a go at mountain biking down for-purpose trails. And as with skiing, the trails are given different levels in case you’re worried about getting in over your head – or finding your feet and your bicycle over your head as you careen down a mountain.
Getting to the top for a hike or ride down will also introduce you to one of Big Sky’s coolest new perks. The resort is nearing the end of a massive 10-year remodel and modernization, and its ski lifts are one noticeable improvement. Forget the little playground-looking bar structures still so common at so many American ski areas. You now glide up the mountain in comfortable, soft-seated contraptions that look like they came out of a NASA lab. Cyclists actually do a boarding twice; first, they load their bikes onto one lift, then they hop onto the next one. Oh, and another part of the resort’s massive improvement project involves more mountainside dining options; the ski lift can be your Lyft to lunch or dinner.
If you want to get up close and personal with Lone Peak, tours bang up steep, rocky roads in specially kitted out off-road vehicles before transferring to a summit-bound tram. On a clear day, you can see three states and every reason why it’s important for this land to be protected