In the winter, Big Sky is a snowy playground boasting a luxury ski resort in the Madison Mountains. I’m not a skier so I visit Big Sky in the warmer months and always enjoy a wide range of outdoor adventures.
Before visiting big sky, it is useful 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. The town center is about a 12 minute drive up the mountain. As the name suggests, this is the center of Big Sky full of shops, galleries, and restaurants. Meadow Village is a collection of shops and restaurants, but also private homes and office buildings.
Some of the experiences described in this article were part of a recent press trip where I was hosted by Visit Big Sky. All opinions are mine.
1. Hike Ousel Falls Trail
Whether you are an occasional 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 1.7 mile paved path that begins downtown along Ousel Falls Road and ends at Ousel Falls Park. You can also drive to the park’s large parking lot. From the park, the trail descends to a fork in the Gallatin River, crosses a wide wooden bridge, and continues up and down for a total of 1.3 km to the roaring Ousel Falls. Look for wildflowers along the trail and the American diver bird, also known as the water ouzel, dancing in the ripples of the river. The trail is designated as handicap accessible, but I think that’s overkill. The path is wide and smooth in most places, but the big gains and drops can make it quite dangerous for someone in a wheelchair or unsteady on their feet.
Pro Tip: Despite the proximity of the city, 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 parallels Highway 191 just three miles from Big Sky. The shallow pools that hug the grassy shoreline are the perfect place to cast a rod and catch an elegant rainbow or brown trout. You can fish on your own or 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. Arriving at the office, I met my guide, Daniel, who helped me get fitted with waders and boots. He provided all the gear, drove us to his favorite spots, and patiently taught me all the techniques I would need to secure a hold. 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 are alone or with a guide, you must obtain a Montana fishing license before you go. Visit Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to buy a license online or find a supplier in the area.
3. Rafting on 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 rapids to relaxing floats in calmer waters. Whichever experience you choose, you’ll get stunning views of the cliffs rising above the river and the chance to see elk and moose along the banks, as well as osprey fishermen and bald eagles soaring above your head. Two rafting companies offer outings on the Gallatin near Big Sky, Whitewater Geyser Expeditionsand Montana Whitewater. My last experience was with the Geyser people. Class I and II rapids are more my speed so I chose the half day scenic float. After getting dressed, my raft mates and I were led by our guides to the set-up site. Following detailed safety instructions, we set out on the river. Each rafter received a paddle, but we only had to use them occasionally as the guide saw fit. Twelve miles later we pulled up on the shore slightly wet and tired, but filled with awe at the beauty of the Gallatin.
Pro Tip: I highly recommend paying the extra fee to rent a wetsuit and slippers. The water in the river is cold and you will get wet.
4. Visit 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 nestled in a quiet neighborhood. This is where the Crail family settled in 1902. The grounds consist of beautiful gardens and two quirky cabins, one of which houses the Crail Ranch Homestead Museum. You can stroll the grounds anytime during the day or arrange your visit to take a guided tour on Sundays from noon to 3 p.m. No matter when you visit, take time to comfort yourself in the quiet of the prairie and enjoy the same view The Crail family enjoyed a century ago in the shadow of majestic mountains. The grounds are wheelchair accessible, but entry into the historic cabins may be difficult for someone with reduced mobility.
5. Tee Up at Big Sky Golf Course
While at Historic Crail Ranch, peek 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 this isn’t your average course. Departure times begin early at 7:30 a.m. to beat the summer heat and end in the early evening. Experienced golfers can hop in the cart and hit the course. If you feel like you need a little help from a pro, you can book an individual or group lesson, or join one of their weekly clinics. Calloway clubs are also rented on a first come basis if you have left your clubs at home. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, head over there. Cargo deck and grill for a Bunker Burger or a Caprese salad and toast to match an Old Fashioned Bunker or the 19th Hole filled with gin and fruit.
Pro Tip: Be sure to review the course rules regarding dress and group sizes 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 like a true Western from atop a horse. Enjoy a leisurely ride through Gallatin Canyon while admiring the stunning scenery and keeping an eye out for wildlife. Trips range from hour-long hikes to multi-day trips to the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park. Cache Creek Outfitter even combines horseback riding and fly fishing if you want two adventures in one. The Wranglers are careful to equip riders with horses that match their experience and try to keep the number of riders to a minimum for safety reasons and so that each rider can get the attention they need.
7. Explore downtown
What better way to get to know Big Sky than to live like a local? Downtown is the heart of Big Sky where residents and visitors can shop, dine and play. The town center is well contained and easily walkable and ample parking is available. Shop for handcrafted jewelry and homewares at west coast. Get the gear you need for all your adventures on Grizzly Outfitterand the gear you need for a night out on the town at rhinestone cowgirl. When it’s time to grab a bite, stock up on a panini and salad at From mouth to ear or a Mexican feast at by Alberto.
During happy hour, you’ll find the locals sipping craft cocktails at The standard and locally brewed beer at Bassin de la Ruche Brewery. If you’re in town at the right time, Len Hill Park hosts some great community events every week. Bring a blanket and catch a free live concert every Thursday night at Music in the Mountains. Stretch well 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 accommodation options and the places available can be quite expensive. There are a few lodges on the mountain like the Huntley Lodge. The Wilson Hotel is located in Downtown. The Whitewater Inn is just outside of Big Sky, but still a short drive to all that activity.
For more information on traveling in Montana, check out these articles: