On the Road with Nancy Brown: Base Camp in Big Sky
Travel Writer Nancy D. Brown uses Big Sky, Montana as her adventure springboard.
Spanish Peaks Wrangler Kate Levanger crosses a creek with her mule during a pack trip into Yellowstone National Park
All photos by Nancy D. Brown
Sure, Big Sky, Montana has it down when it comes to skiing, but did you know that the city makes a great location for a summer or fall base camp as well? An easy flight from the Bay Area, Big Sky is an outdoor lovers answer to the call of the wild. And it’s not all wild; there’s plenty of luxury to be found in the area, too. From deluxe overnight trips into Yellowstone National Park, to kayaking and fly fishing in the Gallatin River, Montana is not to be missed for family fun or serious active travel.
Gateway to Yellowstone
While 99 percent of visitors to Yellowstone National Park never venture more than one mile off the main road, The Club at Spanish Peaks, located 18 miles from Yellowstone, encourages guests to venture outside the box. With a large stone-and-timber clubhouse, featuring seven luxury guest rooms and rental cabins, vacation-goers will awake to non-stop views of the Spanish Peaks and surrounding forest. Guests may sit deckside, enjoying a summer barbeque buffet, while wine connoisseurs in the clubhouse restaurant will ponder which bottle to select from the 1,300-bottle wine cellar to pair with their Big Sky steak.
The resort, and my home base for this Big Sky holiday, is also one of only forty or so outfitters with a permit to offer overnight pack trips on horseback through Yellowstone. Our pack trip staging area was situated on the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park, by Daly Creek, off Fawn Pass. These are not your rough and rugged pack trips, mind you; these one-, two-, and three-night pack trips feature gourmet meals such as elk tenderloin or lobster tail and mellow rides through lupine, bluebells, forget-me-nots, glacier lily, and larkspur flowers as you venture into the park. While the Spanish Peaks’ mules won’t pack in your television or boom box, they will carry your fishing pole, sleeping bag, and a down pillow so you can enjoy the star-covered night skies while you listen to the tinkling bell of the lead pack horse grazing in the meadow. There’s no rush hour traffic or conference calling on this trip, just mountain streams and clean, clear air.
Montana’s Gallatin River
Kayakers and rafters will enjoy the challenges of class one through five rapids flowing through the area. But if floating through the meadows is more your style, Geyser White Water Expeditions also offers scenic float trips, great for young children. With 15 years of rafting experience on the Gallatin River, Geyser is a reliable choice for a safe and fun day on the rapids.
Geyser White Water Expeditions, 46651 Gallatin Road, Gallatin Gateway, Montana, (800) 914-9031, raftmontana.com, twitter.com/geyserrafting.
A River Runs Through Big Sky
Big Sky also offers legendary fly fishing. Anglers come from near and far to fish Montana’s blue ribbon trout-filled rivers and alpine mountain lakes. While Author Norman MaClean penned his novella A River Runs Through It with the Black Foot River in mind, the actual filming took place on the Gallatin. To take on the scenic river, call up Gallatin River Guides which offers family pod trips and half- and full-day trips as well as a spring-fed pond for the little ones.
The country’s longest untamed river, the Yellowstone, also runs nearby; and to the west, the Madison, one of the world’s most famous trout rivers, flows through the scenic Madison Valley.
Gallatin River Guides, located a half mile south of the Big Sky turnoff on Highway 191, (888) 707-1505, montanaflyfishing.com.
Bike Montana’s Mountains
Mountain bikers will get plenty of pedal pushing while taking in the Big Sky scenery. With miles of back country trails, the Big Sky Resort skiing area turns into a different kind of playground come summer, offering hiking and mountain biking for visitors of all ages. It also offers the area’s only lift accessible downhill trails from the Ramcharger lift at the Mountain Village base camp. Bring your own bike and a helmet, or rent them from Gallatin Alpine Sports.
Gallatin Alpine Sports, 3091 Pine Drive, Big Sky, Montana (406) 995-2313, gallatinalpinesports.com.
Rock Climbing Paradise
Those looking for a peak experience may want to scale Gallatin Tower across from House Rock in Big Sky. This large cliff, a well known Big Sky landmark, is composed of metamorphic gneiss rock and has 16 climbing routes. From the tower, climbers can watch river rafts float down the Gallatin. However, I recommend keeping your eyes on the rock!
With permit-only access to the Gallatin National Forest and surrounding areas, expert, novice, and intermediate climbers might consider Montana Alpine Guides, a ten-year-old company that specializes in introducing entire families to the sport of safe yet thrilling climbing.
Montana Alpine Guides, Mile marker 62, Bozeman, Montana (406) 586-8430, adventuremontana.com.
Alpine Golf in Big Sky
Golfers will want to stay at The Club at Spanish Peaks, not only for the remote setting near Yellowstone, but for the award-winning golf programs. A Tom Weiskopf-designed 18-hole alpine golf course is open to guests staying on the Spanish Peaks property. The course features 7,200 yards of golf from the longest tees for a par of 72. With nine miles of paved golf cart paths, players will appreciate that the Spanish Peaks residential houses and clubhouse were designed after the golf course was laid out; most holes are far enough from accommodations to afford 40-mile views. Golfers will take in Spanish Peak forests and the snow capped Lone Mountain, rather than looking at homes along the fairways. Bring your camera, as you’ll want to take pictures of signature hole 15, and perhaps, some wildlife that you spot along the way.
Big Sky Winter Fun
No time for a summer or fall trek to Montana? With no lift lines, ideal ski conditions, and affordable lift tickets, it’s no wonder that Big Sky, Montana’s tagline is “biggest skiing in America.” In winter, bighorn sheep and mountain goats descend to lower elevations, while brown bears, black bears, and Grizzlies return to their dens for a long winter’s hibernation. Picturesque Ousel Falls freezes over, transforming the area to an ice climber’s paradise. My next trip to Montana, I’ll be packing ear muffs and sleigh bells for my horse drawn sleigh ride over the meadow and through the woods.
Big Sky Resort, 1 Lone Mountain Trail, Big Sky, Montana (800) 548-4486, bigskyresort.com, twitter.com/bigskyresort.
For a local’s view of Big Sky, Montana, check out the video below:
A lifelong resident of Contra Costa County, Nancy D. Brown grew up in Moraga. When she’s not traveling, she lives in Lafayette with her husband and teens. Nancy is the Uptake.com Travel Editor, writes the What a Trip blog and is a Contra Costa Times Lamorinda Sun columnist. Horse lovers will find her at writinghorseback.com. Follow Nancy on Twitter at twitter.com/nancydbrown.