The state of Montana is full of contradictions. In downtown Bozeman, an original ACE Hardware store sits across the street from the funky Plonk wine bar; at Mountain Sky Guest Ranch in Emigrant, you spend days riding horses and evenings dining on gourmet cuisine; and in Yellowstone National Park, elk and bison roam the fields as cars wind through the paved roads, stopping to get a glimpse at nature. But these polar opposites are what make Montana so appealing -- you can get away from it all, but only if you want to.
What's Old is New Again
There's no need for residents of Bozeman to check the weather report to know if it's a good day for skiing. One look at the lights on top of the former Baxter Hotel (now commercial space) on downtown's one-mile Main Street tells them all they need to know -- if they're flashing, it's a good day to call in sick and head to the slopes. The less than one million who call Montana home live and work here mostly so that they can spend their off time under the "Big Sky," and when Bozeman residents can't escape, there are distractions -- albeit low-key ones -- in town.
In downtown Bozeman, remnants of the past (a rotating stallion statue from 1966, for example) are marrying with modernity. At Plonk (29 E. Main St.; tel. 406/587-2170; www.plonkwine.com), an original tin ceiling looks over a chic space of blue mosaic-tile floors, brick walls, cozy niches, and an impressive selection of wines from around the world. The historic railcar at Montana Ale Works (611 E. Main St.; tel. 406/587-7700; www.montanaaleworks.com) is a great place to down one of 40 microbrews on tap and dishes such as Pedro's Pasta with goat cheese, pine nuts, basil, and tomato (try it with grilled chicken). Those who've come to Montana for fly-fishing will likely make a stop at Montana Troutfitters (1716 W. Main St.; tel. 406/587-4707; www.troutfitters.com), but if the fish aren't biting, you can always head to Montana Fish Company (119 E. Main St.; tel. 406/556-0200) for slabs of fresh, bright pink salmon.
There's no better example of the old becoming new again than the Museum of the Rockies (600 W. Kagy Blvd.; tel. 406/994-DINO; www.museumoftherockies.org), where dinosaur fossils have a new home at the 10,000-square-foot Siebel Dinosaur Complex, which was completed in the summer of 2007. Based largely on the work of Dr. Jack Horner, the world-renowned paleontologist who advised Steven Spielberg for all three Jurassic Park films (the character of Alan Grant was based on him), the exhibit hall carries the largest collection of American fossils in the world, including Catherine, one of the world's first female dinosaurs, which was discovered in Montana in 2000. The complex features a variety of interactive video lessons and a glass-front lab where you can watch work being done on actual fossils.
Montana is known for its wide open spaces, but all that green means you need a car to get around. There are no major hotels on Bozeman's Main Street, but bed-and-breakfasts such as the Voss Inn (319 S. Wilson; tel. 406-587-0982; www.bozeman-vossinn.com) and The Olive Branch Inn (202 Lindley Place; tel. 406/587-8403; www.theolivebranchinn.com) are within walking distance. If you're looking for something a little larger-scale, the new Hilton Garden Inn (2023 Commerce Ave.; tel. 406/582-9900; www.hiltongardeninn.com) has a lodge-like ambience and thoughtful amenities including a gym, heated pool and Jacuzzi, in-room Stay Fit Kit, free internet, and Pavilion Pantry (for after-hours snacking).
I never went to summer camp as a kid, so my visit to Mountain Sky Guest Ranch (P.O. Box 1219, Emigrant, MT 59027; tel. 406/333-4911; www.mtnsky.com), about an hour's drive from Bozeman, was my chance to live out my The Simple Life fantasy, minus the miniature dog, inappropriately stylish clothes, and (I quickly learned) cell phone service.
After a 4.5 mile drive up a dirt road, the gate to Mountain Sky appeared like a mirage, popping out of nowhere amongst the tall pines. The smell of horse manure wafted up from the stables and followed us up to the main lodge, a huge cabin-like structure with a porch that stretches almost across its entire length. We met with general manager Yancey Arterburn, who donned jeans, rugged boots, and a friendly smile. Arterburn, who used to oversee David Letterman's ranch in Montana, took us around just a few of the ranch's 8,400 acres. We made our way through the game room, the great room, the dining room, and the bar, walking past the pool and Jacuzzi, gym, and laundry room to get to our room, located at the end of the property. The room's large picture window offered a panoramic view of the property, encompassing the stables, pool, and Emigrant Peak.
However, we didn't have time to plop down on the large leather couch before it was time for our first outdoor adventure -- whitewater rafting. It goes without saying that you should expect to get wet; soaked is probably a better term. The folks at Wild West Whitewater Rafting (tel. 800/862-0557; www.wildwestrafting.com) in Gardiner (about 30 minutes from Mountain Sky) prepare you for the 8-mile trip along Yellowstone River by offering water shoes and life jackets (the latter is a requirement, and while the former is optional, I suggest you take the shoes). The waters are fairly calm most of the time, but there are definitely times when you find yourself closing your eyes in anticipation of getting wet. Along the 2-hour journey we came across a number of birds including osprey, blue egrets, magpies, swallows, and ravens. We were even treated to an up-close view of an elk, which looked fake until it moved its head.
After all that activity, we were looking forward to dinner. Kids take their meals earlier (5:45pm) in their own dining area, while adults sit down for their multiple-course meal at 6:30pm, with pre-dinner drinks and appetizers at 6pm Meal time, like much of your time at the ranch, is about mingling with other guests. It's rare that you'll sit at the same table or with the same people two days in a row, but that's part of the fun. Over the next few days I ate everything including granola, pancakes, eggs, pizza, salmon Caesar salad, and stuffed chicken breast -- all of it fresh and delicious. While all the food is amazing, I've got a sweet tooth, and I indulged in fluffy blueberry muffins at breakfast; fresh-from-the-oven cookies at lunch; and a decadent chocolate tart with raspberry sauce (just one the desserts during my stay) at dinner. It's easy to think that you'll lose weight, what with all the physical activities, but consider yourself lucky if you break even.
Adults rave about the gourmet meals, saying that it's one of the reasons they, too, enjoy their stay. Kids are kept busy throughout the day by camp counselors (college-age kids who compete for a coveted summer job at the ranch), and while they can spend the day with the parents, they're usually busy running around with their new friends, prepping for the talent show, which takes place at the end of the week. Parents have plenty of alone time to enjoy a hike, horseback ride, dip in the pool, or massage. Massages are offered daily, but be warned: with only two therapists, times fill up quickly, so sign up when checking in. If you miss out on a massage and are looking for another way to relax, the ranch also offers yoga several times a week.
The ranch wasn't always a luxury getaway. In the late 1800s, Nelson Story set up what he would later call Ox-Yoke Ranch after driving Texas long-horn cattle up the Lonesome Dove Trail to Montana. The ranch's original 50,000 acres served as base camp for sheepherders and cowboys, and in 1929, the ranch had its first guests. The ranch changed hands -- and names -- throughout the late 1900s, and in 2001, Arthur and Stephanie Blank, guests for three consecutive years, purchased Mountain Sky. Blank's no ordinary businessman -- he co-founded Home Depot and owns the Atlanta Falcons football team -- and he spent time and money renovating the ranch's 29 units (many in individual cabins) with iron fixtures, slate bathrooms, patina metal countertops, and hardwood floors.
The ranch can accommodate about 80 to 85 guests at once, and though there were 88 during my stay, it never seemed like more than 25. This is perhaps due to the fact that throughout the day, people are busy with activities. We did a few morning hikes (the one past Big Creek is beautiful, and you can even snag some fresh raspberries on the way back), and I spent some time riding Socks, one of the ranch's 117 horses. When it was revealed to the other guests that I was a travel journalist, they told me how much they loved the ranch and that I should give it a good review. If only they knew I was thinking the same thing.
Park & Ride
The next morning we headed to Yellowstone National Park (www.nps.gov/yell/), about a 45-minute drive from Mountain Sky. We didn't have to wait long for our first wildlife viewing -- deer grazing by the visitor center -- but later in the day I wondered if these were planted there to give us false hope. After we got orientated, we stopped at Mammoth Hot Springs, where the different levels of limestone, shaped by heat and water, looked at times like candy, at other times like a manmade set for the Matterhorn. As we made our way to other stops including Tower Falls, Fountain Paint Pot, and the Great Fountain Geyser, the weather changed dramatically -- several times throughout the day -- and the harsh rain limited our animal sightings. If you're afraid you'll drive by without noticing a bison or deer, never fear. Keep your eyes on the road; the backup of traffic will tell you when it's worth pulling over. You could spend days exploring the park, but since we had limited time, we made our last stop at Old Faithful. The famous geyser probably draws the most crowds of any other stop in the park, and there were thousands lined up waiting to see the show. I pretended to be cooler than them, but when the geyser finally spouted its curtain of scalding hot water, I found myself taking pictures just like any other tourist.
Getting There & Getting Around
Gallatin Field Airport in Bozeman is one of six major airports in the state. Delta (tel. 800/221-1212; www.delta.com), Horizon Air (tel. 800/547-9308; www.horizonair.com), Northwest (tel. 800/225-2525; www.nwa.com), and United (tel. 800/241-6522; www.ual.com) are the major airlines servicing this airport.
Car-rental agencies at the airport include Budget (tel. 800/527-0700 or 406/388-4091; www.budget.com); Enterprise (tel. 800/261-7331; www.enterprise.com); Hertz (tel. 800/654-3131 or 406/388-6939; www.hertz.com); and Alamo (tel. 800/227-3768 or 406/388-6694; www.alamo.com).
Contact Travel Montana, P.O. Box 200533, 301 S. Park St., Helena, MT 59620 (tel. 800/VISIT-MT, 406/841/2870, or TDD 406/841/2702; www.visitmt.com), or visit the Montana Fast Facts and other pages at Frommers.com. When you're there, it will be helpful to have a copy of Frommer's Montana & Wyoming and Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks. Entry to the park is $25 per non-commercial vehicle, which gives you 7-days' access to both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National parks. If you're not camping in the park, you can find a number of hotels outside the park entrances.
Note: This trip was sponsored by Travel Montana.
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