Montana's sweet spot in the Western experience

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"You want it in front," he said. "That's the biggest mistake people make."

"Is it better fortune to see a bear or not see a bear here?" I asked.

"Depends on how close you are," he said.

We climbed for another hour or so to one of the most idyllic scenes I've ever reached on foot: a meadow sitting high above the land we left below. An alpine lake sat in the center of the meadow, and at its end stood tall, jagged mountainous teeth. The crowd, on a sun-dappled summer afternoon, was made up of locals.

On some rocks above the lake, I met Sandy Eggers, 65, who has split her time between Memphis and Big Sky (there are many part-time residents) for 13 years. I remarked on all the new construction and the new businesses down in the meadow and asked if the place felt bigger even though it remains relatively cozy. Big Sky was indeed getting bigger, she said, but it still felt manageable.

"There are more buildings," she said, "but it doesn't feel more crowded."

The sky, she added, still felt plenty big.

If you go

Getting there: Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, an hour north of Big Sky, is served by airlines that include United, Delta and Frontier. Many people will find themselves in Big Sky as part of a Western road trip that includes Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and whatever other Western destinations move them — which is highly recommended.

Eat: Olive B's (Meadow Village Center, 151 Center Lane, 406-995-3355, is a newer bistro and widely considered the finest meal in Big Sky. Ousel and Spur (50 Ousel Falls Road, 406-995-7175,, a pizza place, is a recent addition and offers tasty, fresh pizza. Buck's T-4 (46625 Gallatin Road, 406-995-4111, serves classic "Montana food," including elk and trout.

Stay: Ranch options include 320 Guest Ranch (205 Buffalo Horn Creek Road, Gallatin Gateway; 406-995-4283; and Lone Mountain Ranch (750 Lone Mountain Ranch Road, 406-995-4644, Buck's T-4 also has rooms. Ski areas Big Sky Resort (1 Lone Mountain Trail, 406-995-5000, and Moonlight Basin (66 Mountain Loop Road, 406-993-6000, have rooms available during summer.

Do: Summer activities in Big Sky are nearly endless, and include hiking, fishing and horseback-riding. During summer the town offers a farmers market on Wednesdays and free outdoor concerts on Thursdays. There are several memorable hikes, including Ousel Falls (which basically is in town) and Beehive Basin, which is a ride up the mountain. The west gate of Yellowstone is just an hour away. In winter, locals boast of the short lift lines at both ski resorts.

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