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Montana's sweet spot in the Western experience

Josh Noel

Tribune Travels

8:18 PM EDT, April 30, 2013

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BIG SKY, Mont. — This place is absurdly misnamed. That's not a complaint, but it does require an asterisk.

If you want truly big sky, head east of here, to the flatter, slightly more mundane plains of this state (or, say, eastern Colorado, Wyoming or the Dakota of your choice). In those leveler places, the sky travels from the infinity at your left to the infinity at your right. Now that's some big sky.

In the southern Montana region known as Big Sky, the sky, curiously, is much smaller — and that's a good thing. Montana's version of Big Sky is a wild and stirring pocket of mountains, pines, wildlife and recreation that comes in many forms. In winter, that's principally skiing on peaks with so much acreage and elevation that the town has trademarked the slogan, "biggest skiing in America."

In summer, when I visited, Big Sky recreation becomes an even broader palette of adventure: hiking, hunting, mountain-biking, zip-lining, fly-fishing, horseback-riding, rafting and golfing among them. Tucked between Yellowstone and the handsome brick town of Bozeman, Big Sky is about clean air, active spirit and embracing the West. It's just not about big sky. Too many peaks and pines for that.

Locals divide Big Sky into three areas. Down low is "the canyon," where U.S. Highway 191 snakes past old-school steakhouses, ranches and the sparklingly clear Galatin River, where fly fishermen are likely to be casting for trout on a summer's afternoon.

Head up the mountain, and you come to "the meadow," a grassy plain where much of Big Sky's commerce exists. It is strangely split into two little villages separated by about half a mile, but the intention is that they'll be connected eventually.

Then, farther up, you reach "the mountain," which essentially is a garden-variety ski village that includes one of the local highlights: a tram to Lone Peak's perfect 11,166-foot-high triangular point.

At dinner one night at Olive B's, a new bistro that had locals excited, my waitress, who was drifting through Big Sky after stops in Maine and Hawaii, explained that there are meadow people and mountain people. We were in the meadow.

"They don't really come down here," she said, "and I don't really go up there."

That was funny, because the mountain and the meadow sit just a few miles apart. But the meadow has most of the makings of a town growing so fast that it needed to open a high school in recent years. Add to that a Chinese restaurant, a Thai restaurant, a pizza place, a brewery, a few banks, a movie theater, a liquor store and a couple of small grocery stores. Big Sky is so cozy that on my second day, when another visitor asked me the location of the liquor store, I could tell him exactly.

Though winter is the busier tourism season, Big Sky is increasingly embracing summer's possibilities. That includes a stop from the Professional Bull Riders in August, outdoor concerts on Thursdays (this summer includes The Beach Boys) and a farmers market on Wednesdays. The day I visited, a table of air guns made to look like semi-automatic weapons sat beside an array of homemade amaretto brownies, which sat beside antlers that were being recast as jewelry or dog toys. It all felt like pristine Montana — though it wasn't that pristine.

"Grass fed?" someone asked the guy selling tri-tip steak sandwiches at the farmers marker.

"Actually, it's Costco," he said.

During a visit to Big Sky, your best bet is to experience some of the canyon, some of the meadow and a bit of the mountain. I spent my nights in the canyon, at 320 Ranch, a collection of duplex cabins where my neighbors were some Colorado cowboys whose boots clip-clopped across their wood porch. Several of the cabins face the river (though that means they also face the road). Like any self-respecting ranch, it also offers meaty meals and daily horseback rides.

When I told the folks at the small Big Sky tourism office that I wanted to check out some hiking, they asked if I was more of a flower or wildlife kind of guy. Wildlife I told them; I'd rather watch things move and graze and look back at me. Their next question was whether I had bear spray.

Bears — black and the attention-getting grizzlies — are a very real part of life here, all the way down to the desserts made to look like bear claws. A waiter at the pizza place suggested I leave my leftover slices outside my hotel room for keeping when I told him my room didn't have a refrigerator. It made sense, considering that at 7,000 feet, temperatures drop to the upper 30s at night even in summer.

"But wouldn't a bear come find it?" I asked.

"Considering that I just rode by one on my dirt bike going through someone's trash, yeah," he said.

It's realities like that that lead most everyone to carry the bear spray that's for sale at every nearby outfitter and hardware store. Not only did I track down some bear spray before heading out on a favorite local hiking trail called Beehive Basin, I sang aloud to alert any bears of my presence as long as I was hiking alone. Which was until I ran into Joe Gretzula, 55, a dermatologist who splits his time between Big Sky and Palm Beach, Fla. He told me I was doing things all wrong.

My bear spray was in the external pocket of my back pack. Got to have it on your hip, he said, or at least chest strap.

"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, olivebsbigsky.com) is a newer bistro and widely considered the finest meal in Big Sky. Ousel and Spur (50 Ousel Falls Road, 406-995-7175, ouselandspurpizza.com), a pizza place, is a recent addition and offers tasty, fresh pizza. Buck's T-4 (46625 Gallatin Road, 406-995-4111, buckst4.com) 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; 320ranch.com) and Lone Mountain Ranch (750 Lone Mountain Ranch Road, 406-995-4644, lonemountainranch.com). Buck's T-4 also has rooms. Ski areas Big Sky Resort (1 Lone Mountain Trail, 406-995-5000, bigskyresort.com) and Moonlight Basin (66 Mountain Loop Road, 406-993-6000, moonlightbasin.com) 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.

jbnoel@tribune.com