Escape crowds and capture memories in snowy Southwest Montana

By: Mauri Elbel
March, 2021

We didn’t know it at the time, but our escape to Montana last February was the last big trip we would take for months. Just days after landing back in Austin, the coronavirus pandemic hit and travel as we knew it came to an abrupt halt. Like most everyone else, we stayed home, feeding our wanderlust with socially-distanced adventures in own backyards. But if you find yourself contemplating a socially-distanced vacation, this snowy corner of southwest Montana offers endless outdoor adventures without the crowds. Whether you’re shredding powder at the local’s secret ski area, relaxing at a remote spa resort or making silent tracks through the snow without another soul in sight at Yellowstone National Park, here are five Montana experiences where social distancing and magical moments come easy.

Ski the Cold Smoke at Bridger Bowl

While Big Sky Resort — the second largest ski resort in the country and Montana’s biggest by far — is more popular with the tourists, Bridger Bowl remains a beloved local favorite. We spent two days skiing at Bridger Bowl, a locally-owned nonprofit ski area just 16 miles north of Bozeman located on the east slope of Bridger Mountain Range in southern Montana. Here you’ll find zero crowds and plenty of powder — I rarely saw my skis beneath all of the weightless white fluff. “Ski the Cold Smoke” is the motto at this home-grown, laid back ski resort that boasts 2,000 acres of skiable terrain, a 2,700-foot vertical rise and 300 inches of average seasonal snowfall. Though it’s smaller and lesser known than Big Sky, this “secret” local ski area still has plenty of groomers, bowls, moguls and steeps to satisfy all skill levels. An added bonus? Lift tickets are significantly cheaper than those at Big Sky and there are zero lines — you might even find yourself alone on certain runs as we did during our Sunday and Monday visits. This year, all visitors are required to make a reservation prior to skiing or riding.

Post-slope soaking at Chico Hot Springs

There isn’t a more soothing way to end a day on the slopes than by soaking your sore muscles in the healing waters of historic Chico Hot Springs, located at the base of Emigrant Peak just outside of Pray, Mt., and within an hour’s drive of both Bridger Bowl and Yellowstone National Park. Gazing up at the snow-caped mountains during a tangerine sunset while bathing in these geothermally-heated pools with a cocktail in hand is like liquid therapy for the soul. Established in 1900, these open-air, natural mineral hot springs pools have become a year-round attraction. But due to the pandemic, the hot springs pools are open to a very limited number of day guests. Chico Hot Springs Resort is selling up to 50 passes every four hours on a first-come, first-served basis and is committed to keeping the pools safe and enjoyable by managing occupancy, frequently sanitizing surfaces, encouraging social distancing and requiring masks.

Unwind at secluded Sage Lodge

During the winter months, Ski, Soak, Sage becomes mantra at Sage Lodge, nestled on the banks of the Yellowstone River and just five minutes down the road from historic Chico Hot Springs. This luxury lodge and spa tucked in the heart of Montana’s Paradise Valley is a destination resort for adventurers of all types, but it’s also a dream-worthy escape for those who want to just relax, unwind and soak in the surrounding snowy silence. With delicious locally-inspired meals like bison Bolognese and braised lamb shank served just steps from your rustically romantic guestroom featuring a crackling fireplace and snowy mountain views, and a full-service spa ready to rejuvenate and relax you upon request, the seemingly endless pandemic-induced stresses disappear into the distance. Whether you spend your day skiing, soaking in hot springs or making tracks through the snow at Yellowstone National Park, serene Sage Lodge is the perfect place to pamper and restore you upon return.

Yellowstone National Park

The biggest perk of visiting Yellowstone National Park when it’s blanketed in winter’s white coat is that the crowds are obsolete — in fact, during our mid-week visit late last February, we never saw another soul. Yes, the temperatures are a bit frigid (especially for us Texans), but that didn’t stop us from shoveling our jeep out of a heap of powder and heading out to experience this awe-inspiring winter wonderland just 35 minutes from Sage Lodge. Guests can book a variety of private Yellowstone tours ranging from trekking with llamas to fly fishing during the fall months as well as winter tours that allow you to explore the backcountry beauty of the park on skis or snowshoes. But since we decided to visit on a whim, we borrowed snowshoes and poles from Sage Lodge before snowshoeing several miles around majestic Mammoth Hot Springs. The Upper Terrace Loop, about 1.5 miles, is a beginner-friendly trail that provides impressive views of the magnificent hot springs, thermal features and terraces as well as glimpses of elk and bison in the distance. On our way out, we braved a dip in the Boiling River — an unforgettable thermal feature in the Mammoth area of the park that is basically a giant hot tub courtesy of Mother Nature. Just be aware that the half-mile snowy trek back to the parking area in wet clothes is best described as freezing.

Make The LARK your Bozeman Basecamp

Located 15 minutes from the airport and just a half-hour from Bridger Bowl, The LARK proved to be a convenient and architecturally alluring basecamp for our brief time in Bozeman. Sitting in the heart of downtown, this 67-room newly renovated boutique hotel boasts modern, Streamline-era architecture where punchy splashes of canary yellow play against warm woods and fresh open spaces. Locally-crafted furniture and artwork define the airy spaces and contemporary, clean-lined guestrooms. Start the day sipping a steamy cup of locally-roasted coffee at The LARK’s outdoor firepit before walking a few steps to the funky local restaurants, bars and breweries fringing Main Street or setting off on one of the many outdoor adventures unfolding in the Gallatin River Valley. Not sure what to do? The LARK’s team of local guides are at the ready to steer you to the best of Bozeman, from favorite fly-fishing spots to beloved breweries.

If You Go

Getting there:

We flew in and out of Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, a cozy seven-gate airport and rented a car right next to baggage claim. If you opt to drive, it’s a full day (24 hour) road trip from Austin to Bozeman.

Eat and drink:

In Bozeman, fuel up for a day of exploration with crave-worthy Benedict breakfasts at Jam on Main; for lunch, sip big-bodied brews like the Steep Terrain IPA paired with a yummy, locally-inspired dishes at MAP Brewing; and end the day with cocktails and late-night bites at Plonk Bozeman. It’s worth the hour-long drive from Bozeman to Riverhouse BBQ, nestled on banks of the Gallatin River in Big Sky, where you’ll find unparalleled views served with mouth-watering slow-smoked Texas Hill Country barbecue.

Pro tip:

Both Sage Lodge and The LARK are offering family-centric specials to help you take your learning on the road during the 2020/2021 school year. Check websites for details.

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