Finding a natural nirvana (and learning how to fly fish) in Big Sky, Montana.
Big sky, a hidden hamlet in Montana, is an R-rated destination. But get your minds out of the gutter, friends, by that I mean it’s all about relaxing, rejuvenating, reconnecting and returning refreshed. Situated just an hour’s drive from Yellowstone—one of the world’s greatest natural playgrounds—and home to the biggest skiing in the US (they’ve got over 5,800 acres of world-class terrain), Big Sky is the gateway to a true outdoor heaven.
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After driving through Big Sky canyon and alongside the pristine Gallatin River (known for its ridiculously large and rather naive rainbow trout), I end up in downtown Big Sky—a charming town that feels small but is densely packed with eclectic galleries, bars and artisanal storefronts.
I wash up on The Rocks, a local resto-bar that draws me in with its siren song of laughter and clinking glasses. “I’ll gladly get you anything you want my friend, as long it’s from Montana,” says Maddie from behind the bar. Turns out The Rocks only serves Montana-made hooch, of which there is—I am quick to find out—quite a lot.
I opt for a flight of their local amaro (a bitter type of liqueur), which ranges in flavour from ‘eating the forest floor’ to ‘a kiss of honey and angel song’. When the drinks and the altitude become apparent in my posture—Big Sky sits at 2,200 metres above sea level—Maddie slides a giant bowl of homemade pho and fresh bread across the bar. “Trust me,” she says. I do, and it’s everything and a crouton more than I could’ve hoped for. That’s just the way with Montana hospitality.
CATCH & RELEASE
The next morning I wake with a happy hangover, quickly neutralised by a strong coffee and some fresh mountain air, before driving out to the Beehive Basin Trailhead. I park my car, cross a small wooden bridge and find myself totally immersed in virgin wilderness. The sheer vastness of Montana’s wilds is unlike anything I’ve experienced—the mountains seem both looming and distant; the trails take you through lush pastures and up rocky inclines. Nature is a force to be reckoned with here.
A few minutes down the road, at Gallatin River Guides, a huge dog bounds over to greet me. “Don’t worry ‘bout him, he just loves people,” says a friendly voice from behind a huge fly fishing display. The voice belongs to Garrett, a young local guy with a big smile under a baseball cap. “You must be Roberto… first time here?” he asks.
“It’s that obvious?” I respond. “It’s the shoes. Come on, let’s get you set up,” says Garrett. Within moments, I’m sheathed in nylon waders and neoprene boots and am climbing into Garrett’s truck. “This whole river is teeming with wide mouths,” he tells me, “but if you’re up for it I know a little place just past Cafe 191 that’s very special.” So we barrel down the highway.
I’ve only gone fishing once in my life, and that was for tuna in Cabo. I was 12 years old and I didn’t like it enough to go for a repeat. Fly fishing, for those that don’t know, involves standing in waist high water (another thing I’ve only done once before—on NYC’s Avenue A during Hurricane Sandy) and attempting to snag a slippery one.
“Fly fishing is all about mimicking nature,” Garrett says while latching two lures, “you want to be invisible to the fish, make them believe they found a real lunch.” He throws his line in the water with an Indiana Jones-style whip, and pulls out a sizeable fish. It took a total of 12 seconds.
“See!” he says with a grin.
Not convinced, I throw my own line in. I watch the way the current takes it. I realise this is just a game—me versus fish—and it becomes more addictive than Fruit Ninja. Each time I cast, I get a little bit better until my line eventually disappears into the river. Invisible, like Garrett told me. That’s when I feel the tug, so I snap back on instinct and hook my first fish.
“See!” he says again. I saw. And I can feel a new hobby firmly taking hold. This fly fishing stuff is magic. When I ask Garrett if he ever eats his catch he says “oh no, never—these fellas are my coworkers, I would never eat them.”
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STAY AND PLAY AT BIG SKY RESORT
Looking for a one-stop-accommodation-shop?
Big Sky Resort is our Montana go-to. It’s not just for the winter time, either. In summer you can catch us ziplining from across green meadows, hiking Lone Mountain, biking down forested runs, rafting whitewater rapids, climbing really really big rocks and even playing a spot of golf. Before bunking down for the night in one of their (many) lodging options. Life is good at Big Sky.
West Yellowstone town is as cute as it sounds—ice cream shops selling fresh huckleberry creams and little Western shops dotting the drive, flags waving in the morning sun. The Yellowstone Vacation Tours are impossible not to spot, with their sunshine yellow tour-bus-on-steroids sitting out front. I meet tour guide Jason, who goes by the name ‘Gypsy’, and within minutes we’re roaring into the heart of one of the most pristine natural landscapes on the planet.
“If it’s alright,” Gypsy pipes up as he picks up speed, “I’d suggest heading deeper into the park, that way I can show you more in less time. It can get a bit crowded here, especially if the bison are up early causing traffic jams.” In his capable guiding hands, we see the absolute best of the park: hot sulphur pools with irradiated colour bands that (literally) birthed life on our planet; giant mud pots and incredible waterfalls; the Continental Divide which determines the way the water flows—east to the Mississippi River or west to the Pacific Ocean; and herds of bison so close you could ride them.
Gypsy is, hands down, the best guide I’ve ever had. He knows an absurd amount of facts about the park—well beyond any reference book—and how to share that knowledge without it every being boring. At Yellowstone’s most famous geyser, Old Faithful, he predicts an eruption in eight minutes. The geyser blows in eight minutes and four seconds. Guiding is a special skill, and Gypsy is a master of it.
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Later in the day, Gypsy tells us there is one final showstopper in store. We pull into a small parking lot, pour out of the bus and begin walking down the gravel path before Gypsy stops us. “Listen, just humour me. I want you all to look down at your feet from this point on, don’t look up, just follow the feet of the person in front of you. I’ll tell you when to look up,” he says mysteriously. “Trust me, it’s better this way.”
We follow him, blindly, for 100 metres before he tells us to look up. Everyone gasps. We’re in the middle of the Grand Canyon.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, discovered in 1869, defies words. You feel both within the canyon and above it as the mighty Yellowstone Falls cascade into the ravine nearby. The geology of the area is still ancient, and the bright, brindle colouring of the rock walls fascinating. Gypsy was right, this is certainly the cherry on top of an epic tour.
“You know, if you drove all the roads in Yellowstone, you would only see one percent of the park,” Gypsy says, like a cowboy sucking on a corn pipe. “This right here is more country than anyone will ever see, and has more treasure than we’ll ever know.”
I can’t agree more. And moreover, it’s a sentiment that applies to the entirety of Big Sky, Montana. A small town atop such a wealth of natural beauty it feels like one could never fully explore it all. But I reckon I might just give it another go next spring.
From most major airports in the United States you can catch a fly directly to darling Bozeman.
Big Sky Resort is our go-to accom establishment. Why? Because you’ve got OPTIONS. From The Summit Hotel to Huntley Lodge and longer term vacation rentals. The gang at Big Sky have you sorted.
Montana has the only grizzly bear population in the lower 48 United States.