Big Sky, Montana + Yellowstone Travel Guide

Last month my Carrot and I (and our two pups!) headed out on a sweet little road trip to Big Sky, Montana. It was the most blissfully simple winter vacation of early bedtimes, blue skies, long (cold) hikes, good food, cribbage, wildlife spotting, and a sweet little cabin (with a fireplace!). It felt like we transported all our favorite parts of Wisconsin winter life to somewhere with similar vibes, but much more dramatic scenery– and herds of bison!

We headed out early on a Friday morning and drove until we hit Rapid City, South Dakota. We took a day to visit the Black Hills and see the sights and then continued onward to Bozeman (where we stopped to watch the Packers beat the Rams) and then onward again to our cabin outside Big Sky where we accessed beautiful trails, visited my cousins and took a snow coach tour of Yellowstone. On the trip back, we did a quick detour to the North entrance of Yellowstone for more wildlife spotting and then continued on home.

It was a twist on a pretty classic Midwest road trip my Carrot had never taken as a child. I feel like so many of our friends and family growing up all headed west to visit one of our wildest and most scenic national parks, stopping to see the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and all the other magnificence of the Black Hills along the way. It was super fun re-visiting my own past journeys down I-90 with my hubby and seeing a side of Yellowstone I’d never seen before.

Visiting Yellowstone in winter has been on my bucket list ever since I learned the park was accessible by snow coach and snow mobile during the off season–and that much of the wildlife was even more visible than normal (which is pretty dang visible). I’m so glad we decided to take the trek. It was our first road trip in quite a few years and we just loved everything about it.

Despite being a winter road trip, the weather was pretty kind to us. Our most dramatic weather event had nothing to do with snow. Instead we met 60 mph winds (and 90 mph gust) in South Dakota. “Hurricane level winds” is how the hotel staff and gas station attendants all described it. Definitely not what we expected to have to deal with, but we were immensely grateful for 40+ roundtrip hours in a car with minimal snow, sleet or ice. And also for Jim Dale who read The Order of the Phoenix with such great emotion and accents. There’s not much that can make driving in strong winds more bearable than a Harry Potter audiobook.

Below you will find all the specifics of our journey: where we stayed, where we ate (which is not that many places since we brought a lot of our food to avoid visiting restaurants), and where we hiked as well as all the Yellowstone highlights. Enjoy!

-Leek

THE DAKOTAS

We only drove through the Dakotas, and it was quick, so I know I’m missing a lot of important things! We took Interstate 90 on the drive out to Montana (where we met those terrifying winds) and decided to change it up by taking Interstate 94 on the drive home. If you’re driving from Southern Wisconsin/Minnesota, I-90 is the more common route with quick pitstops at the infamous Wall Drug and Corn Palace (not to mention the Badlands, Black Hills, Crazy Horse, and Mount Rushmore). We were on the road to late for most of this, but did spend 30 hours in Rapid City so we could explore the Black Hills a bit (mostly at Custer State Park). I-94 was a great alternative for a change of scenery (my Carrot and I have both driven west on I-90 many, many times and we wound up driving through a new national park! See below.

Falls Park // My parents highly recommended this lovely little pitstop when we were about six hours into the drive and it was lovely. Falls Park is a city park in Sioux Falls, South Dakota with magnificent falls tumbling through it and some cool old architecture. It was the perfect place to stretch our legs and walk the dogs for a few minutes.

Custer State Park // I love this place so much. It is such a hidden gem, and honestly, I cannot believe it’s not a National Park. Tucked into the Black Hills National Forest, this state park is deserving of its own vacation. It has miles and miles and miles of great hiking, several beautiful lakes (Sylvan Lake was our favorite), plenty of mountain peaks to climb, lots of places to camp (or book a cabin), and a wildlife loop. They wildlife loop made use feel like such tourists, but in the most playful and amazing way. We had so much fun seeing bison for the first time on this trip (which is hilarious in retrospect– we probably saw a thousand bison in Yellowstone) and watching mule deer and burros chase our car. Plus the landscape views throughout this side of the park were pure magic. I cannot recommend this park more!

Mount Rushmore // Mount Rushmore is about 30 minutes from Custer State Park, and another 30 minutes from Rapid City so if you are doing a one-day stopover on the way to Yellowstone, seeing both are very manageable. We had to stop at Mount Rushmore because my Carrot had never been, and it feels like something every American has to see once in their lifetime, but honestly, it was a hard experience for me. It was a week before inauguration day and I was feeling very very emotional about the state of our country and the history of these incredibly important native lands (which you should really read about). We also stopped at Mount Rushmore on the way home from Custer State Park (because we knew it was open late) so it was dark when we arrived, and we were the only people at the site. I’m sure this added to the drama and emotion.

Roosevelt National Park // I have very little to say about this park because I literally just drove through it on the interstate, but I think if you want to do a stopover on the way out and the way back from Montana/Yellowstone, this would make a great stop for the way home! The interstate goes right through and I’ve heard great things about it!

Bloom & Vine // Okay this is not actually in the Dakotas. In fact, it is in Montana and a whole 37 minutes from North Dakota, but it was such a lovely little pitstop from our drive home (off I-94) that I had to share it anyways! It’s a coffee shop/cafe (with great sandwiches)/wine shop/plant nursery a.k.a. my new dream business. The coffee shop seating is open to the greenhouse and folks can sit right there soaking up the sunny plant goodness. The food wasn’t anything to write home about (I’d give it a 7 out of 10), but the ambiance was so lovely, I definitely recommend stopping here if you’re taking this drive!

BIG SKY

Big Sky was our main destination for no other reason than a) it’s close to Yellowstone and b) my cousins live here and we thought spending a few days hiking with them in the snow would be the perfect way to safely see family members we desperately miss during this strange time. But we quickly learned that there’s a reason this community is booming. Big Sky is a beautiful, magical place with miles (and miles and miles) or trails, great food, and loads of outdoor enthusiasts passionate about getting outside in all weather. This is such a fun place to visit!

320 Guest Ranch // Usually we use AirBnb on our vacations, but traveling with the pups made that a little tricky– especially in a place where the only affordable AirBnbs are condos with pet restrictions. Searching for “dog friendly hotels” in the Big Sky area took us 10 minutes down the road to this lovely little guest ranch and we couldn’t have been happier here. The ranch is situated on the Gallatin River (you have to cross a sweet bridge to enter the grounds) nestled into some steep mountain peaks. There were lots of fun amenities (free breakfast, on-site restaurant for dinner, laundry cabin, hiking trails on the grounds, a winter sleigh ride, and loads more activities slated for summer) and our deluxe log cabin came with a fireplace, plenty of wood to keep in blazing all week if we wanted, and a quaint little front porch. We absolutely loved our slow mornings here. If you’re not looking to do a lot of skiing at Big Sky Resort on your trip (it’s nearly 40 minutes away), but want some cozy mountain goodness between Big Sky and Yellowstone, this is the perfect place for you to snuggle up.

Hungry Moose Market & Deli // We brought tons of food with us on this trip because we wanted to avoid restaurants as much as possible (and were trying to do this trip pretty affordably), but without a kitchen our food started to run low by the end of our first week. Hungry Moose was the perfect affordable lunch stop in Big Sky after spending hours on the trails working up an appetite. We loved it so much (and they had such a huge menu) that we stopped here a few times.

Horn & Cantle // Horn & Cantle is on the less affordable end of the price spectrum in Big Sky, but given my sweet cousin has worked here for years (and constantly raves about the food) and that there was an outdoor dining verandah with a table situated in its own corner in front of its own personal fireplace, we had to give it a try. The food was great and the ambiance was a 10/10 out on the verandah.

Surefire Ovens // My sweet cousin Liz owns a sweet little bakery in Big Sky. She doesn’t have a storefront yet, but it is coming, and you should look her up whenever you’re in Big Sky because this girl is a dessert queen. Her signature for a long-time was pies (with the best crust I’ve ever tasted), but now she’s expanded to cakes and other goodies.

Ousel Falls Park Trail // This is probably the most popular trail in all of Big Sky so expect to see people here in all seasons (unlike the other two trails mentioned below which we hiked without seeing another human) and possibly even struggle to find parking in summer. Regardless of crowds, I really really loved this trail. It is incredibly beautiful, meandering along the south and west forks of the Galletin River until you reached Ousel Falls. I have no idea what the falls look like in any non-frozen season, but in winter it looks super blue and magical.

Buffalo Horn Creek Trail // We hiked and snowshoed this trail a lot because it was at the back of our ranch property. We mainly liked it first because it was an easy way to take the dogs for a quick walk, but fell in love with it because it starts as easy trail that winds along a creek through stunning mountain views and then a forest and then opens to a prairie with even more stunning views. Apparently if you keep going (we turned back at mile 2 or 3), you’ll climb a mountain pass, and if you’re in the mood for some serious mileage, you will pass a small petrified forest as you approach the backside of Yellowstone National Park. We think the proximity to Yellowstone must explain the wildlife on the trail. We saw tons of elk and a couple coyotes (and a million coyote tracks) when exploring this trial.

Porcupine Creek Trail // This is such an easy, beautiful little trail. It’s similar to Buffalo Horn Creek Trail in that it follows a creek through some very gentle hills while allowing stunning scenery all around. The main difference is that the valley is much wider so the views of both the mountains and that big Montana sky is much more expansive. You will also get an incredible view of Lone Peak (the mountain that Big Sky Resort is located on).

YELLOWSTONE AREA

Our Yellowstone trip was broken into two parts. In the middle of our stay in Big Sky, we drove the 40 minutes to West Yellowstone to take a snow coach to the geyser basin (more on this below). Then, on the way home from Montana we decided to add a couple nights in Gardiner (the north entrance to Yellowstone) so we could explore a little bit more of the park. We essentially only had two days in Yellowstone, but in winter with no crowds or traffic (and so much of the park inaccessible), it was totally enough.

Backcountry Adventures // This is the company we booked our snow coach tour with! They are based out of West Yellowstone (40 minutes from the ranch where we were staying). They do both guided snow coach and snowmobile tours of Yellowstone in winter. They offer tours of either the Geyser Basin or Yellowstone Canyon and we chose the tour of the Geyser Basin because I feel this is the really magical part of Yellowstone, and the part of Yellowstone that can get a bit manic/overcrowded/hard to enjoy in summer. We were a little worried the steam coming off the geysers would make it hard to really understand the magic of the geysers and hot springs but it absolutely did not.

We had a perfect blue sky day and were able to see so much. We visited Old Faithful and got there an hour before anyone else so my Carrot and I explored the neighboring boardwalks of small thermal pools all on our own. Our group also stopped to see the Sapphire Pool, Fountain Paint Pot, and to watch so many herds of bison. The tour even included a short drive along the Yellowstone River where our guide pointed out a grizzly bear cave. The tour lasted seven hours (8:30-3:30 p.m.) and was the real highlight of our trip. We absolutely loved it and would recommend it to anyone!

Gil’s Goods // These last couple days of our trip were met with some of the best food. On the drive from Bozeman to Gardiner we met a little pit stop in Livingston because my cousin (the one with the bakery) said she wanted to model her future business off this space. We expected to just stop in for a snack but wound up getting a Nashville Hot Chicken sandwich to split and a wedge salad and pizza to take back to our hotel (because we didn’t expect there to be many options in Gardiner). Everything was exceptional and the space was so cool: a bistro meets hotel bar meets outdoor retail space.

Gardiner // Like I said above, Gardiner is the northern entrance to Yellowstone. It happens to also be the only part of the park that is open in winter for cars. We wanted to explore a little bit of the park at our own pace (and see more wildlife!) so we loved basing ourselves in Gardiner and taking a day to make the drive from there to Cooke City and back. It’s a sleepy town in winter, but we did find one amazing restaurant. More details on that and what we saw below.

Yellowstone Grill // This restaurant was our second choice after our first stop was unexpectedly closed (despite posting their winter hours both online and on their door for a time when we were trying to visit), but we were not disappointed. We slept in that day so enjoyed brunch at 10:30 a.m. with the whole place to ourselves, and it was the best breakfast I’ve ever had on the road. I took a chance and got the corned beef hash (sometimes I love it, sometimes it’s terrible), Kyle got the chicken fried chicken (with hashbrowns, biscuit and gravy of course), and we split a stack of (the hugest) pancakes (I’ve ever seen in my life). The food was seriously amazing and the service was unbelievably friendly. I can’t wait to go back!

Mammoth Hot Springs // We didn’t expect to get out of our car much on our drive through North Yellowstone. There was a lot of snow and the primary goal was wildlife viewing, but we loved exploring the Mammoth Hot Springs area. It was completely different than anything we’d seen in the Geyser Basin and also so much bigger altogether. There were boardwalks and stairs taking you to multiple levels so you could see all of the rock formations and pools. Someone described it as an inside-out cave, and that’s a pretty accurate description.

Lamar Valley // This is THE place to go in Yellowstone to see wildlife, especially in winter. This gentle valley that runs alongside the Lamar River is home to most creates that roam the park and because of how open it is here near the river, it’s much easier to spot animals off in the distance. Wolves were also reintroduced into the park here back in the 1990s and now have a thriving population. We saw wolves, elk, moose, and hundreds of bison on our drive through the Lamar Valley.

BOZEMAN

We only spent like 12 hours in Bozeman so I definitely don’t have an extensive recommendations list,
but everywhere we went came highly recommended from my cousins, aunt or friend Jackie so I thought I’d share our stops anyhow.

Bozeman Co-op // After 9 days on the road, there is nothing I love more than a good organic co-op. We stocked up on juice, fruit, vegetarian sandwiches from the deli and dark chocolate. And it was all perfection. It was definitely the best co-op I’ve ever stopped at on the road.

Owenhouse Ace Hardware Downtown // My aunt told me I could not miss this Ace Hardware and that they had an extensive kitchen section. This was the extent of her recommendation and it was definitely enough to make us stop. I’ve never seen so many home goods in my life. We resisted buying a set of Le Crueset pots and pans, but did wind up leaving with two new hydroflasks.

Rockford Coffee // My cousin, the pie baker, used to work here pre-COVID making poptarts and other pastries. She promised the quality stayed incredible even since she left so we had to try. Bozeman is a college town and this place had a very buzzing college vibe, but the poptarts were worth standing inline with a dozen children. The coffee was good too.

Country Bookshelf // No matter where we travel, we always seem to find a bookstore on every trip. This one we visited in Bozeman was the kind I love most: overcrowded with books (you have to be careful not to tip something over), a blend of new and used books, and recommendations from staff on the shelves to help guide you.

Heyday // This is literally the world’s best gift store (or place to splurge on yourself). From cookbooks to notebooks to candles, jewelry, kitchen gear, body products, and beautiful sustainable baby gear, there is literally something in this store for every woman you love. Every single thing was gorgeous, and I left with nothing because I knew once I started picking things out I would not be able to stop.

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