Big Sky Montana is an R Rated destination: Recreate, Relax, Rejuvenate, Reconnect, and Return Refreshed. Get your mind out of the gutter my friends, because nothing can be more wholesome than this hidden Montana valley hamlet. It is the gateway to goodness, an hour away from one of the world’s greatest natural playgrounds, Yellowstone National Park. It is home to the biggest skiing in America with over 5800 acres of world class terrain. Hiking, fishing, and golfing are all on tap here, and for most of the year it is pretty much empty begging you to come.

The hour drive from the darling airport in Bozeman sets the scene perfectly for what awaits. Carving through Big Sky canyon you slide on a pristine road next to the pristine Gallatin River, known for its ridiculously large and rather naive Rainbow Trout. This empties into the glacier carved Big Sky Meadow, which since the cretaceous period has been getting prettier and prettier. This is where the town center awaits you, perfectly framed by Spanish Peak in the near distance, watching over you at an impressive 11 thousand feet. 

Accommodations are plentiful here especially in the snowless months which is my personal favorite time to come. The Wilson Hotel is my home of choice being at the footstep of mainstreet, and offering luxury services and outlets with hometown vibes. The rooms here are mini apartments, their restaurant and lounge are a convenient dose of excellence, and best of all it’s relatively all mine off season. I almost feel a tinge of guilt as I dive into their year round perfectly heated pool alone. Almost.

While the Wilson is a destination in its own right the seductive call of the charming town of Big Sky cannot be resisted. Art galleries, unique boutique hand crafted shops, and lively bars filled with locals that wear the paradise of this place freely on their face are all just steps away. Densely packed with eclectic places, but still the feeling of a small town, Big Sky offers that fine line between feeling somewhere far away and at home in the same chord. 

Aimlessly adrift through town I end up washed up on The Rocks, a very local resto-bar drawn in by the siren song of laughter and clinking glasses. “I’ll gladly get you anything you want my friend, as long it’s from Montana.” boasted Maddie from behind the bar which doubles as a reliquary for local ancient treasures. The Rocks you see only serves Montana made hooch, which, it turns out, offers a formidable amount of choice. This led me to a flight of their amari, which ranged from “eating the forest floor” to “a kiss of honey and angel song”. When the altitude and several drinks became apparent in my posture Maddie slid a giant bowl of home-made pho in front of me with fresh baked bread. “Trust me.” is all she said with a smile in her eye. I did, and it was everything and a crouton more. 

I woke in the morning with a happy hangover that was neutralized by the strong fresh coffee and mountain hospitality of the front desk. I took a short drive to the Beehive Basin Trailhead about 10 minutes from town’s center. Parked my car, crossed a small wooden bridge and was completely lost in virgin wilderness. The raw, sheer vastness of Montana wilderness is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. I’ve been three days down the Milanowski river in the Amazon and didn’t feel this remote before. The mountains surround you and seem both over you and in the far distance at the same time. The trails are well maintained and vary from meandering pastures to rocky inclines. Here you understand nature even if you are tone deaf to wilderness, it is a force. 

Descending down from the trailhead I continue down the road and pull into Gallatin River Guides. I’m immediately greeted by a large river dog who is ridiculously excited to see me. “Don’t worry ‘bout him, he just loves people.” a friendly voice says from behind one of the huge displays of fishing flies. “You must be … Roberto. First time?” It was Garrett, a kid who was just a big easy going smile under a baseball cap and Oakleys. 

“That obvious?” I ask awkwardly.

“It’s the shoes. Come on, we’ll get you set up.” In moments I’ve sheathed myself in nylon waders and neoprene boots. We climb into Garrett’s truck and head down the highway. “This river is teeming with wide mouths, but if you’re up for it, I know a little place just past Cafe 191 that’s very special.” and we barrel down the road. At some point Garrett gently turns off the road right into the wilderness, dust kicking up behind him as he mows town some tall wild grass. We come to a stop, he jacks the shifter to park, and declares “Here we are.”.

I’ve only gone fishing once in my life, and that was in Cabo for tuna. I was 12 and the experience was interesting, but nothing that tempted me to repeat it. Fly fishing was something wholly unnatural for me since standing in waist high water was something that I only did during Hurricane Sandy on Avenue A in NYC and wasn’t interested in doing it again. “Fly fishing is all about mimicking nature,” Garrett said while he latched up two lures on a pole with ease, “you want to be invisible to the fish, make them believe they found a real lunch.” 

Garrett threw his line in the water with an Indiana Jones whipping action explaining the theory to me. The line caught and he pulled in a sizable fish in about 12 seconds. 

“See?” he said cheerfully.

Doubtfully I threw the line in. I watched the way the current took it, trying to make the line invisible like he said. Immediately I understood the game we were playing, me and the fish, and it was addictive like Fruit Ninja on my phone. Each time I cast I got a little better at not being there, until eventually I disappeared into the river and vanished. That’s when I felt the tug and snapped back instinctually like I was told, hooking my first fish. 

“See!” He said again. I saw. I saw a new hobby of mine firmly taking hold. Magic. I asked Garrett if he ever eats his catches, and how he likes to prepare them. “Oh no, never,” he said with a big smile, “these fellas are my coworkers, I would never eat them.” he said earnestly as he gently released my catch back into the stream. It was a beautiful sentiment, and all I could think about was the story that fish was going to tell his friends back at the fish bar later that night. 

That night I turned in early, tired from a long day of hiking and fishing and outdoorsing. The morning would bring an early start as I was heading south to the West entrance of the famed Yellowstone National Park and did not want to be late. 

The road to Yellowstone was absent of traffic. Just long stretch of highway saddling the Gallatin river as it carved through valley after valley. As the sun breached the treeline the views were amazing, like driving through a painting. About 50 minutes later I rolled into West Yellowstone which is as cute as it sounds. Ice Cream shops selling fresh huckleberry creams and little western shops lined the road, and it was the best of what America has to offer with her flags waving proudly in the morning sun. 

It was rather impossible not to find Yellowstone Vacation Tours with their sunshine yellow tour-bus-on-steroids sitting out front. I was introduced to our tour guide Jason who goes by the name Gypsy due to his disposition for getting lost which made me laugh. Within minutes we were roaring past the park’s entrance and cruising through the most pristine natural beauty on the planet.

“If it’s alright with you folks,” Gypsy piped up as he dropped a lower gear picking up speed, “I would suggest heading a bit deep into the park, that way I can show you more in less time. It can get a bit crowded here, especially if the Buffalo are up early causing traffic jams.” I didn’t know it but Gypsy would reveal himself to be the greatest tour guide I ever met. In his capable hands we saw the absolute best of the park without ever waiting or feeling rushed. Hot sulfur pools with irradiated color bands that literally are the birth of life on our planet. Giant mud pots and waterfalls. Lake Yellowstone Hotel, built in a positively ancient 1891 and having the honor to be the oldest  operating hotel in Yellowstone with its majestic three story clapboard facade overlooking the lake. The Continental Divide which determines which way water flows, either East to the Mississippi or West to the Pacific ocean. The famous General Store where if you come early enough you can get yourself some of the best hand made ice cream in the country. Herds of buffalo are so close you can practically ride them. Gypsy knew an absurd amount of facts about the park, well beyond any reference book, and knew how to perfectly handle the knowledge to never make it boring or rote. Guiding is a very special skill, and Gypsy was quite frankly a master of it. 

“Ok folks,” we all sat up in our seats, “We’re going to pull into Old Faithful Inn, built in 1903 and the largest log structure in the world. I have it on good account the geyser is going to blow in exactly 8 minutes. I will be taking bets outside the bus, but don’t be late.” Not ever doubting Gypsy I made quick work to see the Inn which frankly isn’t the proper term for this building. 5 stories high just standing inside the lobby of this frightening edifice is bone shaking. While the coliseum in Rome is mind bending, this building is equally baffling when you try to imagine how anyone was able to put this much wood together to build it. 

Not wanting to be late,  7 minutes later we all found ourselves on the lateral side of the Geyser, adjacent to most of the crowd that formed to see the famous Old Faithful. “Most people want to sit right dead center,” Gypsy said in a low whisper, “but they don’t know that the wind blows Eastwardly here, so all they are going to see is a bunch of steam in their face.” At 8 minutes 4 seconds the geyser went with such ridiculous velocity that it cut the sky in half with a white scalpel of geothermal steam. Just as Gypsy said it drifted East and obscured everyone else’s view. We all chorted like real Yellowstone locals ‘cause we were team Gypsy.

Back on the bus we flew past lines of traffic as Gypsy had one final showstopper in store for us. “Not many people come to this spot, but I’m telling you, this is not to be missed. I will save the best for last.” We pull into a little parking area and pour out of the bus, meandering through a loosely graveled path. He stops us. “Listen, humor me. I want you all to look down at your feet from this point on. Don’t look up, just follow the person in front and I’ll tell you when to look up. Trust me. It’s better this way.” We blindly follow. 100 yards later we hear him say to look up. Then all you hear is gasps. We’re in the middle of the Grand Canyon. 

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was discovered in 1869 and is a major reason Ulysses S. Grant created the national parks to begin with. It’s beauty is outstanding and futile to describe fully in words. You feel both within the canyon and above it as you see the mighty Yellowstone Falls cascade into the ravine. The geology of the area is still a mystery, making the bright, brindle coloring of the rock walls an enigma. It’s certainly the only climax that could put a cherry on top of such an epic tour. 

“You know if you drove all the roads in Yellowstone, you would only see 1% of the park,” Gypsy said driving back with the tone of a cowboy with his feet up on a railing sipping on a corn cob pipe. “It’s more country then anyone will ever see, and has more treasure then we’ll ever know.” I couldn’t agree more, and moreover, it was a beautiful sentiment about Big Sky Montana in general. A small town atop of such a massive wealth of natural beauty that you could never fully grasp the immense gift that a visit there would give you. We’ll, there is always next spring.