Americans spend a lot of time flying over the middle of the country. But something I learned at age 23 when I first drove cross-country is that there's incredible beauty in America's interior. Knowing this is part of the reason I chose not to fly from my current home base in the San Francisco Bay Area to Big Sky, Montana on a recent trip.
I road tripped it instead, spending 17 hours (one afternoon and evening and one early morning-to-afternoon) driving a route that took me through eastern California, across the breadth of Nevada, up into the southeastern corner of Idaho (check out the incredible Snake River Canyon below; I had no idea even it existed until I drove over it) and up into Big Sky country.
I arrived in Montana in the late afternoon, having driven through corridors of mountains to get up to the town of Big Sky, which sits at 6,600 feet, but seems barely above sea level since the valley it's in is hugged tight by much higher mountains surrounding it. It felt like the real old west: long, undulating sections of highway intimidated by peaks to the left and right, interrupted by the odd gas station and dirt roads that ran off into the distance with strange symbols next to the word "ranch."
It was exactly one of those roads I drove on to reach my lodgings for the next few nights, the Lone Mountain Guest Ranch. Even in the gathering dusk, I could see it was set up much like a (very upscale) summer camp, with a stable full of horses, a main building housing a restaurant and well-attended but far-from-raucous bar and cabins spread out over a grassy hillside behind which ran a rushing river. That first night — and each one after — I fell asleep to the sound of my crackling fireplace and the soothing river water melody (video below); it was perfect combination for anyone who likes to sleep with the window open.
I woke up to blue skies and a busy day ahead, so I put on my layers and slathered on my sunblock. Before I hit the trail, it was time for a hearty Montana breakfast and coffee with the horses. And by "with the horses," I mean I drank coffee while watching cowgirls organize and tack up the steeds that would be ridden on that day's trail rides. Soon I would be headed up to the peak of the mountain the ranch was named for: Lone Mountain.
The peak is reached by a unique combination of conveyances. Being that it's located above the highest part of Big Sky Resort (where you can hike, mountain bike or go on photography benders in the summer and ski, snowboard, snowshoe and chill by the fire in the winter) it makes sense that you start with a chairlift.
Following the chairlift to the top of the ski area — beautiful and impressive on its own — it was time to transfer to a truck. But not just any truck; this one was specially outfitted to get us to a tram over some rough terrain (in the winter you'd be able to ski or snowboard to the base of the tram, as long as you are at least an intermediate in skill level). We heard all about the incredible local geology from our guide on the very bumpy ride up and across the mountain.
Finally, we boarded the tram, to take us to the top of Lone Mountain, over 11,200 feet high. The ride was steep, and the image below almost captures how disconcerting it felt to be hanging in the air above a whole lot of space. The small, round building is the base of the tram, about 1,500 feet below. In short, it was scary.
The gondola ride to the top of Lone Peak was, frankly, a bit scary. (Photo: Starre Vartan)
But of course, the views were worth it. The Wasach mountain range meets the Spanish peaks in a 360-degree view from the top of Lone Mountain. It's a view worth the multiple rides to get there for sure. When you're that high up, it's similar to looking out a plane window at the world below, except your feet are on solid ground.
I went from the top of the mountain range and down into its watershed. Later that day we had the opportunity to get up close and personal with the Gallatin River — you might recognize it from the movie "A River Runs Through It." It's a very technical whitewater river with tons of rapids. Because it was the end of the summer, the river water was pretty low, which meant our guide, Hatter from Montana Whitewater, had to work hard to keep us from flipping over or, conversely, stalling out. It was a fast, wild run, very different than other rafting experiences I've had on larger, wider rivers. And of course, the scenery was fantastic, with great walls of trees and narrow rock canyons to run through in our bouncy raft.
We tried our hand at fly fishing (it's quite a challenge!), ziplined over the river and through the trees, took a hayride to a riverside BBQ at the family-owned 320 Guest Ranch, went into town to enjoy live music at Big Sky's Town Center (there's a farmer's market and music there on Wednesday nights June-September) and generally gawped at the scenery everywhere we went.
Big Sky is just an incredibly beautiful place — everywhere my camera pointed, beauty was easily found. I can only imagine what it's like during the winter season with all the mountains covered in snow, but in the late summer, the cool nights and warm days made for a perfect getaway, which is the reason the area is getting well-known for its summer activities as well.
And because it's located just 50 miles from Yellowstone National Park's West Gate, Big Sky is becoming a place that plenty of people prefer to stay when they are going to visit the park since you get the ranch and Montana lifestyle, and uncrowded, mellower feel of both Big Sky and Yellowstone.
Yellowstone National Park is one many people's "must see" list and it deserves its place there. Because it's not just one thing. It's not just Old Faithful geyser, or wildlife or dramatic waterfalls or incredible geology or strange moonscapes or paintable vistas; it's all of those things. Coming in through the West gate, you end up driving along the edge of an ancient caldera (volcano) and wending along a river, we saw elk within 10 minutes of entering the park.
Yes, this bison is sticking its tongue out at the photographer (that would be me). The huge beasts roam Yellowstone, stopping traffic with abandon, and seemingly posing for plenty of clicking cameras. (Photo: Starre Vartan)
And of course the bison are everywhere — grazing picturesquely in meadows, and causing traffic jams every which way, since they rule the park (and they seem to know it). Hiking down to check out the lower falls of the Yellowstone River, we saw the diminutive yellow-bellied marmot, and passing some steep, rocky mountainsides, saw bighorn sheep making their way through the wilderness. We were only in the park for about 7 hours, and there was no shortage of wildlife.
Yellowstone isn't just remarkable for the quantity and diversity of its beauty; it is, as the park service describes, "...the core of one of the last, nearly intact ecosystems in the Earth's temperate zone." Founded in 1872, Yellowstone is the United States' first national park.
Grand Prismatic Springs was a stop I missed during my last trip to Yellowstone, and when I finally saw it this time, I just couldn't get enough of its steam and colors (it's blue in the middle and works its way out in rainbow-color progression). It's the park's largest hot spring, the largest in the U.S. and the third largest in the world.
Tourists at Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone, August 28, which reminded me of the John Muir quote: "This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls." (Photo: Starre Vartan)
There is a geyser within the spring, and it's huge! It takes a good 30 minutes to walk up to and around what is a boiling, bubbling lake. Its intense coloration is due to bacteria that live on the edges of the steamy water. The middle is so hot (160 degrees Fahrenheit) that nothing can live there, so it is blue, but greens, oranges and reds predominate around the outside edges.
All of the images above were taken in just a leisurely day in Yellowstone, and there's obviously plenty more to discover — the park is huge! Especially if you hire a guide (which leaves you free to look and take pictures and just marvel), you can see lots of the park in a day and head back to Big Sky for the night — which is exactly what we did — for a pretty over-the-top amazing dinner at Buck's T-4 (I recommend the local Montana whiskey flight, which is really the only sensible drink after experiencing a day at Yellowstone).
Yes, I drove home, too, and on my way out of Montana and into Idaho, I had the ultimate goodbye (for now) from a herd of cattle being moved from one pasture to the next by genuine cowboys (and a cowgirl; she was actually leading the charge, and I wasn't fast enough to get her on film). This really shouldn't be "fly-over country." It certainly isn't for me.