Best of Montana in Winter: Family Activities
Taking the kids on vacation to Montana? Check out our picks for the top five things to do for families in Big Sky Country.
Base Camp Bigfork Dog Sledding, Bigfork
Family-run Base Camp Bigfork takes a hands-on approach to dog sledding. Instead of simply going along for the ride, guests get the opportunity to harness and mush their own team of Inuit sled dogs. “Observing the passion these dogs have for what they do, and the energy and power once they are harnessed, truly is a sight to behold,” says Base Camp Bigfork owner Mark Schurke.
Dog sledding puts the winter landscape within reach, no matter your fitness ability. Options range from half-day introductory experiences to backcountry camping by dog team, and most trips are open to ages seven and up. A popular choice for families is Base Camp Bigfork’s “Day with the Dogs.” Guests take turns mushing and spend their off-sled time cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snacking on s’mores and hot drinks in front of the campfire.
Pond Skating, Various Locations
Outdoor skating is a treasured winter pastime across the Big Sky State. If you’ve never experienced the frosty thrill of skating across a frozen pond or outdoor rink, rent a pair of skates and give it a try at places like Southside City Park in Bozeman, Winninghoff Park Ice Rink and Arena in Philipsburg, Frenchtown Pond State Park in Frenchtown, Red Lodge Ice Rink in Red Lodge, and the ghost town dredge pond in Bannack State Park.
“Skating outdoors definitely is more romantic than at an indoor rink,” says avid Bozeman skater Cole Reichenberg, digital managing editor for the local rock station The Moose 95.1 FM. “At Southside Park, the houses around the rink have Christmas lights up during the holidays, and you can get wafting aromas from grills when people in the neighborhood are making dinner.”
Many outdoor skating venues have warming huts with benches and bathrooms, and some even have snack bars and skate rentals. Before lacing up, check posted signs to make sure the ice is safe and open for skating.
Holiday Candlelight Tour, Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park, Whitehall
Turn-of-the-20th-century spelunkers explored these southwestern Montana caverns by candlelight, and, on the second, third, and fourth weekends in December, visitors can do the same. The two-hour Holiday Candlelight Tours cover two miles, but only three-quarters of a mile is in the cave. The rest of the walk is aboveground, leading to and from the cave entrance.
“As you go through the caverns, look back to see the candles winding down through the cave: what a beautiful and peaceful sight,” says Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park manager Lynette Kemp. Taking the candlelight tour is a popular holiday tradition for area residents, so advanced reservations are required.
American West Hockey League
You don’t have to understand hockey to appreciate the special connection between American West Hockey League (AWHL) teams and their hometown fans. AWHL players are elite 16- to 20-year-old Tier III juniors from across the United States, Canada, and Europe who are hoping to land a Division III college hockey scholarship or an invite to a higher-level league.
Since five of the seven AWHL teams—the Billings Bulls, Bozeman Icedogs, Helena Bighorns, Great Falls Americans, and Glacier Nationals—are in Montana (two are in Wyoming), there’s usually a game somewhere in the state every weekend night from September through March. And with games played in small local rinks, venues typically feel packed. “It’s a fantastic atmosphere," says league commissioner and former National Hockey League player Garry Swain. "Drink a couple of beers, meet people from the community, and watch some great hockey.”
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Most players billet, or board, with local families, and, five or six on each team usually attend the local high school. “The billet families and their neighbors really turn out for the home games,” Swain says. “Everyone hoots and hollers and has a whole lot of fun.”
Museum Touring, Billings
Winter is an ideal time to explore the “great indoors” on a Billings museum tour. From January to March, the Yellowstone Art Museum (YAM) hosts its annual Art Auction. The YAM is the region’s only contemporary art museum, and the auction offers works from more than 150 regional and national artists.
Other local museums staging winter exhibitions include Moss Mansion, a historic home adorned with 17 Christmas trees, and the Western Heritage Center, a Smithsonian affiliate.
The Yellowstone County Museum is located in a pioneer log cabin with an attached gallery. Step inside to learn the stories of the Yellowstone River Valley as shared through 23,000 artifacts specific to Northern Plains Indian tribes, settlers and fur traders, miners and the military, and ranches and railroads. The permanent collection includes a chuck wagon, saddles, war bonnets, and, outside, a Northern Pacific Railroad steam switch engine.