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Best of Montana Year-Round: 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.

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The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone is a not-for-profit educational facility and wildlife center where vistors experience up-close encounters with the animals.

Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, West Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park is home to a genuine wild bunch: potentially dangerous predators including grizzly bears, gray wolves, and birds of prey. Stay safe by keeping your distance from wildlife in the park; save your up-close encounters for the nearby Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, a not-for-profit educational facility and wildlife center. View the three resident wolf packs outside or through the expansive windows of the heated naturalist cabin. Birds of prey are housed in an area resembling their natural habitat, and the grizzlies (including some orphaned and nuisance bears from nearby Yellowstone) live and play in a large outdoor habitat that includes a stocked trout pond.

“Watching the bears forage for food, swim in the pond, fish under the waterfall, scratch their backs on a tree, throw a huge boulder like it is a softball is fascinating, but the most magical thing is seeing them play with one another,” says Sharon Hopeman, who, with her husband, Bert, frequently visits the center. “Living in Montana for 21 years has deepened our respect and admiration for all of the magnificent creatures with which we share our home.”

Great Northern Carousel, Helena

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Take a ride on Helena’s wild side aboard a hand-carved mountain goat, grizzly bear, cutthroat trout, or another quintessentially Montana animal at the Great Northern Carousel. Of the 37 whimsical creatures carved by world-class carousel artist Ed Roth, the bighorn sheep may be the biggest, but the bobcat is the favorite of Great Northern owner Alan Nicholson, a Montana State University alum and devoted MSU Bobcats fan. Look closely and you’ll notice that the fierce bobcat is forever chasing the weary grizzly (mascot of rival University of Montana) around the carousel. See how many different animals you can ride any weekend after 5 p.m., when $5 gets you unlimited whirls around the carousel plus a kiddie scoop of homemade ice cream.

Lone Peak Expedition, Big Sky Resort, Big Sky

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Big Sky Resort is known justifiably for its big skiing. “We have 5,750 acres with a vertical drop of 4,350 feet,” says Sheila Chapman, a 15-year Montana resident and resort employee. “This gives lots of elbow room and wide-open runs to skiers and snowboarders.”

In warm weather, the Lone Peak Expedition is a must-do. “Guides bring guests on a three-part activity,” explains Chapman, “starting with a scenic chairlift ride, continuing with a rugged expedition truck ride, and ending with a ride on the Lone Peak Tram to the top at 11,166 feet and views of three states and two national parks [Yellowstone and Teton].”

Yellowstone IMAX Theater, West Yellowstone

If bad weather sends you looking for shelter at Yellowstone National Park, make a beeline for this inside look at nature and history—provided by a six-story-tall screen accompanied by speakers pumping out 12,000 watts of digital sound. Located just outside the west entrance to the park, the Yellowstone IMAX Theatre shows Montana-centric documentaries and movies such as Lewis and Clark: Great Journey West, Journey Into Amazing Caves, and Yellowstone. The lobby features artifacts from the park and the Yellowstone Trading Post gift shop offers everything from T-shirts to fine art sculptures and gourmet foods.

Children’s Museums

Montana’s children’s museums aren’t big, commercial endeavors, which is part of the appeal. Multiple communities have relatively small, mainly volunteer-driven museums focused on hands-on exploration and learning. Whether for rainy-day fun or as a kid-friendly stop on a city tour, spend a day learning together with your kids or grandkids at interactive learning spaces like the Children’s Museum of Montana in Great Falls, the Children’s Museum Missoula, the Children’s Museum of Bozeman, and Helena’s Exploration Works!. The two-story Exploration Works! is the biggest of the bunch and partners with NASA, M.I.T. (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and others to offer robotics-building activities, trout-hatching experiments, and changing seasonal exhibits designed to make STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fun for kids of all ages.

Root for the Home Team, Bozeman and Missoula

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Montanans are passionate about their college sports teams. In Missoula, it’s the University of Montana Grizzlies. In Bozeman, it’s the Montana State Bobcats. The schools are Big Sky Conference rivals, and compete against each other in multiple sports, including football, and men’s and women’s basketball.

Plan a trip to one or both campuses to catch whatever game is in season. And be sure to wear the right colors: maroon and silver for the Griz, blue and gold for the Cats.

Whitefish Mountain Resort, Whitefish

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Whitefish Mountain Resort can make a case for being the biggest “small-town” resort in the West. With more than 3,000 acres of terrain, Whitefish Mountain is one of the 15 largest (by acreage) ski resorts in the United States. It also boasts a bustling Mountain Village with restaurants, shops, and lodging, plus four-season recreation options, including Montana’s only treetop canopy walk and aerial adventure park (both open mid-June to September).

Yet, despite being a big-time resort in terms of size and services, Whitefish Mountain exudes a small-town vibe rooted in a decidedly local history. In 1947, Whitefish locals pooled their resources to help build Big Mountain, which evolved into the current resort. The small company they invested in then, Winter Sports, Inc., still is small, and still owns and operates the place. That community connection makes Whitefish Mountain a homegrown resort built by the people and for the people—locals and visitors alike.

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