Photograph by Daniel R. Westergren

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A woman rides horseback through downtown Whitefish, Montana, during the Whitefish Winter Carnival Parade.

Photograph by Daniel R. Westergren

Best of Montana in Winter: Festivals and Events

Discover the top four events to attend in Big Sky Country during winter.

Whitefish Winter Carnival and World Skijoring Championships, Whitefish

Whitefish’s family-friendly and mostly free carnival is an old-fashioned celebration of all things ice and snow: torchlight ski parade, Penguin Plunge in Whitefish Lake, ski races, hockey tournament, ice sculpting. The signature event, however, is the World Ski Joring Championships, a two-day outdoor party held at the Whitefish City Airport the weekend before the main carnival. Montana-style skijoring is a Wild West, water skiing-rodeo hybrid staged on a snow-covered obstacle course.

“The excitement of a 1,200-pound horse or mule pulling a skier at great speeds is something that needs to be experienced live,” says veteran skijoring racer and Whitefish resident Ron Behrendt. Fans tend to cluster around the three jumps to watch the action. “I guess there’s something about humans flying through space that gets people's attention,” Behrendt says.

Kids’N’Snow Weekends, West Yellowstone

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Taking the “fear out of [kids’] first-ever winter experiences” is the mission of Kids’n’Snow, a West Yellowstone program founded by locals and open to all. One weekend a month between November and March, Kids’n’Snow hosts activities devoted to cold-weather fun and safety. About 80 percent of participants hail from outside the community.

“Parents and kids can ice-skate, grab a s'more, and hit the sledding hill all in one evening,” says Kristy Coffin, a West Yellowstone resident and mother of two. “With parental consent, kids 6 to 11 even can ride M-120 snowmobiles on a track.”

One of the coolest activities for kids is taking a snowcoach (picture a big yellow taxi with skis and tank treads for tires) into Yellowstone for a private park tour. While the program is focused on outdoor recreation, there’s an extra bonus for parents once everyone’s back inside: “The kids are so worn out from all the fun that they are more than ready for bed,” says Coffin.

Montana Winter Fair, Lewistown

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The Montana Winter Fair is a decidedly local celebration of farm and family held just before the busy calving and lambing season begins for ranchers and farmers. “Every third week in January, before all the hard work to come, we pause to celebrate the agricultural lifestyle we love,” says Montana Winter Fair board member Karen Kuhlmann.

The 27 official events include the State Fiddle Contest, a kids’ stick horse rodeo, a chili cook-off, snowmobile shootout, Dutch oven cooking, and home brew tasting. Adds Kuhlmann: “Muck boots and Carhartt clothing are standard attire along with big shiny belt buckles, cowgirl bling, and cowboy hats. Lewistown is Western without even trying.”

Rodeo Run Sled Dog Races, West Yellowstone

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West Yellowstone Sled Dog Races host three sled dog competitions during December and January, yet it’s the festive lead-in to the Rodeo Run that makes this four-pawed racing event the local favorite. Prerace activities begin on Thursday during the West Yellowstone Christmas Stroll, a community holiday celebration featuring a traditional parade of lights, tree lighting, and Santa photos with the kids.

Rodeo Run sled dog teams join the parade and then park along Canyon Street for a post-parade “Meet the Mushers” session with the community. The actual races take place on Friday and Saturday morning, when teams of 4, 6, 8, or 12 dogs rumble through the snowy woods on courses between 5 and 32 miles long.