Photograph by Daniel R. Westergren

Read Caption

A skier takes advantage of the early morning light and fresh powder with First Tracks, a program at Big Sky Resort that allows guests to experience the snow before the lifts open to the public.

Photograph by Daniel R. Westergren

Best of Montana in Winter: Outdoor Recreation

Check out the five must-do local activities for outdoor enthusiasts visiting Montana.

First Tracks Guided Experience, Big Sky Resort, Big Sky

The ultimate insider experience at Big Sky Resort is First Tracks. The draw: Get on the mountain before the lifts open to the public and make the “first tracks” in totally pristine powder. “The thing that makes this so special is absolute solitude while experiencing the very best conditions and terrain our area has to offer,” says Ben Brosseau, a ten-year veteran guide at the resort and a wilderness emergency first responder.

The half- and full-day First Tracks sessions are totally customizable. Choose miles of rolling, fresh, smooth corduroy or go big on the unmatched steeps and powder off the summit. “The only people on the mountain are you, your guide, and the ski patrol," Brosseau says. "It is just acres and miles of untouched snow.”

Learn to Ice Climb, Hyalite Canyon

View Images

Hyalite Canyon south of Bozeman is the United States’ premier natural ice-climbing playground. From late October to the end of March, elite climbers from around the world head to Hyalite to scale the canyon’s countless frozen waterfalls. Although Hyalite is an ice-climbing mecca for experts, it’s not out of reach for anyone wanting to learn the basics. Climbing terrain in the canyon ranges from steep, crystal curtains cascading from cliffs to gentle low-angle ice suitable for beginners. “With a bit of coaching, anyone who knows how to kick [for kicking crampons into the ice] and swing a hammer [to use an ice tool] can have a fun day ice climbing,” says Sam Magro, owner and lead guide of Montana Alpine Guides. Magro offers courses designed to introduce both children and adults to what he terms the “mellower, sunny side” of the sport. “Ice climbing is similar to skiing in that there are extreme routes for experts, as well as bunny slopes for beginners,” he says. “It’s wild to climb water frozen in time. Learning with a guide is a great way to get out into Hyalite and get a feel for what ice climbing is all about.”

Bridger Bowl Ski Area, Bozeman

View Images

If the “Blue Light” glows, it’s time for snow. Local skiers and snowboarders know that the turning on of the powerful strobe atop the historic Baxter Hotel—Bozeman's tallest building—signals that two or more inches of new powder have fallen in the past 24 hours at the Bridger Bowl, just 20 minutes out of town.

The ski area features 2,600 vertical feet of lift-served terrain. Book a private tour with one of Bridger’s ski pros to discover secret powder stashes and hidden terrain.

Guided Snowshoe Walks, Glacier National Park, West Glacier

View Images

The deep hush of winter descends over Glacier when the park is blanketed with snow. It’s peaceful and still and, perhaps, the most magical season to be here. On the surface, all of Glacier appears to be sleeping. Venture out on a two-hour, ranger-led snowshoe walk, however, and you’ll learn and see how many animals, including beaver, deer, and squirrels, manage to remain active in winter.

“This is a great opportunity to enjoy the solitude of the sparkling and glistening winter environment in the park,” says Glacier National Park management assistant Denise Germann. “Plus, searching for signs of wildlife and discovering plants on a guided walk gives you an intimate and up-close look at your surroundings.”

No experience or snowshoes (rentals are available for a nominal fee) are required for the free treks, sponsored in partnership with the Glacier National Park Conservancy. Tours leave from the Apgar Visitor Center.

Boiling River Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park

View Images

Yellowstone has the largest collection of geothermal features in the world, but the only one you can soak in is Boiling River. The parking area is in Montana, just off the North Entrance road near Gardiner. From there follow a short, well-packed trail across the Wyoming border to the spot where a roughly 125°F underground spring hits the frigid water of the Gardner River. The hot springs are popular and can get crowded in the summer tourist season. When the snow arrives, it’s mainly locals who soak in Boiling’s natural hot tub.

“In winter, it is like you are in the middle of nowhere,” says Dan Hottle, public affairs officer for Yellowstone National Park. “Sometimes you have the place all to yourself. Wolves, elk, or bison may pass by. I’ve been there in subzero temps nice and warm while my hair is frozen solid.”

Rangers caution that the channels of water aren’t uniform in temperature; some places are burning hot while others are nearly frozen. And while the frosty air makes it tempting to dunk your head underwater, a sign at the site advises against it due to the possible presence of nasty organisms.