By Melynda Harrison
One doesn’t always associate winter with road trips, but my family does. Snow and cold don’t deter us from exploring and playing outside, in fact, they encourage us.
Traveling around Western Montana is different in the winter than in the summer, but it is no less beautiful and thrilling. We recently looped through some of the more off-the-beaten-path locations and discovered an outdoorsy and cozy way to enjoy winter.
One of the charms of Western Montana any time of year is the slower pace, the out-in-the-middle-of-nowhereness and the essence of exploration. Sometimes that means no cell service or many miles between gas stations. It could mean a restaurant is closed or there isn’t anyone at the front desk of your hotel. We always keep a positive attitude and sense of discovery.
We followed the Recreate Responsibly guidelines when planning and participating in our trip.
Play It Safe
We started the trip in Seeley Lake on fat bikes. This was a new activity for us, but we are always game to find novel ways to play outdoors. We still need a little more practice riding bikes in the snow, but we were ready for it. We made sure to get helmets and stick to vehicle-free roads and trails.
Call ahead to Tamaracks Resort to reserve bikes.
Throughout the trip, we chose places with low to no avalanche risk; if we had gone somewhere steeper and deeper, we would have checked the avalanche forecast and brought appropriate gear.
Know Before You Go
That first night we cozied up at the Double Arrow Ranch in Seeley Lake. We had reservations and checked about Wi-Fi ahead of time. (There isn’t any in the cabin we stayed in, but that was okay since we planned ahead and knew that would be the case).
Dinner in Seeley Lake was at an old-school steakhouse called Lindey’s. The atmosphere alone is worth a visit, and the huge chunks of meat will have the carnivores in your family smiling from ear to ear (when they aren’t eating, of course).
The next day was all about creating iconic winter memories for ourselves and our teenagers.
Practice Physical Distancing
Cross-country skiing may be my favorite way to physical distance. There’s nowhere I’d rather be than kicking and gliding through snow-covered trees with my family or friends. The Seeley Lake Nordic Ski Trails are well-groomed for both classic and skate skiing and are fun, undulating loops.
Bring your own skis or rent from Tamaracks Resort in Seeley Lake.
Après ski took place in a horse-drawn sleigh ride from the Double Arrow Lodge. The Percherons’ bells jingled all the way as we sipped hot beverages, ate cookies and took in the Swan Range and the Mission Mountains, which rise up on either side of the valley.
After dinner at the Seasons restaurant in the Double Arrow Lodge, we gathered around a campfire overlooking the snow-covered golf course. A million stars sparkled overhead. While making and eating s’mores, we chatted about what a wonderful day we had and how much fun was still to come.
The next morning after breakfast and reading in front of the woodstove, we packed up and drove to Bigfork for the next two nights.
Plan Ahead (and Have a Plan B)
Winter travel in Montana takes a little preparation. Since restaurants, activities and lodging establishments may have restricted hours or not be open at all, be sure to call ahead so you aren’t surprised (and hungry).
The weather wasn’t cooperating for a cross country-ski adventure, so we pivoted a bit and decided to enjoy a scenic drive and make an unscheduled stop at Holland Lake. The lake was mostly frozen, and the view stopped us in our tracks. Then our boys formed snowballs and threw them at each other. It’s not every day that Montana snow is wet enough to form a good snowball, so Plan B turned out pretty well.
We rewarded ourselves for our adaptability with beer (for the non-driver) and a late lunch at the Flathead Lake Brewing Co., overlooking Flathead Lake, before heading to Base Camp Bigfork for the night.
We had been looking forward to dog sledding, and day four of our Montana winter adventure was the day. Mark from Base Camp Bigfork introduced us to the dogs and the history of dog sledding before letting us loose on the sleds.
We had one kid and one adult on each sled with Mark cross-country skiing along beside and in front of us. It was a wild, but safe, ride and we were thrilled to try our hands at being mushers. We’ve been dog sledding before, but this was next level. We wound in and out of trees, went over little jumps and had the best time in the woods with the fluffy dogs.
When dog sledding was done, we went back to the cottage Mark and his wife Samantha rent on the property. We spent two nights there, and it really was a great “base camp” for dog sledding, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and steaming in the wood-fired sauna without having to get back in our car.
After grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, we strapped on snowshoes and trekked up a logging road behind the cottage.
Leave No Trace
We always practice “Leave No Trace” principles, and our snowshoe experience was no different. We stayed on durable surfaces so as not to compact the snow on some unsuspecting critters’ tunnels, took our trash out with us and left what we found. We didn’t see much wildlife beyond birds and squirrels, but we always keep our distance when animals are around. Additionally, we pick up trash as we find it because we don’t just want to “leave no trace,” we want to leave it better than we found it.
Our snowshoe walk led us to an overlook of the Swan Range and the valley below. We could see parts of our dog sledding route and had fun rehashing the day’s activities.
That evening my husband and I popped into the sauna to warm up. When we were hot enough, we stepped outside and cooled down looking at the stars.
The next morning we drove to Blacktail Mountain Ski Area above Flathead Lake. The unique thing about Blacktail Mountain is that the lodge and parking area are at the top of the mountain. So instead of starting the day with a lift ride, you start the day with your first run.
Blacktail Mountain was just our speed—a smaller ski area with lots of intermediate runs. We never waited in a lift line, and Muley’s Bar and Grill was perfect for a late lunch (and good food).
We wrapped up our road trip with a night at the Holiday Inn Downtown Missoula with sushi for dinner. We won’t soon forget our adventures in Western Montana.
March 7, 2022