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Sunday, July 21, 2024

Yellowstone Country Montana Bucket List: 30 Winter Activities


Bison roaming the snow capped mountains, steaming hot springs ready for soaking and acres of an unspoiled winter wonderland — what’s not to love about the Yellowstone Country of Montana?

Montana is split up into different districts: towns and counties that are cohesively lumped together. In the middle of winter, I was lucky enough to travel to one of these sections in the north, Glacier Country. It’s snowshoeing, hiking and dog sledding were so memorable that when I was invited to return to visit Yellowstone Country in the south of Montana in the same bitter cold months, there was no hesitation (especially because I had leftover toe warmers from my last trip to the state!). It did not disappoint.

Top 30 Winter Activities in Yellowstone Country, Montana


1. Attend the Whitefish Winter Carnival

Every first weekend in February, Whitefish, Montana has a lively winter celebration called the Whitefish Winter Carnival. This carnival has its roots in a local legend about Ullr, the Norse god of winter, who helped the townsfolk from the Yetis.

The festivities kick off with the Penguin Plunge, where brave souls take a dip in Whitefish Lake to raise money for charity. In addition, there’s a beer barter, a Rotary pancake breakfast, an art expo, a kiddie carnival, a pie social, a big procession, and a snow sculpting competition. The Skijoring races, in which skiers compete while being dragged by horses, are one of the highlights.


2. Big Sky Winter Fest

The Big Sky Winter Fest is an event that you just must not miss if you love winter festivals. The Montana town of Big Sky is transformed into a winter playground for all ages during this incredible four-day celebration, which bursts with colorful energy.

Make sure to mark your calendars for early February, as the Big Sky Winter Fest typically takes place from February 3 to 6. There’s something for everyone on this four-day agenda that includes thrilling ski events, a “Frozen Foot” race, great music, and mouthwatering local cuisine. Plus, the charitable funds raised throughout the event go towards the Big Sky Ski Education Foundation, supporting future generations of skiers and snowboarders. Sounds like a win-win to me!


3. Catch a Live Show in Missoula

You might be thinking Yellowstone Country in winter is all about snowy adventures (and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong!), but there’s another side to this coin. Don’t miss the chance to catch a live show in Missoula, the crown jewel of Montana’s cultural scene.

Here are a few of Missoula’s top venues for live entertainment:

  • The Wilma Theater – See a big touring artist or a hometown favorite at this historic theater in downtown Missoula. Throughout the year, they present a variety of events, including rock & roll, classical music, and more.
  • Adams Center – When it is not being used for sporting events, the Adams Center on the University of Montana’s campus is a great place to see a concert.
  • Missoula Osprey – With Missoula’s mountains as a backdrop, this minor league baseball stadium is a terrific site to see a show outside. The Missoula Osprey occasionally host concerts in addition to baseball games.
  • Top Hat – This nightclub is an excellent venue to catch local and regional artists as well as emerging national touring performers. DJ nights and other events are also hosted by The Top Hat.

4. Cross-Country Ski in Yellowstone National Park

Cross-country skiing in Yellowstone National Park is a fantastic way to access areas inaccessible by car during winter, as well as seeing the area in a whole new different light. Whether you’re a seasoned skier or a complete newbie, there are trails (both groomed and unplowed) for all abilities.

If you’re a beginner, you can check out the 2.2-mile Indian Creek Loop in the Mammoth Hot Springs region and the 4.8-mile Lone Star Geyser Trail in the Old Faithful area. The 13-mile Pebble Creek Ski Trail in the Northeast region and the 12-mile Mallard Creek Ski Trail at Old Faithful are the ideal trails for anyone seeking a true challenge.


5. Cut Your Own Christmas Tree in Custer Gallatin National Forest

Let’s add a dash of tradition to your Yellowstone Country experience with a bucket list activity that’s perfect for the whole family – cutting your own Christmas tree in the Custer Gallatin National Forest. Here, you get to choose the perfect pine to take home with you from a real-life forest!

But before you grab your trusty saw and head out, there are a few things to keep in mind. You’ll need to snag a seasonal tree permit beforehand on Recreation.gov. There are also specific guidelines about where you can cut and what kind of tree is up for grabs. Don’t worry, it’s all pretty straightforward, and rangers are happy to answer any questions.


6. Take a Dip in the Boiling River

Just south of the Parallel Bridge, and very close to Mammoth Hot Springs, you will find one of Yellowstone’s best kept secrets — The Boiling River. Cold water that flows from the Garner River mixes with hot springs to create the perfectly temperatured soaking bath. If you’re lucky, your view while in the water will be of the herds of bison that roam the area in the winter.


7. Drive to the Beartooth Mountains

One of the most epic ways to experience a winter wonderland in Yellowstone Country is by strapping yourself in for a scenic drive through the heart of the Beartooth Mountains via the equally impressive Beartooth Highway. This legendary stretch of road isn’t just about point A to point B – it’s a full-blown bucket list experience in itself.

Nicknamed “The Most Beautiful Drive in America” for a reason, the Beartooth Highway winds its way for 68 miles through the heart of the dramatic Beartooth Mountains, and the views are nothing short of breathtaking (especially at Beartooth Pass in Wyoming, the highway’s highest point.)


8. Explore the Lewis and Clark Caverns

Spelunking caves is probably not on the list of things that come to mind when visiting Montana during the winter months. But believe it or not, you can actually add a dose of subterranean adventure to your trip by exploring the Lewis and Clark Caverns, which is located 60 miles northwest of Yellowstone National Park.

The caverns themselves are limestone caves and are considered one of the most beautifully decorated caverns in North America. The limestone formations, including stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and helictites, were formed over millions of years.

Tip: The park is open year-round, and while they usually only do guided tours from May to September, they do have a ‘candlelight’ tour which they offer in December (weather permitting).


9. Explore Yellowstone by Snowcoach

If you want to explore Yellowstone National Park in the winter without being exposed to the chilly elements that snowshoeing or cross-country skiing will give you, then a fun option is taking a snowcoach tour — think tour bus with heavy duty wheels equipped for the cold weather terrain. 

See Old Faithful, Steamboat Geyser or Gibbon Falls either from the window of the coach or briefly hop off to do a little on foot inspection.


10. Go Dog Sledding

There’s nothing quite like the sound of a dozen pups barking in a special musical harmony right before they are released to do what they love — run. You will then either drive your own team into the wilderness or be whisked away as a passenger. Morrison Racing Kennel has a great 10-mile tour that is about 3 hours long.

Dog Sledding Montana Annette
Dog Sledding Montana

11. Hit the slopes at one of the ski resorts

Let’s be honest, who wouldn’t want to carve fresh tracks down a pristine mountain after a fresh snowfall? 

Here are 3 of the most popular ski resorts in Yellowstone Country Montana to check out: Big Sky Resort (with its legendary “Biggest Skiing in America” title), Bridger Bowl (a local favorite, for the hardcore skier/snowboarder), and Red Lodge Mountain (friendly atmosphere and affordable, with stunning views of Beartooth Mountain).


12. Ice Climb Hyalite Canyon

If you are looking for a serious Montana adventure, try your hand at ice climbing at one of the United States most well-known climbing destinations, Hyalite Canyon near Bozeman. You don’t even need to be an expert to scale some of the over 200 distinct pitches, you can do so with an expert guide. Montana Alpine Guides offers an Introduction to Ice perfect for the beginner.


13. Go Ice Fishing

Think winter means putting away your fishing rod? Think again! Ice fishing is an epic adventure that lets you experience the wonderland of Yellowstone Country in a fresh, frozen way. Head to Hebgen Lake, legendary for its monster rainbow trout, or try your luck at Hyalite Reservoir, where you might snag a trout or two. Cooney Reservoir State Park is another well-liked spot for ice fishing and is also a good place to catch large rainbow trout.


14. Ice skate at an outdoor rink

There’s something undeniably magical about gliding across a smooth sheet of ice under a blanket of crisp winter air. 

Some of the outdoor rinks I recommend include the Old Faithful Snow Lodge (located right by the iconic geyser) and Red Lodge Ice in Red Lodge. The city of Bozeman also has three outdoor rinks you can slide into (Beall Park, Southside Park, and Bogert Park.)


15. Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs was one of my favorite experiences in Yellowstone to photograph. An eerie steam floats off the terraces that are made of crystallized calcium carbonate, which you can view from the planked walkways. Unfortunately, you can’t take a dip in these steamy pools, because they are over 170 degrees, but just the view alone is worth it.

Mammoth Hot Springs Annette
Mammoth Hot Springs

16. Go to the Montana Winter Fair

Held every (late) January in Lewistown, the three-day Montana Winter Fair is a deep dive into the heart and soul of Montana’s agricultural heritage. The fair features tons of fun events such as livestock judging, competitions (like animal shows, baking contests), trade shows, and of course, live music.


17. See the Frozen Waterfall at Kootenai Falls

While geysers like Old Faithful might be the summer superstars, there’s a hidden gem waiting for explorers who embrace the frosty embrace of winter. I’m talking about the frozen majesty of Kootenai Falls, located just west of Libby, Montana. This 56-foot waterfall on the Kootenai River transforms into a breathtaking, multi-tiered ice sculpture come winter. Don’t miss the iconic Swinging Bridge, perfect for some photo ops!


18. See a Grizzly Up Close (But, not Too Close!)

I was perfectly content not seeing a grizzly out in the Yellowstone Country wilderness (they can do some major damage with just one swat of their paws!). But, there was a much safer alternative, the Montana Grizzly Encounter. This sanctuary is currently home to three bears (as well as four Nigerian Dwarf goats) who were rescued from unfortunate situations and could not be returned into the wild.

Montana Grizzly Encounter

19. Go Snowmobiling

What better way to conquer Montana’s frosty frontier than on a snowmobile? Luckily, you don’t need to be a seasoned snowmobiler to join the fun. Guided tours like the ones by Yellowstone Adventures are plentiful, and they take care of everything – from providing top-notch gear to leading you on safe and scenic routes.


20. Snowshoe in Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone boasts miles of snowshoeing (and cross country skiing) trails that you are able to navigate on your own, or by joining a tour. Plus, it’s one of the easiest sports to do, you can become an expert snowshoer in about ten steps!

Yellowstone Snowshoeing

21. Soak in a Hot Springs Pool

After a chilly afternoon dog sledding or ice fishing, take a warm soak in the pools at Chico Hot Springs Resort. There are two open-air mineral pools with temperatures that typically range from 96 to 103 degrees. You can either spend the night at the resort to receive access to the hot spring pools or just buy a day pass, which many of the locals do. 

I will warn you, the water is a happening place and gets busy. It is a social activity, lots of people chatting and drinking cocktails. If you want something more peaceful, you can head to their spa for a massage.

Chico Hot Springs Resort

22. Take a sleigh ride

Sleigh rides – they’re practically synonymous with winter, conjuring up images of Santa Claus and those heart-warming holiday movies, right? Well, a sleigh ride in Yellowstone Country is the quintessential way to experience the magic of a Montana winter. 

Check around towns like Gardiner, West Yellowstone, and Big Sky (especially this one) for options. Some sleigh rides even include a delicious post-adventure hot meal, making it the perfect way to end a charming winter day.


23. Visit a ghost town

I’m no stranger to ghost towns, but visiting one in Montana during winter surely brought chills down my spine (but that’s just from the cold, of course). Some popular picks include Virginia City, the West’s best-preserved gold mining town from the 1860s, and Bannack State Park, the site of Montana’s first major gold discovery in 1862 and home to over 50 historic buildings.


24. Watch a skijoring race

Ever craved an adrenaline rush that’s different from the norm? Then you gotta check out a skijoring race! It’s a sport that kind of reminds me of wakeboarding (on ice), where a mounted horse races around a track with a skier in tow, creating a spectacle that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

There are two main towns to catch a skijoring race in Montana during winter: Big Sky (which hosts their annual skijoring event in early February) and Red Lodge (which holds the National Finals Ski Joring Competition in early March).


Where to Eat & Drink


25. Eat Where Anthony Bourdain Filmed No Reservations

Attached to the iconic Murray Hotel in Livingston is the well-known 2nd Street Bistro, also known as 2SB. This restaurant will not only serve you a delicious meal, like pan seared faroe island salmon served over bacon braised beluga lentils and a whole grain mustard cream sauce, but it was also featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations.

PS: If you want a pre/after dinner drink, pop into the nearby Katabatic Brewing Co. for a craft beer. 

2nd Street Bistro

26. Enjoy the Billings Brew Trail

With all the snow and exploring, sometimes you just crave a little warmth and a whole lot of hoppy goodness. That’s where the Billings Brew Trail comes in, Montana’s largest (and only) walkable brewery trail!

The self-guided trail loop is about 1.5 miles long, taking you bar hopping through downtown Billings’ many craft breweries. You just need to sign up to their mobile exclusive passport first, which also comes with deals and discounts you can use during your visit.


Where to Sleep


27. Stay in a Forest Service Cabin

Forest service cabins come in all shapes and sizes, catering to different travel styles. Whether it’s a romantic escape for two or a winter adventure with a group of friends, there’s a perfect cabin waiting for you.

 Insider tip: Snag these cozy escapes well in advance, especially during peak winter – they’re a hot commodity! Here are a couple of my top picks you might want to check out:

  • Mill Creek Cabin: Located off of Mill Creek Road, Mill Creek Cabin offers easy access and stunning views (especially the creek and campground!). Perfect for a family getaway or a group of friends seeking a winter wonderland escape.
  • Beaver Creek Cabin: For the more adventurous traveler, Beaver Creek Cabin requires a short ski or snowmobile ride, but the reward is a secluded haven beneath Hilgard Peak, the highest point in the Madison Range. Ideal for a romantic winter retreat or a backcountry adventure with a buddy.

28. Sleep in a Yurt

Cooke City in the winter is worth a visit just to see how high the snow piles in front of the businesses, plus the snowmobiles that whisk right down the main drag. But, just 7 miles from the city center, you can have a very unique experience by sleeping in a yurt (a round tent — don’t worry, it’s warm). 

Part of the adventure is that you’ll need a snowmobile (or ski) to get to your lodging, but it is guaranteed to be an experience you won’t forget just for the views alone.Book Here: Mt. Zimmer Yurt


29. Sleep Where Buffalo Bill & Calamity Jane Did

You will feel like you’ve stepped back in time at The Murray Hotel in Livingston. The authentic Western hotel opened in 1904 and has kept its rustic feel ever since, there’s even a sign that says “guns must be checked at the front desk” when you arrive. It has seen many famous guests over the years, including both Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane.

The Murray Hotel Sign
The Murray Hotel

30. Snooze in an Artistic Room at the Lark

The Lark is a unique, one-of-a-kind hotel where each room features different custom artwork from 10 local artists. The creative pieces give you inspiration to not only travel locally but also regionally.

They also have a custom designed Map Room featuring USGS maps where their expert guides will help you navigate to the best of Bozeman. Plus, there’s an outdoor fireplace and taco truck right outside the front doors. What more could you want?

The Lark
The Lark Montana

So, there you have it – the greatest hits of spending winter in Yellowstone Country, Montana. Every moment spent here seems like a postcard come to life, whether you’re taking on the weather, ice climbing or snowmobiling, or simply relaxing in a hot spring. The unique mix of thrilling activities and charming local traditions will keep your bucket list busy and your heart (and stomach!) happy.

This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through my links, I earn a commission that helps to keep this blog running—at no extra cost to you. For more information read my full disclosure.

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