BOZEMAN, Montana — I was taking off my boots after a long day of backcountry skiing when ice climber Matt Beavon emerged from the woods with a gleeful smile, ice axes strapped to his backpack. We’d never met, but within seconds, he had thrust a beat-up smartphone at me. “Look at this ice!” he exclaimed, feverishly scrolling through photo after photo of frozen waterfalls.
That kind of enthusiasm for the mountains — and an eagerness to share it, even with complete strangers — defines Montana’s Gallatin Valley, surrounded by the Rocky Mountains on Yellowstone National Park’s doorstep. While summertime crowds throng the valley on their way to the iconic park, in winter, Bozeman transforms from tourist to college town, where a minor in skiing is so popular that the Montana State University campus store sells official merchandise labeled “Bridger Bowl University” after the local ski hill, visible from town.
Above all, Bozeman is a mountain town with snowcapped peaks framing a lively Main Street. At just 90 minutes from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, it’s the closest place for Seattleites to get a taste of the Rockies. Out here, sun tends to outshine winter gloom and snow mostly comes in the “cold smoke” variety, albeit in lesser quantities than our hearty Cascade snowpack.
While the resort experience beckons at nearby Big Sky, new design-forward lodging like The LARK, a bustling restaurant and bar scene and enough curb appeal to justify a day wandering around town make Bozeman a worthy home base for wintertime adventures. As I learned over a long weekend, between the ample sunshine and a hot housing market causing growing pains and consternation among locals, the small city has earned its moniker as “BozeAngeles,” a definitively polished version of rough-edged Montana.
Gearing up in our surprisingly affordable Airbnb, which felt like stepping into a modern architecture magazine, my ski partner Chris and I braced ourselves for holiday-weekend ski traffic. Recent encounters with “park-outs” at Seattle-area ski resorts had traumatized us. Instead, the trip to Big Sky was smooth, taking the usual hour to drive the scenic 45 miles along U.S. Route 191 to the slopes.
An Ikon Pass member alongside Crystal Mountain, Big Sky boasts the largest skiable area in the U.S.: 4,350 vertical feet spread across 5,850 acres. Bundled up against the Montana chill, we dodged rocks as a much-needed storm blanketed the mountain during an otherwise low snow year. The snowfall dissipated around lunchtime — as I warmed my bones by the woodstove, eating tender Montana beef chili in the midmountain yurt — to reveal a sprawling alpine playground under the watchful eye of Lone Mountain.
With fewer hotels than comparably sized resorts like Whistler Blackcomb, crowds and lift lines seem unlikely, especially with cushy rides up like the Ramcharger 8, which comes replete with arm rests and was the first eight-seat chair in North America. Ski-in/ski-out chalets with hot tubs at the ready dot the lower-mountain runs, which converge at the Mountain Village, where there’s a food hall sure to please all palates and thumping après-ski on the patio. At Big Sky’s edge, stern signs warned against trespassing into the neighboring Yellowstone Club, a private ski resort where the price of entry is $300,000 atop nearly $40,000 in annual dues — and that’s after buying a million-dollar piece of property. (Bill and Melinda Gates are reportedly members.)
Back in town, chatting over the cheekily named Afraid of the Dark white stout and hearty fare like duck confit risotto at Montana Ale Works in Bozeman’s old train station, conservation biologist Pat Cross contrasted Bozeman’s two options for ski resorts. “Big Sky has more mountain than you can ski in a week,” he said. “Bridger Bowl is the locals’ mountain. It looks smaller, but it’s three-dimensional.” While Big Sky’s vastness offers something for everybody, Bridger Bowl appeals more to the hardcore set that’s eager to explore the steep ridgeline off Schlasman’s Lift (pronounced “Slushman’s”) — avalanche equipment recommended.
Good-if-not-great fancy burgers like the Calamity Jane — jalapeño jam and scallion cream cheese — at the aptly named Backcountry Burger Bar inspired our next day’s adventure. For a taste of the Gallatin Valley’s wild side, we brought our backcountry ski gear and made our way up Hyalite Canyon, passing a frozen reservoir speckled with ice fishermen. At the trailhead, bumper stickers read “I Plow Hyalite,” a nod to the volunteer-run Friends of Hyalite group that fundraises half the budget to keep roads maintained in winter, allowing wintertime access to the most popular U.S. Forest Service areas in the state.
Even on a bluebird-skied Saturday, we had our chosen drainage nearly all to ourselves, plus the chance to soak in broad-rimmed Rocky Mountain peaks so unlike our gnarled Cascades. Check the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Forecast before traveling into the backcountry, or better yet, hire a guide familiar with the snowpack and terrain like Big Sky Backcountry Guides for skiing or Montana Mountaineering Association for ice climbing. You can rent the appropriate gear at the brand-new, backcountry-focused Uphill Pursuits, where I ran into my new climber friend, Beavon, the following day after a divine challah French toast at Jam on Main. It was worth every minute of the Sunday brunch wait, which passed quickly as we chatted with the friendly Main Street crowd and their pups.
“There’s not too many other places like it in the world,” Beavon told me. “I haven’t touched a fraction of the climbs. When you have that in your backyard, it’s hard to go anywhere else.”