Steam rises off the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park, one of the best things to do in Big Sky, Montana

Big Sky, Montana makes a great base camp for visiting Yellowstone National Park. This is the Madison River at sunrise. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

I’m a California native, but a Big Sky fan girl at heart. Big Sky is best known for iconic Lone Peak, enormous amount of uncrowded ski terrain and a laid back peaceful lifestyle. While I’m not a skier myself after two hip replacements, I prefer to visit this natural wonder in the fall and summer.

Yellowstone National Park originally put Big Sky Montana on the map as a travel destination. Home to one of the three Montana entrances to the park, there are loads of hiking and outdoor exploration with the park itself. You’ll also find horseback riding, fly fishing, zip-lining, among lesser known activities in the area.

Without a doubt, a road trip is the best way to visit Big Sky and the great state of Montana. Travelers to Big Sky will fly into Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN.) Big Sky is only 45 minutes from Bozeman, depending on the time of year, with plenty of direct flights. Many hotels and guest ranches offer shuttle service from the airport, but if you like exploring at your own pace, I recommend renting a car and driving in Big Sky country.

Here are the best things to do in Big Sky Montana

Check out the Beehive Basin Hike

Blue sky day in Big Sky, Montana, headed up Beehive Basin trail, surrounded by forest.

One of the best things to do in Big Sky, Montana is hike Beehive Basin. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

Our first day in Big Sky started with a Beehive Basin Hike, trail no. 40. The moderate hike was approximately 7 miles round trip, gaining 1,800 feet in elevation. Allow 3-4 hours for this hike, depending on the pace you like to keep.

Our group was composed of four fit hikers, in addition to myself and a dog. I’d describe myself as a casual dog walker. On my walks I like to stop, sniff the air and admire the beauty around me. Keep in mind that I live at sea level in California, so the Rocky Mountains of southern Montana took a little adjustment time. My insider tip for a hike to Beehive Basin, or anywhere in Big Sky country: take a water bottle with you and keep hydrated.

Nancy D. Brown drinks water from Hydro Flask with a backdrop of Lone Peak, while hiking Beahive Basin in Big Sky, Montana.

Nancy Brown remembers to hydrate at Beehive Basin with Lone Peak in the distance.

Take in the wildlife, responsibly 

Young black bear walks near road in Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park.

Spotted this black bear in Yellowstone National Park. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

While not all of these animals will be seen at Beehive Basin, you might see some wildlife on your hike. During your holiday in Big Sky, you may come across bighorn sheep, black bear, coyotes, deer, elk, fox, Grizzly bear, wolves, or even a moose, among other animals and birds. It’s always recommended that you carry bear spray when you hike in Big Sky country.

On our particular hike, we encountered a couple returning from an overnight trip to Beehive Basin. They mentioned that they had seen a mother bear with two cubs by the lake that morning, our intended destination for our scenic hike. We continued on our hike when three of our group heard a low growl coming from the forest several feet off the trail. We immediately turned around, clapping our hands and yelling “hey bear” to let the mama bear know of our presence and assure her that we were heading away from her and the bear cubs.

While we didn’t make it to the lake, we did see some beautiful country on our hike. Fortunately for us, we didn’t have too close of an encounter with a bear.

What’s the difference between a black bear and a Grizzly bear? Color and size can be misleading when it comes to these bears. If you see bear paw tracks, note that the front claw of a black bear is 1-2″ long. The front claw of a Grizzly bear is 2-4″ long. Also, the Grizzly bear has a distinctive shoulder hump and a dish shaped profile. Don’t be fooled by a docile looking bear. They are fast and they are strong. Give them a wide berth and keep your distance.

Get out on the river for fly fishing  

The blue-ribbon trout waters of the Gallatin River start shallow for easy wading access when fly fishing in Big Sky, Montana.

Most of the fly fishing scenes from “A River Runs Through It” were filmed on the Gallatin River in Big Sky. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

In Big Sky, Montana, A River Runs Through It. That river is the Gallatin River, a tributary of the Missouri River, approximately 120 miles long. The ribbon of the Gallatin that flows through Big Sky is home to brown trout, cutthroat trout and rainbow trout, in addition to the mountain white fish.

I was fortunate to experience an early afternoon”walk and wade” with Gallatin River Guides thanks to the folks at Big Sky Tourism for hooking me up with the awesome guiding skills of Nick Gellerstedt. Gallatin River Guides has been around since 1984 and offers everything for the first-time fly fisherman, from waders to a Montana fishing license, tackle and a patient guide.

Go Horseback riding through Yellowstone National Park

Looking out to Big Sky, Montana from between the ears of a horse at Yellowstone National Park.

Looking for things to do near Big Sky? Stay at a dude ranch and go horseback riding in Yellowstone National Park. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

After bush whacking with black bears and catching and releasing fish on the Gallatin River, it was time to visit an authentic guest ranch. Covered Wagon dude ranch Montana is a family-owned ranch located in the Gallatin Canyon. A typical Montana dude ranch stay is 7 days, Sunday to Sunday, but guest ranches such as Covered Wagon and Lone Mountain Ranch allow horseback riding vacations for as few as 2 or 3 days.

Alternatively, you can take the kids to Crail Ranch within Big Sky for a little history.

Where to Eat in Big Sky Montana 

"Stacey's Steak House" Gallatin, Montana, restaurant

For steak dining with a cowboy atmosphere, visit Stacey’s Bar and Steak House outside of Big Sky, Montana

  • If you are looking for typical Big Sky cuisine, I recommend the Bison Tenderloin at Buck’s T-4.
  • For a great steak sandwich where the cowboys and cowgirls go to eat and drink, you’ll want to visit Stacey’s Bar and Steak House in Gallatin Gateway, on the way to Big Sky.
  • Looking for cheap food in Big Sky? Go to Blue Moon Bakery for Lunch or Lotus Pad for dinner.
  • For an expensive, yet quality meal, go to Rainbow Ranch Lodge in Big Sky, Montana.
  • Enjoy a night out on the town? For a night of dancing, go to the Half Moon Saloon or the Corral.

What to Pack for Big Sky Montana

Ford F150 gray truck is parked in front of the sign to Yellowstone National Park, southeast of Big Sky.

Three of 5 entrances to Yellowstone National Park are in Montana. Big Sky offers unlimited access to outdoor recreation. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

Out west, Big Sky country is everything you could imagine for an outdoor lover, and more. Big Sky locals tend to wear baseball hats and cowboy hats. My money is on the folks that are wearing hats with UPF 50+ for serious sun protection while hiking, horseback riding or white-water rafting. Heck, there’s even a cowboy hat with sun protection built in it.

Jeans and long pants are recommended for activities like horseback riding. Outdoor travel apparel made with moisture wicking fabric is a great choice in Montana. You’ll also see plenty of fly-fishing shirts with lots of pockets being worn in Big Sky.

Now lets talk about plaid shirts and Carhartt’s outerwear. I own plenty of plaid shirts and I love my Carhartt’s vest, as well as a pair of cowboy boots and a felt cowboy hat, so I blend right in with the locals. In fact, my happy place is on the back of a horse at a dude ranch.

Where to stay in Big Sky

The Wilson Hotel, a Residence Inn by Marriott, is the newest hotel in Big Sky. It features an outdoor pool and hot tub, free Wi-Fi, complimentary breakfast, is pet-friendly and offers glorious views of Lone Peak.

If You Go:

For additional insider tips follow Nancy D. Brown on Instagram and Twitter @Nancydbrown and Visit Big Sky on on Instagram.

Article, video and photography by travel writer Nancy D. Brown. I was a guest of  Visit Big Sky while writing about things to do in Big Sky, Montana, however, all opinions are my own. For more information on Visit Big Sky click here.