Big Sky, Big Fun
MONTANA DISHES MORE THAN FLY-FISHING THESE DAYS
Forever a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and those seeking to explore off the grid, the open spaces of Montana have been drawing people from all corners of the nation in the past year, as social distancing and work-from-home options have become the norm. While rods, bows, arrows, rifles, rafts, waders, saddles, hikes and bikes are all still very much the mainstays of the natural adventure menu, golf swings are now more than ever being paired with fly-fishing casts. In a state that sports fewer golf courses than the Palm Springs area, evidence of the growth from one study (Golf Datatech) reported a 16 percent surge in “Mountain Region” rounds played compared with the previous year. From Bozeman to Big Sky, here’s a look.
BOZEMAN: THE BEATING HEART OF MONTANA
After your two-plus-hour flight from Southern California, Bozeman provides instant relief from SoCal cluster. Sporting a small, albeit growing population of about 50,000, this cowboy-college-local-hipster hybrid city still feels small town. And its newest neighbor embraces the vibe.
Debuting in August of 2020, the Kimpton Armory Hotel Bozeman is perfectly perched in the heart of Bozeman’s folksy downtown. The city’s “tallest” building at nine floors, the upsmart, 122-room reimagining of a historic National Guard Armory slides right into Bozeman’s aesthetic saddle.
As for its opening amid a global pandemic: Good idea?
“Great idea,” says Aaron Whitten, general manager of the Kimpton. “We’re in a unique intersection here in Bozeman. It’s a small community, with a lot of people who really care about the long-term direction of the area and who want to protect a certain culture. At the same time, it’s been on a high-growth trajectory for the last several years.”
An ideal adventure base camp, the new Kimpton pairs easy-access Main St. adjacency with its own restaurant, speakeasy-style basement saloon and a rooftop bar. Located less than 80 miles miles from Yellowstone National Park’s north entrance and situated within a 90-minute ride of myriad outdoor endeavors, Bozeman’s pandemic-era boom has been, in large part, a result of travelers preferring transit by road.
For ballstrikers, Bozeman is a fivecourse town, with a pair of affordable public plays within 10 minutes of the hotel. At Cottonwood Hills Golf Club (below), 7,000 yards of valley-style play from the tips makes for an earnest test, though families, couples and oneround travelers will find ample fairway space and ongoing playability from the 6,300-yard forward tees. Pairing its 18-hole track with a par-3 course makes Cottonwood an ideal stop for players simply seeking to get in a day of fun cuts.
BIG SKY: THE REWARD IS IN THE JOURNEY
Gently elevating to nearly 7,000 feet, the hour-long drive from Bozeman to Big Sky provides continual postcard views all along Highway 191. Narrated by the burble of the Gallatin River, each turn appears fully cinematic, and it’s little wonder that the angling scenes from A River Runs Through It were filmed here.
As you reach the mountain town hamlet of Big Sky, the broad natural surrounds and 11,100-foot Lone Peak stand sentry over ample signage for local outfitters before Big Sky Golf Course comes into view. Part of the resort’s Montana-best ski destination, the entertaining, gettable grounds are said to be Arnold Palmer’s first-ever design, debuting as a nine-holer in 1973.
“We’re the only public course within a 40-mile radius, so people come up to play some golf and mix that in with a day at Yellowstone, or mountain biking, or a day of fly-fishing on the Madison or Gallatin Rivers,” says Mark Wehrman, head golf professional at Big Sky Resort.
Within two miles of the course, popular lodging includes The Wilson, along with the true cowboy styling of Lone Mountain Ranch, where guests have access to on-site horseback rides and tailored guides for a full menu of fly-fishing, whitewater rafting and allseason Yellowstone adventures.
Akin to Bozeman’s visitor surge, Big Sky’s ample elbow room has enjoyed an influx of travelers seeking open spaces.
“With little or no international travel available, people have been looking for getaways closer to home, or places that they can just take a drive to, which has put Big Sky on the map more than it’s ever been,” Wehrman adds. “For me, that’s meant lessons to brand-new students on a daily basis, with folks coming from New York, Dallas and L.A. Southern California has really been a hot-spot for us.”
Ascending about 1,300-feet yonder, the Tom Weiskopf-designed Spanish Peaks Mountain Club and the Jack Nicklaus-designed The Reserve at Moonlight Basin are member courses that can be enjoyed by the public. This autumn, Spanish Peaks will debut its on-site Montage Hotel, which offers guests access to the course.
For the muscular Moonlight, folks renting member homes can take on the grand, sprawling grounds, aptly considered among the most challenging in the West. Spread across 800 acres of elevated play, the course cuts boldly through mountain terrain, playing 8,000 yards from the tips and carding a full-on slope rating of 153.
Oh, and every cart is affixed with bear spray.
“Our outdoor attractions — golf, fly-fishing, hunting, archery, rafting, horse riding — it’s all in our backyard. Montana stuff,” says Nick Berasi, head golf professional at The Reserve at Moonlight Basin. “We see a lot of trips where a few rounds of golf are mixed with our other on-site activities. Most of our members are coming from bigger cities, whether that be Chicago, down south or L.A.”
During the 100-day golf season, Moonlight gives guests all they can handle.
“This is a challenging course,” Berasi concludes. “When you come here, unless you’re a scratch, the last thing you should worry about is your score; the majority of people who come here enjoy it as an experience. Between the vistas, lack of any houses and all the wildlife, this is real Montana. And scoring goes out the window.”
In southern Montana, with its big drives beneath big skies, the reward is in the journey.