Okay, let’s get a few things out in the open.
Montana is not the first place that comes to mind when you think “romance” (or maybe it is). It’s geographically vast, sparsely populated, and on the expensive side to fly to from the East Coast. Sure, it’s a postcard-ready, National Geographic cover photo type of spot, but so is the Sahara. For many, Montana conjures images of austerity and bleakness, populated by hard-boiled ranchers as likely to shoot you right between the eyes at give you the time of day. (Not really, but I wanted to write something Cormac McCarthy-esque.)
Photo by Carolyn Conner
In the eyes of others, it’s a high-priced playground where those who can afford to hire guides and outfitters and don thousands of dollars of Orvis gear go to try their hands at fly fishing. Brad Pitt and Ted Turner own property there, and the universities are a cheap place for many-an-east-coaster to get a decent education.
So what does this enigmatic spot have to offer to couples, and why have we included it?
Simple – Montana has an adventure for every gradation along the escape-the-city spectrum.
Couples wanting a cheaper and less touristy version of Vail can sip merlot on the back deck of a villa in Whitefish, Big Fork, or Big Sky and shoot a round of golf the next day.
Those adventurous enough to explore the national parks can find tours and hotels, or novice-friendly camping.
If you just want a good hang, try the cities of Bozeman or Whitefish (not nearby one-another, btw – more on that later), where food and accommodations are cheap and exceptional, and natural attractions are nearby in abundance, or Missoula, which borders some of the most beautiful valleys in the Rocky Mountains and sits mere 25 minutes away from the breathtaking Mission Mountain range.
Photo by Justin Brockie
Those in search of a deep historical experience will enjoy Butte, not to mention the hundreds of historical sites dotting the state from one end to another.
Before I go on, let’s get this out of the way: Rent A Car.
Related, don’t try to tackle the whole state in a single trip – you’ll spend the entire time in the car. Instead, choose the town that sits closest to the thing you want to do, and try to get a direct flight there.
Glacier Park is actually the name for the major airport of the town of Kalispell as the result of some smart branding, and it will put you dead-center of many of the state’s northern attractions (the Park itself, the Big Mountain ski resort, the towns of Kalispell, Big Fork, and Whitefish). If that’s too expensive, Missoula’s airport is a short two-hour drive, and puts you within day-trip reach of both the Bitterroot Valley and Mission Mountains.
The southwest corner of the state, including Yellowstone Park, the storied Paradise Valley, and the Big Sky resort, is reasonably easy to access from Bozeman’s Yellowstone Airport, another smart bit of branding. Two hours and change will put you in the center of Yellowstone Park via West Yellowstone.
Photo by Howard Hecht
During the summer, hiking and sightseeing are must-trys for novice visitors, and luckily every “urban” center we discuss offers state parks, national forests, and a range of hiking and walking trails, often within a few minutes’ drive.
More varsity travelers may enjoy a whitewater rafting trip, a guided horseback tour (on the expensive side), or – still on the tame side compared to the Alaskan version – a guided backpacking trip into the Bob Marshall wilderness.
During the winter, the skiing is the standout, and it’s here that Big Mountain and Big Sky resorts (and Bozeman’s Bridger Bowl as a more budget, and frankly more technical, alternative) really stand out. Sure, it’s a little colder than Colorado, but you’ll get a ski vacation the equal to Vail or Snowbird for a fraction of the price, and without needing a trip to Nieman Marcus before packing your bags.
In the upcoming series of articles, Chih-Yu and I will review a number of Montana attractions from the point-of-view of an urban couple, and look forward to showing you more of this amazing state.