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Montana is one of the most underrated destinations in the American West.It has mind-blowingly majestic scenery, rampant wildlife, and lots of opportunities to explore them both in the great outdoors.
It’s got the same quality of skiing as Colorado and Utah, but without the pretensions and high prices. And it has fresh food sourced from local farms and ranches, along with a growing number of microbreweries that churn out delicious craft beers.
With its endless miles of ski-able terrain, its serene snow-covered national parks, and its bizarre winter festivals, winter is one of the best times to visit Big Sky Country.
The state is about 147,000 square miles, and encompasses vast mountains, sweeping valleys, placid lakes, and roiling rivers. The scenery is, in a word, spectacular.
The state is covered in gorgeous mountains. In fact, it's named for it: Montana comes from the Spanish word montaña, meaning mountain. Some of the mountain ranges, like the Bitterroot, Absaroka, and Beartooth ranges, are part of the Rockies.
There's unparalleled downhill skiing — without the crowds, prices, or pretensions of other ski resorts.
When I visited Montana, I met a woman covered in beaver pelts who called herself 'the beaver lady,' a gruff man who wore a kilt all year round (even the most frigid winters), professional skiers, and tons of real-life cowboys.
They were all colourful characters full of life and enthusiasm for their state.
Montana residents are a bit kooky, so it's only fitting that their festivals are equally eccentric.
Montanans get very creative with their winter celebrations. Take, for example, Ski-Joring, a winter sport where a skier is pulled by a horse and rider around a snowy race track in a timed race. The World Ski-Joring Championships are held in Whitefish, Montana, each year in late January; this year it will take place from Jan. 25-26.
Other bizarre festivals are Cabin Fever Days and the barstool ski races at Martin City; furniture races in Whitefish (where residents attach skis to couches, chairs, refrigerators and other types of furniture and then race down the mountain on it); the Running of the Sheep in Reed Point (a giant sheep drive); and the Pond Skim in Big Sky (where costumed skiers ski down a mountain and land in a pool of water).
More and more microbreweries have been popping up around the state of Montana.
There are 32 breweries in Montana that manufacture 2,635,000 gallons of beer per year, according to the Montana Brewers Association. If you want to hit them all up, just grab a copy of their Brewery Trail Map and drink your way through the state.
Most breweries, like Neptune's Brewery in Livingston, have a tap room where you can sample the different beers in a low-key setting.
There's a growing movement to promote local, sustainable foods throughout the state, with more and more restaurants serving fresh food sourced from local farms.
The Western Sustainability Exchange, based in Livingston, connects farmers and ranchers with restaurants and consumers and promotes sustainability. Almost 20 restaurants participate in their Farm To Restaurant Connection program, including Chico Hot Springs, a resort which serves local specialties like smoked trout (pictured) and rack of lamb.
Though some may feel uneasy going dog sledding, the sport allows you to explore virgin snowy forests that would otherwise be inaccessible.
Dog sledding has really caught on in Montana: there are five outfitters that will arrange dog sledding excursions throughout Montana.
One of the best places to try your hand at mushing is in the Paradise Valley with Absaroka Dog Sled Treks, who take you on a 6-, 10-, or 18-mile trek through wooded mountain terrain.
In the summer, Montana's national parks are packed with tourists who scare away the wildlife. In the winter, you'll have the parks -- and their inhabitants -- to yourself.
The state's two biggest national parks, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, are serene in winter. Though some parts of the parks may be closed off to cars, you can visit them by snow shoe, cross-country skis, dog sled, or snow coach. In Yellowstone, you can even explore the snowy terrain by snowmobile.
On any given drive through the expanses of open road, you'll likely see herds of antelope gallivanting through fields, elk grazing, eagles soaring, or bison stubbornly blocking your path.
If you dig a little deeper and trek into back country or into unexplored parts of the national parks, you might see moose, coyotes, grizzly bears, and -- if you're really lucky -- bald eagles, grey wolves, or mountain lions.
Montana has millions of acres of public lands open to cross-country skiing, and more than 75 trails in national parks and forests.
There are 13 cross-country ski centres that offer their own private trail systems. Some of the most popular Nordic ski trails are Lone Mountain Ranch, Stillwater Mountain Lodge, Rendezvous Ski Trails, and Homestake Lodge.
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