Winter in Montana is a harsh but magical season. A winter hush descends upon a landscape so cold that even sound seems frozen. But for those well equipped and with a certain level of experience, Montana offers incredible ways to get out and explore its stunningly beautiful mountain terrain.
Whitefish and the surrounding Flathead Valley is unbeatable for almost every kind of winter activity, as is the Gallatin Valley between Big Sky and West Yellowstone. For pristine backcountry skiing and snowmobiling, plus access to Yellowstone National Park, remote Cooke City is a great in-the-know destination.
1. Snowshoe, ski and spot wolves in Yellowstone National Park
Winter is many people's favorite season to visit Yellowstone National Park. There are almost no crowds, the geysers are at their steamiest and the frozen landscapes are simply stunning.
Yellowstone National Park has two main areas to visit in winter. From West Yellowstone, snowcoach tours shuttle to Old Faithful, from where you can make ski or snowshoe excursions around the park's geyser basins, before a hot chocolate and overnight at the cozy Snow Lodge.
Further north, the park entrance at Gardiner and its road to Cooke City are the only ones open to cars during winter. This opens up a host of snowshoe and cross-country ski trailheads around the Mammoth region, some of which are served by snowcoach drops.
Planning Tip: The wildlife spotting in Yellowstone is legendary in winter because it's easier to spot animals against the white background. For an unforgettable opportunity to lock eyes with a Yellowstone wolf, sign up for a wildlife-spotting trip with an expert local company like Yellowstone Wolf Tracker.
2. Snowmobile the Targhee or Flathead National Forests
It may not be the most environmentally friendly activity (with access to places like Yellowstone National Park long mired in controversy), but if you are a confident rider, there's no more exciting way to traverse Montana's epic scenery than on a snowmobile.
Cooke City is one of the most remote towns in Montana, with only one access road in winter (through Yellowstone National Park), but once you get there, the snowmobiling is incredible. Rentals and guides are available in town, and groomed Forest Service roads climb to passes that offer astonishing views of the powder-filled Beartooth Mountains.
As the gateway for winter trips into Yellowstone, West Yellowstone is also well set up for snowmobilers, who can choose from hundreds of miles of spectacular trails in the nearby Targhee National Forest.
Other must-ride locations include the 250 miles of trails at Lolo Pass in the Bitterroot Mountains southwest of Missoula, or the Flathead National Forest near Glacier National Park, where you can rent snowmobiles or join a tour with Swan Mountain Snowmobiling.
3. Watch the curious sport of skijoring
Combine Montana's cowboy heritage with its Norwegian immigrant history and you get skijoring, in which a skier is towed by a horse over a series of jumps and through slaloms at speeds of up to 40mph. It's the kind of sport that feels like it was invented during a night of heavy drinking. Expect high adrenaline and some slightly silly action.
Planning Tip: For spectators the best action is to be found at Whitefish's World Skijoring Invitational in January or at West Yellowstone's National Championship in February. Alternatively, try Big Sky's Best of the West competition in the same month or the skijoring finals held during Red Lodge's Winter Fest in early March.
4. Ski untrammeled slopes from a backcountry yurt or hut
Montana has some mind-blowing backcountry skiing, but it's the kind of terrain reserved for experienced skiers, and it doesn't come cheap. That said, it's an unforgettable experience to ski powder-filled slopes all day, only to return to your private wilderness accommodations miles from civilization.
Several companies offer backcountry accommodations and guides. You can base yourself in cozy yurts with Yurtski in the Swan Mountains, with Big Sky Backcountry Guides in the Bitterroot Mountains or with Beartooth Powder Guides in Cooke City. All offer a range of avalanche and backcountry skiing courses, which are a wise investment.
Hellroaring Powder Guides has both unguided and guided backcountry skiing from their hut in the Centennial Mountains, 25 miles from West Yellowstone.
Great Northern Powder Guides in the Whitefish region offers the only Cat skiing in the state, using their 14-person cabin as a base for incredible, pristine descents.
Planning Tip: The cheapest way to do some gentler cross-country backcountry skiing is to hire a Forest Service Cabin. For $65 you can get a basic cabin for four, though you'll need to chop wood and pack in all your food.
5. Learn how to mush on a dog sled trip
It's hard to think of a more romantic way to traverse Montana's snow-draped winter forests and valleys than in a dog-powered sled. Apart from the thrill of the scenery and learning how to mush, getting to interact with the dogs is a highlight in itself.
Several outfitters offer hands-on dog sledding trips. In western Montana, try Base Camp Bigfork in the Flathead Valley, Winter Woods Dog Sled Tours outside Whitefish or nearby Dog Sled Adventures. Closer to Bozeman, check out Yellowstone Dog Sled Adventures in the southern Gallatin Valley or Spirit of the North Dog Sled Adventures in Big Sky.
6. Try out fat biking on the Whitefish Trail
A fat bike is essentially a mountain bike equipped with chunky double-width tires for riding on packed snow. The increasingly popular sport extends the biking season, opens up whole swatches of winter terrain to non-skiers and allows you to push your riding. Don't worry about wiping out – the snow will cushion your fall.
The 22-mile Whitefish Trail is one of the best places for snow biking in the state. The trailside Whitefish Bike Retreat, 9 miles west of Whitefish, offers fat bike rentals, groomed trail access and accommodations, plus lots of trail advice and occasional three-day fat biking clinics.
7. Ski the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park
Montana has an almost unlimited choice of Nordic trails across the state. West Yellowstone, Bozeman, Big Sky, Missoula, Red Lodge and Great Falls all offer Nordic ski centers with plentiful groomed trails. In Whitefish, try the Glacier Nordic Center or Big Mountain Nordic Trails, the latter best suited to more experienced skiers.
For something special, visit Glacier National Park in winter. Most park roads and accommodations close in winter, but you can ski or snowshoe from Lake McDonald Lodge near Apgar on the western side of the park, or along the Going-to-the-Sun Road from St Mary on the eastern side. Remote wilderness trails lead into the park from Polebridge ranger station and Marias Pass.