Photo: Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock

How to Enjoy Winter in Montana When You Don't Ski or Snowboard

Montana Ski and Snow National Parks
by Eben Diskin Dec 9, 2021

When you tell people you’re visiting Montana in winter, it’s pretty much assumed you’re going on a ski trip. But that assumption isn’t just unfair to you — it’s unfair to Montana itself. Sure, the state is an epic ski destination, but don’t let that overshadow the other winter pastimes Montana has to offer.

Ski trips are cool and all, but a skijoring adventure through snow-covered wilderness? Dog sledding through the wilds of Big Sky Country? Plowing through beers, not fresh snow, at breweries with dramatic mountain views? That’s what a real Montana winter is all about. So go ahead, hit the slopes if you want, but if you don’t ski — don’t worry. You’ll find plenty to do in Montana come winter.

Skiing is just the beginning

Skiing might be the most mainstream winter sport, but it’s far from the only adrenaline-pumping way to enjoy winter in Montana. One of the most fun may be dogsledding, which the state proves isn’t just for far-flung Alaskan and Scandinavian adventurers. In Big Sky country, you can take a dog-sled tour through the beautiful country between Yellowstone National Park and the town of Bozeman. You’ll get to both mush the dogs and spend time in the sled just enjoying the ride. For something a bit more rural, head to the small town of Olney, where Dog Sled Adventures will take you on a 12-mile trail through the foothills of the Whitefish Range in the Stillwater State Forest. On both adventures, you’ll get time to meet the dogs and take some pictures with the friendly pooches.

Snow Dog Super Mush Dog Sled Race

Photo: Niall Dune/Shutterstock

When you think of fishing in Montana, you might conjure images of a deep blue mountain lake under a vast sky, with fishers in waders gathered around the shoreline. It’s a pretty accurate image, except when it comes to winter in Montana, when the lakes are frozen and the shoreline is covered in a few feet of snow. But if you’re up for a bit of adventure, fishing is still a viable activity. It might not sound quite as relaxing as fishing in a warm lake under the sun, but ice fishing is a fact of life in the country’s northernmost climes. Flathead Lake Charters offers guided ice fishing excursions near Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort and provides guests with a shelter to keep them (reasonably) warm on the lake. And if you have a successful day, they’ll fillet your catch so you can enjoy the fruits of your labor for dinner. There are also plenty of great ice fishing spots in southern Montana, like those at Georgetown Lake, Hauser Lake, and Clark Canyon Reservoir.

Taking a mountain bike for a spin is generally out of the question during a Montana winter, but that’s okay — just rent a fat bike. The increasingly popular fat-biking trend is making winter trails accessible for bikers. And no, it’s not a pejorative term. Fat biking refers to bicycles with larger, thicker tires (usually at least 3 inches wide) with enough grip and weight dispersion to maintain some degree of control on slippery surfaces, like snow. The Whitefish Bike Retreat offers rentals and winter access to the 22-mile Whitefish Trail. If you’re a first-timer, take it slow to enjoy the scenic ride through the woods with views of the lakes and mountains.

Two bicyclists ride fat tire bikes across a frozen Flathead lake

Photo: Scott Wilson Photography/Shutterstock

If you really just wrap your head around the idea of going to Montana in winter and not skiing, there’s always skijoring. The name, as you might guess, comes from a Norwegian word that roughly translates to “steering skis.” You might not have heard of skijoring before, but it’s a favorite in Montana. Skiers are pulled by horses or dogs through a course with jumps and various obstacles as they compete for the fastest time. The Paws Up Resort in Greenough offers a training course for amateurs to try their hand at skijoring. If you’d rather watch from afar, an annual skijoring competition (the World Skijoring Invitational) is held in Whitefish every January.

Explore the winter wilderness

Montana is known as Big Sky Country, yet arguably it’s most impressive feature isn’t the sky at all — it’s the vast, unspoiled landscapes unparalleled in stunning natural beauty. Glacier and Yellowstone national parks are two of the most scenic parks not only in Montana, but the whole national park system. And perhaps contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t have to be summer for you to take a national park trip (especially if you want to avoid the crowds!)

 Early winter in Glacier National Park, Montana, USA

Photo: Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock

Yes, six inches of snow does complicate a hike through a national park. But snow is actually essential for one of Montana’s most fun outdoor winter activities: snowshoeing. Trekking through the valleys of Yellowstone or Glacier on snowshoes with the mountains in the distance, takes hiking to a new level of epic. For the truly daring, Glacier Adventure Guides offers multi-day snowshoeing and cross-country skiing tours, where guests sleep in tents by night and go on rugged excursions by day. There are also several do-it-yourself ski trails, like McDonald Falls Trail and Sacred Dancing Cascades Trail in Glacier, and Cascade Lake Ski Trail and Old Canyon Bridge Ski Trail in Yellowstone. You can rent snowshoes from ski rental shops in towns if you don’t have your own.

Another way to experience Montana’s great outdoors is by simply staying in a backcountry lodge. The Downing Mountain Lodge on the edge of the Lolo National Forest sits 2,000 feet above the Bitterroot Valley, putting it in a perfect location for backcountry skiing and snowshoeing. The surrounding terrain ranges from steep alpine bowls to calmer, flatter glades for all skill levels, so you can fully enjoy the area’s wilderness at a more leisurely pace if you’re just starting to build your cross-country ski skills.

Warm up with a local brew

What better way to warm up on a cold Montana winter night than by throwing back one or two (or so) locally brewed beers? Montana’s brewery scene has been exploding recently, and you can find quality local beers in pretty much every major city in the state. Billings is especially known for its breweries and the Billings Brewery Trail covers six breweries, a ciderie, and two distilleries in a roughly 10-block loop. If you’re looking to spend a fair chunk of time tasting all things hoppy, stout, and sour during your trip, base yourself near Billings.

Uberbrew in Billings, MT

Photo: Uberbrew Facebook/Shutterstock

Überbrew is one of the trail’s standouts, winning both the Great American Beer Festival’s Small Brewery of the Year award and the Brewer of the Year Award in 2016. It’s known for its White Noise wheat and Alpha Force Double Tap black ale, and, as their name might belie, their huge German-style pretzels.

Next door is Carter’s Brewery, which likely has the most beers on tap in all of Billings. Their tasting room is an old train station, so if you’re looking for ambiance while you sip, this is the place to go. But liquor lovers aren’t totally out of luck on the brew trail, either, thanks to Undammed Distilling Co., a craft distillery that produced bourbon, gin, vodka, and single-malt whiskey. The best part? A portion of every sale goes to conserving the Yellowstone River, so you can drink completely guilt-free.

Shake the chill in a hot spring

Sure, a few beers may help you relax, but it’s a fine line between relaxed and hungover. To unwind without the unfortunate aftereffects, visit one of Montana’s therapeutic natural hot springs. Norris Hot Springs in the Madison River Valley is perfect for road trippers and vanlifers, with several campsites and hookups for RVs. The group of mineral springs is called the “Water of the Gods.” Heated to 120 degrees by day, the pool is emptied each night using the same gate valve installed by miners in the 1880s; a nod to the site’s long history. The property also has a bar and grill plus live music every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Chico Hot Springs, MT

Photo: Chico Hot Springs Facebook/Shutterstock

Chico Hot Springs Resort should also be on your list of must-stop winter attractions in Montana. Just north of Yellowstone in the Paradise Valley, this resort invites guests to stay in either a private log cabin or an old train caboose furnished with a fireplace, bathtub, and other comfortable amenities. Surrounded by mountains and just a short drive from Yellowstone National Park, the resort is perfect for those looking for an upscale spa retreat coupled with a more rugged wilderness experience. The property has two open-air, geothermally heated mineral pools for guest use, though non-guests can buy day passes if they’re just passing through.

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