Sweet Grass Staycation

Flanked by the Absaroka-Beartooths and the Crazy Mountains, the town of Big Timber sits at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Boulder rivers, serving as a great starting point for a multi-day adventure. It’s a quiet, historic town that welcomes guests with signs for fishing and hiking right off of First Avenue. From First, drive 3.5 miles to the Big Rock access to fish the Boulder. “It’s a fairly quick, steep-gradient river that’s great for wading, and its banks offer plenty of trails and campgrounds,” says Steve Pauli, the owner of Sweet Cast Anglers, a local outfitter that has led expeditions since 1986. “It’s a lot like the Gallatin. Probably a little steeper, but pretty darn similar in size and characteristics.”

Adventurous boaters can put in at Big Rock and, after a short float, find themselves rolling into the mighty Yellowstone. William Clark and Sacajawea camped near this confluence in July 1806, which makes for a pleasant thought while paddling or casting on a warm spring day. Additional put-in sites exist all along the Boulder; the farther up the valley you go, the harder and more technical the river gets, especially during spring runoff. Plan accordingly.

If you’re looking for a day hike or some rock climbing, check out the impressive geologic formations of Natural Bridge, about 25 miles south of Big Timber off MT Hwy. 298. For most of the year, the river plunges underground through the limestone bedrock into a large pool below—but in the spring, the snowmelt-swollen Boulder forms a dramatic 100-foot waterfall. There’s a paved walkway leading to scenic views, and day hikers can cross a bridge to access the Green Mountain Trail, a moderate hike with opportunities to spot wildlife and enjoy an abundance of wildflowers. The gorge itself is also filled with dozens of bolted rock climbs, ranging from walk-ups to some of the hardest routes in the state. Campgrounds are scattered along the upper part of the Boulder Valley, offering a convenient place to pitch a tent regardless of where you end up at sundown.

On the north side of Big Timber rises the impressive eastern front of the Crazy Mountains. Spring tends to come late in this rugged terrain, and overprotective private landowners keep public access to a minimum, but one area worth checking out is Big Timber Creek. Drive north of town on U.S. Hwy. 191, then turn on Big Timber Canyon Road and head toward the mountains. Park at Half-Moon Campground and, depending on conditions, walk, snowshoe, or skin your way up to Big Timber Creek Falls, a massive chute of whitewater that draws extreme kayakers from around the country. If you’ve got the stamina and ambition, continue upward toward Crazy Peak or one of the many alpine lakes in the area. Twin Lakes and Blue Lake are close and offer stunning alpine views.

After your excursion in the Crazies, head back into Big Timber for a taste of old Montana. It’s all about family and frontier in this community of 1,600, where western storefronts and old saloons color downtown. If you’re hungry from the day’s toil, near the train yard stands the Thirsty Turtle Tavern & Grill, serving a giant walleye sammy or stacked half-pound mushroom-Swiss burger. Or visit the Grand Hotel, which stands like a red-brick beacon on McLeod Street. Since 1890, the hotel has offered lodging, meals, and spirits to cowboys, travelers, railroad men, miners, and many more. Quaint local shops allow you to snag souvenirs or stock up for the next day’s activities. 

If you enjoy history, the outdoors, and hospitality, it’s well worth the short drive from Bozeman. Old barns, horses at pasture, trains, and weathered grain silos line the horizon along the road to Big Timber.

The mountains and rivers aren’t the only source of fun around Big Timber. Check out these community events this spring and discover the social side of Sweet Grass County. 

Mountain Museum Festival – Big Timber’s only museum opens for the summer season, with music, raffles, food, and the first opportunity to view the new season’s exhibits, including the Lewis & Clark Montana Native Plant Garden. 932-5126.

Big Timber Gun Show – vendors and buyers come from all over the Northwest to attend the annual gun show at the Big Timber Civic Center. In addition to guns, you’ll find art, antiques, books, clothing, and jewelry for sale. 932-4151.

Big Timber Rodeo – this NRA/NWRA sanctioned event includes calf roping, steer wrestling, bull riding, barrel racing, and a crowd favorite: cow riding. Bring the whole family to this fun spectator event. 932-6228.

Sweet Grass Fest – in conjunction with the rodeo, this event features fun family activities all over town, including street vendors and country cooking, a 5k walk/run and 10k run, a car show, and horse-drawn wagon rides. 932-5131.