Sometimes you just need a little space.
Montana has just that: thousands and thousands (and thousands) of glorious acres of it.
The winter may be all about skiing (and apres-ski hot tubbing) at Big Sky, but summer’s the best time to roam its great outdoors. Fly into Bozeman, rent a car, and head out on your Lewis and Clark expedition. Somehow, Montana miles feel longer than any others.
As you drive along Route 2, past grazing Black Angus and green mountains jutting up against endless blue sky, you’ll wonder where everyone is. The ranchers and local artists are in Willow Creek, just south of Three Forks, fueling up on honey-mustard ribs at the Willow Creek Cafe and Saloon (21 Main Street; 406-285-3698). You can’t miss the butter-yellow building; it’s the only joint in town.
Continue along the rushing Missouri River toward Ennis. When you come to a fork in the highway (look, this is what directions are like out there), choose the road less traveled and wind your way up to the Potosi Campground, at the base of the Tobacco Root Mountains. Excellent hiking and mountain biking.
For luxury in the wilderness, snag one of the four log cabins at Potosi Hot Springs Resort (888-685-1695; now closed). Commune with elk while you soak in the two natural springs, have a massage in the Mountain Flower Spa yurt, and eat dinner by the fire or al fresco on your porch. Owners Nick and Christine Kern are charmers: He’ll teach you to fly-fish; she’ll affix Robert Frost poems to your brown bag lunch. Head into Pony (year-round population 75) for a few pints of Moose Drool at the Pony Bar (108 Broadway; 406-685-3386).
Follow Route 287 back into the 1860s to Virginia City, a state-owned gold mining town most active from Memorial Day through Labor Day, where you’ll cruise the boardwalk and soak up local tales of the Old West. Perk up with an espresso at Metropolitan Market (213 West Wallace Street; 406-843-5282) and stock up on white huckleberry bark at Cousin’s Candy (217 West Wallace Street; 406-843-5371). Banditos (320 West Wallace Street; 406-843-5482) is a hopping Southwestern joint in the old Wells Fargo building. There’s no sign on the door; just look for the words “coffee house.”
Head back to Bozeman and ease into the twenty-first century at one of two Victorian B&B’s: The Olive Branch Inn (202 Lindley Place; 406-587-8403) and The Voss Inn (319 South Willson Avenue; 406-587-0982), which serves killer homemade cinnamon buns for breakfast. You’ll need the comfort food after a night of wine at Plonk (29 East Main Street; 406-587-2170) and pool at Montana Ale Works (611 East Main Street; 406-587-7700). While away the day browsing vintage vinyl at Vargo’s Jazz City & Books (6 West Main Street; 406-587-5383) and fantasize about how you’ll decorate your new second home with finds from Shack Up (109 North Rouse Avenue; 406-586-6336).
See? You’re already spoiled by all the elbow room.