Big Sky, Montana & Yellowstone National Park
For my 30th birthday I knew I wanted to get off the grid for a few days. Not out of fear of turning 30 - I’ve been waiting to be 30 my whole life - but I wanted to escape somewhere my husband and I could both relax AND have some amazing adventures.
We toyed around with a lot of ideas; from a 10-day Alaskan cruise to a quick trip up the coast to Big Sur, but nothing seemed to be quite right, until the day I stumbled upon Collective Retreats, a luxury camping resort with locations scattered across the country. The location that particularly peaked my interest was their retreat based in Big Sky, Montana, just an hour outside of Yellowstone National Park. Neither myself nor Mark had ever been to that part of the U.S. and with just a 2.5 hour flight from LA it felt like something we could manage in a long weekend.
Soon enough August rolled around and it was time for our departure - or so we thought. Our excitement was brought to a halt thanks to a 2-hour flight delay. Normally, this wouldn’t stress me out, but knowing that we would still have to pick up our rental car and drive a good hour into unfamiliar mountains, now presumably in the dark, was not putting my mind at ease.
Little did we know, that was just the beginning of our delays. We were stalled once again as we landed in Bozeman which only furthered our anxiety. Luckily, we made it out to Big Sky and down to the resort just as the last bit of sunlight was leaving the sky. The team members at Collective were very helpful and understanding. We originally had a BBQ-in-a-box dinner scheduled for that evening, which they happily cancelled for us free of charge due to our late arrival. The team also kindly waited for us to arrive, taking our bags once we reached the parking area and later directing us by flashlight to our cozy tent.
Collective does everything to provide all of the amenities of a luxury hotel while still allowing you to feel connected to the outdoors. After a long day of traveling we were ready to unwind and the cozy details that adorned the tent, like the Pendleton blankets, wood burning stove and Frette bathrobes made falling back into relaxation mode a breeze.
After a solid night’s sleep, we awoke early, snug in our king size bed under our heated blanket. It was hard to pull ourselves out from under the covers. The Montana mornings are fairly cool, even in August - but thankfully, our tent also came equipped with a fully functioning private bathroom and hot shower.
While our tent was certainly a highlight, I think my favorite part about our stay at Collective was the breakfasts. Every morning we’d head to the main Lodge, sit out on the front porch looking out at Lone Pine Mountain and plot out our day while sipping coffee and devouring delicious egg scrambles and blueberry pancakes.
Saturday - Yellowstone National Park
We decided to utilize our first day in the area to explore Yellowstone National Park. The West Yellowstone entrance is a beautiful 1 hr drive south on the 191 from Big Sky. We arrived around 10am - later than we had hoped - but we had a solid game plan, so we were feeling pretty confident that we could fit everything we wanted to see into this one day. We decided to follow the Lower Loop route. Unless you’re doing some back country hiking, most of your time spent in Yellowstone will be in the car. For this reason, I highly recommend downloading GyPSy Guide to your phone. It’s a great little tour guide app that uses GPS location aware technology to trigger commentary points along the route. It was like having our own personal tour guide in the car with us! If you’re looking for a great 1-day itinerary for Yellowstone, follow along below…
10 am - Park Entrance to Madison Junction
The line to get into the park was pretty reasonable. As of August 2018 there was an entrance fee of $25. As we entered the park, we were pleasantly surprised by the lack of traffic. We’d heard nightmare stories of endless lines of cars, but sure enough after driving about 30 minutes we came upon our first Yellowstone traffic jam. We moved pretty slowly for a while, wondering what could possibly be causing such a slow down, when finally, after moving about 1mph for 15 minutes, we realized the hold up was due to some Elk that other motorists had spotted. This was our first, and would certainly not be our last animal jam of the day - if you’re heading to the park this is something you too should be prepared for!
11 am - Firehole Falls (15-20 mins)
Our first stop inside the park was quick detour out to Firehole Falls. As you drive into the park, you’ll come to a Madison Junction, if you’re following the Lower Loop route, take a right toward Madison. Not far after this junction is Firehole Canyon Drive. As you continue up the road, you’ll eventually come to some pull outs and a small parking area available across from the falls. You can also find more parking up the road at the swimming area. The Firehole River plunges 40 feet over the Firehole Falls just before it intersects up with the Gibbon River at Madison Junction. Firehole Falls are surrounded by extremely steep rhyolitic rock cliffs that make up the Firehole Canyon. This little stop seemed to be lesser known, lightly trafficked and a beautiful way to kick off our morning.
11:45 am - Fountain Paint Pot (30 mins)
Our first geyser sighting of the day! This stop was really interesting because you get to see a little bit of all the different hydrothermal features that are scattered throughout the park. Along this short trail you will find geysers, hot springs, mud pots and fumaroles.
Our first stop on this trail was the Celestine Spring. This was the first spring we had a close view of on our trip, and we were in complete awe of it’s insanely bright blue coloring annnd it’s sulfuric stink.
Next on the trail we made our way to Fountain Paint Pot. This is one of many mud pots you can see in the park. In late summer, while we were at the park, the mud pots were fairly thick and as the sounds they emit as the air bubbles up to the surface is amazing.
Lastly, we saw Clepsydra Geyser and Spasm Geyser. Clepsydra got it’s namesake from the Greek word for Watch Clock. Apparently, it used to erupt every three minutes, but then after an earthquake in the 50s, the geology under the surface changed, and it now erupts regularly without pause. Spasm, seen just in front of Clepsydra, is a deep blue bubbly geyser - one of our favorites in the park, maybe just because of it’s great name.
12 pm - Midway Geyser Basin (1-2 hr)
This was the stop I had been waiting for because it’s home to the beautiful Grand Prismatic Spring. This is an extremely popular spot in the park. Getting into the parking area to find a spot took about 15 minutes, but we prevailed, and made our way out to the boardwalk trail that winds it’s way past Excelsior Geyser (which is one of the largest geysers in the park) over to an up close and personal view of Grand Prismatic Spring.
The colors of Grand Prismatic Spring are simply mesmerizing. The saturated bands of orange, yellow and green that encircle the deep blue waters of the spring are created by heat-loving bacteria. You could stand here for hours just staring at the surreal colors and massive size of this hot spring.
There are several other geysers along the boardwalk trail of the Midway Geyser Basin. One of our favorites to watch was Excelsior Geyser Crater. At one point in time it was an active geyser that erupted frequently - today, it is believed that the powerful eruptions damaged its internal plumbing system, and now is considered a productive hot spring that pours thousands of gallons of water every minute into the Firehole River.
Now, if you want an even better view of Grand Prismatic Spring, the secret is to get back in your car and head up the road until you reach the next turn off for Fairy Falls Trailhead. If you take this trail up to the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook and you will not be disappointed by this gorgeous birds eye perspective of the massive spring below.
2:30 pm - Old Faithful Inn + Old Faithful (1 hr)
We decided it was time to eat, and obviously wanted to catch a glimpse of the most famous geothermal sight in the park, Old Faithful. First thing we did was check for the next estimated time of eruption, which on this day was 3:15 pm. We had 45 minutes to eat, so we popped inside Old Faithful Inn (which is a sight itself) and had a quick bite. We were pushing it for time, but managed to get out to the Geyser viewpoint by 3:10 for and early eruption at 3:12 pm.
If you have more time, you can wander the boardwalks here and explore other amazing geysers. We were strapped for daylight, so we enjoyed ourselves as we watched Old Faithful burst 100s of feet into the sky just like clockwork.
4 pm - Kepler Cascades (15 mins)
Just as we thought we were getting back on the road, about 2 miles past Old Faithful there was an opportunity to pull off and catch a glimpse of the beautiful Kepler Cascades. This three-tiered cascade falls more than 50 ft. into the Firehole River. Again, a low trafficked spot, it’s a nice place to pull off and get some peace and quiet - especially after all the crowds we encountered at Old Faithful.
5pm - Hayden Valley
We were doing great on time, making our way past Yellowstone Lake into the Hayden Valley area when suddenly there was an abrupt halt in traffic. As we crawled along, we finally came to a meadow were we realized there was a big heard of Bison grazing… annnd hanging out in the middle of a road. We were trapped in a Bison Jam!
Our arrival to Yellowstone also also coincided with the middle of the Bison Rut season. The rut begins in late July and goes through August. The males display their dominance by loudly bellowing, wallowing, and fighting other males. Once a male has found a female who is close to estrus, he will stay by her side (stage-5 clinger much?) until she is ready to mate with him. It was amazing to look out our car windows and see the rut happening right in front of us. The sound of the bulls bellowing and flopping around in the dirt was insane. As we slowly made our way through the valley, we had multiple bison walk RIGHT in front our car. It was incredible - but also nerve-racking, both because these animals are HUGE and intimidating, but also because we were losing daylight and I was still desperate to get to Artist Point to see the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.
6 pm - Artist Point | Grand Canyon of Yellowstone (30 mins)
Aside from Grand Prismatic Spring, Artist Point was one place I was dying to see. We made it just in time - right as Golden Hour was setting in we pulled into the parking lot. Unfortunately, this was also where we realized at some point that afternoon someone had backed into our rental car, leaving a massive dent in our bumper and hatchback. It was super disappointing to be walking up to this beautiful vista point, with the idea that we were going to have to deal with our insurance looming in the back of our heads. But this view is something else. I thought the Grand Canyon in Arizona was the most beautiful landscape I had ever seen to date, but Yellowstone’s version just might surpass it.
6:45 pm - Brink of the Upper Falls (20 mins)
We decided to make one final pit-stop to see the Brink of the Upper Falls. We took a turn up a short road located between the North and South Rim Drives that lead us up to a parking lot where we took a short walk to the brink of the 109 ft. Upper Falls, which is also the beginning of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
This was a great way to end our day. As the sun was setting lower in the sky, the crowds were beginning to dwindle and we mostly had this spot to ourselves.
8 pm - 9pm - Back to Big Sky
There was still so much to be seen in the park, but we decided to call it a day around 7pm, and head back to the West Entrance. We arrived at the entrance around 8pm and popped back on the 191 back North toward Big Sky. On our ride back home, we noticed a fire that had grown in the mountains to our left. On our way down in the morning, it was very small and it seemed as though to be under control, but heading back we realized the fire had tripled in size and was putting out a LOT of smoke. It was a little concerning, but we made it back to Big Sky safe and sound.
Unfortunately, nothing in Big Sky stays open past 9 pm (at least not in the Summer) - not even the grocery stores! We managed to sneak into the Hungry Moose Market & Deli just before they closed up shop and snagged a couple of their pre-made wraps. Not a very exciting dinner, but at least it was something. After a long day of driving and sight seeing we were pooped. I picked up a Yellowstone Ghost Story book at one of the gift-shops and we read that until our eyes grew heavy and we fell asleep once again, in our comfy bed.
Sunday - Exploring Big Sky
Sunday morning we awoke early, ready to explore the local area of Big Sky that surrounds Collective Retreat. As we unzipped the front door to our tent and stepped out on to our patio, we noticed a thick blanket of smoke was covering the sky. What was usually a prominent Lone Mountain in the towering above the resort was now just a blurry shadow looming in the distance. The faint smell of burning wood was in the air - and it wasn’t from last night’s s’more campfire - the wild fire we had past on the highway Saturday had continued to grow. We weren’t in any immediate danger, but we heard some neighboring towns were being evacuated, which put us a bit on edge.
Our original plan was to head into Big Sky and take one of the Ski Lifts up to Lone Mountain for a more strenuous hike, but with the impending fires and heavy amount of smoke in the air, we decided it was best to do something closer to our home base and a little less strenuous on the lungs. While we sipped our coffee and ate our tasty scrambles I consulted my All Trails app to see what other adventures we could find in the area. After scrolling for a bit I came across Ousel Falls Trail, and upon doing a little reading and discussing it with some of the Collective staff we decided it was our best move.
We scheduled ahead of time for Collective to prepare us lunch boxes to-go - a sandwich, chips, orange and cookie - so we picked up our boxes before heading out to find the Ousel Falls Trailhead. One thing we hadn’t anticipated was how popular this trail would be on a Sunday afternoon. Parking was a little tricky - there is a nice lot, but it was packed to the brim with massive Suburbans and families rolling six deep who happened to have the same idea as us.
The 1.6 mile trail to Ousel Falls very well maintained and perfect for all skill levels - which makes sense as to why this is such a popular spot for families. The Gallatin river runs right along the trail and there are plenty of opportunities to climb down and enjoy the flowing river. The falls at the end of the trail are gorgeous and if you walk down the stone steps to the base of the falls there's a lovely pool to dip your feet or swim.
After we spent some time relaxing by the falls we decided it was time to head back up to the resort. One amazing amenity that comes along with your stay with Collective Retreats Yellowstone is that you have access to Moonlight Basin Community perks, like the pool, hot tub, fitness center, and local hiking and biking trail network. Guests also have access to Ulery’s Lake, where there is a beach and dock stocked with canoes, paddle-boards, kayaks and concessions. We had yet to take advantage of this little perk, so we decided to head down and check it out.
The air quality was still pretty poor, but we decided to grab a couple beers and hit the lake by canoe nonetheless. I honestly hadn’t been in a canoe since I was a 19 year old camp counselor, so there was something exciting and nostalgic about it - unfortunately, our time on the lake was cut short by a thunder storm. We quickly paddled back to shore, returned our oars and jumped back in the car as the rain began to pour and thunder cracked around all around us.
Feeling a little dejected, we headed back down the hill to our tent. We laid listening to the rain pitter patter on the canvas above our bed, and then decided to make the most of this extra down time we suddenly had. We managed to make a reservation at a local restaurant, Horn and Cantle on Lone Mountain Ranch, just down the hill from Collective Retreats. Finally! A real hot meal. Our dinner did not disappoint - the atmosphere was beautiful, the dinner delicious and the little bit of wine was the perfect way to celebrate our last night in Montana.
We wrapped up dinner just before sundown and to our excitement the smoke had seemingly cleared from the air and a beautiful sunset was underway. We stuck around Lone Mountain Ranch for a bit, making friends with the horses and gaping at how stunning the ranch was in the golden hour light. With our spirits restored, we finally made our way back to the resort, ready for our fireside s’more dessert and excited that, by some miracle, we’d be able to catch a glimpse of the Perseid Meteor shower.
I could not have asked for a better way to spend my birthday. My only regret is that it couldn’t last longer! And while the trip had it’s challenges - from flight delays and fender benders to thunderstorms and wild fires - it seemed impossible to be in a bad mood while we were surrounded by such natural beauty.