This post is sponsored by Central Montana tourism region.
I am always dreaming of the perfect Montana winter vacation. The kind that is full of outdoor activities, cozy lodging, and tasty meals. I aim to combine two of my favorite Scandinavian words: friluftsliv and hygge.
Friluftsliv, a Norwegian concept, translates roughly to “open-air living” or “free air life.” While hygge means something like “cozy” or “conviviality.” Combine the two and you get one of the best Montana winter vacations full of outdoor adventures and cozy evenings.
The Perfect Montana Winter Vacation
For this Montana vacation, we went a little north of home to White Sulphur Springs. Using this charming Montana small town as a base camp, we ventured out to loop around the Castle Mountains on a cultural tour of Meagher County (pronounced, Mar County), cross-country skied at Silver Crest Winter Recreation Area, hiked in the Little Belt Mountains, and warmed up in the hot springs at White Sulphur Springs’ Spa Hotel. Of course, we sipped hot chocolate and cold beers with yummy dinners in town.
Visiting Montana During the Pandemic
If you are traveling in Montana during the Covid-19 pandemic, there are a few things to remember in order to travel responsibly.
- Plan Ahead: check for closures and have backup plans.
- Keep Space: always give people space and wear a mask when you can’t.
- Be Respectful: of guidelines, the land, and other people.
- Protect the Outdoors: Minimize impact and give wildlife space.
It’s pretty basic — be a good guest. We love having visitors here in Montana and we ask that you respect the people who live here, our public health, and our spectacular outdoors. You can read more about the Montana Aware program here.
Montana Winter Vacation in White Sulphur Springs and the Castle and Little Belt Mountains
Day One — Meagher County Cultural Auto Tour and Elephant Rock Hike
- Meagher County Art and Culture Trail
- Elephant Rock Hike
- Stageline Pizza
- White Sulphur Springs Hot Springs
Like all the best Montana winter getaways, this tour through Central Montana started with a road trip.
We printed the Meagher County Art and Cultural Trail map and set out on the 1.5 – 2 hour auto tour loop. The cultural loop includes historic sites, barn quilts, performing artists, and other works of art. We focused on viewing the barn quilts and noted a few of the other stops.
We had a little trouble finding some of the barn quilts and saw others that weren’t on the map, but overall it was a good starting point for exploring the area.Whenever we stopped at one of the quilt squares (most of them are on fences or other non-barn locations) we were wowed by the back drop of rolling ranch lands, willow choked creek bottoms, and the Castle, Crazy, and Little Belt Mountain Ranges.
The Meagher County Chamber of Commerce also has interactive maps on their site, but a lot of the route is without cell service, so you can’t really use it while you are traveling.
Side Trips: Find out if the Crazy Mountain Inn in Martinsdale is open. This is a “must-eat” stop on the Central Montana Pie Trail. Their homemade pie is so good.
If you travel the Cultural Tour between Memorial Day and Labor Day, add the Bair Museum to your itinerary. We’ve visited a couple times. The art exhibitions are world class and it’s so interesting to tour the Bair Family house.
Read This: Ivan Doig’s memoir, This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind, is set in and around White Sulphur Springs. He grew up there with his father – a sheepherder, ranch manager, and all around hard worker . Doig’s descriptions of the landscape and the people of Meagher County are stunning and so lovely to read while you are there. There are stops on the Art and Culture Tour related to this book and his life there.
We took a break from barn quilts to take a walk to Elephant Rock in the Little Belt Mountains. I read that you can access this trail year round, but I imagine the road gets a little tough to travel if there is a lot of snow. It does stay low, so it could be possible to get to the Elephant Rock Trailhead all winter.
The Elephant Rock Trail is short (0.5 miles each way) and pretty steep in places. The trail is easy to follow and the view across to the Crazy Mountains is stunning. In fact, the view in every direction is lovely. The rock takes a little imagination to transform into an elephant, but it does.
Getting to Elephant Rock Trailhead: From Martinsdale drive north 2 miles on MT-294 E and turn left on US 12 W. After 17.3 miles, turn right (north) onto Spring Creek Road. At about 7.7 miles (4 miles beyond the Spring Creek Campground) look for a small trail marker and old road on the right. Pull off the road and park.
The Elephant Rock itself is not at the end of the trail as one online description claims. Both the trailhead and the rock are in the wrong place on Google Maps. I made this little map for you so you can easily find it.
After the hike to Elephant Rock we continued checking out barn quilts until we arrived in White Sulphur Springs and the Spa Hot Springs Motel. We checked in and figured out our dinner plans.
We settled on takeaway pizza from Stageline Pizza and ate in our room. Many White Sulphur Springs restaurants are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays in winter, and others were having private Christmas parties; we felt lucky to find a place that was open. And the pizza was good!
Other White Sulphur Springs restaurants that I recommend are The Jawbone – a speakeasy-style eatery and cocktail lounge, Bar 47 — where we ate the second night, and the Branding Iron Cafe — a typical diner where you will eat with locals. We also love the 2 Basset Brewery for local beer.
After dinner, we went straight to the hot springs to soak in the hot water and admire the murals that surround the pool area.
You can pay a day rate to soak in the hot springs pool if you aren’t staying in the motel, but use of the pools is included in the room rate. We got two rooms and the boys’ room overlooked the pool, which was great because we could peak out the window and see when the pools were the least crowded to plan our soak.
White Sulphur Hot Springs, Montana consists of three pools — two large outdoor pools and a very hot indoor pool/sauna. The main swimming pool is the coolest, though still very warm, and this is where most of the kids and families play. The hotter outdoor pool has a little waterfall and five nooks, which are perfect for families or friend groups to soak with a little distance between themselves and other people in the pool. This is where I hang out.
I think the best places to visit in Montana during the winter are hot springs and you can see almost 30 Montana hot springs in this post.
Day Two — Cross-Country Skiing and Waterfall Watching
- Silver Crest Winter Recreation Area
- Memorial Falls
- Bar 47
- White Sulphur Springs Spa Hotel
Henry and I started the day with a soak in the hot springs with the stars still overhead while the boys slept in. A light snow was falling and it felt so cozy in the hot water. We even had the pool to ourselves for a little bit.
As we drove into the Little Belt Mountains the snow continued to fall. We passed one of our favorite Montana Forest Service cabins — the Kings Hill Cabin. There are a lot of Montana vacation rentals, but a Forest Service Cabin is a unique experience somewhere between a house and camping.
Side Trip: If downhill skiing is more your speed, spend a day at Showdown Montana atop Kings Hill Pass. This family-friendly ski area has one triple chair, two double chairs, one surface conveyor, and the friendliest people around. Personally, I love Montana’s small ski areas even more than the big ones and think Showdown is one of the best family ski resorts in Montana.
The Silver Crest Winter Recreation Area is just downhill from Kings Hill Pass. The cross-country ski and snowshoe trails are open to the public. It’s such a serene spot to kick and glide through the snow-covered trees.
We’ve skied here a handful of times since the kids were babies. In fact, the first time we visited, we pulled Anders in a ski trailer. Now, I can barely keep up with him. Our Montana family vacation hasn’t changed much in location for many years, but the logistics sure have shifted.
Besides the sylvan wonderland and great views from some high points, one of my favorite things about skiing here are the warming huts. These three-sided structures have benches for sitting and a wood campfire stove just out front. And wood, paper, and matches are at the ready for a winter fire. It doesn’t get much more friluftsliv or hygge than that.
You can print a trail map before you go or grab one from the kiosk when you arrive. There’s always a chance the kiosk could be empty, but you can take a photo of the map when you get there and maps are posted strategically throughout the trail system.
No dogs or snowmobiles are allowed on the trail system, and snowshoes are not allowed on the groomed ski trails. There are special trails just for snowshoeing. Find the latest grooming conditions on the Silver Crest Trails Association site.
Side Trip: For cross-country skiing, Montana is a gold mine. See this post on cross-country skiing in Montana for more Nordic areas.
I’ve been wanting to see Memorial Falls for several years after hearing my friends in Great Falls talk about the waterfall. The trailhead is just a few minutes drive from Silver Crest, on the south side of Neihart.
The trail crosses Memorial Creek on a bridge and then winds up the canyon to the lower falls in 0.3 miles. From there it is another 800 feet to the upper falls, so all in all, it’s a very short hike. The waterfalls are small, but beautiful in winter. It felt wonderful to be walking under the orange rock walls with snow falling all around us.
We were able to hike through the snow, but there wasn’t a lot of it, so you may want micro-spikes or even snowshoes if there is a lot of snow. We were glad to be wearing gaiters over our boots.
Getting to Memorial Falls Trailhead: Once again, Google Maps has the trailhead in the wrong place. See the map I created above for the actual location. From Silver Crest drive 5.0 miles north on US-89. Look for the parking area on the right. From the post office in Neihart, drive 2.3 miles south on US-89 and look for the parking lot on the left.
Side Trip: We spent a lovely weekend on the east side of the Little Belt Mountains a couple years ago. We rented the Judith Guard Station with friends and cross-country skied on a frozen river. You can read about our winter cabin adventure at the Judith Guard Station.
We headed back to White Sulphur Springs after our ski and hike and hopped into the hot pool once again before walking down the block to Bar 47 for dinner. Henry and I sipped beers from 2 Basset Brewery in the uncrowded restaurant. There are great choices for both vegetarians and meat eaters alike. Finn and I loved the Bar 47 Fish Tacos, Anders said the Drag it Through the Garden Burger was delish, and Henry went for Nueske’s Bacon Cheddar Burger.
Day Three — Town Tour, Hot Chocolate, and Barn Quilts
- Town Walk
- Garden Shop and Espresso
- Art and Culture Tour
For our last morning in town we packed up the car and headed out on foot to explore this fetching Montana small town.
There are a bunch of barn quilts right in town, so we wandered around looking at them. Then we walked up to the “Castle,” which is an old stone mansion. You can tour the Castle Museum and Carriage House in summer, but in winter you get to look at it from the outside. It was built in 1892 from hand-cut granite blocks from the Castle Mountains. It sits on a hill and provides a view of the Big Belt Mountains, Little Belt Mountains, and Castle Mountains.
On our way out of town we stopped at Garden Shop and Espresso for hot chocolates, tea, and coffee to power us through the drive home. The owner was so nice and even gave us some homemade Christmas cookies. (302 SW South St)
From White Sulphur to Ringling we searched out more barn quilts and stopped to take photos. Again, the Central Montana scenery provided an only-in-Montana view and we were grateful the quilt squares got us to pause and look more closely.
More Fun in Central Montana
- This road trip through Central Montana is longer and well suited for fall (to see the elk bugle) or summer.
- There are four battlefields in Montana from the Indian Wars. Bear Paw National Battlefield is in Central Montana and part of the road trip in the bullet above.
- The Judith Guard Station is a Forest Service cabin you can rent or visit on the east side of the Little Belt Mountains.