Big Sky Country's picturesque small towns put you on the very soil of the American frontier. These were the places where Lewis and Clark cut a swath through the waterways, the Wild West's most iconic outlaws battled in skirmishes, gold and silver mining were among the most profitable industries and buffalo roamed (and still do). It all took place against a backdrop of snowcapped mountains with unforgettable, grand forests and crystal-blue lakes teeming with numerous species of trout.
It's no wonder, then, that Montana, Wyoming, the North and South Dakotas and Idaho see scores of anglers, hunters, bicyclists, hikers and boaters within their borders; not only are the opportunities for recreation plentiful, they offer some of most pristine environments in the country. Follow us for a journey through the small towns you'll want to get out and meander through.
A living tribute to William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody, this town of 9,500 is a scant 50 miles from Yellowstone National Park's east entrance. One of the Wild West's most beloved figures, the town was incorporated in 1901, and visitors can partake of all of the activities the decorated army scout, outdoorsman and showman enjoyed; hunting, fishing and visiting Yellowstone.
The following year, Cody built the Irma Hotel, named after his daughter; its guest list read like a Who's Who of Western lore; Annie Oakley, Frederic Remington and Calamity Jane were among those who stayed there. The hotel still operates today; guests can opt to stay in what was once Cody's private suite. From June through September, gunfight re-enactments take place outside of the hotel's doors.
"Buffalo Bill Cody was a genuine frontiersman who had an amazing ability to take historical events and recreate them for the public," said Jeremy M. Johnston, curator of Cody's Buffalo Bill Museum. "I like to ask visitors to the museum: 'how many of you played cowboys and Indians growing up?' That stemmed from Buffalo Bill's Wild West show."
According to Johnston, Cody learned of the area from ranchers who reached out to him in helping to promote the Bighorn Basin—Cody was widely known as a celebrity hunting guide and advocate for the conservation of Yellowstone National Park.
"He was always looking for opportunities to invest and promote tourism," said Johnston. "He recognized that the area had great potential."
Its unique name a draw in itself, the aptly-monikered Thermopolis (population 3,009) has the world's largest mineral hot springs formation. Housed within Hot Springs State Park, these therapeutic waters have been visited throughout the years by dinosaurs, prehistoric peoples, Native American tribes and Western settlers. Although the water flows out of the springs at a scorching 135 degrees Fahrenheit, visitors can take a dip in the park's free bathhouse, which is maintained at 104 degrees.
Another must-visit natural attraction is the Legend Rock Petroglyph Site, one the most legendary such sites in the world, with almost 300 different petroglyphs on 92 individual sandstone "panels." These prehistoric drawings are located on one of the most sacred Native American sites in the area. More geological wonders can be found in Wind River Canyon; the formations found here reach back as far as 2.8 billion years.
A slice of true Americana, this quaint town is known as the "Silver Capital of the World," despite a scant population of 784. It also earns bragging rights for its historic downtown, in which every building is on the National Register of Historic Places—and thus avoiding the intrusion of government in creating the interstate highway system in 1991.
Wallace was home to actress Lana Turner before Hollywood called, it survived the largest forest fire in U.S. history—the "Big Burn" of 1910—and was officially declared the "Center of the Universe." Proclaimed to be such by the city's mayor, and backing the claim with the theory of probability (if you can't disprove Wallace is the center of the universe, it must be the center of the universe), Wallace's residents are stalwart about their town's title, and even have a manhole denoting the exact center spot.
Still a site for silver mining, the area has become a recreationist's dream, with two ski areas, eight pristine alpine lakes and a network of bicycle trails, including the 72-mile Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes, directly under Interstate 90 and winding along the silver-rich south fork of the Coeur d'Alenes River. Don't forget to take a walking tour of the aforementioned historic downtown before you leave; among the half-dozen museums you can visit here is the Oasis Bordello Museum.
The three F's—fun, free and family—beckon at this destination named "the most beautiful small town in America" in a 2011 contest by USA Today and Rand McNally. Lake Pend Orielle is the largest lake in the state and offers myriad walking, biking and hiking trails, the most popular of which is the two-mile trek down the Pedestrian Long Bridge. The walk, which makes for great bike ride as well, offers sweeping views of the lake and the Selkirk mountain range.
To say that the recreation in Sandpoint is stunning is an understatement. In addition to a grand network of parks that include the geologically significant Maiden Rock Trail and the challenging McMinnick Trail, the city of 7,365 also boasts free day-use parking at its marinas and miles of groomed cross-country ski trails. For those adventurous in spirit, the 280-mile Selkirk Loop traverses through the Rocky Mountains, into Canada and back; it's full of quiet, scenic byways and adds an additional helping of charm.
The site where Lewis and Clark crossed the Continental Divide on their way to the Pacific Ocean, the duo were introduced to this riverfront town by their guide, Sacajawea, who was born here. Celebrate the heritage of her people, the Agai'dika Shoshone-Bannock, and learn more about the expedition at the Sacajawea Interpretive, Cultural and Educational Center. Additionally, there are two walking trails, open year-round from dawn to dusk to enjoy; when the weather cooperates, cross-country ski trails are an option.
Another way to enjoy the "no fences" style of life in this town of 3,112 is to take a trek through the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, where common wildlife sightings include antelope, elk, Bighorn sheep, bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, deer, black bears, moose and mountain goats. Those who wish to add excitement to this discovery should opt for a whitewater river tour, during which it's possible to see Chinook salmon and mountain lions.
Napoleon and Jud, North Dakota
At 792 residents, Napoleon is the largest city in North Dakota's Logan County, serving as its county seat. When it was founded in 1884, one structure existed, a 12 x 16-foot shack that has since served as a county courthouse, a newspaper office (the Napoleon Homestead still publishes today), a post office, hotel and private residence. The picturesque community saw an influx of people and business in 1898, when the railroad set up shop, making the tiny town a trading center vital to the area.
Napoleon is also a big draw for waterfowl hunting enthusiasts—top catches here are ducks, geese and pheasants. If bird-watching is more your style, a trip to Beaver Lake State Park is in order; species found here include pelicans, whistling swans, grebes, cormorants, herons, sandpipers, kingbirds, warblers and goldfinches.
A short drive from Napoleon lies the 72-strong rural hamlet of Jud, known as the "village of murals." Themes range from patriotic panoramas to cartoon characters to the beauty of nature. Dagen's Grocery Store was built in 1905 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It's also home to the training facility for Service Dogs for America, which provides service dogs to people with disabilities. The dogs are trained in four areas: mobility assistance, emergency response (for those who suffer from seizures or diabetes), PTSD relief and facility support (for those in elder care, mental health and juvenile detention facilities).
Wall, South Dakota
With a treasure trove of activities, the town of Wall (with approximately 800 residents) is perhaps best-known for its famous roadside attraction, Wall Drug Store. This 76,000-square-foot playland features so many activities, it'll keep you busy for an afternoon—there's an 80-foot tall brontosaurus replica, a splash park, 1,400 historical photos, a miniature Mount Rushmore and a giant jackalope that's a perfect photo prop—not to mention the shopping.
"Wall Drug Store was actually a pharmacy in the Depression-era days," said Katlyn Richter, global media and public relations director for the South Dakota Department of Tourism.
"It was right off the highway (Interstate 90), but nobody was coming into the city, so they put up signs that said 'free ice water.' Visitors started coming, so they put up more signs; it's now an emporium that takes up an entire city block. It still has free ice water and five-cent coffee."
But despite the success of the drug store, Wall was named after the "wall" of Badlands formations that are a hop, skip and a jump away. Here you can marvel the majestic scenery and wildlife as you take a drive through the 32-mile scenic loop, undertake a hike or commune with nature in a tent or cabin; the visitors center will point you in the right direction. The national park encompasses an astounding 244,000 acres.
Richter also suggests a trip to the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, the first such site that was dedicated to the Cold War designated by the National Parks Service.
"You can go underground to the control center and also see the crew's living quarters, which was essentially a double-wide trailer," said Richter.
Tours fill up quickly; because the elevator is so small, only six people are allowed per tour. In winter, tours take place twice daily; in warmer weather, tours are more frequent (up to 12 a day during peak season). Reservations are a must and can only be made online.
Hill City, South Dakota
This small mountain town of nearly 1,000 residents has had a long and storied history. It was first known as the "Heart of the Hills" in 1876, an area in which prospectors would come to try their luck from far and wide. When the miners left a few years later, it wasn't too long until the discovery of tin, which sustained the town in the next century, and the introduction of the railroad, once again bringing a boom.
"Hill City took the idea of a Gold Rush town and turned it on its head," said Richter of the Black Hills' second-oldest town. "It took its community to a different place—it's one of the artsiest communities in the state."
Today, the 1880s Train is one of the attractions that makes Hill City so charming. "This real steam train, which travels between Hill City and Keystone, offers an authentic experience with great views," said Richter.
Also of note, said Richter, is the 109-mile Mickelson Trail, part of the park service's "Rails to Trails" program, which converts abandoned train lines to bike paths. To make the trail less daunting, Hill City offers bicyclists shuttle service to pick them up at the end of their treks.
"You can rent a bike, travel north or south and ride through old bridges and tunnels, and then two hours later, can be picked up and driven back, so you don't have to see the same scenery twice," said Richter. "You can go as far as you want to."
Big Timber, Montana
Being at the confluence of the Boulder and Yellowstone rivers, it's no wonder anglers come from far and wide to visit the City of Big Timber (population, 1,641), known as "flyfishing country." The only incorporated city in Montana's Sweet Grass county was named, however, for the towering cottonwood trees that line its rivers. This site was also home to Montana's first wool mill; at one time, Big Timber was the largest exporter of wool in the United States.
A former Crow Nation reservation land, Big Timber's waterways are under-fished and clear and blue as the day is long, thanks to the ecosystem established by the Crow tribe. The prized catch here is the cutthroat trout, which can weigh up to 15 pounds, stocked by the Big Timber hatchery. The wildlife viewing is equally as spectacular here; common sightings include bison, elk, Grizzly bears and moose.
A spectacular place to view the Aurora Borealis, hikers (10 trails are available) and tenderfoots alike will adore Natural Bridge State Park, with its uniquely shaped sandstone formations and panoramic views. Take it all in from a sky lift that ascends towards the bridge's peak.
This community has the distinction of being Montana's first permanent settlement—175 years and 1,800 residents strong. Lewis and Clark's 1805 visit later sparked interest by fur traders; upon meeting these traders, the Salish tribes requested instruction from Jesuit priests. Thus, St. Mary's Mission was established by Father Pierre De Smet in 1841. The mission is the centerpiece of Stevensville, proudly claiming the title of "Where Montana Began."
But perhaps Stevensville's most popular attraction is the Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge (with 240,000 visits a year, according to 2013 statistics), named after Montana's hard-working senator who was passionate about natural resources and a champion of the working man. The 2,800-square-foot refuge protects the region's diverse grasslands, wetlands, meadows and forests. Be on the lookout for Lewis's Woodpecker, which feeds by catching its insect-prey in mid-air; spot it by its luminous colors of pink, silver and green.