Great Drives: Big Sky Loop

Great Drives: e 0501

Bozeman makes a great jumping-off point for a journey through the legend and myth that is Montana: a state of unbridled wilds and untold mountains, of pearly dawns and limitless skies. Montana is also a place where people don't think twice about driving two hours to a good restaurant or saloon. Wide-open spaces and 75-mile-per-hour daytime speed limits have given locals a twisted perspective on how long it takes to get somewhere. The truth is, they don't really care because they like the scenery-and so will you.

Before you hit the highway, sample some of Bozeman's amenities: serious climbing in Hyalite canyon, picturesque golf on three public courses, frightful dinosaurs at the Museum of the Rockies and all-conference college-town bars like the Montana Ale Works, a Montana State University favorite. For dinner and your first night on the road, head west and south on Highway 191. In 15 miles you'll find the Gallatin Gateway Inn, a tenderly restored train station offering deluxe accommodations and New American cuisine (try the seared Muscovy Duck).

Spend the next morning on low-speed cruise-control driving through the stunning stone cathedral of Gallatin Canyon, tracking blue-ribbon flyfishing waters the whole way. The Gallatin River also supports whitewater rafting early in the summer and lively kayaking year-round.

Midway through the canyon is Big Sky Resort, guarded for posterity by the totemic spire of Lone Peak. Hike through glades of sweet pines in Spanish Peaks or go horseback riding at Lone Mountain Ranch, then spend the night at the new Summit Hotel in Mountain Village. The next day could favorably commence with 18 holes at the lightly trafficked Big Sky Golf Course. If you then choose to encamp in Big Sky for a week-or a summer-you will be blameless.

The drive south, after about an hour, brings you to one of the main Yellowstone Park entrances in the tourist town of West Yellowstone. The Park ($10 per car) is an American original, showcasing abundant wildlife, waterfalls and geysers (Old Faithful is an hour's drive). West Yellowstone plays out like a theme park, with an Imax theater and a Grizzly Discovery Center. Your route out of town should be in the opposite direction from the park and the people: Go north and west on Highway 287 past the highly fishable Hebgen and Quake lakes. Follow the fabled Madison River all the way to Ennis, observing its numerous waterfowl and fishermen in their strange social groupings and rituals.

Retire to El Western Motel in Ennis after spending a day in Virginia and Nevada cities-a sage-scented brace of the West's best restored mining towns. Also consider a pack-trip with outfitter Tim Beardsley of Ennis into the high lakes of the Madison Range, which floats above town. Your final hour from Ennis back to Bozeman follows the Madison River again, through another beautiful canyon full of rafting and fishing that could cause you to reconsider your departure date-or your profession.

Drive Length 225-300 miles.
Drive Time From a sporting day to a very full week.
Try To Avoid Thinking you need cowboy boots and a cowboy hat to fit in or that you can pet wild buffalo and elk (visitors are stomped every year when acting as if they were in a petting zoo).
Don't Miss Flyfishing on some of the globe's most legendary waters. Every town on the route has outfitters who can set you up with gear and lessons ($75-$150 per day).
Get Out Of The Car In Virginia City, walk around the museums, hike up to the Cornucopia Mine or mountain bike on old mining roads. Check in at the Wells Fargo Restaurant for the best rides.
Contact Big Sky Ski and Summer Resort: 800-548-4486,