Most Australians have probably never heard of the small college town of Bozeman (pop. 35,000), home to Montana State University and a world-class dinosaur collection at the Museum of the Rockies. This quiet town, with a western feel, is also the gateway to skiing at Big Sky, the largest ski resort in the United States.
For Australians who have landed in Los Angeles, there are daily direct connections to Bozeman with several airlines, including United, Delta and Alaska. From the airport, Big Sky has shuttles to the snow that take about one hour on a road trip alongside the wildly beautiful Gallatin River.
But not so fast. A detour into Bozeman for a night, or two, provides a rewarding glimpse into authentic American country life.
Downtown Bozeman consists of about seven blocks, with restaurants, bars and good shopping packed into the restored historical bricks-and-mortar buildings from the turn of the century.
There are affordable hotel chains, such as Holiday Inn, on the outskirts of town but to be closer to the action, stay in one of the centrally located hotels, such as the locally owned and operated Western Heritage Inn, or the soon-to-open boutique properties The Element or The Lark.
Among the downtown restaurants with American character is the Western Cafe, an innocuous-looking retro place favoured by locals. The retro, in this case, is not manufactured. It’s the real deal, with barstool seating, cowboy hats and historical photos on the walls.
The no-frills diner has been serving bottomless cups of coffee and simple food for a century. Try a New York-style Reuben, a rye-bread sandwich loaded with corned beef, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese. You’ll get a full belly and change from $US10 ($A13).
Next door, The Garage Soup Shack and Mesquite Grill is another endearing local food experience. It has the mood of the casual eateries along Melbourne’s Smith Street foodie strip in Fitzroy. Further along is the trendy and modern Montana Ale Works, where bison burgers and Salmon Fly Honey rye beer are popular.
There are about 100 downtown shops, selling western clothing, Montana-made gifts, fishing and hunting gear, and jewellery. There are also many galleries.
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The Museum of the Rockies dinosaur collection is one of the largest and most important in the world, and includes tyrannosaurus rex and triceratops specimens.
Behind display windows in the museum, you can see workers painstakingly scraping away dirt from recovered bones, and there are also displays of Montana life, showing everything from wagons to cowboy guns.
The American Computer and Robotics Museum is another fascinating town attraction.
Outside magazine has rated Bozeman as one of the best 15 sport cities in the US for its outdoors activities, which include hiking, biking, fly-fishing, golf and whitewater rafting in summer.
The town has a local ski hill, Bridger Bowl, with eight chairlifts and 75 named trails. It claims 800 hectares of skiable terrain; almost double the size of Thredbo.
It is 20 minutes from the city limits and operates as a non-profit ski area. (A day ticket for the 2014/15 season was $US52 – about $A68 – for adults.)
Yellowstone National Park is about 90 minutes away by car from Bozeman and summer-time whitewater rafting is big business, adding to the outdoor pursuits.
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