Nothing says winter like cozying up next to a woodstove in a little cabin in the woods. Imagine–As the sun breaks through the trees in the morning, you strap on your snowshoes right outside the front door and head into the woods. Chickadees chirp, squirrel prints ramble around tree trunks, and snow creaks beneath your snowshoes.
We can’t all own winter getaways, but in Montana, we can rent them. Forest Service and private cabins are a great getaway any time of the year, but can be especially fun in winter. As the snow falls and icicles grow, they can provide a toasty home base for winter activities.
According to Marc Hamlen, assistant fire management officer for the White Sulphur Springs Ranger District in central Montana, skiers, snowshoers, and snowmobilers are the heaviest users of Forest Service cabins in the winter.
“Because it is right across the road from the ski hill (Showdown Ski Area), the Kings Hill cabin fills up quickly,” Hamlen said. It’s also a short distance to the Silver Crest Cross Country Ski Trails, and miles of snowmobile trails leave right from the cabin. Hamlen recommends making reservations as far in advance as possible for any Forest Service cabin to guarantee a reservation for a particular day. (Most Montana Forest Service cabins can be rented up to six months in advance through recreation.gov.)
The Window Rock Cabin near Bozeman sits just below some of the country’s best ice climbing. This Gallatin National Forest cabin is a short walk from the parking area, but feels like it is in the middle of the wilderness. “I rented it over Valentine’s Day one year,” recalled Livingston resident Felicia Ennis. “It was convenient to stay there rather than driving back and forth from Livingston every day to ice climb.”
“It was peaceful and relaxing, and the nights were so quiet,” Ennis said. “It was really nice having a winter experience in the mountains without having to do it from a tent.”
There is something different about being in nature in the winter. The sounds are muffled by the snow, and it’s a more intimate experience—both with the people you are snowshoeing with, and with nature.”
The Yurtski yurt in the Swan Mountains is one of my favorites. It’s an eight-mile walk or ski to get there (or pay for a snowmobile ride!). I love the whole experience of skiing in and staying out there. You can cuddle up by the fire and stay toasty warm, or take a moonlit walk and gaze at the stars. It’s something I cherish.
Want to have your own backcountry experience? There are many cabins, yurts, and huts for rent in Montana. Here are a few favorites.
Forest Service Cabins
These are (mostly) cabins built in the 1920s and 30s for Forest Ranger use. A few are fire lookouts, but most are rustic, one-roomed log cabins. Now that Rangers live in town, these cabins can be rented by you and me for $30-$45 per night. Most sleep four to six people.
Many have electricity, but not all do. None have running water in the winter (fortunately, there is almost always ample snow for melting or a creek near by.) All have either wood or electric stoves for cooking and heating, and some have both. Outhouses are a short walk from the cabins. Wood is supplied, as are dishes, cutlery, cleaning supplies, and often some strange magazines.
Find photos and descriptions of all Forest Service cabins on the specific Forest’s website. To rent one, log on to www.reservation.gov or call 1-877-444-6777 up to 180 days in advance.
Zip’s Place – Flathead National Forest
This cabin is located near the southern boundary of Glacier National Park. Zip’s Place was originally part of a 1937 homestead. The structure is named for “Aunt Zip” who first owned the property. On the cabin door and a cupboard door above the stove, bite marks from the Geifer Grizzly of 1974-75 are still visible. The cabin borders the Great Bear Wilderness and was sold to the Forest Service 1993.
It’s a 1.5-mile ski, snowshoe or snowmobile ride from the plowed parking area to the cabin on a county road.
Amenities: Electric stove, refrigerator, lights, electric and propane heat, a stocked kitchen, cleaning items, outhouse. No running water.
Gordon Reece Cabin – Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest
If you don’t mind a little work with your vacation, the Gordon Reece cabin at Chief Joseph Pass fits the bill. It’s a half-mile walk to the “ski mansion” whose first floor serves as a warming hut for area skiers and snowshoers, while the upper floor loft is set up for sleeping. The cabin can be reserved at no charge by those interested in being hosts. Hosts shovel snow, tend fires and make sure there is plenty of hot water for snowshoers and skiers using the groomed trails.
The cabin is surrounded by the Chief Joseph trails. The groomed and ungroomed trails provide a variety of lengths and skill levels for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
Amenities: Solar and propane lights, the main floor has benches, tables, a stocked kitchen, propane range, drainage sink, firewood and wood stove. No electricity or running water. Outhouse.
Kings Hill Cabin – Lewis and Clark National Forest
Situated two miles from Showdown Ski Area and up the road from the Silver Crest Cross-Country Ski Trails, the Kings Hill Cabin is a snowshoer’s delight. At 7,600 feet, the snow is sure to be good.
The CCC log cabin is just 100 yards off the highway in a deep woods setting of lodgepole pine. Highway noise is minimal, and if you go midweek, the snowmobile noise is minimal, too.
Amenities: Two rooms, electric lights, refrigerator, electric stove, fully-stocked kitchen, firewood, wood stove, outhouse. No running water.
Maxey Cabin – Gallatin National Forest
The cabin’s window frames Hyalite peaks and trails surround the cabin. Just outside the front door, there are days and days’ worth of snowshoeing fun on the forested trails surrounding Hyalite Reservoir. It’s not far to frozen Emerald Falls.
As long as the road is plowed up Hyalite Canyon (south of Bozeman), the walk into the Maxey cabin is just a mile. The cabin sits in a large meadow begging for snow people or a quinzee.
Amenities: Firewood, woodstove, dishes, utensils, cutlery, pots and pans, table and chairs, some cleaning supplies, bunk beds, outhouse. No electricity or running water.
Private Cabins and Yurts
Yurtski – Lolo National Forest
Yurtski has two yurts in the Swan Mountains—one located at 6800 feet, the other about a mile below it. If you don’t want to ski or snowshoe, take advantage of the snowmobile shuttle. Or have the sled carry your gear while you hike in the eight miles, mostly on Forest Service roads. Trips into the yurts are guided or self-serve: www.yurtski.com.
Yellowstone Expeditions Yurt Camp—Canyon, Yellowstone National Park
The camp is make up of two attached yurts, which house the kitchen and dining area—the social center of the camp—and individual “yurtlets” that serve as private sleeping quarters. In addition, there is a hot shower and a sauna.
From the Yurt Camp, snowshoers can flat track the meadows of Cascade Creek, travel to several backcountry hot spring basins, walk the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone or play on the slopes of the Washburn Range.
It’s a deluxe rustic vacation with guided tours and delicious food.
Wade Lake Cabins—South of Ennis, Montana
Stay in one of five cabins and ramble along lake shores, riversides, valleys, aspen groves, old growth fir forests, and wide open rolling hills with spectacular views of tall peaks.
Snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, wildlife viewing, and photography to the list of winter activities. So do reading next to the fire and sipping hot cocoa.
Wildlife viewing is best in winter because Wade Lake stays partially ice-free, providing excellent habitat for wildlife and waterfowl. You may get to watch hundreds of spawning rainbow trout in the stream below the cabins.
Rent one of the five cabins and you get a gear shuttle in and out.