photo by Jamie Blotske
Simply Local Travel Series: High in the Sky
by jamie blotske
Hot Air Balloon Ride
A question you’ve likely been asked: “What’s on your bucket list?” For many, it’s made up of far-off travels… Africa, Fiji, Mount Kilimanjaro, The Great Wall… but what about something a little closer to home?
Big Sky International Balloon Rendezvous has been a Montana festival for nearly 22 years, and Billings has been its most recent host. Balloons from all over the US, Canada, and even Europe have participated in this annual event. Last year, due to the pandemic, it was unfortunately canceled. However, a few pilots took to the sky anyway, giving several locals a “once in a lifetime” opportunity.
photo by Jamie Blotske
My husband and I were two of the lucky few given a chance to take flight over Yellowstone County. Despite the 4:30am wake-up call, it was one of the most unforgettable experiences we've had. From helping the crew unroll the balloon to filling it with air, to the take-off, the flight, and the landing, it all added up to create the most magical Montana memory. The balloon launched just before sunrise. As the sun made its appearance, we had just begun to drift over the Yellowstone River, catching that first glimmer of light as it bounced off of the river's ripples. The wildlife was stirring that morning as we spotted whitetail deer, a family of ducks, a red fox, and even a bald eagle proudly perched on a washed-up tree stump. The rushing of the water, the rustling of the leaves, and the birds singing were the only sounds to be heard. In a world of constant movement, it felt as though time stood still. The tranquility of the moment had us in a trance as we took in a whole new perspective of the place we call home.
Have you added it to the bucket list yet? Ok, good.
For other hot air balloon opportunities nearby in Bozeman and Big Sky, check out Endeavor Ballooning at https://www.montanaballoon.com.
photo by Stephanie Toews
Moving eastward, a 4-hour drive from Billings will find you in the badlands of Medora, ND. This historic cowboy town is home to “The Greatest Show in the West,” known as the Medora Musical. While the area has much to offer, it’s the boot-stomping, high-energy musical that steals the spotlight.
With the feel of an old western movie set, it's easy to imagine a John Wayne gunfight on Broadway, right in front of the Little Missouri Saloon. The pace of life in Medora is slower, people are friendly, and the history lessons abound. The Cowboy Café is a must for breakfast, followed by a visit to the Teddy Roosevelt cabin, Harold Schafer Heritage Center, or the Cowboy Hall of Fame. After the morning tours, it's time for some afternoon shopping at the Rough Riders gift shop or Ticket Junction, with an ice cream break at the Fudge & Ice Cream Depot. Grab a table at Boots Bar & Grill for lunch (more so for the onion rings), but don't overdo it because you'll need plenty of stomach space for what's to come…
Advertised as dinner with a view, the Pitchfork Steak Fondue is a meal worth the money. Located in the same setting as the musical, the sweeping views of the badlands offer a backdrop to this unique dining experience. The chefs skewer the steak with a pitchfork, plunge it into a fondue barrel and serve it up hot, fresh, and seasoned to perfection. Hit the buffet line to pair it with all of your favorite fixin's. Savor each bite as the sun slowly fades and the anticipation of live entertainment builds. It's just about time for the evening's main event.
The Burning Hills Amphitheater hosts the outdoor, open-air Medora Musical. Continuing with the “high in the sky” theme, there is nothing quite like this patriotic tribute to the spirit of the old west, with singing and dancing by world-class performers, underneath the star-filled night sky. It is awe-inspiring, to say the least. The show features music by the Coal Diggers Band, live horses, a rotating variety act, a reenactment of the battle of San Juan Hill, and a firework display that is sure to be the grand finale to your day in the wild west.
For more information on booking your trip, check out https://medora.com.
Cooney State Park
photo by Carina Deguire
Bringing it back home, just 40 minutes south of Billings, Cooney Reservoir is the place to be on a hot summer's day. Not only is it an excellent location for water recreation, it's also the perfect spot to pitch a tent and stargaze your way to sleep as we continue to search for more "high in the sky" encounters. Reserving a campsite is made easy through the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks website: https://fwp.mt.gov/stateparks/cooney and is highly recommended as campgrounds often fill up fast here in Montana.
Cooney is beautifully surrounded by mountain views and offers a wide range of activities from boating, fishing, hiking, horseshoes, sand volleyball, and swimming; just to name a few. As a Billings resident, I have often heard the complaint of not having a good option for water play. Cooney Reservoir is hands-down the best solution to this so-called problem, with plenty of room for water sports such as jet and water skiing, kayaking, and windsurfing.
Whether you’re looking to cool off or hunt for constellations, Cooney State Park has it all! A quick drive from Billings makes it ideal for a day trip or a weekend stay.
Originally printed in the June 2021 issue of Simply Local Magazine
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Jamie Blotske and husband, Chet, have three small children and happily call Billings their home. She is extremely passionate about the great outdoors. She is a graduate of MSU-Billings with a bachelor's degree in Outdoor Adventure Leadership. Her family is currently in pursuit of hiking in all 50 states, and you can follow along on the family blog (thebackpackingblotskes.com) or Instagram (@thebackpackingblotskes).
On Montana’s Dark Sky Trail
“Light pollution continues to grow almost imperceptibly in Montana, literally one light at a time,” said John Ashley, board chair of the Montana Chapter of the IDA and author of the award-winning book, Glacier National Park After Dark. "...If we just stick with the status quo, Montana's star-filled Big Sky will fade away and start looking more and more like Seattle and Los Angeles.”