Driving from Bozeman to West Yellowstone, it's apparent why Montana is referred to as "big sky country." It's as if the world has opened up a little wider to encompass the outsize expressions of nature -- towering waterfalls that flow into impossibly blue streams, expansive plains dotted with roaming bison, and the air. It's late October and the temperature is flexing between the 30s and 50s, highlighting the crisp oxygen that flows in these parts. While not untouched, there's definitely a frontier feel. With a population that's less than half the capacity of the Beacon Theatre in New York, there are no lines. If there are more than a dozen people in a bar, people buzz about how, "it's a little crowded tonight."
On this particular weekend, I'm checking out the inaugural Beer Fest in the West, but the main attraction here will always be the majestic national park from which the town gets its name. Yellowstone is so big, in fact, it stretches through three states (Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming). Famously home to Old Faithful, a geyser that draws big crowds, there are many lesser known and greater wonders tucked inside, including the largest concentration of thermal features in the world. I explored some of these, a short drive from my cabin, and almost felt like I was stepping onto another planet. Vapors rise from jagged craters and mix with an early morning fog that blurs the lines between earth and sky. Wooden pathways connect what seems like an endless expanse of these natural wonders and often ice over, amping up the adventure quotient. Just don't fall in.
Only 3 percent of the park is accessible by roads, so a guide familiar with the terrain is a good thing to have. Matt Henry, from Yellowstone Vacations, took us on a full-day tour of the lower loop, where there were many highlights. We passed a man who looked like he got lost on his way back from a Phish concert. He was painting a self-portrait of sorts -- an all-enveloping canyon with a waterfall in the distance and his disheveled mug front and center. From the looks of it, he was quite happy with his creation. We edged passed him for a closer view and couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to be up close in the sound of that distant waterfall, so Matt took us there. After a short drive we descended a towering staircase that put us within earshot of nature's majestic rumble. Later in the day we embarked on a mini-bison safari, getting within feet of the deceptively docile creatures. They can run 35 mph when in attack mode.
In summer, the roads can resemble a midtown traffic jam but in the sweet spot of off-season October, we were able to cover a lot of ground. It helped that my digs, a two-bedroom Explorer Cabin operated by Delaware North just outside the park gate, came with an electric fireplace that came to fiery life with the flick of a switch. Smores and a nearby fire pit were also included. The location was ideal for its walking proximity to the beer festivities. The first night I tried the aptly named Total Domination IPA from Oregon Brewery, Ninkasi, along with the impressively bitter Hopzone IPA from local Bozeman Brewing Company.
The next night featured a beer dinner by local brewery Big Sky. Chefs Jacob Tew and Cory Dragone prepared five decadent courses that began with dates stuffed with dolcina gorgonzola and pancetta, topped with local honey. This was paired with Old Blue Hair Barley Wine, a 5-month barrel aged taste bomb that comes in at 12 percent abv. To say it's flavorful would be an understatement, but when you open with a climax there isn't much room to grow.
The fest itself featured some interesting brews and an intimate atmosphere to talk to brewers like Seth Jordan of Bozeman-based Dog Tag. The ex-marine-turned-craft-brewer uses each can to tell the story of a fallen soldier. Other highlights included Wyoming brewery Snake River and there Pako's IPA. Brewed with pungent simcoe/Columbus blend hops, it puts its mark on your taste buds, as a good IPA should. I was also taken by Montana-based brewery Bitter Root and their Nut Brown Ale. It provided just the right amount of warmth for the brisk weather.
The festival is clearly in its infancy, but with a slew of great brewers and one of the greatest backdrops in the country, the possibilities are almost as endless as the sky.