Nestled in the Rocky Mountains, Bozeman is a charming college town and a perfect jumping off point for adventurous families who love the outdoors. First-time visitors can get in touch with their inner cowboy or cowgirl by scheduling an all-inclusive ranch vacation -- choose from a working ranch (with hands-on roping, branding, and cattle driving on the itinerary), a dude ranch (which is generally less about work and more about horseback riding, camping, and outdoor adventure), or a resort ranch (a luxurious way to experience the Montana wilderness without giving up creature comforts). From skiing to sky-diving, hiking to horseback riding, camping to fly-fishing, it's an all-you-can eat buffet of fun for kids.
With year-round outdoor recreation and numerous fairs and festivals, deciding when to visit Bozeman is primarily a matter of determining what you want to do and learning whether or not the weather will cooperate. During winter, phenomenal skiing is less than an hour away; in the spring, cool evenings make it a fabulous time to relax in Montana's 61 famous hot springs; summer and fall bring world-class fly-fishing, hiking, camping, and rafting. Without question, summer is the time to take a horseback riding or ranch vacation -- most ranches are open only from May through September.
Given its location in the heart of the Rockies, it's not surprising that Bozeman is cold in the winter (an average low of 14 degrees in January) and hot in the summer (an average high of 82 degrees in July and August). With the low humidity, summer heat is surprisingly comfortable, especially when you're rafting or fishing on a river or riding a horse through lushly forested mountain trails. Temperatures hover comfortably in the 50s during the shoulder seasons of spring and fall; keep in mind, though, that springtime snowmelt in the mountains can mean powerful river currents and high water levels, making fishing and rafting difficult.
Visitors traveling to Bozeman via air arrive at Gallatin Field Airport. It's a small airport, currently served by a handful of major airlines. All of the major rental car companies are represented, but only Alamo, Budget, Enterprise, Hertz, and National are on-site at the airport; other companies (such as Avis) are less expensive but require riding a shuttle to get to and from their parking lot. Many ranches offer shuttle service to and from the Bozeman airport (usually for a fee) -- check with your ranch before reserving a rental car. Once you're out in horse country, it's unlikely you'll want to go anywhere else.
If you're driving to Bozeman, you'll probably enter the city via Interstate 90. There are two main exits: North 19th and North 7th. The North 19th exit is further from downtown, but closer to shopping and Montana State University. The North 7th exit is closer to downtown and the historical district, with more restaurants and hotels nearby.
Bozeman's Streamline Transit bus system is free, and runs Monday through Friday with service to downtown, Montana State University, and other points. See streamlinebus.com for the most current schedules and route maps. If you're going to be in Bozeman for any length of time, renting a car is recommended -- the city is somewhat spread out, and there are few alternatives to Streamline buses for weekend and holiday travel.
Charleston boasts a full calendar of festivals celebrating food, art, music, and culture. The most well known of them is Spoleto Festival USA, a 17-day festival of the arts that attracts world-class musical performers and artists every spring.
Bozeman is smack in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, about 4,800 feet above sea level. Ski resorts and ranches are almost always at an even higher altitude, so prepare for thin air and bright sun with a stronger sunscreen than you normally use.
If you're off to a ranch, keep in mind that some ranches reserve specific weeks (usually in late spring or early fall) for women, adults, or singles only -- it is imperative that family travelers make reservations at their preferred ranch before booking airfare.
Mosquitoes are plentiful and hungry in the mountains, and while some ranches may have bug spray handy, you don't want to take that chance since running to the local drugstore isn't always an option.
RanchWeb lists dude ranch travel bargains all around the United States, including Montana.
The U.S. Forest Service controls about 40 percent of Gallatin County's land, which means there are a lot of opportunities for outdoor fun in hundreds of campgrounds that are surrounded by some of the most spectacular scenery in the country. For a list with more information, see www.bozemannet.com/.