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The fourth largest state in the union, Montana manages to feel like a hidden gem. Small in population and lacking in any major airports, the Treasure State is still undiscovered country for many Americans. Yet it’s home to gargantuan mountains, breathtaking landscapes, charming small towns, outdoor adventures galore and some of the best wildlife spotting anywhere in the United States. We say, hit up this affordable, kid-friendly paradise before the crowds rush in (it will happens) and let us be your air and hotel guide!

What’s up, Gertrude?

We were a lot more interested in her than she was in us, I’m afraid. Gertrude was one of the 1,800-pound bison we encountered on a snowshoe trek around Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park one cold winter day.

I love Yellowstone in winter — no crowds, lots of animals and the chance to see Old Faithful and other thermal features without any crowds. (Did you know Yellowstone has more thermal features than anywhere in the world — 10,000 bubbling mud pots, hot springs and geysers?) Honestly, we felt like we had the whole place to ourselves.

That’s because the only way to visit Old Faithful and other interior attractions in the winter is by snowmobile or guided snowcoaches that follow the park roadways. It’s also a lot easier to get a reservation inside the park in winter, but there are only two lodging options — at Mammoth Hot Springs and the Old Faithful Park. (Xanterra Parks and Resorts provide the lodging and other services, including evening programs, snowcoach tours, guided ski and snowshoe tours, guided snowmobile tours and wildlife bus tours.

Talk about a winter wonderland! Steam erupts from the park’s ice-covered ground, bison lumber along and fox cross the snow-covered roads. This is the time of year when the park is at its most serene. Few places have as much wildlife, including wolves, bear, elk, deer, moose, big horn sheep and the largest concentration of bison in the country.

But of course, Yellowstone Country is wonderful in other seasons too. I just got back from a fall visit. I was attending a conference at Mountain Sky Guest Ranch, which is about an hour southeast of Bozeman, Montana, in Paradise Valley, 45 minutes north of the Gardiner/Mammoth entrance to the park. Think horseback riding, early-morning hikes to watch the horses graze and, of course, the chance to see all the wildlife in Yellowstone. (Fall is the time when the elk “rut” and it is quite a show as bulls gather cows into small groups, bugle to attract them and then wage battles with other bulls to keep them away.)

We’ve visited Yellowstone in summer too — rafting on the Yellowstone River, camping on Lake Yellowstone. It’s all good and with 2.2 million acres, if you try, you can get away from the crowds.

I just think there is something really special about Yellowstone in winter.

(Hwy 212 between Gardiner (north entrance) and Cooke City, Montana, is the only road open to wheeled vehicles year-round. You can also snowshoe or cross-country ski in. The park closes the other entrances to vehicle traffic the first week of November to allow grooming for winter season. They re-open on Dec 15 for winter access.

We’ve snowmobiled in Yellowstone too (you can even cruise a 25-mile Boulder Canyon Trail through meadows and even an old abandoned mining town), but I prefer snowshoes. And besides the park, you can take your pick of hundreds of miles of National Forest Trails, whether you want to explore on snowshoes or cross-country skis — as much fun for the kids as for you — and no hefty ski lift fees!

Yellowstone Country, by the way, has one of the longest Nordic seasons in the country (November to April) and, locals promise, some of the most consistent snow. Montana claims it’s the Nordic Ski Capital of North America attracting ski racers and biathletes that come here to train. It’s a good place to learn!

It’s also a good place to downhill ski. It’s one of the few ski resorts that offer the chance to ski and visit the nation’s first national park at the same time. We skied with Santa — really — at Big Sky Resort one Christmas and were shocked that even during one of snow country’s busiest weeks there were no lift lines. Whether you are a beginner or an expert skier, you won’t get bored here — not with more than 5,750 acres and 4,350 vertical feet.

At Big Sky, kids 10 and younger ski free and the resort also offers free apres ski for kids. That’s no small thing when kids’ lift tickets can be upwards of $100. There’s also the smaller Bridger Bowl Ski Area and Red Lodge Mountain, which are local favorites.

And when the kids get tired of fun in the snow, there are dinosaurs. The Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, on the campus of Montana State University, should be a must-stop for any dino-lover. Jack Horner, the curator of paleontology at the museum, was the model for the character Alan Grant in all of the “Jurassic Park” movies. He has also served as technical adviser on the movies. No wonder this museum has one of the largest collections of dinosaur fossils in the world, including Montana’s own T. rex. Montana’s T. rex stands 12 feet tall and is approximately 40 feet from nose to tail. Discovered near the Fort Peck Dam, it is one of the most complete T. rex skeletons ever found. (Jack Horner’s book “Digging Up Dinosaurs” is a great bet for young dino-lovers,)

Especially for younger kids, the museum should be a must-stop before you head to Yellowstone. The Martin Children’s Discovery Center at the Museum of the Rockies is a terrific introduction to what they’ll see in the park, including Old Faithful. (The kids can pump up a geyser themselves, “fish” from a fishing bridge, set up “camp” or even “cook” a meal.)

The only downside is that they won’t want to leave to see the real thing!

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This article was written by Eileen Ogintz and Tribune Content Agency from Taking The Kids and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

Tagged: Family, Off-season

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Photo courtesy of Lake Placid Office of Sustainable Tourism

Photo courtesy of Lake Placid Office of Sustainable Tourism

With barely 1,000 miles of highway to Alaska’s more than 570,000 square miles, dog sledding is not only a popular sport, but a convenient means of transportation throughout the state.

It is a tradition for most and a lifestyle for some, namely those who take part in the treacherous 1,150 mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome (which is basically the Olympics of dogsled racing). There are companies in Alaska that offer a taste of that brutality year-round, allowing tourists to take dog sleds out for a spin.

But lucky for those of us that live in the lower 48, you don’t have to traverse the Great White North to try your hand at mushing. Here’s a look at the best places to ride a dog sled this winter that are a little closer to home.

Wintergreen Dogsled LodgeEly, Minnesota

The folks at Wintergreen invite people of all ages and fitness levels to participate in their dogsled experiences, which take customers through the boundary waters in northern Minnesota. The tours are crafted according to the customer’s skill levels, but no experience is necessary. Wintergreen’s website says its been operating for more than 25 years and had customers as young as 6 and old as 85 riding across the frozen wilderness.

Photo courtesy of Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge.

Photo courtesy of Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge.

You can go full Balto and do multiple-night trips where customers dog sled from lodge to lodge, or opt for a simple day trip. There are dozens of trips to choose from that vary in length, skill level, and route. There are parent-child trips, where the pair gets their own dogsled on which to explore. There are even trips aimed at improving customers’ photography skills.

Each of those categories has options for different skill levels, of course, and offers training – not just in dog sledding, but in dog care and harnessing, snowshoeing, camping, outdoor cooking, winter ecology, backcountry skiing, cold weather comfort and more.

The prices vary among experiences, age of participant and time of year, but an 8-hour day trip costs about $250 and the multiple night trips can cost more than $1,000. Prices for children are discounted. Book in advance, as some experiences are already full.

Nature’s KennelMcMillan, Michigan (Upper Peninsula)

One owner of this dogsled business has raced in at least seven Iditarods, which means the place is legit.

If you are looking for a small taste of dog sledding and don’t want to spend more than $100, Nature’s Kennel in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula may be your best bet. They offer a slew of sledding experiences, but the best deal is the half-hour trip.

Photo courtesy of Nature's Kennel

Photo courtesy of Nature’s Kennel

During the half-hour trip, which cost $75, guests are given a ride around Boyne Highlands Resort near Harbor Springs, Michigan. This option is available on all winter weekends and holidays. Pay double the price for the full hour.

Nature’s Kennel is owned by a husband-wife duo (and their two toddlers). They spend most of the summer getting ready for the winter, when they bring in a couple people to help guide the tours. This year, the helpers are a woman from Newark, Ohio, who owns her own kennel of Alaskan huskies, and a woman from New Zealand, who names the Himalayas as one of the most beautiful places she’s ever been.

Adirondacks region – New York

Home to the first Olympic dog sled demonstration and its own popular dog sled race, theAdirondacks can be the perfect place to take to the sled. Several resorts throughout the mountain towns offer sled rides to their guests, and some year-round residents still use dog sleds as a reliable form of transportation.

Photo courtesy of Lake Placid Office of Sustainable Tourism

Photo courtesy of Lake Placid Office of Sustainable Tourism

And the sleds they ride on are often made near home. Local craftsmen fashion sleds out of strong and lightweight ash trees native to the Adirondacks, ranging in size from children’s sleds to those meant to carry heavy loads.

Winter in the Adirondacks is a thing of beauty. There are cozy towns and inlets around nearly every remote turn. It’s hard to pick one little town in which to stay (they all have their allure at any time of the year, really), but Lake Placid is by far one of the most visited cities in the mountains.

The quaint town, populated with outdoor gear shops, snug breweries and inviting coffee shops, envelops Mirror Lake, which freezes over in the winter. When the snow falls and the lake freezes, dog sled drivers line Main Street and offer passers-by a ride across the lake. Prices vary, and mushers always check the safety of the frozen lake before taking out passengers. Notable places to dog sled: Golden Arrow Dogsled Rides and Thunder Mountain Dog Sled Tours.

Yellowstone Dog Sled AdventuresBig Sky, Montana

In Yellowstone National Park, winter is a nine-month experience, making the terrain excellent for mushing. In the high altitude and cold, the Alaskan Huskies thrive. Even during the three blissful months of “summer,” when most of the snow melts, Yellowstone Dog Sled Adventures is operational and the dogs are running.

Photo courtesy of  Yellowstone Dog Sled Adventures

Photo courtesy of Yellowstone Dog Sled Adventures

This company offers two options – a one-hour trip and a half-day trip (cost is $95 and $195, respectively, for adults. Kids rates are $45 and $150.) The half-day trip seems the more desirable of the two. It takes riders through the mountains of Montana and offers scenic views and photo opportunities. There are different options within the half-day trip, in which patrons can choose to ride with a guide (cuddled up in a sleeping bag on the back), tandem (you drive while another person in your group rides), or drive your own sled.

The owners warn that these trips are not for the faint of heart or lung. Even at the lowest altitude in Yellowstone, you are still at an elevation about a mile high. Although the sledding trips probably won’t take you from the highest to lowest point in the park, the high altitude and thin air make the trips inhospitable to inactive folks.

Mountain Musher Dog Sled RidesVail Valley, Colorado

The Mountain Musher tour runs a private trail through Aspen groves and pine forests in the Rocky Mountains. The trails aren’t shared with snowmobiles or cross-country skiers, although they may be shared with wildlife such as elk, fox, coyote and deer.

There are several sledding businesses operating throughout the Rockies, at least one of which recently underwent animal abuse accusations. Mountain Musher has been in business since 1989 and often receives positive reviews.

Photo courtesy of Mountain Musher Dog Sled Rides

Photo courtesy of Mountain Musher Dog Sled Rides

Two trips leave daily – once in the morning and once in the afternoon – and last about two hours. Two people (or one adult and two small kids, or three small kids) are allowed per sled, and a musher stands behind the passengers and controls the dogs. The ride is about six miles and costs $175 a person. But you get a snack of homemade pumpkin bread and hot cocoa midway through the trip, plus a nice photo opp. If you want the sled to yourself, it’ll cost you the price of two people ($350). Holiday prices are also elevated, so if you’re looking to get the experience on a budget, avoid the end of December, MLK Day weekend and Valentine’s Day weekend.

Reservations are required, but make sure you’re committed – you’ll be charged if you cancel your trip.

Tagged: Family, Sports, Tips & advice