When the summer skies start to heat up the Montana and Wyoming landscape, many will look for that great weekend escape. Tourism in Big Sky Country alone is a $3.9 billion industry and for at least the past five years, that number has been on a steady climb. While some come from miles away to take in the world’s best fishing, most majestic views and challenging hikes, those in the tourism industry know that homegrown attractions help give life to already colorful communities. Take a six-mile trip outside of downtown Billings and literally fly through the skies. Hit the road for a short drive and float through some of the most picturesque, towering cliffs. Take in a beautiful vista on the back of a camel. Or, hop in a rugged jeep to get an up close and personal look at a herd of wild and free-roaming mustangs. Read up and maybe you’ll find one way to get-away without leaving town or, at most, taking a short and scenic drive.
It starts out innocent enough. After being harnessed and double hooked to the metal lanyard that will hold your body weight on a galvanized aircraft cable, you step out onto the platform and look down line to what appears to be a teeny platform. It’s the one that’s ready and waiting to receive you. You just have to jump and soar 20 feet in the air across a 350-foot expanse to get there. The Little Dipper is the easy run, one that’s perfect for beginners.
This is just the start of the hours of adrenaline jolting, high rise fun that takes in all the beauty of the rugged hills just six miles outside Billings.
“There are 350-year-old trees back in here that are strong and fine and happy. It’s a nice little deep forest. It’s a very unique little spot,” says Gary Rylander, owner and operator of Canyon Outlaw Adventures. It’s a different kind of “online adventure” here and the only zip line course in about a 200 mile radius.
So, how did a man who makes a living in construction come to turn half of his family’s 80 acre piece of property into a space fit for adventure tourism? You might not believe this, but it’s all thanks to Gary’s 87-year-old mother, Beulah.
“My youngest daughter and my mother were going to Europe to visit relatives two years ago. My mom was 85 at the time. As she was about to get on the plane, she said, ‘When I get back, I want to go on a zip line. So, find one for me,” Gary says with a laugh. “There weren’t any. Big Sky wasn’t open yet and the closest one that I knew of was in Whitefish.”
He got to thinking.
“I thought maybe we could make a few bucks and have a little fun,” Gary says.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars later, Canyon Outlaw Adventures was born offering pristine and panoramic views of the Yellowstone Valley along a zip lining course made up of six very different and distinct runs.
We should point out, Gary didn’t just dig a few trenches and sink a few poles to make this happen. He hired a Minnesota based firm to help him plot the course and provide the engineering to make sure this beast of a course met and exceeded every safety guideline. Gary says, “They have determined all of the engineering that makes this work. This is an incredibly engineering intensive operation.” In fact, as Gary points across the ridge to the company’s 20-seat passenger bus, “This cable is strong enough to sling our bus out there. It will hold 22,000 pounds and the most we ever put on it is 500 pounds.”
You might think that the master of this course would be a thrill seeker himself. Not so. Gary Rylander had never even taken a zip line ride before he built his own course. His mother took the inaugural ride. Gary smiles and says, “She was the first one to ride. I pushed her off and then I went! I figured, if she could make it, so could I.”
Since then, thousands have zipped and soared through the pine trees taking in all that these six lines have to offer. One day in early May, some of the Yellowstone Valley Woman staff and family decided to take this excursion for a trial run. They got harnessed up, put on their helmets and gloves and went through a training, all before taking in that first run.
“You guys just passed flight school,” guide Rob Gilham says as he claps his gloves with an excited smile.
Publishers Jeremy and Haley Vannatta aren’t newbies to this kind of thrill. They’ve hooked up to lines in exotic places like Hawaii. Given the fact that this course is in their own back yard, they couldn’t pass up an opportunity to zip here. Jeremy says, “It is just the thrill of jumping off the platform and going for it!”
After sailing through the Bobcat, a 505-foot line that gives you not only an amazing aerial view of a creek bottom below but lands you high up in a tree-top platform, they zipped what’s called the Tearjerker. This 982-foot long line was, by far, a crowd favorite. You can reach speeds upward of 50 miles an hour, several stories above the ground. Forget seeing the platform when you jump. That’s simply not an option.
“It was just really long and really fast!” says 8-year-old Luke Vannatta, who clearly was a fan. As the group, one by one, screams on by, Ken Koerber says, “You just sit there and sustain your speed,” and take in the views as you go.”The scenery is totally different. It’s beautiful. You get to see the area like you never have before. You’re sailing down the line and it is just gorgeous,” Jeremy says. He admitted it truly felt like an escape, without ever leaving town. “That’s the cool part. It is just six miles from downtown Billings. You feel like you are out in the middle of nowhere, in a good way.”
For veteran zip guides Andre Kugler and Rob Gilham, this second season couldn’t get here fast enough. Not only do they love soaking up the sun in some beautiful landscape, their job is never the same twice. They’ve witnessed marriage proposals. They’ve helped cross off items on peoples’ bucket lists. They’ve even watched people visibly change after just a few runs.
As Andre takes off all the harnesses and safety gear of our crew, he says when it comes to day jobs, he has the best kind. “Overall, it’s an amazing experience. I get to meet new people all the time. Everyone is out to just have fun and that’s what I am all about!” He says it doesn’t matter whether he’s suiting up a white-haired woman hoping to capture a rush or a tween setting out on her first adventure, “This course gives you that adrenaline rush and that’s what brings people back!”
To book your trip or even take a test drive thanks to a handful of YouTube videos about the course, visit www.outlawzip.com. The course is located at 4004 Yellowstone Trail, just on the outskirts of downtown Billings.
If the colorful and jagged rock walls of the Bighorn Canyon could talk, they would have quite the stories to tell. In some cases, stories that are millions of years old.
“It’s just spectacular. Nobody knows this is right here in their own back yard. The history here is phenomenal,” Mark Garrison of Hidden Treasure Charters will tell you.
Captain Mark Garrison has been cruising these waterways for ten years, leading tourists and locals alike on scenic tours of the area. Along the way, he’ll point to different rock formations and tell you about the history or share a little legend about some of the waterway’s deep caves where evidence of prehistoric life has been found. This canyon is home to upwards of 12,000 years of human history. From Paleo-Indian residents to fur traders like Jim Bridger who used this canyon to make their way across the country. Captain Mark says, “This is part of the oldest trail in North America. It begins right here actually and it goes all the way up to Fort Smith, Montana. It’s just littered with all kinds of archeological treasures.”
During the summer, Garrison will take thousands up this canyon and National Park Service interpretive rangers will cover a bit of the history, geology and wildlife in the area. “The wildlife is a huge draw. You get real close normally to Bighorn Sheep and as you drive through the area, you’ll see a lot of Pryor Mountain Wild Mustangs,” Garrison says.
If history or glimpses of wildlife aren’t your passion, the scenery will surely draw you in. The colors of rock along this 71-mile-long canyon are vivid and the play of light during the day along this steep-sided canyon offers a peaceful break from our typical fast-paced days.
Whether it’s a Peregrine falcon swooping in for dinner or a Bighorn sheep leading her newborn lamb through the area’s rugged terrain, the canyon offers sights you just don’t see every day. It’s one reason why Captain Mark Garrison cherishes his time down on the water and hopes others experience the nation’s third largest canyon at least once in their lifetime.
“It’s just spectacular,” Garrison says. “It’s pretty neat to see this canyon by water. I love this place and have a lot of passion for it. It truly is an undiscovered treasure.”
Hidden Treasures Charters operates daily from late May through September, offering charters at 10AM and 2PM starting at the Horseshoe Bend Marina near Lovell, Wyoming. On Fridays and Saturdays, the company will offer sunset cruises with a 2-hour scenic tour that offers appetizers and encourages guests to bring their own favorite beverages. Not only is wildlife more visible during this time, the light and shadows of the setting sun offers beautiful views. For more information on booking your tour, visit www.hiddentreasurecharters.com
High above in the rugged range nestled in the Pryor Mountains lives an endangered piece of our history. Roughly 140 wild mustangs call this land home, descendants of the Spanish horses brought to this stretch of land sometime in the 1700s. Catching a glimpse of these wild and beautiful beasts is as simple as a history-packed, awe-inspiring, daylong excursion, which sets out to explore some beautiful wonders right in our own back yard.
“The mountain range that they live in has a lot of war and Native American stories tied to it. It is one big picture of the Old West,” says Renee Christiansen, owner of the company that leads this tour, Montana Fun Adventures. “This herd is so special. People that love horses, once they get out there and see them roaming in their natural habitat, it just brings tears to their eyes.”
While you’re guaranteed to see the wild mustangs roam and play, this trip has brought other wild and wooly creatures out into the open as well. Guests have seen not only bears but mountain lions, bighorn sheep, and deer as well as different species of eagles and falcons.
A few hours after dawn, the trip will start out with a short drive down to the Pryor Mountain range, which straddles the Montana and Wyoming border. Once you get to the range, Renee says it becomes, “an off road adventure” as the open air Jeep or more comfortable Suburban leads guests through this pristine countryside. Guests travel across the land getting out to take in some of the area’s mystical caves and learn about some of the historical Indian and legendary mountain men sites. Renee says that the Pryors are full of mystical lore and there are so many stories and bits of history that her crew loves to share along the way.
Since Montana Fun Adventures began offering this tour, Renee says, “People from all over the world come to see this herd. We just need to take advantage of what is in our back yard sometimes.” She’s quick to add that in the years they’ve been operating this trip, no two tours have ever been the same. “Every time we go out, it is a real adventure!”
These tours operate starting in mid-June through September. Choose between a three-guest open air Jeep or a seven passenger Suburban for your excursion. Bring your own lunch or arrange to have one brought for you. This tour will depart at around 8AM and you can expect to return by 6PM. Prices vary according to group size. For more on how to book your trip or take a look at the other tours operated by Montana Fun Adventures, visit www.montanafunadventures.com.
You don’t have to travel to the Sahara Desert to take in breathtaking views while saddled on the back of a camel. In fact, it’s just a short drive to see these 2,000 pound, nine-foot-tall gentle giants thanks to Jason Mayfield and his crew with Camel Discovery.
“I think the biggest thing is that people fall in love with them instantly. They are such a gentle and amazing creature,” Jason will tell you.
Starting in mid-June you can make the trek to Camel Discovery’s base camp at Emigrant and have a fun time learning about the likes of Butter or maybe even Colonel Mustard, just two of Jason’s trusty hump-backed guides. He’s got a team of eight camels that you can visit, take pictures with and take a short ride on up along the picturesque Yellowstone River.
While this summer will feature only short rides, next summer Jason will team up with Sidi Amar Taoua, a member of the Tuareg tribe who hails from the Sahara and has been leading camel treks for decades. The pair plan to offer trips that are several hours, even days long through the Paradise Valley.
“I have a fire, a passion that we should offer these kinds of trips for other folks,” Jason says. And with that passion comes a desire to educate. For starters, Jason says camels don’t spit and the humps on their backs don’t hold water but are basically a place where these lean animals store all of their fat. He’s hoping by opening the gates to this new venture, he’ll help debunk the myths and show folks all that there is to love about these big-eyed creatures.
As for the location, Jason says he couldn’t think of a better spot along Highway 89 to offer up this kind of experience. He laughs and says, “There’s a 50-mile stretch of highway where there isn’t much more than a fueling station. I am sure dads would love to stop the car, and let the kids out to pet some camels!”
Camel Discovery is located 20 miles south of Livingston and 3.5 miles north of the Emigrant General Store along Highway 89. For more on what to expect this summer in Montana, you can visit Jason and his crew online at www.cameldiscovery.com. You can also follow the life and times of this camel herd by visiting Camel Discovery on their Facebook page as well.
For more ideas on ways to take part in a true “staycation”, click on over to www. visitbillings.com for details on places to visit or events you might want to experience.