When I first told Matt my idea to rent a Forest Service Cabin in Montana in December, he was skeptical. After he found out that the cabin doesn’t have electricity or water—and would require a half-mile hike from our truck to get there—he thought I was crazy. It seemed to me, though, that an adventure in a cabin in the snowy winter wilderness might be a way to experience the magic of the holidays without all the tinsel and glitter.
The United States Forest Service offers many cabins for rent, and you can find out what’s available by searching for forest service cabin rentals on the USFS website. Add the name of a specific National Forest or state to the search phrase to narrow your search. The website provides details about each cabin’s location, size, furnishings, and accessibility. If you decide to reserve one, you can do so up to six months in advance at www.recreation.gov. It’s important to know that most of these cabins are primitive, and many require that you hike at least part of the way to reach them.
I wanted to find a cabin to rent in southern Montana, close to the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Six years ago, we spent Christmas in Yellowstone with our family, and it was one of the best holidays we’ve ever had. After searching online for cabins in that area, I came across Big Creek Cabin, five miles down an unpaved road off Hwy 89, about 30 miles from Yellowstone’s North Entrance. The cabin is located in Custer Gallatin National Forest, in an area known as Paradise Valley, surrounded by the peaks of the Gallatin Range to the west and the Absarokas to the east. At an elevation of 5800 ft., the cabin sits in a flat clearing surrounded by spruce and fir trees with Big Creek flowing about 50 feet from the back porch.
Built in 1924 as a guard station, Big Creek Cabin stands next to the original cabin built in 1907, which is boarded up now and not available to use. Also on site is a woodshed (stocked in the winter) and a new-looking outhouse. The log cabin is spacious, with three bedrooms (one of which is tiny and was probably a bathroom in a former life), a living room, kitchen, and enough bunk beds to sleep 11, although it would be a tight fit with that many people. A wood stove in the living room heats the cabin, and a wood-burning kitchen stove is available to cook on. The living room has a couple of tables, benches, chairs, and two of the twin beds. At $50 a night, it seemed like a bargain to us.
In the spring, summer, and fall, you can drive right up to the cabin, but in the winter they don’t plow the road all the way there; we had to leave our trucks and walk the remaining section to reach the cabin. Before we reserved our dates of Dec. 10-14th, Matt called the Custer Gallatin Ranger Station to ask a ranger if we were crazy for attempting this in cold weather, and she reassured him that a lot of people use the cabin in the winter for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
We talked our friends Craig and Aya into joining us on this adventure. We met them in Bozeman before driving an hour or so to the small parking area adjacent to a bridge over Big Creek where a gate blocked the road. Checking the forecast constantly in the weeks leading up to the trip, we had been worried about the lack of snow in the area, but to our relief, at least a foot of snow covered the ground and the unplowed road. It was still early afternoon as we started our first of many walks to the cabin. Matt pulled most of our provisions on a plastic sled, which turned out to be one of the best purchases he made for the trip.
A warning on the recreation.gov website mentions a risk of exposure to Hantavirus when visiting remote cabins. In the majority of infections, the culprit is deer mice. My greatest anxiety about this trip was that the cabin would be infested with mice who would crawl over my body and into my sleeping bag at night. However, when we opened the cabin and took a good look through all the rooms and under the beds, I was relieved to find no mouse droppings anywhere and no sign of rodent activity.
The cabin looked like it had never been updated; in fact, at one time it had electricity, but the wiring appeared ancient and was no longer live. Solidly built back in the ‘20s, it had a craftsman look to it: thick, chunky fir baseboards and trim, original single-pane windows, built-in shelves, wood floors, and a pair of glass upper cabinet doors still hanging in the kitchen.
We spent most of the afternoon hauling our stuff: food, water, bedding, kitchen utensils, cookware, lanterns, clothes, etc. as we waited for the wood stove to start warming our new home in the woods. When we first got there, Craig’s electronic thermometer registered 31 degrees inside the cabin. It took about four hours to warm the place to 50 degrees, and at that point, we left and went to the saloon in the small, nearby town of Emigrant to watch the Seahawks play Monday Night Football.
When it was time to figure out the sleeping arrangements, Craig and Aya chose the two twin beds in the living room, and Matt and I took the bunks in the adjoining room. We pushed them near the door so we’d be as close to the wood burning stove as we could get, and then left our bedroom door open all night. The lack of privacy didn’t bother us, but you’ll want to be aware of that when choosing your travel companions. It was like a scene from The Waltons- “goodnight Jon Boy, goodnight Mary Ellen, goodnight Jim Bob.” Throughout the night, the four of us took turns stoking the fire when we got up to sprint to the outhouse and when we were woken by animal noises: the crunch of snow outside our window, a scurrying in the ceiling above us, footsteps on the front porch, and a scratching at the front door.
The next day, we headed south towards Yellowstone, crossing the border into Wyoming just past the North Entrance to the park. We stopped at the Mammoth Hot Springs Visitor Center (open all year) for information on the best places to snowshoe in the northern section of the park. Standing next to the information desk was an easel with a whiteboard filled with recent wildlife sightings, listed by date and location. Just five days earlier someone had spotted grizzly bear tracks. Assuming that all the bears were hibernating by now, we asked the ranger on duty about the sighting. He told us that a few might have come out of their dens for one last meal due to the sparse snowfall. Even though it was unlikely we’d see one, he advised us to carry bear spray, which of course we had left behind at the cabin.
The ranger was familiar with Big Creek Cabin, and when we mentioned the animal noises we heard at night, he told us it was most likely a pine marten. “Is that a bird?” I asked. “No,” he replied. “It looks kind of like a cat, and belongs to the same family as weasels, otters, and mink. The pine marten is your best friend; it’ll come out at night and eat all the mice that are hanging around.” And just like that, those sinister-sounding night creatures that I’d feared a few hours earlier were now—in my mind—our friendly feline-faced protectors.
In the winter, the Park Service closes most of the roads in Yellowstone to car traffic, but lots of outfitters guide trips throughout the park, offering everything from snowmobiling to wildlife safaris and photography tours via snowcat. Based on the ranger’s recommendation, we drove the only open road far into the Lamar Valley where we found enough snow at Pebble Creek to snowshoe. It was a beautiful, blue-sky day, and it felt exhilarating to tromp through the forest. When we finished, we continued driving along the scenic road out of the park through the Northeast Entrance to the point where the road closed at Cooke City, Mt. (winter population 45). Cooke City, at an elevation of 7600 ft, is a winter playground for snowmobilers, snowboarders and skiers. After lunch at a local diner, we started the long drive back to the cabin.
Matt and Craig tried to get the antique, wood-burning stove in the kitchen going so we could heat our dinner, but the firebox was small, and it took too long to generate enough heat to be worth their effort. Eventually, we placed our cooking pots on top of the wood stove in the living room, heating the premade dinners we’d brought from home. (At other times during our stay we used a cast-iron griddle Craig had brought to fry eggs and grill ham and cheese sandwiches.) Since we weren’t cooking in the kitchen, we kept the door to that area of the cabin closed to conserve heat, basically turning the kitchen into one giant refrigerator.
The next morning, we were excited to wake up to snow flurries, and they continued for a few hours, making the cabin appear as if it was inside a snow globe. After breakfast, we strapped our snowshoes on and followed the road west to where it ended, about a mile from the cabin. At that point, several trails lead into the Gallatin Range. Choosing the Big Creek trail, we snowshoed through the forest on light, fluffy snow, following the creek for several miles. When the snow finally stopped, the sun came out turning the forest into a winter wonderland as it reflected off the glittering snow crystals. Even though we saw several connector trails and backcountry campsites on our snowshoe hike, we never encountered another human.
Our evenings at the cabin were filled with lots of good food, wine and some pretty competitive games of gin rummy. The stars were dazzling in the dark night sky, and as we huddled outside, faces turned upwards, the Milky Way seemed to hover right above us. Bedtime came early every night, and since we all had to get up at various times throughout the night to make sure the fire in the wood stove didn’t go out, no one was in a hurry to get out of bed in the morning.
On our third day, we went back to Yellowstone to explore Mammoth Hot Springs, one of the most unique thermal features in the park. The hydrothermal area is divided into two sections: the lower terraces and the upper terraces. Our first stop was Palette Spring; shrouded in snow, ice, and steam, it looked like something from another planet. As we walked the mile or so of boardwalks around the lower terraces, the snow swirled, and the wind blew right through us. By the time we climbed the stairs to the upper terraces we were frozen.
The weather in the park kept getting worse, so we turned back and drove to Gardiner, outside the park’s north entrance, to get some lunch. Gardiner is a historic town dating back to the 1880s, with a variety of lodging options, restaurants, and shopping to accommodate the tourists visiting Yellowstone. Just as we got there and parked, all of the “OPEN” signs in the store windows went dark; the power to the entire town was out and we couldn’t find a restaurant that was able to serve food. Hoping to have better luck elsewhere, we drove to the saloon in Emigrant only to find that the power was out there as well. People drinking beer and shooting pool packed the bar; our server called it a “Black Out Party.” It was chilly and dark in the saloon, and they had no way to cook, but more importantly, their toilets required electricity to flush, so the bathrooms were out of order. We laughed about the irony of the situation as we sat in a booth sipping a beer; we had a much better set up waiting for us back at our primitive cabin: a warm stove, lanterns, a functioning pit toilet, and all the food we could eat.
On our last morning, Craig cooked everyone a proper mountain breakfast: pancakes and sausage, complete with real butter and maple syrup (leave the margarine and Aunt Jemimah syrup at home when you come to the wilderness of Montana). We packed and took several trips hauling our stuff to the trucks. In addition to the items that the recreation.gov website suggested we bring (extra propane for the lantern or battery-operated lanterns or flashlights, bedding, cookware, dishes, utensils, newspaper, garbage bags, matches, toilet paper and first aid kit), we brought a few others that proved to be worth their weight in gold: fire starters, $5 fitted sheets from Walmart, plastic sleds, bleach wipes, and battery-operated Christmas lights.
Before leaving, we swept the floors, wiped down the tables and counters, restocked the outhouse with toilet paper and split more wood for the next group. I took a moment to write in the cabin’s journal, where visitors before us shared memories of their stay. Matt and I locked up, and as I closed the front gate for the last time, I felt like crying. It had been four magical days away, simple and hard at the same time. We had a brief taste of how much work it took a hundred years ago to survive in the winter without the luxuries we have today, like electricity and running water. It’s good, I think, to step out of our comfort zone occasionally and go someplace where an adventure awaits.
Staying at Big Creek Cabin opened our eyes to another facet of our incredible public lands. There are hundreds of unique places to stay (cabins, fire lookouts, yurts), and we’ve just begun to explore the possibilities. For sure, we’ll be back on the USFS website searching for another unique location for next year’s winter wonderland trip.