(WISDOM)- If you're anything like our family, there comes that point in a Montana winter when you "just have to get outside." The holidays are a dim memory and January has finally ground to a halt. That leaves February and that first weekend when you can almost pretend Spring is in the air.
While skiers and snowboarders keep the Montana slopes busy, we like to jump in the car or truck and hit the open highways, finding those spots where the blue skies and open vistas beckon.
One of the best drives for people living anywhere in Southwest or Western Montana has to be the loop through the Big Hole Valley.
The Big Hole is rather infamous for being the victim of temperature inversions, that can trap cold air down at the surface while the warm air and sunshine remains out of reach. But if you catch just the right high pressure system the fog is short-lived and the conditions can be spectacular.
Wisdom is often the cold spot in the valley, with temperatures that can be as much as 10-to-15 degrees colder than the surrounding country. But the people have a warm smile for you and its the only place around to grab gas and something quick to eat.
At the western edge of the valley, the Big Hole Battlefield remains open for history buffs in the winter, open daily from 10 to 5.
Heading south, the highway straightens out after the S curves at the Wisdom Airport (watch for that if you're gawking at the scenic beauty on the drive north). You'll pass thousands of acres of ranch land, and while you won't see the "Valley of 10,000 haystacks" of summer, the vistas are spectacular. Snow stretches as far as the eye can see, with the Big Hole's western rim punctuated by the southern peaks of the Bitterroot Range, known here locally as the Beaverheads. Some, like the solid Homer Youngs Peak, rise to more than 10,000 feet.
You can stop at the famous Jackson Hot Springs where the steam rises above town in the cold air, or push on south for the Big Hole Pass and further sights in the Grasshopper Valley.
Driving the Big Hole in winter is a day to remember. Just remember your coats, and your camera.
The Big Hole is accessible from several directions and can be reached in a long day's loop drive diverting off Interstate 15 at Dillon, or the turnoff to Wise River. Plan your gas stop accordingly by filling up before you start the loop, or planning to top off in Wisdom, where automated gas pumps are available 24/7.
See the full picture gallery for "Big Hole Winter".