The Grand Hotel – Big Timber, MT

Sept. 23, 2009

I arrived in Big Timber, MT, during early evening hours, ready to be tucked away for the night. I’d called ahead and booked a small room with shared bath, always a bargain way to stow away in historic hotels. It is a financial luxury, traveling alone, in that I can almost always take the smallest, least expensive room.

The Grand Hotel Bed and Breakfast, as it is called nowadays, was built in 1890 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The current hotel owner will say that restoration is an ongoing process, but it was clear from the moment I stepped inside that extensive work had already been done. Woodwork, tin ceilings, and natural brick all showed evidence of tender care.

I was given a key to Room 1, located conveniently on the second floor, not far from the stairs. Decorated in rich peach tones, it had a brass bed, antique dresser,- and old-fashioned children’s prints hanging against the walls. The room was cozy but large enough to be comfortable and just a short walk to the restrooms, which were plentiful in proportion to the guest rooms.

I’d driven without stopping for lunch, relying on snacks in the car, so I was ready for a good meal. The hotel was serving dinner in both a formal dining room and a more casual saloon. My inclination was to slump over something easy to consume quickly and casually, so a booth in the saloon was perfect. A plate of pasta and veggies solved the hunger.

Big Timber is the type of town that closes up completely at night, falling into an empty silence that is not broken until the sun rises. The peace of the empty streets created the ideal atmosphere for a good night’s sleep.

Morning led me to the dining room, where the breakfast that is included with lodging is served. The meal was described as “Chef’s Choice,” which might sound scary in a school cafeteria. But it wasn’t a problem there at the hotel. Strawberry pancakes, accompanied by eggs, juice and coffee soon landed on the table.

I lingered before checking out, enjoying the ambiance of my peach-toned room, as well as the overall historic feeling of the hotel’s interior spaces. Even after turning in my key, I reclaimed the corner booth in the saloon and jotted down notes over a soda.

A bonus for stalling before leaving was the chance to meet with owner Larry Edwards, who took over the business in 1990. His hands-on involvement in keeping the business running smoothly was apparent as I watched him make the rounds in the restaurant area, greeting guests and making sure details were covered. Even the “critters” get regular baths, he told me, referring to the various trophy heads mounted on the walls.

Downstairs, however, in the basement of the hotel, was where the most intriguing discovery of my morning waited. Beyond the smooth surfaces of the refinished banisters and the swanky interiors of the hotel’s common areas was a steep stairwell, leading to a dusty chamber filled with antique washing tubs, tables and mangles – the remnants of an early Chinese laundry. A short cascade of steps led into the room from a back door, where customers would have brought their clothing for cleaning and pressing by Chinese immigrants during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The town of Big Timber is small, without much in the way of tourist attractions. But it sits in a scenic paradise, alongside the Yellowstone River and up against the Crazy Mountains. And its location—80 miles west of Billings and 60 miles east of Bozeman—makes it an easy place to pause when crossing Montana.

Though private landholders make access to the mountain terrain somewhat difficult, there are public roads from both the west (Cottonwood Rd.) and east (Big Timber Canyon Rd.) that allow mountain enthusiasts a way into the spectacular surroundings. The 40 alpine lakes and 66 miles of trails make “The Crazies” a desirable destination for both hikers and anglers.

It’s not difficult to find standard chain lodging when traveling along Interstate highways. Sometimes it’s even what a road-weary traveler is looking for. But it’s nice to know there are other options. The Grand Hotel in Big Timber is one of those hidden finds – easy, convenient and economical, yet full of ambiance, comfort, and history. Definitely a good stop along the highway.