Lynn Donaldson

You haven't seen Montana until you've been there in winter. Howling winds and bone-chilling temperatures drive out tourists and seasonal workers. Most inns close down, and what shops aren't shuttered operate at hibernation speed. This is the West as it was meant to be: empty. In a few months, green, tourist-friendly Montana will be back in force. But right now, this rugged land is showing its wild side — a treat reserved for those who love it best.

You couldn't ask for a less prepossessing atmosphere than the Pine Creek Café (2496 E. River Rd., Livingston; 406/222-3628; dinner for two $50). The restaurant recently expanded into a neighboring convenience store and still retails wine and beer. An even better selling point?The Pine Creek Café has the best cooking for miles around. Heck, the herb-crusted sea bass tastes like it's happy it was caught. • At Martin's Café (108 W. Park St., Livingston; 406/222-2110; lunch for two $15) the tabletops are gold-flecked robin's-egg Formica; a blackboard lists the latest fishing report; the meat loaf is doused with tangy gravy. And every so often, a passing freight train sets the silverware rattling. • Behind the bar at the Old Saloon & Livery Stable (Emigrant; 406/333-4482; lunch for two $15), a walleyed wooden Indian stares out at customers. Above the jukebox, a stuffed caribou looks back. Here, a burger means a mound of ground beef, a slab of fried ham, melted cheese, and some bacon, with mayonnaise on the side. Did you forget you were in Montana?

Montana's Paradise Valley carves through some of America's most inspiring scenery. To the west lies the Gallatin Range, to the east the Absarokas, to the north the Crazies. Just picture it: those shaggy snowcapped peaks fronted by buffalo-rump foothills, the lazy cottonwood-fringed course of the Yellowstone River, herds of mule deer and pronghorns silhouetted against the rich rolling farmland. The town of Livingston, at the bottom of the valley, sprang from this hinterland more than a century ago as the rail gateway to Yellowstone National Park. In those days it was a nonstop party, with cowboys and railroaders drinking and whoring and gambling till they collapsed in a stupor. Things have quieted down, but the legend lives on at the Murray Hotel (201 W. Park St., Livingston; 406/222-1350; doubles from $65), a creaky, personality-drenched old pile said to be haunted by the ghost of Sam Peckinpah, who used to hang around getting high and firing a revolver through the ceiling. • Come Friday night, the action is 25 miles south at Chico Hot Springs Resort (1 Chico Rd., Pray; 406/333-4933; doubles with bath from $65), a 100-year-old inn with the hottest honky-tonk in Park County. By nine, half the county's tearing it up on the bar's dance floor; the other half's out the side door, soaking in one of two open-air geothermal hot springs—fed pools. • More contemplative souls congregate at the B-Bar Ranch (818 Tom Miner Creek Rd., Emigrant; 406/848-7523; doubles from $380), a rustic, environmentally sensitive lodge on 9,000 acres of private wilderness.

Don't even think about heading out on a wintry Montana morning without a bellyful of something hot and hearty. At the Beartooth Bakery & Diner (104 N. Main St., Livingston; 406/222-2920; breakfast for two $12) — a sort of country playhouse decorated with old roller skates, a child's sled, a gum ball machine, and the like — the specialty is Bear Browns by Bob, a plate of fried spuds with cheese and vegetables. • If you're looking for some hot java to rev your engine, duck around the corner to the Coffee Crossing (104 N. Second St., Livingston; 406/222-1200), a funky sun-filled nook paneled in corrugated tin and hung with color-splashed paintings by local artists. • Next door at Rumours (102 N. Second St., Livingston; 406/222-5154; breakfast for two $12), the house favorite is oatmeal brûlée. Yes, it's just what it sounds like: a dose of old-fashioned porridge slathered with crème brûlée. Sweet!

Cross over the Yellowstone boundary an hour south of Livingston and the scenery goes from breathtaking to jaw-dropping. In winter, only one road in the national park is plowed. Along that 56-mile route from Mammoth Hot Springs to Cooke City, you get the best wildlife sightings of the year: buffalo, elk, and coyotes in abundance wander by the vacant roadside. You might even catch a glimpse of Yellowstone's own reclusive celebrities, 11 packs of gray wolves. On the way back, strip down (quickly!) for a dunk in the Boiling River, where scalding streams from Mammoth Hot Springs merge with the icy river water to form a natural hot tub. The big news: the park is phasing out snowmobiles over the next few years, which could quiet the winter scene from a buzz to a barely audible whisper.

When snowfall is heavy in the mountains, the best way to get around can be on cross-country skis or snowshoes. Timber Trails (309 W. Park St., Livingston; 406/222-9550; $10 a day for snowshoes, $15 for skis, boots, and poles) has the best gear in town, and proprietor Dale Sexton will clue you in on the most scenic routes. • If you'd rather travel under someone else's guidance, Absaroka Dogsled Treks (Chico Hot Springs Resort, Pray; 406/333-4933; $75 per person for a two-hour outing) will show you how to mush a team of six crazed huskies as they gallop, bark, sniff, roll around on their backs, and occasionally pull your sled up and down through the snowy landscape. For a more conventional approach to Western locomotion, lasso real-life wrangler Phil Bondurant into taking you on a horseback ramble through the Absaroka foothills. • By this time you'll have gotten a good look at the river, so it's no use fighting temptation: put on those waders. The Yellowstone is a blue-ribbon trout stream, but in February the real action is in the spring creek just south of Livingston. A constant water temp of 52 means the rainbows and browns are frisky year-round. George Anderson's Yellowstone Angler (5256 Hwy. 89 S., Livingston; 406/222-7130; guides $315 per day) will show you how to reel 'em in.

When cowboys go extreme, this is the result: skijoring, the bastard offspring of waterskiing and the Kentucky Derby. The idea's simple: put on a pair of skis, grab a rope tied to a horse, and holler "Giddyup!" In Paradise Valley, the place to call when you're ready to "jore" is the B-Bar Ranch. Just make sure your HMO's paid up first.

Books & Music, Etc. (106 S. Main St.; 406/222-7766) owner Tim Gable helped build Borders Books from a single store to a world-straddling colossus, then chucked it all to move to Montana. He opened this bibliophile's grotto, where he stages readings by Walter Kirn, Tim Cahill, and other area writers. • Golden Bear Trading (122 N. Main St.; 406/222-3911) is a treasure chest of cowpoke keepsakes with a zippy edge. Rummage through the shop for faux cowhide purses in neon orange and multicolored candles shaped like trout. • Some of the new products crafted at Montana Watch Co. (124 N. Main St.; 406/539-9861): a line of handmade mechanical watches inspired by a 1915 design, the first ever made in the state of Montana. Each watch is surprisingly hefty, but then so is the price: $1,500 each. • For a better bargain, hit up the Prairie Renaissance Candle Co. (326 S. Main St.; 800/782-9424 or 406/222-7605). The factory out back uses local herbs and flowers to make candles that are sold in the shop along with potpourri and scented oils. • Founded in 1883, Livingston's oldest store, Sax & Fryer Co. (109 W. Callender St.; 406/222-1421), carries an impressively comprehensive collection of books on the region, including works by resident writers. • The motto at Native American Nations (615 W. Park St.; 406/222-7190) — "If an Indian made it, we got it" — explains this place in a nutshell. Stop here for all your buffalo robe, buckskin, and tomahawk needs.

In Livingston, a town of big personalities, none is bigger than California-born painter Russell Chatham. His uncanny knack for capturing the ever-shifting light of the rambunctious Montana landscape is on permanent display at his own Chatham Fine Art (120 N. Main St., Livingston; 406/222-1566, fax 406/222-3884). But being the best artist in town wasn't enough, so a few years back Chatham bought and refurbished Chatham's Livingston Bar & Grille (130 N. Main St.; 406/222-7909; dinner for two $60). When you step into the elegant minimalist dining room — whose walls are decorated with Chatham's luminous lithographs — you'll think a transport pod has lifted you from Montana to SoHo. Oh, and the food's good, too.

Six bits worth of bliss: Wilcoxcon's Deluxe Chocolate Fudge Bar. They make ice cream at the factory, too, and have since 1912. The star of their 60 flavors is "Chocolate Runs Through It" — chocolate ice cream laced with chocolate fudge. Pick up a tub from any market in town.