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One of our favorite ways to enjoy the great outdoors in the winter is to rent a United States Forest Service cabin in Montana. Renting winter cabins is something we do every year. Many people might not know that these cabins are available, and those who do might think that packing coolers, ice, and bedding is too daunting. I’m here to tell you that it’s totally doable and well worth the effort.
The moment I learned I was pregnant with Parks in December 2021, we were staying at Schnaus Cabin, which is a Forest Service cabin in the very northwestern corner of Montana. There’s nothing quite like taking a pregnancy test in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that Schnaus Cabin was the best place for us to learn the news last year. We had no access to a cell signal or WiFi. I couldn’t tell my friends. I couldn’t Google all of the questions swirling around in my head. Being up in the Montana mountains for a week forced us to sit with the news and let it truly sink in. I’m so grateful we had that quality time to slow down and enjoy the moment.
Since that’s where we learned of Parks’ existence, it was important to us that we keep our annual tradition going and bring him with us. He was three months old when we made our trip to our favorite cabin along along the North Fork of the Flathead River. And of course, making this kind of trip with a baby would require additional planning.
In this blog, I’ll cover:
- How to prepare for a trip to a Forest Service cabin in Montana
- Packing for a baby
- The drive up the North Fork
- What you need to know about renting a U.S. Forest Service cabin
- Our experience at Schnaus Cabin
- Keeping Parks warm
- Feeding Parks
- How we passed the time
- Cleaning the cabin
- Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Preparing For A Trip To A Forest Service Cabin In Montana
Luckily, we’ve been renting this rustic cabin for decades. So, we were very familiar with what amenities are offered. That’s especially important to understand during a winter trip.
In this particular cabin, there is no electricity, running water or indoor plumbing. Gas powers the propane cooking stove, lanterns, and heating. There is also a wood-burning stove and a vault toilet, which is only accessible from the outside.
Packing For A Baby
Understanding what to expect helped us know how to pack for Parks, who was 3 months old at the time. In addition to the obvious things like diapers and wipes, we packed:
- Pack ‘N’ Play
- Pack ‘N’ Play sheets
- Several fleece onesies
- Warm winter one-piece cover
- Warm hat/beanie
- Fleece booties
- Drool bibs (keeps his drool from getting his clothes wet)
- Portable sound machine
- First aid kit
Driving Up The North Fork
It’s a scenic drive to reach the rental cabins on the North Fork, but it’s a mountain road that can sometimes take hours in the winter. Sure, it is plowed regularly, but the road conditions depend on how hard it’s snowing. On the drive, you’ll pass more than one mountain ranch where locals live year-round. Most of them have signs sharing what they’ve named the property. The fact that many live off the grid all year is as impressive as it is rare. It’s inspiring to read what they’ve named their homesteads and see locals take such pride in their land.
Year-round you can expect to see mule deer and rabbits. In the summer, you might see grizzly bears. In the winter, it’s fun to notice the wildlife tracks in the snow and guess what animal they might belong to.
Renting U.S. Forest Service Cabins In Montana
The National Forest Service relies on federal funds to maintain and improve the health of our forests and grasslands, but that money isn’t used to maintain its Forest Service cabins in Montana. The money brought in from the rental of each cabin is put toward maintenance costs. But more than just money, the National Forest Service relies on its guests to clean the cabins before they leave and take care of them as if they’re their own.
Schnaus Cabin is one of the most popular Forest Service cabins in Montana thanks to its remote location and sweeping views of the dense forests and snowy mountains of Glacier National Park. When the snow melts, the Flathead River is a short hike away. There are several incredible places to catch some Montana fish or sit on the river bank to drink a cold beer and enjoy the peace and quiet. It even has its own access road so you won’t hear any of the other cars driving North Fork Road.
The cabin itself has a kitchen, living area, and two bedrooms on the main level. One of the bedrooms has a bunk bed and a twin bed. The other room has a full-sized bed. There is also a loft where you’ll find 5-6 twin beds. You need to bring your own bedding and pillows if you’re planning a stay at any of the Forest Service cabins in Montana. The vault toilet is outside and a short walk from the cabin. An outdoor fire pit is a short distance from the cabin.
Our Experience At Schnaus Cabin
When we arrived, it was freezing. That was to be expected, of course. The first thing we did was get a fire started in the wood stove. This particular Forest Service cabin in Montana does have a propane heater, but in our experience, the wood-burning stove heats the cabin a lot faster. Plus, it adds the ambiance that we’re looking for by renting a Forest Service cabin in the Montana mountains.
Keeping Parks Warm
Parks was bundled up in his fleece onesie, fleece winter suit, hat, and mittens. We put his booties on overtop his footsie onesie for extra warmth. I snuggled and played with him in front of the wood-burning stove with an added blanket for a few hours until the cabin warmed up.
Clark and I decided to set ourselves up with the beds on the loft. We pushed two of the twin beds together to make our bed, and set up his Pack ‘N’ Play nearby. We wanted to ensure Parks was warm enough and comfortable while he slept. Since heat rises, the loft was plenty warm for all of us.
I was exclusively breastfeeding Parks during this trip, so that made it easy for us to keep him fed at our remote cabin. For those who use bottles and formula, don’t worry! You’ll need to bring your own water jugs anyway. Water for bottles can be boiled on the stove or heated on the wood-burning stove. Another option is to bring a portable bottle warmer. We like The Baby’s Brew the best when we need to warm bottles on the go.
How We Passed The Time
While my dad cooked us dinner, Clark made cocktails. My aunt, Nancy, carried Parks from room to room, sharing our family’s history at Schnaus Cabin with him. We also had a little dance in the kitchen, which Clark captured on camera from the bonfire outside.
After dinner, we put Parks to sleep in his Pack ‘N’ Play. We turned the portable sound machine up loud enough to drown out the noise from the main floor. I checked on him often to make sure he was comfortable since we were controlling the cabin temperature with the wood-burning stove. He slept better at Schnaus Cabin than he did at home! He must have enjoyed that same peaceful feeling we’re all seeking when we rent a Forest Service cabin in the Montana mountains.
While Parks slept, we played board games, listened to music, and laughed. And laughed. And laughed. We always reminisce over past trips to the cabin while making new memories at the same time.
Those who are staying a little bit longer can enjoy a variety of winter activities from snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, to building snowmen or forts.
A One-Night Stay At Schnaus Cabin
Since we were only able to secure the cabin for one night due to its growing popularity, we woke up early to make the most of our last day. We enjoyed drinking coffee as the sun rose over the Whitefish Range. My dad made us eggs to order on the propane stove and after breakfast, we packed up and cleaned the cabin. Before leaving, I signed the guestbook detailing our short stay. It’s always fun to read the recent entries to find out if they had any wildlife sightings.
Cleaning The Forest Service Cabin
Cabin guests are expected to clean up after themselves, so make sure you plan for that if you decide to rent a U.S. Forest Service cabin in Montana. The Forest Service always provides cleaning supplies but you’ll want to bring extra rags or paper towels. There never seems to be enough of those.
We cleaned all the countertops, swept, and swiffered the floors. We always make sure to leave the Forest Service cabin in better condition than we found it.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Renting A Forest Service Cabin In Montana
Should I take my baby to a Forest Service cabin in Montana?
Yes, you should absolutely take your baby with you to a Forest Service cabin in Montana. It snowed the entire time we were there. We felt like we were in a Hallmark movie. It’s always a magical experience when we visit these Forest Service cabins in the winter, but it was an extra special experience bringing Parks with us.
My advice is to do your research. Have a clear understanding of what amenities the Forest Service cabin in Montana you’re renting offers, and pack accordingly. There will be some surprises, but parenthood is full of surprises. Don’t let the fear of the unknown stand in your way of incredible outdoor adventures.
How do you find a Forest Service cabin in Montana to rent?
Recreation.gov has a list of Forest Service cabins in Montana. Keep in mind that they are spread out across the whole state. Make sure you find the cabin on your favorite map app to make sure it’s in your desired area.
Do you have any advice for booking a Forest Service cabin in Montana?
You have two options. If you’re flexible with your dates, you can simply log onto the recreation.gov website to see what happens to be available. If you’d like to book specific dates, you will need to be prepared to book six months in advance. That’s when your dates will be available. You’ll need to be ready at 10 a.m. ET and refreshing the site with your dates in order to have a chance at your desired dates. It’s like buying concert tickets. Do your research, know your dates, and test your strategy of booking a few days in advance to get to know the system.
What do we need to pack to bring to a Forest Service cabin in Montana?
You’ll want to bring your own food, cooking water, drinking water, and doing dishes, other drinks, ice, and paper towels. The U.S. Forest Service provides toilet paper, plates, cups, utensils, dish soap, gas for the stove and lanterns, and cleaning supplies (for the most part). Be prepared to pack your trash out. There is no garbage service, but they do typically provide garbage bags. You’ll also want to bring your own bedding or sleeping bags and pillows. Some cabins, like Zips Cabin, for example do have electric stoves, refrigerators, and running water, but most don’t have electricity. Bottom line: Do your research.
How much does it cost to rent a Forest Service cabin in Montana?
The fee to rent a Forest Service cabin in Montana varies. It depends on the popularity of the cabin as well as the cost for the U.S. Forest Service to maintain it. The cabins that we rent in Northwest Montana range from $50 to $90 per night. While they’re relatively inexpensive, keep in mind that you won’t have the amenities you’d come to expect from a hotel or Airbnb, but you will certainly have the views.
What are some of the most popular Forest Service cabins in Montana?
Here is a list of the most popular U.S. Forest Service cabins in Northwest Montana:
- Ben Rover Cabin
- Schnaus Cabin (incredible views of mountain ranges)
- Ford Cabin (on the smaller size)
- Wurtz Cabin (historic cabin on the National Register of Historic Places)
- Zip Cabin
- Ninko Cabin (only offers winter access)
- Hornet Lookout Cabin
- Anna Creek Cabin
- Star Meadow Cabin
- Garnet Mountain Lookout
Not all of these cabins are available year-round. Some cabins like Ninko Cabin are closed during what you’d expect to be the busiest season due to frequent bear activity. However, it’s open during the winter months. So regardless of what season you’re looking to rent a Forest Service cabin in Montana, there is one for you in Big Sky country!