Beyond the park: Travel guide to Yellowstone Country Montana
Of all the places in the world I’ve traveled, Yellowstone National Park stands as my absolute favorite. I have a special connection to Yellowstone, as I lived and worked there two decades ago, so – for me – it stands as far more than a travel destination. Part of why Yellowstone is so special to me has to do with the places to visit near Yellowstone National Park, better known as Yellowstone Country Montana. Recently, I had the opportunity to travel back to Yellowstone Country and visit three of the region’s communities: Bozeman, Gardiner, and West Yellowstone. Back in the 1990s as a seasonal Yellowstone employee, I spent a great deal of time in all three of those towns. Returning 20 years later, I had that comfortable, familiar feeling; while being introduced to all of the newer changes and developments.
Just as I encourage Yellowstone visitors to take their time exploring the park (not just rushing in and out to see Old Faithful), I advocate for including in your itinerary a few days to also discover Yellowstone Country. In this post, I will focus on Bozeman, Gardiner, and West Yellowstone to get you started.
Start your adventure by flying into Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN). It is Montana’s biggest airport and has non-stop service to and from 15 U.S. cities, including Chicago, New York LaGuardia, and Atlanta. Alaska Airlines, Allegiant Air, American Airlines, Delta, Frontier, and United all service BZN. The Bozeman airport is not very big, especially compared to mega airports like O’Hare, and it is everything you’d expect an airport in Montana to look like. The best way to get around Yellowstone Country is to then rent a car at the airport and be on your way. The walk to the car-rental counters is quick and painless, as is the walk to the car lots to find your rented vehicle.
Bozeman has boomed in recent years. Along with the population, the number of top-notch restaurants, drinking establishments, and lodging options has also increased, joining an already impressive line-up of local favorites.
What to do in Bozeman, Montana
Shop Main Street
From Grand Avenue to about Rouse Avenue, Main Street has just about everything visitors and locals need, from outdoor sports apparel to home furnishings. There is also no shortage of original Montana gifts and products.
Just a 30-minute drive from downtown Bozeman is Hyalite Canyon, a favorite spot among locals for hiking, fishing (on Hyalite Reservoir), camping, and Nordic skiing (in winter months). There are miles of hiking trails ranging from easy to strenuous, a popular and relatively easy one being up to Palisade Falls.
Closer to town is Drinking Horse Mountain Trail. It is a moderate, 2.4-mile loop and hikers who reach the summit are rewarded with 360-degree views of Bridger Canyon.
Museum of the Rockies
The budding paleontologist of the family will be delighted by Museum of the Rockies (MOR). A Smithsonian Affiliate, MOR is known for its enormous collection of dinosaur fossils, including a full-scale T.rex skeleton. MOR is also home to permanent and changing exhibits focusing on regional history; a living history farm; and Taylor Planetarium.
Bridger Bowl Ski Area is where locals and visitors head for “big powder” and serious skiing. There is no lodging at Bridger Bowl but it’s only a 30-minute drive from downtown Bozeman. Bridger Bowl also offers free shuttles from various locations in Bozeman on weekends and school holidays.
Where to stay in Bozeman, Montana
The LARK is one refreshingly different hotel – and I’m not just talking about its appearance. I’m talking about its ethos. Yes, The LARK Hotel has its own belief system. It consists of making the hotel rooms just comfortable enough to make you feel at home, but not so comfortable that you’re tempted to not leave the room at all. The LARK wants guests to get out and enjoy Bozeman, even going so far as to provide “guides” (hotel staff members) to dispense travel advice and a common Map Room to help guests plan their adventures. As for the rooms, they are simply stated but super modern, decorated with pieces made locally of metal, wood, and leather. Furthermore, each room contains a unique piece of art created by a local artist. The LARK is suitable for solo travelers, couples, and families (book the Queen + Bunk room if traveling with young children).
Part of the SPG/Marriott family, Element by Westin is a newer, extended-stay hotel in downtown Bozeman. Each room at the LEED-certified hotel is fully equipped with ENERGY STAR rated appliances. With “balance” as its main focus, the hotel is designed to provide free-flowing movement for guests by allowing for extra space throughout and to utilize natural light as much as possible. Complimentary breakfast and evening socials are available for all guests, whether you’re staying for one night or one month.
This 1897 Victorian mansion, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, features 9 guest rooms of varying size and capacity. The home’s two parlors on the main level make up part of the inn’s common area. Relax by the fireplace, enjoy music played by the Regina disc-playing music box (which also dates back to 1897), or just sit facing the windows to take in the view of the Bridger Mountains.
Where to eat and drink in Bozeman, Montana
Jam! – Fun, bright spot on Main Street with unique twists on traditional favorites. I had my very first beermosa at Jam! Their fun take on the mimosa, a beermosa is made with orange juice and pilsner. The cool vibe and outstanding food can make for long waits at Jam! Don’t be discouraged, though. Grab a mug of hot coffee while you wait; it will be worth it.
Lot G – Pancake lasagna. Need I say more? Actually, I should, to let you know that Lot G prides itself on from-scratch recipes of locally sourced products. Dishes range from the decadent (pancake lasagna) to the uber healthy.
Starky’s – Neighborhood grill serving delicious comfort food, including “Montana’s best reuben sandwich” (it was pretty delicious). I was also eyeing my travel companion’s lunch, black bean tostadas with grilled sweet potatoes.
Backcountry Burger Bar – Another establishment offering nothing but local products, including locally-raised beef and bison. Even the beers are local (most of them); I recommend the Ridge Hippie Kolsch made by MAP Brewing right in Bozeman.
Beer and booze
Bozeman Spirits Distillery – Whiskey, rum, vodka, and gin are produced, distilled, and bottled on-site. Stop in to the tasting room that’s fashioned to resemble an Old West saloon and try the signature huckleberry vodka.
Mountains Walking Brewery – At the time of my visit (October 2017), Mountains Walking had been open only a week or so. The food menu wasn’t complete and only 3 beers were available. But, my goodness, everything we tried was amazing! The cream ale Here, Friend is outstanding, as are the maple doughnuts served with beer caramel.
Gardiner, Montana, is the gateway to the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park. The town is substantially smaller than Bozeman, an hour to its north, but there is a whole lot more happening in Gardiner now than there was 20 years ago when I lived and worked only five miles away.
What to do in Gardiner, Montana
As Gardiner is the gateway to Yellowstone, many of the activities offered in the town involve going into the park. There are, however, a number of guide services based in Gardiner that offer tours outside the park, such as horseback riding, whitewater rafting, and hiking. Click over to Visit Gardiner Montana for options and contact information.
Where to stay in Gardiner, Montana
An art gallery and working studio, Elk River is like no place I have ever stayed before. Owners and artists Shirl Ireland and John Stacy built Elk River from the ground up and spared no detail. It is a fully-functioning home with five bedroom/bathroom suites that can accommodate up to twelve people. Shirl and John designed Elk River to be casual and comfortable, yet grandiose enough to display their works of art and to feel immersed in the surrounding landscape. The result is modern yet rustic; luxurious yet unpretentious; and nothing short of magnificent. A stay at Elk River is reason enough to travel to Gardiner.
Where to eat and drink in Gardiner, Montana
Yellowstone Grill – Hearty breakfast and lunch in a casual setting. Dine in and you just might be treated to an impromptu bluegrass jam session, featuring the restaurant owner. Planning to spend the day in Yellowstone? Let Yellowstone Grill prepare and pack a brown-bag lunch for you. Just order ahead of time.
Yellowstone Pizza Company – Being a lifelong Chicagoan, I’m always reluctant to try pizza in other cities, especially a place as small as Gardiner. How good could the pizza be? Well, when the restaurant owner is a native Pittsburgher (and former Yellowstone seasonal employee) and he uses family recipes, the pizza is really good! There are some adventurous, non-traditional pizzas on the menu like the Soda Butte Elk (elk meat, caramelized onion, sundried tomato, mushrooms, oregano), but there are also old standbys like Margherita and the Old Faithful (good, old-fashioned pepperoni).
Two Bit Saloon – One of the places where I once spent a lot of time and money, the Two Bit is a Gardiner institution. It’s been in business for more than 40 years and bills itself as “a traditional Montana experience”. These days, the Two Bit is serving up breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as cocktails and local beers. There are pool tables, gaming machines, and live music on the weekends.
Red’s Blue Goose Saloon – If you want to see another place where I spent a lot of time and money, and where I learned to shoot pool and developed a fondness for music by The Band, then you must visit “The Goose”. It’s a no-frills bar with cold beer, some pool tables, and a whole lot of character.
West Yellowstone (“West”) is to Yellowstone as Gatlinburg is to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s a year-round destination and hub for fly fishing and winter sports. West also wins the prize for most souvenir and gift shops in Yellowstone Country.
What to do in West Yellowstone, Montana
It is possible to fish year-round in and around West. The town is surrounded by blue-ribbon trout streams, making West a premier fly-fishing destination. Hire an experienced fishing guide to take you to the best spots, especially if it’s your first time fishing those waters. Planning a winter visit and want to fish? Not a problem. Ice fishing is becoming quite popular in West.
Hit the trails
West is surrounded by millions of acres of public lands making it a hiker’s dream come true. Bicyclists aren’t to be left out, as West is in close proximity to the Continental Divide Trail and has a portion of the TransAmerica Trail running through town. The Rendezvous Trail System is used year-round: by hikers and bikers during spring, summer, and fall; and by cross-country skiers in winter. For snowshoeing and more cross-country skiing, head to the Boundary Ski and Snowshoe Trail that runs along Yellowstone’s western border.
Enthusiasts travel from all over to enjoy the area’s 400 miles of snowmobile trails and 150 inches of annual snowfall. For sledders looking to go into the backcountry and for those not familiar with the area, hiring a guide is strongly recommended.
In addition to top-notch fishing, the West Yellowstone waterways make for prime boating, kayaking, and rafting opportunities. Nearby Hebgen Lake is perfect for small and larger boats; kayaks; canoes; paddleboards; and personal watercraft. Most equipment can be rented at area marinas. For the thrill seekers, half- and full-day rafting excursions are available and can be combined with ziplining or horseback riding.
Where to stay in West Yellowstone, Montana
The 18-room hotel is the area’s newest boutique property and it prides itself on being “distinctly Montana”. The rooms and common areas are beautifully appointed with locally-created furniture and artwork. Each room is warmly inviting, with a gas fireplace, towel warmer, and robes and slippers. It was difficult to leave my cozy room for dinner and at check-out because it was so warm and comfortable. Even the bathroom is luxurious, with dual vanity bathroom sinks, his and her toiletries, and double showers. I should mention that 1872 Inn is an adults-only property. That’s right, children are not permitted. As a family-travel writer, it may seem that 1872 Inn is not the kind of place I should cover. However, parents – even we family-travel writers – do, can, and will travel without our children! And as much as we love our children, sometimes we need to escape to a place like 1872 Inn to relax, regroup, and refresh.
The good news is that West Yellowstone has plenty of other lodging options for families, from RV parks to lake resorts. One such lodging option for families is Moose Creek Inn. Families have an array of options to accommodate groups of varying sizes, from standard rooms at the inn to a 1-bedroom suite and detached log cabins.
Where to eat in West Yellowstone, Montana
West welcomes visitors from around the world and therefore has dining options that span the price and cuisine spectrums. There really is much to choose from so I’ve narrowed down the dining recommendations to the two places I actually dined on my recent visit. For more options, I suggest this West Yellowstone dining chart.
Mountain Mama’s Cafe – Only thing better than the food and the atmosphere at Mountain Mama’s Cafe is the owner, Kim Howell. She is so energetic and sincere and it’s obvious she loves what she does. But back to the food: Kim’s specialties are wild game pot pies, with options ranging from smoked pheasant to rainbow trout. Mountain Mama’s Cafe is open year-round and, in winter especially, it’s the perfect place to warm up and fill up.
Euro Cafe – This pleasant little spot is open for breakfast and lunch. Breakfast options are on the traditional side, whereas lunch definitely has the European flair that no doubt gives the cafe its name (plus, the owner is from Romania). The sandwiches and burgers are hardy and the generous salads are presented beautifully.
Madison Crossing Lounge – Housed in what was West Yellowstone’s very first school building, Madison Crossing Lounge is the place to go in West for a quality meal in a relaxed and casual setting. The menu features dishes that are decidedly Montana (bison meatloaf, huckleberry burger) alongside more diverse options, like Mediterranean flatbread and wild mushroom/hazelnut veggie burger. Be sure to pair your meal with a local brew or craft cocktail from the restaurant’s extensive beverage menu (which also includes a nice bourbon list).
Are you ready to start planning your Yellowstone Country adventure?
Disclosure: I was hosted by Yellowstone Country and its partners. All words and opinions are, as always, 100% my own.