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The five-county region of Montana that wraps around and includes the northwestern quadrant of Yellowstone National Park has year-round destinations, but insiders say fall is the best time to visit.

4-Nov-21 – Yellowstone Country Montana is a stunningly beautiful land where snow-frosted mountains ascend into an azure sky. It’s a place where geologic wonders intersect with bountiful wildlife and trout-laden rivers, and where open spaces stretch into the horizons.

Robin Hoover

The draws are year-round, but insiders will tell you that fall is the best time for travelers.

“The crowds are thinner, the animals are active, the colors are magnificent, and the temperatures are comfortable,” says Robin Hoover (left), executive director at Yellowstone Country Montana.

“Autumn is spectacular here,” says fine artist and innkeeper Shirl Ireland (right) of Elk River Gallery and Lodge in Gardiner. “With the different elevations, it’s really nice to be able to follow the peak colors as they descend to the valley. It makes for a longer autumn season.”

Shirl Ireland

Shirl, who paints Yellowstone-inspired landscapes and wildlife, and husband John Stacy, a sculptor, operate luxury boutique lodgings with panoramic views of the Yellowstone River.

Bozeman is booming

Our week-long autumnal loop began and ended in Bozeman, home of Montana State University and a filming location for A River Runs Through It, directed by Robert Redford and starring Brad Pitt. From there, we drove southeast to Gardiner, through Yellowstone National Park to West Yellowstone, then back north to Bozeman.

The Bozeman vibe is a mash-up of college cool and rugged adventure.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Downtown Main Street is dotted with cowboy bars, upscale eateries, smart fashion boutiques and gift shops, recreational outfitters, and loads of public art.

(Click on images to view larger versions.)

Bozeman’s buzzing food and beverage scene offers a diverse array of cuisines and flavors. Many menus feature locally grown produce and meat as well as craft brews and spirits. Elk, bison, and trout are also mainstays. Huckleberries are a regional delicacy found in formulations ranging from ice cream to vodka to hand lotion. The reason the plump, sweet berries are a delicacy is because they grow deep into the mountains. They have to be hand-picked, and the bears usually get to them first.

While in Bozeman, our first hike was the easy 1.1-mile Palisade Falls Trail in Custer Gallatin National Forest leading to an impressive 80-foot waterfall (right). The second, the 2.4-mile twisty Drinking Horse Trail where, at the top, you can see Bridger Bowl, one of the area’s two major ski resorts. (The other is Big Sky, about 50 miles south.)

Another Bozeman highlight was the Museum of the Rockies, renowned for its extensive display of dinosaur fossils. It’s the largest collection in North America and mostly excavated in Montana. Among them are one of the few fully mounted Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons in the country and a nearly complete Allosaurus, plus dinosaur eggs, juveniles, and lots more.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

The meandering permanent exhibit was mesmerizing to me, a Midwesterner who can’t fathom discovering dinosaur remains in a nearby field. In Montana, the possibility is real.

On to Yellowstone

Our next stop was Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872 by then-President Ulysses S. Grant. Most visitors enter via the western entrance in West Yellowstone because it is closest to the world-famous Old Faithful geyser that somewhat predictably erupts to a height of more than 100 feet about every 90 minutes.

Instead, we came through Gardiner, a quirky little mountain town and the Park’s only year-long entrance to motor vehicles. (Actually, the Cooke City entrance also is open, but getting to and from Cooke City is challenging in the winter.)

One pre-dawn morning, our guide, MacNeil Lyons of Yellowstone Insight, picked us up for a day-long tour of the park. Having an escort certainly maximized our limited time, and I highly recommend it. MacNeil has been working in and around Yellowstone for more than 20 years, and he knows all the lesser-traveled backroads, prime lookout points, and wildlife habits. He also lays out a sumptuous picnic brunch.

MacNeil Lyons

“Fall is an amazing time of year,” MacNeil (left) told us. “There are fewer visitors and more opportunities to observe wildlife.”

It’s also the time when bears fatten up for the winter and male elk bugle to impress prospective mates, he added.

MacNeil offers custom guided tours with focuses on history, photography, geology, or wildlife. For us, he gave a sampling of all. The scenery, for one, was a spectacular mix of mountains, water, plains, and forests. The hillsides and rivers were lined with the yellows and oranges of aspen and cottonwood trees shedding their chlorophyll. Up higher, towering pines were dusted with snow. Herds of bison and elk, and a sweet-faced mule deer (right), foraged peacefully.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

We stopped to photograph the 300-foot Lower Falls at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a top location for selfies. At Fountain Paint Pot, all four types of hydrothermal features were active – geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and fumaroles.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

I was most intrigued by the Mud Volcano (left), a scorched-earth stretch engulfed in pungent hydrogen sulfide gas.

The mud pots resemble burping pools of wet concrete just before reaching a full boil, and Dragon’s Mouth Cave hisses and roars as it spews steam and hot water.

Beyond Yellowstone

Aside from the Park, myriad activities beckon, including mountain biking, downhill and Nordic skiing, bird watching, and horseback riding. The historic Ellyn Theatre in Bozeman presents art films, concerts, and plays. The Museum of the Yellowstone in West Yellowstone explores the natural history of the region and how developments in transportation transformed its growth.

Predator sightings can be elusive in the park, but you’ll be close and personal at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone.

Photo by Alex Hanich

Photo by Alex Hanich

It’s a wildlife park and rescue sanctuary for bears, wolves, raptors, otters, and others who are unable to survive the wild for one reason or another. Some are impaired or orphaned. Here they can live out their natural lives in spacious, natural outdoor habitats.

The newest is Bo, a male grizzly who persisted in making a nuisance of himself at a Yellowstone campground. Rather than euthanized, he was welcomed to the Discovery Center, where he has adjusted well to his new digs.

“The coolest thing about Montana’s Yellowstone Country is we have it all,” Robin said. “You can be out in nature by yourself within minutes from just about any community in the region, but we have all the amenities one could want. It truly is a mecca for exhilarating adventure by day and relaxing hospitality at night.”

Where to stay

A dense roster of lodgings includes hotels and motels, bed-and-breakfasts, campgrounds, and ranches, offering varying degrees of luxury. In Bozeman, two faves are The Lark, a laid-back retro motel with knowledgeable staffers who can help plan your adventures, and the contemporary trendy Element Bozeman. A newcomer is Kimpton Armory Hotel, where a historic landmark building was transformed into luxe accommodations.

Photo by Alex Hanich

In Gardiner, Elk River Gallery and Lodge (left) offers two adjacent artist-owned-and-designed vacation homes with full kitchens and bedroom suites with private baths.

In West Yellowstone, the 1872 Inn is a luxe boutique lodge designed exclusively for adults.

 More info: Yellowstone Country Montana

Photos by Pamela Dittmer McKuen except where noted otherwise.