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. Its a place where geologic wonders intersect with bountiful wildlife and trout-laden rivers, and where open spaces stretch into the horizons.
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.
Bozemans 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.
The meandering permanent exhibit was mesmerizing to me, a Midwesterner who cant 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 Parks 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.
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.
The mud pots resemble burping pools of wet concrete just before reaching a full boil, and Dragons Mouth Cave hisses and roars as it spews steam and hot water.
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.
Its 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 Montanas 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.
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.