Yellowstone Country, or south central Montana, is a place of rugged beauty, with its roaring rivers and snow capped peaks, and is considered by many to be one of the most naturally beautiful places on Earth. It also encompasses cultured cities and historic towns. It is partly in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which is one of the last remaining large, nearly intact ecosystems in the northern temperate zone of the Earth. It serves as a gateway for visitors to Yellowstone National Park and as a major migration route for animals coming in and out of the higher areas of the park. Much of the area appears the same as it did when Lewis and Clark explored the area.
- Beartooth area – encompasses Cooke City and the northeast entrance to the Yellowstone National Park
- Big Sky – an area south of Bozeman known for its ski resort, Gallatin River and West Yellowstone entrance to the park
- I-90 Corridor – the main east–west travel corridor, which includes Bozeman and Livingston
- Paradise Valley – carved by the Yellowstone River, extending from Yellowstone National Park and broadening out between Yankee Jim Canyon and Livingston. It is populated with small farms and ranches and serves as a major migration route for animals coming and going from the park.
Yellowstone Country offers a variety of cities and towns as a welcome relief from exploring the areas rugged wilderness. From the bustling Bozeman with its many museums and convenient airport to the quaint Cooke City which isn't much more than a convenient place to dine, refuel and perhaps spend the night after exploring Yellowstone.
- 1 Big Timber – magnificent scenery and western culture
- 2 Bozeman – the largest city, offering the widest variety of museums, restaurants and shopping
- 3 Cooke City – at the north east entrance of Yellowstone National Park
- 4 Gardiner – at the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park
- 5 Livingston – historic downtown is a favorite stopping point for visitors
- 6 Red Lodge – charming town in the foothills of the Beartooth Mountains and surrounded by Custer National Forest
- 7 Three Forks – at the turn off between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, known for its annual rodeo
- 8 West Yellowstone – a popular entrance with a small airport on the west side of the park
1 Yellowstone National Park is a United States National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was the world's first national park, set aside in 1872 to preserve the vast number of geysers, hot springs, and other thermal areas, as well as to protect the incredible wildlife and rugged beauty of the area. The park contains 3,472 square miles (8,987 km2), and 3 of the main 5 entrances to the park are in Montana at Cooke City, Gardiner (Montana) and West Yellowstone.
There are two large National Forests in Yellowstone Country helping to complete the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
- 1 Custer National Forest. Spanning across southeastern Montana north east of Yellowstone National Park the Forest encompasses nearly 1.3 million acres, the Custer National Forest is known best as one of the most ecologically diverse forests in the Northern Region.
- 2 Gallatin National Forest. This 1.8-million acre Forest spans six mountain ranges and includes two Congressionally-designated Wilderness areas, the Absaroka-Beartooth and Lee Metcalf Wildernesses.
- 1 Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area. Covering 920,310 acres, is an administrated unit of the Gallatin National Forest, Custer National Forest and the Shoshone National Forest and is named for its jagged peaks resembling bears teeth and for Native Americans that lived in the area.
- 2 Lee-Metcalf Wilderness Area. 254,635 acres protected wilderness area south of Bozeman. Hiking access to Bear Trap Canyon is from the north end of the canyon only. To reach the trailhead, follow State Highway 84 west from Bozeman. Just before the highway crosses the Madison River, and directly across from the Red Mountain Campground, a gravel road intersects the highway on the left and leads upstream on the east side of the river to the trailhead.
- 3 Cooney State Park, 86 Lake Shore Road Roberts, MT 59070. Popular 309 acre park with a large reservoir and five campgrounds with 72 campsites available daily around the lake.
- 4 Greycliff Prairie Dog Town State Park, Old US Hwy 10 Greycliff, MT 59033. This 98-acre park offers the opportunity to observe the prairie dog community in its natural environment.
- 5 Madison Buffalo Jump State Park, 6990 Buffalo Jump Road Three Forks, MT 59752. Situated on the edge of a valley created by the Madison River, this high cliff was used by Native Americans for at least 2,000 years. Native people stampeded vast herds of bison off this cliff, using them for food, clothing and shelter.
- 6 Missouri Headwaters State Park, 1585 Trident Road Three Forks, MT 59752. At the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin Rivers, this is where Lewis and Clark stayed in their historic exploration of the west in 1805.
There are four different public ski resorts in the area, each with their own unique terrain and character. Check individual websites for current conditions and pricing. The mountains usually open around mid-late December and remain open into April, sometimes May. There are also options for backcountry and heli-skiing.
- Bridger Bowl. Locally owned and adored, Bridger Bowl has operated as a nonprofit community ski area since 1955. With over 2,000 acres spanning 2,600 vertical feet located just minutes from Bozeman.
- Big Sky — Montana's largest ski resort located south of Bozeman with a low cost shuttle from Bozeman twice a day in winter.
- Moonlight Basin Located on the north side of Lone Mountain, which it shares with Big Sky Resort.
- Red Lodge Mountain basic all around skiing.
The areas rivers are famous world wide for their blue ribbon trout fishing and water sports.
- 7 The Boulder River. begins in the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains, and flows due north towards its confluence with the Yellowstone River in the town of Big Timber.
- 8 Gallatin River. The Gallatin River offers a tremendous amount of water sport opportunities, including rafting at varying skill levels. The River is also known for its scenic beauty and serenity.
- 9 The Madison River. begins in Yellowstone National Park at the confluence of the Firehole River and Gibbon River. From its origin, it flows for more than 140 miles through moutainous scenery before it reaches the Missouri River near the town of Three Forks.
- 10 The Stillwater River. begins in the mountains of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area. The river flows for more than twenty miles through the wilderness area before leaving the mountains and flowing out into the prairies and canyons that lie alongside the wilderness area. It continues for another 45 miles through a mix of canyons, prairie and forest until meeting up with the Yellowstone River near the town of Columbus, Montana.
- 11 Yellowstone River. The Yellowstone River is the largest river originating in Yellowstone National Park and is in fact the longest undammed river in North America. Breathtaking wild beauty and a plethora of fishing and white water activities for all skill levels. Perhaps the most famous river in the area, most people assume that it was named after the park but in fact the opposite is true.
- 2 Boiling River. Just inside of Yellowstone National Park south of Gardiner a sign north of where the road crosses the Gardner River marks the 45th parallel of latitude. A little distance south of the sign, a parking area on the east side of the road is used by bathers in the "Boiling River", one of a very few spots in the park where visitors can soak in naturally-heated water. Bathers must walk upstream about a half mile from the parking area to the place where the footpath reaches the river. This spot is also marked by large clouds of steam, especially in cold weather. Here, the hot water runoff from the Mammoth Terraces, enters the Gardner River. The hot and the cold water mix in pools along the river's edge. Bathers are allowed in the river during daylight hours only. Bathing suits are required, and no alcoholic beverages are allowed. Boiling River is closed in the springtime due to hazardous high water and often does not reopen until mid-summer. It tends to be very crowded, so try to visit very early in the morning during peak season.
- 3 Bozeman Hot Springs & Fitness Center, 81123 Gallatin Rd, ☏ +1 406 522-9563. Natural hot springs that provide an aternative to heated swimming pools, with no additives. Pool area split into mild temperature and a smaller, hotter pool with temperatures rising to almost 100 degrees F.
- 4 Chico Hot Springs and Day Spa, 163 Chico Road – Pray, MT 59065, ☏ +1-406-333-4933. Is an internationally known hot springs resort, spa and restaurant and an excellent stopping point for people visiting the area.
Although English is the primary language spoken in the area tourists come from all over the world to see the natural beauty of the area and it's not unusual to hear dozens of languages being spoken in public.
- 3 The Yellowstone Association, 308 Park St, Gardiner, ☏ +1-406-848-2400. A non-profit organization that educates Yellowstone National Park visitors by offering trip planners, books, videos, and guided classes through the park by their field institute. The association promotes preservation of the park through its educational Park Store bookstores, publication of books, and funding provided to Yellowstone through membership and sales of educational materials to park visitors. Which includes some foreign language materials. They are the National Park Service's official partner in education in Yellowstone National Park.
Don't expect a dazzling array of services available from larger airports, just the basics means short waits and not much else. Several smaller landing strips dot the area provide space for small private planes and a few may offer private tours. In a few areas such as Chico Hot Springs the road seconds as a runway so be prepared to pull over as planes obviously have the right of way.
- 1 Bozeman Yellowstone Airport (BZN IATA) (Is 10 miles east of Bozeman.). The airport has year-round non-stop service to Chicago, Denver, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Oakland, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Seattle. There is seasonal non-stop service to Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, Portland (OR), and San Francisco. There are call taxis and hotel shuttles available to bring you into town.
- 2 Billings Logan International Airport (BIL IATA), 1901 Terminal Cir, ☏ +1 406-247-8609, firstname.lastname@example.org. Billings Logan International is the major airport for Eastern Montana, and the busiest airport in the state. Silver Airways uses it as their hub for service within the state, and it is additionally served by Allegiant, Alaska/Horizon, Delta, Frontier, Skywest and United. Denver, Salt Lake City, and Minneapolis are the biggest hubs serving Billings.
- 3 West Yellowstone (WYS IATA). Delta (Skywest) flys to West Yellowstone three times a day during the summer.
There was a short time when Montana experimented with eliminating its speed limits to help cope with the long distances between towns. This proved to be too risky as drivers that were unfamiliar with the area were taking unnecessary risks. The good news is that its almost impossible to find an area that does not provide breath taking views of staggering natural beauty including the Beartooth Highway which is the section of U.S. Highway 212 between Red Lodge, Montana and Cooke City, Montana. An official National Scenic Byways All-American Road, it traces a series of steep zigzags and switchbacks, along the Montana-Wyoming border to the 10,947 ft (3,337 m) high Beartooth Pass that has been called "the most beautiful drive in America," by late CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt.
- I-90 connects Billings with Bozeman, Livingston, Butte, Missoula and Idaho.
- I-89 runs north south through Livingston to Yellowstone National Park
- Highway 212 leads from Cooke City and Yellowstone National Park and connects to I-90 and Billings Montana via 310 at Laurel (Montana).
- U.S. Route 191 runs from West Yellowstone through Big Sky Resort area and eventually to Bozeman.
The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (in short Continental Divide Trail) is a United States National Scenic Trail running 3,100 miles between Mexico and Canada. It follows the Continental Divide of the Americas along the Rocky Mountains and traverses five U.S. states; Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico.
It can be a long way between towns in the area so make sure you are aware of your fuel level and weather conditions before heading on the road. Even major roadways can be treacherous due to animals on the roadway so use extreme caution at night. Car rentals are available near major airports for those not driving into the area. The road between Gardiner and Cooke City is the only road open to cars during the winter
Xanterra Resorts provides bus tours within the park during the summer season. The Grand Loop Tour departs from Gardiner and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel to tour the entire park in one day. During the winter season snowcoach tours are provided from various locations. Call +1 307 344-7311 for information or reservations.
Cycling in area can be a very rewarding experience, but due to the great distances between towns and extensive mountain terrain some additional planning is necessary to ensure that lodging is available each night. Yellowstone National Park reserves a number of campsites for cyclists, but during the busy summer season it is probably best to reserve sites in advance wherever possible.
Although Yellowstone Country is known as the northern gateway to Yellowstone National Park and Gardiner Montana is the only entrance to the park accessible by road year round. There are many other wilderness areas locally including Gallatin National Forest which offer many similar hiking and backpacking experiences that are available in Yellowstone but without all of the crowds.
The greater Yellowstone ecosystem home to the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states. Sixty-seven different mammals live here, including grizzly bears and black bears. Gray wolves were restored in 1995. Wolverine and lynx, which require large expanses of undisturbed habitat, are also found in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Seven native ungulate species - elk, mule deer, bison, moose, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, and white - tailed deer live here. Non-native mountain goats have colonized some areas and numerous small mammals are found throughout the area. Paradise Valley south of Livingston is a major migratory route for animals coming and going seasonally to the higher elevations in Yellowstone National Park.
Records of bird sightings have been kept in Yellowstone National Park since its establishment in 1872; these records document 330 species of birds to date, of which approximately 148 species are known to nest in the park. The variation in elevation and broad array of habitat types found within the park contributes to the region's relatively high diversity.
Museums and cultural centers
Bozeman has a range of museums that are worth exploring. The American Computer & Robotics Museum is a must-see for anyone with an interest in computers or computing. The Children's Museum of Bozeman emphasizes hand-on activities, learning, and play. The Emerson Center for Arts and Culture puts on art exhibits, classes, and concerts in a historic (1918) school building. The Pioneer Museum chronicles the history of Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley. The Museum of the Rockies documents the changes that the Rockies have undergone.
The Carbon County Historical Society Museum in Red Lodge is a popular historical museum.
The Crazy Mountain Museum in Big Timber is a historical museum featuring exhibits that reflect the history of Sweet Grass County and the surrounding area.
In Livingston, the Depot Center of railroad history provides historic exhibits and cultural programs, ad the Yellowstone Gateway Museum explires Park County and Yellowstone National Park history.
Yellowstone Country is cowboy country and rodeos are a natural extension of local pride. Cowboys are a common site in the area and although they are more likely to drive a four wheel drive ATV these days rather than a horse, rodeos are a great time to get together and show off their skills and compete with other riders. Check out the annual rodeos in Bozeman, Livingston and Three Forks.
Although the OTO Guest Ranch near Gardiner has not been in business for over 50 years, it none the less can claim being the first Dude Ranch anywhere as the whole concept of Guest Ranches was developed in Yellowstone Country. A Yellowstone Country dude ranch vacation is a quintessential Western experience. Some are working ranches where guests participate in cattle drives and perform daily chores. Others provide a completely different experience, one with less labor and more glam camping involved. A range of activities are offered, including horseback riding for people of all abilities, fishing trips, archery, cookouts, swimming, hiking and square dancing.
World famous area for fly fishing, outfitters can be found in most cities and many towns and rural areas. Ask at local fly shops and check river conditions online. June is high water month due to snow melting at higher elevations so can make rivers treacherous and water muddy and difficult to fish.
There are fishing shops in Gardiner and Livingston.
Most towns along major rivers will have a variety of rafting outfitters that can provide a safe trip down river. Gardiner and West Yellowstone have a broad range of services for the Yellowstone Rivers Class III rapids.
Yellowstone Country offers some of the best hiking and wilderness backpacking in the United States. Check with local forest service offices for details and trail conditions before heading out and maybe more importantly remember to report back to them if you see something noteworthy. A fresh elk kill on the trail could mean that a bear is nearby for example. Know the 10 basics needed for all back country camping and that cell phones are not one of them, cell phones often don't work in rural mountainous areas. Topo maps are also available in local camping and fishing stores.
There are regional forest service offices in Bozeman, West Yellowstone, Big Timber, and South Livingston.
Its difficult to imagine a more appropriate place than Yellowstone Country to go horseback riding. If only for an afternoon of riding around a high mountain prairie or a weeks long camping adventure deep in the Montana wilderness Yellowstone Country offers plenty of opportunities to ride a horse. Various National Forest trails are designated for horseback and outfitters and ranches that cater to tourists can be found across the region.
Yellowstone Country is cattle country and meat is on the menu. Search out restaurants that offer wild game such as elk and trout, but beef and buffalo is commonly raised in the area, not the easiest area of the country to find vegetarian options but they do exist especially in larger cities and tourist areas. See individual city listings for particular food recommendations.
Look for these locally made foods.
- Wheat Montana Farms and Bakery- locally made breads from locally grown wheat.
- Wilcoxson's Ice Cream- Made in Montana since 1912. Available at many local restaurants and utilizes several local flavors.
Although Montana is not known for its sophisticated variety of drinks, there are a few great regional micro breweries and bars hold an important part of local culture. Even small towns have been known to have several bars available and they often serve as a community hub for the latest news and fishing reports. See individual town pages for specific listings.
Keep an eye out for local brews from Neptune's Brewery in Livingston and Bozeman Brewing Company. Neptune's has a taproom and restaurant, while Bozeman Brewing has a tasting room.
The campgrounds within Yellowstone National Park are wonderful but often crowded and over booked during peak season. A nice alternative is some of the many state campgrounds located near the park. Here is a list with their mileage from the various park entrances.
- North Entrance to Yellowstone near Gardiner
- Eagle Creek Campground : 2 miles
- Timber Camp Campground : 9 miles
- Bear Creek Campground : 9.5 miles
- Canyon Campground : 16 miles
- Northeast Entrance to Yellowstone near Cooke City
- Colter Campground : 7 miles
- Soda Butte Campground : 6 miles
- Chief Joseph Campground : 9 miles
- West Entrance to Yellowstone near West Yellowstone
- Baker's Hole Campground : 3 miles
- Rainbow Point Campground : 10 miles
- Lonesomehurst Campground : 12 miles
- Cherry Creek Campground : 14 miles
- Spring Creek Campground : 18 miles
- Cabin Creek Campground : 22 miles
- Beaver Creek Campground : 24 miles
- Red Cliff Campground : 35 miles
Visiting Yellowstone Country is a safe and rewarding experience if common sense and good judgment are followed. Unfortunately this is not always the case so please take the following guidelines to heart.
- During the winter, smaller secondary roads are often closed entirely, and even the Interstate can shut down rapidly when the weather turns poor. Verify weather conditions and road status  before setting out, and travel with emergency supplies. Unpaved roads are typically impassable for over half the year.
- Though many of the animals in the area are used to seeing humans, the wildlife is nonetheless wild and should not be fed or disturbed. Stay at least 100 m away from bears and 25 m from all other potentially aggressive animals! No matter how docile they may look, bison, elk, moose, bears, and nearly all large animals can attack, and every year dozens of visitors are injured because they didn't keep a proper distance. These animals are large, wild, and potentially dangerous, so give them their space. Be especially cautious while traveling at night as animals (especially deer) are known to wander onto roadways.
- The weather can change rapidly and with little warning. A sunny, warm summer day can quickly become a cold, rainy or even snowy experience. Hypothermia can be a concern. Be prepared for a variety of weather conditions by bringing along appropriate clothing. Lightning can and does injure and kill people in the area, so watch the sky and take shelter in a building if you hear thunder.
Hiking and camping
There's no reason to fear the mountains, as long as you approach them with proper respect and preparation. As with anywhere else, recklessness and a lack of forethought can get you into trouble, especially in Montana's vast back country.
- Altitude sickness - Can lead to dizziness, headaches, nausea, even blackouts and pulmonary edema. Give your body a few days to adjust to the high altitudes before going full throttle with your hiking or skiing.
- Dehydration - When you engage in strenuous outdoor activities, be sure to replenish your fluids as you go. You may be losing moisture through your mouth and nose and through sweating, but be completely unaware due to the arid mountain air. May result in dizziness, intense thirst and elevated heart and breath rates.
- Giardia - Drinking untreated water from regional streams is not a good idea owing to Giardia parasites, but tap water is not a problem.
- Hypothermia - Prolonged exposure to the cold can result in confusion, a slowed heart rate, lethargy, even death. Dress warmly in non cotton clothing to allow any sweat to wick away from your body and evaporate. Otherwise, it may thoroughly chill you later in the day when temperatures drop.
- Frostbite - During periods of severe cold, your circulatory system pulls all your warming blood into the core of your body to protect your vital organs. This makes your extremities such as your ears, fingers and nose especially vulnerable. Wear a face mask, insulated gloves and other heavy gear on the worst winter days. It gets cold sitting still on those ski lifts!
- Sunburn - Lather up with sunscreen, even if there's cloud cover. Montana's high elevation means you have less protection to the sun's powerful ultra violet rays. This can be compounded while skiing or snowboarding, when the rays are reflected off the snow and hits the underside of your jaw. Don't forget to wear UV-rated goggles or sunglasses, as well.
- Know your 10 essentials when going on a hike, because cell phones won't always work in many rural areas, and may not be depended on in an emergency situation.
1. Navigation 2. Hydration & Nutrition 3. Pocket Knife 4. Sun Protection 5. Insulation 6. Fire! 7. Lighting 8. First Aid 9. Shelter 10. Whistle
- Finally, with so many people visiting the area each year petty crimes are something to be vigilant against. Lock your car doors and exercise sensible precautions with valuables, especially when leaving your vehicle at trail-heads or anywhere you might be away from your vehicle for any length of time.
Yellowstone National Park is to the south.