If Yellowstone Park is America’s Serengeti, as it is often called, then the Absaroka Mountains are Montana’s Alps. Piercing the sky a mile above the Yellowstone River, these dramatic peaks form a massive wall of earth, with rounded foothills spilling down toward the valley floor in a cascade of green and yellow hues. In early autumn, the ice-blue river shimmers as deep-green junipers speckle the golden swath of cottonwood leaves along the bank. Great blue herons glide over the water, adding streaks of steel grey to the palette. Above it all, a wide blue sky seems to hold the entire scene in place.
This is the view from your perch in Paradise Valley, the ideal base camp for autumn adventures south of Livingston. With the tourist hordes gone—and off-season rates in place—there’s no better time to rent a room or cabin for a few days of fun in Bozeman’s own back yard. The river’s ready, the trails beckon, and affordable luxury awaits. We’ve put together a short guide to get you started, so get Friday off work and get the car loaded up. It’s gonna be one heck of a weekend.
Perched at river’s edge, with Dexter Point rising high above, Yellowstone Valley Lodge (yellowstonevalleylodge.com) can honestly claim one of the most scenic views in the valley. In the morning and evening, watch deer and raccoons forage along the bank, while bird life—including ospreys, bald eagles, cormorants, mergansers, mallards, and pelicans—abounds during the day. Sparrows and finches fill the air with birdsong, with the occasional bluebird and western meadowlark joining the avian orchestra.
All this natural beauty is delivered directly to the patio outside your cabin, where you can sit and sip a cold one snatched from the well-stocked cooler beside your Adirondack chair. You never had it so good. When the evening chill sets in, slip on a fleece or amble over to the Cutthroat Lounge with a book and curl up on the couch. The constant gurgle of the river and the wind rustling through the cottonwoods will eventually guide you back to your cabin, where you’ll get the best sleep you’ve had all season. And you’ll need it, because at daybreak, adventure calls.
Nearby Mill Creek is the best place to explore, with a half a dozen hikes and numerous rock-climbing routes. Passage Falls is an easy and beautiful two-miler; for an all-day outing, hoof it eight-miles to Elbow Lake, a picturesque tarn resting below mighty Mount Cowen. Many of the Mill Creek trails can be mountain-biked as well, provided you stay outside the Wilderness boundary.
Another option is Pine Creek. Take the easy one-mile stroll to Pine Creek Falls, or continue another four miles—and nearly 4,000 vertical feet—to Pine Creek Lake, one of the most stunning alpine lakes around. Stronger hikers can push another two miles to the top of Black Mountain, which provides amazing views of the entire Paradise Valley.
Hiking not your thing? Drive down to Gardiner and take a scenic float. Do-it-yourselfers can pick from among the many boat launches, while guided raft or canoe trips with River Source (riversourcerafting.com) offer a relaxing three-hour tour. Fall is also a great time to visit Yellowstone Park; other nearby activities include horseback riding, sporting clays, and road biking.
If you’re a fisherman, put all that other stuff on the backburner—fall fishing on the Yellowstone is an experience not to be missed. If you’re on your own, stop by Angler’s West (montanaflyfishers.com) in Emigrant to stock up on flies and get the latest updates. For the full treatment, have the lodge manager hook you up with their outfitter of choice, Montana Fly Fishing Guides (montanaflyfishingguides.com), who will provide gear and do all the work, leaving you a single responsibility—to catch fish. The best part? You can take out right at the lodge and within seconds be sipping a cold one at the bar.
For morning and mid-day meals, head to Howlin’ Hounds Café in Emigrant, where a home-style breakfast or stout sandwich will supply the calories needed for a long day outside. Back at the lodge, when the day’s done and it’s time to swap stories over dinner and a glass of wine, close the cabin door and stroll down the steps to Paradise Valley Grill (paradisevalleygrill.com). Set into the hillside, with a huge patio overlooking the river, this laid-back bistro hosts a lively and diverse clientele of Livingston folk, local ranchers, wealthy valley residents, and fishermen from Bozeman.
Primly dressed waitresses saunter around the room (this is Montana, we didn’t move here to be in a hurry), serving up what most locals in the know consider the best dinner in the valley. The pungent aroma of prosciutto-wrapped asparagus blends with that of roasted beets; moist Muscovy duck is served alongside the most succulent New York strip you’ll find. Much of the food is raised or grown locally, and creative combinations abound. (Insider tip: order the lamb pops.) Pair your meal with the excellent house red, review your surprisingly reasonable tab, relive the day’s adventures while gazing out across the river—and wonder why you it took you so long to find this place.
- O/B Store