Every year, our corner of Montana braces for an endless caravan of RVs parading down toward Yellowstone, stopping in Livingston, Paradise Valley, and Gardiner along the way in vehicular atrocities larger than your house. But before you judge, maybe there’s a reason folks young, old, and every generation in between pile into their rolling McMansions and truck across the country to hang out where we live year-round.
Lucky for us, we don’t need to spend our life’s savings on gas to get to Paradise Valley. As you speed over the pass or zip down 89, you’ll most likely be stuck behind an RV driving 30mph and ignoring every pullout along the way; just relax and use the opportunity to enjoy the 50 miles of gorgeous scenery from Livingston down to Gardiner.
If road rage already has the best of you, stop in Livingston, where 1,000 cyclists will be riding through the area during the Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s Cycle Greater Yellowstone ride. This is an epic, weeklong bike tour that passes through Livingston and Gardiner. If you’re not up for a 460-mile ride with more than 18,000 feet of elevation gain, come cheer on the riders who are. The ride starts in Ennis on August 18; expect riders through Livingston and Gardiner on August 20-21. Event info can be found at cyclegreateryellowstone.com.
If you’re feeling homesick for Bozeman’s stellar farmers’ markets, never fear. Wednesdays throughout the summer, from 4:30-7:30pm, Livingston hosts its own array of local produce, food, arts, and entertainment at the Miles Park Bandshell.
Once you’re fully fed, continue south into Paradise Valley proper and get out of the car to stretch your legs with a hike up Emigrant Peak. The relentless, switchback-light ascent up this prominent peak in the Absarokas might be more than a leg-stretch, but you’re a hardy local, and you can totally handle it. None of those “We hiked the boardwalks at Mammoth Hot Springs” outings for you.
Now that you’ve made it through the valley, the adorable entrance town of Gardiner awaits. Every summer, this hamlet of less than 1,000 year-round residents becomes a summer block party full of raft guides, Yellowstone employees escaping the Park on their days off, and of course, the inhabitants of the aforementioned RV influx. Gardiner flexes its summer muscles though, and is well equipped to host, entertain, and feed you.
The guides around here like to say that the best way to see the backcountry is by horseback, as the original explorers did. You might not feel very original with your camera bumping on your chest and your horse wandering off to make a salad bar out of the trail, but the scenery and options for guided rides in the Yellowstone area are nearly limitless. Flying Pig Adventure Company offers rides right out of town; Absaroka Beartooth Outfitters and others travel deeper into Yellowstone and the surrounding the national forest for a thrilling backcountry experience.
Stick with the theme of exploring the Wild West in ways other than your car and get on the Yellowstone River for some whitewater experience. Eager raft guides come from all over the country to spend their summer leading trips out of Gardiner. Flying Pig, Yellowstone Raft Company, and Montana Whitewater all ensure a good time on the water.
After your day of rafting and horseback riding, make sure to eat and drink your way around town. As a bonus, your raft guide will more than likely be drinking at the bar next to you. After a few cold ones, you’ll be two-stepping at Red’s Blue Goose right along with them. Looking for a place to eat and sleep? Cowboy’s Lodge and Grill will provide room and board, and the epic breakfast burritos at Two Bit Saloon are worth waking up for.
Once you’ve eaten at every restaurant in Gardiner, head into Yellowstone by way of the iconic Roosevelt Arch. Dinner’s in the Park tonight, at the Roosevelt Old West Dinner Cookout. This event isn’t as hokey as it sounds—it’s the longest-running, continuous event in Yellowstone. Every evening that Roosevelt Lodge is in operation, wranglers load up to 200 visitors onto horses or draft-horse-powered wagons to haul the hungry masses into scenic Pleasant Valley for a hearty steak cookout. A cowboy singer entertains, and the coffee over the campfire will keep you up until morning. This event sells out nightly, so go to yellowstonenationalparklodges.com to reserve your spot.
Since you’ve been up all night anyway, get up early and go look for wildlife in Lamar Valley. Wolf watchers abound along this part of the Grand Loop Road, and they are always happy to share a look into their high-powered spotting scopes if they get a wolf in view. Even if you don’t see a wolf, the sheer number of bison, pronghorn, elk, and deer will have your camera clicking away.
So grab your fanny-pack, howling-wolf Yellowstone shirt (bonus points if everyone in your group matches), and camera and get yourself down for all those activities that show us maybe tourists do have the right idea after all.