Summer of Cheap
Back when mentioning your "stimulus package" was considered inappropriate, summer days were made for gleefully gas-guzzling down Highway 89, kayaks strapped non-aerodynamically to the top of the Land Cruiser, Kona steeds lashed to the back, adventure ahead. Now you've sold the boats for beans (literally), traded your Konas for a commuter Schwinn, and swapped the SUV for a POS. Ah, recession. Fortunately, the best things in Montana really are free (or cheap) and the Paradise Valley still lives up to its name-all the way from windy Livingston to elk-ridden Gardiner.
Kick off the Summer of Cheap the first weekend of June with Yellowstone Days at Arch Park, featuring music, a 5k run, food, and complimentary (with registration) rides on the famous yellow buses into the Park. The early registration ($15) practically pays for itself with the free t-shirt, especially now that those organic Patagonia ones are out of reach.
No wait, you just remembered how annoying it is when Yellowstone tourists refer to elk as "mature deer." Punch your trade-in Tercel back up 89 toward mile marker 17, where a 12-mile gravel road leads you to the Tom Miner Campground, an out-of-the-way, $6-per-campsite gem with toilets and drinking water. Follow the two-mile Petrified Forest Interpretive Trail to witness petrified fossils and tropical tree remains, as well as views of the Trail Creek drainage at the end of your 600-foot climb.
A little closer to the road (head south on 89 from Livingston for about 45 minutes), Yankee Jim Campground welcomes you back to climbing after you couldn't pay your gym dues this winter-or even afford a new rope and harness. A chalk bag and some climbing shoes are all you need to boulder the pine- and juniper-shaded big rocks, and when you're worn out after, the campground's a cheap sleep. When the evening cools down, hike up the road, following the steam rising from the river to find nature's free hot tub near Corwin/La Duke Hot Springs.
If you've still got a working mountain bike or a decent pair of hikers, head up to the tiny, backwoods community of Jardine (left at the Cenex station in Gardiner). From there, you can see beautiful Yellowstone country, minus paying the park fee (but do spring for the bear spray.)
Speaking of backwoods, catch the Annual Fiddler's Picnic the first weekend of August at 5230 U.S. Highway 89 South next to the NFS Ranger District office. For a more citified bash, Summerfest along the Yellowstone in Livingston celebrates live music, food, beer and wine, and arts and crafts in mid-July. (For other free summer events like Shakespeare in the Park, Bark in the Park, art walks, and Festival of the Arts, check outsidebozeman.com/calendar.php or artsmontana.com.)
You'll still see the recession-proof lucky ones spinning new reels along Paradise Valley's rivers, paragliding from the peaks, and kayaking the famous Yankee Jim class III rapids of the Yellowstone. Fortunately, in the Paradise Valley, old cars, squeaky bikes, patched hiking boots, and thin wallets are just as welcome.