Fall, by the Wayside

Autumn outings in and around Gardiner.

Founded in 1880 and named for legendary mountain man Johnston Gardiner, this Yellowstone-gateway hamlet sits smack dab in the middle of some of the finest big-game hunting (and fishing) country in the world. Nestled between the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness to the north and Yellowstone National Park to the south, with the Yellowstone River slicing right through it, Gardiner truly is a sportsman’s paradise.

Gardiner is most famous for being the first official entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Its Roosevelt Arch—a large stone and mortar arch dedicated by president Theodore Roosevelt in 1903—frames the road to the Park’s only year-round entrance. But with locals, it may be even more famous for the quality of the outdoor activities it offers in fall. Below are three of our favorites.

Get Into a Rut
Of course one of the most popular things to do in the Gardiner area in the fall is to witness the annual elk rut. The rut usually begins in late August to early September and transforms the local wapiti into lustful, angry, breeding machines. To hear the haunting bugle of a bull in full rut is to experience nature at its most raw. This may be one of the reasons Don Laubach developed and patented the first cow elk call in 1985. Now a local, family-owned business in Gardiner, E.L.K., Inc. encourages visitors to stop by and visit (800-272-4355 or elkinc.com).

Fish in Peace
While most outdoors folk begin to slobber over the prospect of big-game hunting at first frost, Gardiner also has some of the best and most productive autumn fishing. If you can’t decide between hunting and fishing, a cast-and-blast may be in order. As luck would have it, one of the oldest fly shops in the state of Montana happens to call Gardiner home. Established in 1953, Park’s Fly Shop is literally everything a fly shop should be (they even have spinning lures and ammo). The emphasis at Park’s is local—you won’t find any bonefish flies here. However you will find local guides who know the local water and the exact bugs for that water. Call the shop at (406) 848-7314 or visit parksflyshop.com.

Play the Big Game
Gardiner is base camp for a lot of big-game outfitters, their clients, and local hunters alike, and with the numbers and varieties of big game, this only makes sense. There are other types of hunting available, namely upland birds. Most of the hiking trails in this area lead to great grouse hunting, and a popular favorite is the Little Trail Creek/ Sheep Mountain trailhead. Hike the draws, looking specifically for low-lying areas that may contain a little water, and cover. Be bear aware in this area; bird-hunting season falls during the bears’ major calorie collection times (just prior to hibernation), so carry and know how to use pepper spray. For more information on bear sightings, trails, or Wilderness land, contact the Gardiner Ranger District at (406) 848-7375 or fs.fed.us/r1/gallatin. For current upland bird regulations and other related information visit Montana FWP at fwp.mt.gov.

For those big-game enthusiasts willing to put in the saddle and foot miles, the Absaroka-Bearthooth Wilderness just outside Gardiner can be as good as it gets for big bull elk on public land. If you are among the fortunate few who drew a special tag in this area, your chances are also pretty good for the hunting experience of a lifetime. For resident Montana hunters, there is also the legendary Gardiner Late Hunt. Those hunters lucky enough to draw antlerless or either-sex tags for the Gardiner area during this late-season hunt have boasted just over a 90% success ratio in the past few years. Of course this late hunt is by special permit only; to apply for next season, visit fwp.mt.gov and click on "For Hunters" in the toolbar.

For a sleepy little tourist town, Gardiner really does have a lot to offer as a startin-up jumpin-off, or fuelin-up point for the autumn outdoor adventurer. For more information on Gardiner-area hunting, fishing, and other adventures contact the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce at (406) 848-7971 or gardinerchamber.com.