Goofing Off in Gardiner

When it comes to Gardiner, the journey is the destination. Highway 89 is the kind of road that makes even those near-numbed to natural splendor wish for a lower speed limit and acoustic radio stations. The jagged peaks, rolling river, and swooping paragliders provide welcome distraction.

Snap out of your summer reverie near mile marker 17. Turn west on Tom Miner Creek Road and hang a left onto Old Yellowstone Road, the old toll road built by Yankee Jim. Witness the nostalgic advertisements, some for businesses still in existence, along this backroads drive to the Arch entrance to the park.

Or, from the same turnoff, skid gravel on Tom Miner Road for about 12 miles to the Tom Miner Campground. Here, a two-mile Petrified Forest Interpretive Trail takes you through petrified fossil and tropical tree remains, 600 feet up to volcanic cliffs and caves, and ends with views of the Trail Creek drainage. Add some burl to the hike by following Trail Creek to Buffalo Horn Pass.

Monkeys should jaunt just a little farther down 89 to the Yankee Jim campground, where huge boulders rest among pine trees under impressive cliffs. Yes, there's a little road roar, but you can also practically park a few feet from whichever boulder looks choicest. Afterward, drive or hike on 89 to Corwin/LaDuke Hot Springs (the river access, not the town). From the parking lot, a narrow trail upriver takes you to a natural soaking site on the river—you'll see the steam.

Ardythe Wendt, marketing communications coordinator for the Park, suggests this historical do-it-yourself side trip: at mile marker 10 swing a left onto Cedar Creek Road and bounce up to the Forest Service gate to park. A "bit of a grunt on the first section of road" will lead you to the remains of OTO Ranch, the first dude ranch in Montana. The Forest Service is currently working to restore the turn-of-the-century buildings with volunteer labor.

Even once you've arrived in Gardiner, the journeys continue. A left after the Cenex Station in Gardiner winds up to the tiny community of Jardine. Watch for bison, dogs, and locals waving from their zany log cabins until you dead end at the North Fork Bear Creek Trailhead. Local Nancy Parks says, "It's gorgeous country up there, you will love it." Bring bear spray for sure and a mountain bike for fun.

Back in Gardiner proper, launch a canoe, kayak, or raft at the put-in just south of the bridge; eight miles and a few Class III rapids later, you'll be back at Corwin Springs. (To hit the famous Yankee Jim Class IIIs, put in at Joe Brown along Hwy. 89 and wind up happy by the takeout at Carbella.) Newbies can test the waters with any of the numerous raft companies lining the roads to Gardiner. Most offer a two-plus hour trip for around $35-$40, as well as longer raft trips, kayak instruction, overland pack trips, hunting tours, and horseback rides.

Of course, you can always skip the "journey" part and head straight for the destination, Yellowstone National Park. Gardiner's a mere bike ride from the always-amusing Boiling River and otherworldly Mammoth Hot Springs, and it serves as a gateway to the entire Park. After all, when it comes to Yellowstone National Park, the destination is the destination.

Events in Gardiner
With Park splendor, recreational fun, wildlife sightings, and a spectacular summer sunset practically guaranteed daily, it's hard to ask for a fuller day in Gardiner. With a little planning, you don't have to.

Butterfly Count
Naturalist George Bumann organizes the Annual Yellowstone Butterfly Count, where anyone can volunteer to help the North American Butterfly Association count butterflies in a designated 15-mile radius. You're picturing a leisurely summer stroll through an allergy-medicine-commercial-worthy meadow, or perhaps wondering if people in Gardiner are just really, REALLY bored. Far from it. Picture instead joyously flailing through said meadow in heated pursuit of fluttery insects, lashing wildly with a butterfly net for the greater good of scientific research. Park-dweller Bumman is likely to wax educational about Yellowstone in between sprints; listen and learn. Hunts launch from the Yellowstone Association's North Entrance Education Center in Gardiner.

Farmer's Market
Beginning in early July, a Farmer's Market provides visitors to Arch Park pick of the week's freshest fruits, vegetables and crafts, every Monday evening, from 4:30 to 7:30 pm.

Lodging and Learning Programs
Yellowstone Forever hosts programs that roll recreation, education and vacation into all-inclusive packages. Most courses run about four days and ker-ching at the $600-$700 range. Choose from family-friendly hiking extravaganzas like the Trails Through Yellowstone program or the Yellowstone for Families package; both run throughout the summer. In late August/early September, the Fall Wolf and Elk Discovery and Roosevelt Rendezvous programs are a good low-energy choice. Packages generally include instruction from a naturalist, guest speakers, lodging, food, and transportation within the park.

Yellowstone Music Festival
Late July marks this year's Yellowstone Music Festival, hosted at Arch Park. Expect acoustic-y, bluegrassy tunes from local and regional songsters Storyhill, Greensky Bluegrass, Boulder Acoustic Society, and Elephant Revival. More than a music festival, the gathering also attracts an aggregation of regional artists bearing handmade jewelry and oil paintings perfect for those artsy impulse purchases.

Gardiner Brewfest
In Gardiner, summer's passing is mourned with a river of beer and a pile of meat at Arch Park. Live music signals it's time to drown your summer's-over blues in taste-tests of the best microbrews in Montana. Expect plentiful burgers and brats. Entertainment includes the Bartenders' Olympics, featuring your favorite barstool therapists battling for fastest beer pour, drunk toss, and shot glass sprint.