Paradise Found

Our guide to Livingston's big back yard.

It’s easy to extol the virtues of Bozeman’s unequivocally badass back yard—but don’t rave too loudly, lest ye drown out the sweet, seductive song of our wind-scoured neighbor 22 miles to the east. Sure, Hyalite and Gallatin Canyon are awesome, but Livingston’s playground, Paradise Valley, is a 40-mile swath of sheer outdoor splendor—sans the sporty, Nalgene-bearing Bozeman hordes. Here’s a rundown of ways to get after it Paradise-style this spring.

Let’s start with the mighty Yellowstone, the longest free-flowing river in the lower 48. Before spring runoff, there’s no better spot to chase big, hungry trout. Launch your driftboat at one of the many Fishing Access Sites along Highway 89 or East River Road, and prepare yourself for a day of shoulder-straining combat with burly browns and rainbows. If fishing’s not your thing, load a pair of binos into your raft or canoe, and take in the incomparable sights and sounds of this pristine Montana waterway. If you’re lucky—and attentive—you’ll see bald eagles, ospreys, kingfishers, and both mule and whitetail deer.

Once the snowmelt from the surrounding mountains kicks into high gear, the Yellowstone morphs from a clear, tranquil stream into a raging torrent of chocolate-colored fury. This is when whitewater kayakers and rafters giddily load boats atop roof racks and barrel south down Highway 89. The “Gardiner Town Stretch,” a brief but tumultuous run, is the most popular float. A few miles downriver lies Yankee Jim Canyon, another short-but-saucy stretch of frothing fun. Ambitious river-runners often make multiple laps through the canyon before calling it quits.

For adrenalized adventures on terra firma, head up the valley to Mill Creek or Allenspur for a sampling of Paradise Valley’s surprisingly respectable rock-climbing scene. Mill Creek Road shoots southeast across the widest part of the valley, offering sweeping vistas and a powerful sense of the great wide open. About seven miles after the pavement ends, look for cliffs on the north side of the road. Most of the climbs are short but strenuous, and only a few are bolted for their entire length; you’ll need a rack of traditional gear and plenty of extra slings.

Allenspur, accessed via the Carter’s Bridge parking area just south of Livingston, is the more popular climbing spot for Livingstoners. Its exposed, southwest aspect means it’s a better choice on cold days or following a rain. There are plenty of fully bolted routes here, but they tend to run long; pack a few extra quickdraws and plenty of chalk. Be advised: the gritty limestone will make mincemeat out of your fingers, so if your hands haven’t left a keyboard in a while, stash a roll of tape in your pack as well.

No doubt the most visually intense aspect of Paradise Valley is the vast, rugged, and utterly awe-inspiring Absaroka Range. This monstrous pile of rock and earth towers along the eastern flank of the valley; driving past them on a clear day makes you feel like you’re in the Alps. Also known as the Western Beartooths (though seldom used, this term makes much more geologic sense), the Absarokas hold enough hiking trails, alpine rock, and high-country lakes to keep an ambitious outdoorsperson busy for a lifetime.

Pine Creek is the most popular trailhead in Paradise Valley. A quick, easy hike brings you to a thundering waterfall; continue on another four miles, up (and up, and up) through heavily vegetated slopes and classic alpine country, and just about the time you’re ready to collapse, the stunning vistas of Pine Creek Lake come into view. Rest your heaving lungs and barkin’ dogs, chow some lunch, then get ready for round two. Fishermen will want to patrol the banks, casting for football-sized cutthroats, while backcountry skiers can climb another two miles to Black Mountain for some sweet turns down its [north-facing chutes].

Mill Creek has some great hikes as well; a long slog that’s worth the punishment is Elbow Lake. This 12-mile hike takes you to a picturesque alpine lake flanked by Mount Cowan, a massive beast of a mountain that attracts many of southwest Montana’s best alpine climbers. For something less technical but equally demanding, scramble up Emigrant Peak for incomparable views of Paradise Valley and the entire Gallatin Range. One of my favorite hikes is Dome Mountain, accessed from either the Yankee Jim Campground or the Joe Brown fishing access. There’s no trail per se, and plenty of knee-busting scree to contend with; but once on top you’ll be glad you persevered. The expansive mountaintop harbors cool aspen groves and alpine meadows, and from the west side you can stare across into the sprawling, wildlife-rich Tom Miner Basin.

Aprés Outdoor
When you and your friends are finished with Mother Nature for the day, pile into the car and career yourselves to Pine Creek Café, the coolest, quaintest, and most decidedly Montanan joint in the valley. They’ve got a great menu, cool mid-week events like book readings and artist discussions, and great live bands. Depending on the weekend, you could find yourself doing hippie-undulations to down-home bluegrass or shaking your hips to a six-piece salsa band. If you need more room to roam, ramble on down East River Road to slake your thirst and satiate your aural desires at another quintessentially Montana joint, the Chico Bar. You can also soak your lactic acid-laced legs in Chico’s fabled hot springs and sip beers poolside. Not a bad way to round out a day in Livingston’s big, beautiful back yard.