Montana is graced with jaw-dropping mountains aplenty. But you can’t have mountains without valleys—and Montana’s valleys are as stunning as they come. The Big Hole, the Ruby, the Flathead, the Centennial… but only one is called Paradise.
I grew up in drive-thru country—Connecticut, that is, a state with a lot to offer but often overlooked by commuters between Beantown and NYC. Paradise Valley can get the same treatment—folks on their way to or from Yellowstone blast through at seventy-five. And this is a good thing, because it means you have more elbow room. Next trip to Yellowstone, slow down and give Paradise its due.
The centerpiece of the valley is the peerless Yellowstone River, winding through the plains like great green serpent, beckoning fly fishers and boaters of all stripes. On a sparkling summer day, drift boats ply the river, silver lines flicking out as fishers lure the wily cutthroat.
To me, a perfect Paradise Valley day begins with locking down my bike for a shuttle, then heading to Carbella to drop the canoe in the cool clear river. Thrown in the paddles, PFDs, a drybag of clothes, and a well-stocked cooler and you and your partner are in for a fine float.
When the wind isn’t howling, East River Road (the old road through the valley and the best place for a scenic drive) draws road bicyclists, offering a rolling, curvy route through green pastures and ranches. Mountain bikers thrive on the West Pine Creek trails (across the valley to the west) and the George Lake trail, up Mill Creek, is set to undergo an upgrade to offer a smoother ride.
For the wilder side of the river, jump on with one of Gardiner’s rafting outfitters and slay the whitewater dragons of Yankee Jim Canyon. Or if you’re looking for something more solid, grab the bouldering shoes and try the rocks in the Yankee Jim campground or rope up and tackle the crags just above the highway. To really test the tendons, try the limestone sport lines on the Allenspur cliffs just south of Livingston.
Bracketing Paradise Valley and giving it off-the-charts scenery are the Gallatin and Absaroka ranges. As you enter the valley from Livingston, the Absarokas grab your eye and pull you in, beckoning like some lost realm of Middle Earth. The Gallatins emerge more subtly, but by the time you hit the riverside rest area near Big Creek, the Hyalite Peaks are calling you from the west.
Had enough sitting and looking? Pick a trailhead and hike into the Gallatin National Forest, which covers most of the two mountain ranges you can see. Pine Creek offers a roaring waterfall only a mile up the trail from a peaceful campground, and much farther on the jewel of Pine Creek Lake. For a real lung-burner, try Emigrant Peak, which requires a full mile of elevation gain from Gold Prize trailhead. Or bounce up the road into the high, peaceful valley of Tom Miner Basin and aim for a climb through the petrified forest to the summit of Ramshorn Peak.
While not technically in Paradise Valley, Gardiner makes a great basecamp—crawling with ice-cream-seeking touristas, Park Service–types avoiding said touristas, sun-baked raft guides, itinerant Eastern European workers, and Xanterra employees keeping the bars in business.
For some outdoor festivaling, the Gardiner Brewfest in Arch Park offers a variety of chilled tastiness in the shadow of the Roosevelt Arch. August 21-22 the Jim Duffy arena bristles with Carhartts and leather as the Gardiner NRA Rodeo comes to life. Take a perch in the stands and enjoy the dust and commotion. Don’t miss the bronc riding!
When evening descends on the valley, bringing cool, pine-scented air off the mountains, Paradise Valley watering holes beckon. The Old Saloon in Emigrant dates back to the railroad era, giving a taste of the days of tourists in bowler hats and corsets. Pine Creek Saloon, in the little oasis of the same name, has frequent summer concerts and food to write home about. Music Ranch Montana is a new establishment and is bringing in some real talent for outdoor summer shows this summer, including Moe Bandy, Pam Tillis, and John Conlee.
Of course, when it’s time to really gear down, nothing beats Chico Hot Springs. Order some suds from the poolside bar, then sip, soak, and replay the glorious Paradise Valley day. Stay for a five-star breakfast, with a great variety of rooms available including rustic or luxury cabins, and coolest of all, the Short Line Caboose, a historic rail caboose outfitted for romantic getaways.
This place is called Paradise, it’s waiting, and you can go as often as you like. Plan a trip to Paradise, and find out why it’s worth slowing down on your way to Yellowstone.