It's tough being a Bozemanite sometimes. Which coffee shop am I gonna frequent? Which one of these Suby Outbacks is mine? Grab a jacket, a Nalgene, those never-ending out-of-town guests, and get back into the boonies for a day, on one tank or less.
Start in Manhattan, Montana. You can deliberate between the Garden Cafe or Cafe on Broadway, but either one is sure to provide a hearty home-cooked gut bomb. Stagger out to the car, head west on Interstate 90, and follow the signs to a seven-mile gravel road to Buffalo Jump State Park. Here, a dusty hike winds up the cliff where many a plump and tasty grassfed bison fell prey to peckish Plains Native Americans. See the bovines' last view (a sweeping vista of the Madison Valley), then scramble down and speed that coffee-sloshing bladder west on I-90 again to Headwaters State Park, where several outhouses await.
Oh, and where the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin rivers flow together to form the Three Forks, after which the area is named. At the humbly appointed but refreshingly uncrowded state park, colder days offer top-notch trout fishing and quaint short hikes on the river bluffs and through cottonwood groves. On a warm day, you can snorkel the clear, even water from the confluence of the Jefferson and Madison to where the Gallatin flows in. A paved trail moseys from Headwaters State Park to the Three Forks Golf Course, offering roller relief to anyone who still owns some 'blades. For hipper So-Cal wannabes, this trail's an easy introduction to longboarding.
Hungry yet? Hop back on 90 and head to the first-ever Wheat Montana at Three Forks Junction (which most of us call the Helena turn-off but is locally known, for some unknown reason, as the Banana Belt.) The favorite here is a healthy soup-and-sandwich lunch, although one of their six-inch cinnamon rolls (which EVERYONE plops extra butter onto) would give the ol' spandex a stretch, too. For a cool drink and eye-candy dessert, Teasers is conveniently located across the street. (For a more wholesome post-lunch experience, there's a swimming hole off the back road to Three Forks, which crosses the Jefferson near the Drouillard fishing access.) Fuel up at the adjacent gas station, head south on Highway 287, and in a mere 8 miles, yank a right onto Parker Homestead, a tiny miss-it-if-you-blink state park.
Here, you can literally walk right into the humble cottonwood-shaded two-room dwelling built by Nelson and Rosa Parker in 1901. (Don't worry, it's not creepy.) Sure, the furniture's all gone, but it's easy to get a feel for what pioneer life might have been like in a sod-roofed cabin in the middle of nowhere, Montana.
Ramble on down 287 and stay right at the split with Highway 2. This'll take you to the famous Lewis and Clark Caverns, open May 1st to Sept 30. Here, guides lead slack-jawed minions through two miles of glimmering tunnels and natural cathedrals. Sure, "guided" usually implies "lame," but the history of the Park is just as fascinating as the geology. Bring a jacket and an LED headlamp; it'll bring out the true colors of the limestone. If the Caverns aren't open yet, a little farther down the road at Sheep Gulch, mountain bike trails wind around Cave Mountain and you can peer into the open maws of now-closed mines.
Or, when the really warm weather blows in, cancel everything and just get on the river for a few hours. Sappington Bridge (crossing the Jefferson on Highway 287, just past the Highway 2 split) is a perfect spot to throw in a tire tube and a cooler tote with plenty of water, sunscreen, and libations. A peaceful float leads to riverside cliff-jumping. "If you ever need new sunglasses," says Bozemanite Simon Clemens, "just go snorkeling under those cliffs." For a grand finale to the float, plunge off two-story trusses after the takeout at Williams Bridge.
From Williams Bridge (or heading back from the Caverns/Sheep Gulch on 287), slosh into Willow Creek, where the best ribs this side of the Mississippi have been hiding in an old barbershop since 1997. Go before you're too hungry, because the Willow Creek Saloon packs its 10 tables every night of the week. Expect a short but venerable winelist, ritzy (yet homey) meat-and-seafood specials, house-made desserts, and historic bullet holes in the antique tin ceiling.
Not ready to quit? Norris Hot Springs is just over half an hour away. If you've never indulged in the Holy Bucket, be sure to go on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday nights, when live bluegrassy music plays bucketside. The No Loose Dogs Bar serves microbrews and wine a mere five feet from the pool's edge—just order in your swim trunks and hop back in the water with your spritzer. Bonus: designated drivers of carloads of 4 or more receive a free pass for their next entry. An easy starlit meander on Highway 84 (Norris Road) will lead you back east to Bozeman.
Just to review: killer vittles, museum-quality history, geological wonder, an uncrowded venue for multiple wheeled sports, and geothermic relaxation without ever getting much more than an hour from Boze Angeles. Yep. It's rough being a Bozemanite.
Along the Way
The Three Forks loop is more than just caverns, cliffs, and good living. Here's some more info that could make your road trip even better.
There’s a Garage-A-Rama on the second Saturday in June. Mid-June through mid-September, the Manhattan Farmer’s Market is in Railroad Park every Wednesday. Shop with locals selling homegrown produce, baked goods, arts, and crafts.
The weekend of April 26-27, catch the Annual Horse Drive or the High School Rodeo in Three Forks. On May 17, the Community Consignment Auction takes place. The Headwaters Country Jam is June 26-28.
Good to Know
Wheat Montana opens at the crack of dawn (6 am) and closes at 8 pm.
Lewis and Clark Caverns are open year-round, but guided tours are only conducted daily between May 1 and September 30.
The Willow Creek Cafe is open Tuesday-Saturday from 11 am to 9 pm. On Sundays it opens at 8 am. Next door is the Willow Creek Gallery.
Norris Hot Springs has live music Thursday-Sunday nights.