A wallet-friendly weekend escape.
For the nature-loving Bozemanite, winter in Yellowstone is a must. Where else can you see loping wolves, lumbering bison, and other thick-coated mammals wandering amid a big white wonderland? Throw in a few steaming hot springs and the quietude of the Park's pristine wilderness, and you've got a world-class staycation just an hour's drive from downtown Bozeman. Here's the best part: if you know where to go, you can get a taste of this amazing place without breaking the bank. Here's a two-day, fun-filled itinerary, courtesy of your frugal friends at O/B.
Gardiner isn't only the northern gateway to Yellowstone National Park, it's also the only entrance open to wheeled vehicles year-round. The road between Gardiner and Cooke City is laden with trails, so be sure to pack your snowshoes or cross-country skis. If you don’t own a pair, stop by Chalet Sports in Bozeman for cheap rentals ($15/day for skis, $10/day for snowshoes). Also bring a swimsuit (more on that later), groceries, and a camera.
Pick a good home-base once you get to Gardiner. We chose Riverside Cottages, off the main drag, which offers inexpensive, off-season lodging that’s walking distance from bars and restaurants, and has a private trail down to the Yellowstone River. When we checked in, owners Laura and Ed Cox gave us a quick tour and recommended some activities, as our neighbor in the room next door—a friendly Park employee named Ted—introduced himself and happily answered our myriad questions about the Park.
Gardiner slows down in the winter, meaning most of the restaurants and hotels are closed; the few people you do encounter are most likely visiting Bozemanites, Park employees, and year-round locals. Take advantage of the latter's knowledge. With limited daylight remaining, we left our bags unpacked in the room and headed for Yellowstone's snow-covered trails.
After buying a $30 Park pass, which is good for a week, we headed for the eight-mile Blacktail Plateau trail, which Ted recommended snowshoeing. We began at the easy-to-miss parking area approximately eight miles east of Mammoth Hot Springs. Along the easy walk, we encountered a family of bighorn sheep grazing in a meadow. We waited cautiously on the trail as the dominant male of the group shuffled his ewes and lambs away from us. With more on our to-do list for the evening, we shuffled back to the car as the sun descended toward a distant ridge.
Before heading back toward Gardiner, we made a sunset pitstop at the Boiling River. Now, this Montana classic is no secret, but it never disappoints—it's hard to beat soaking in a wild river heated by thermal hot springs while ice crystals form on your eyelashes. Soaking for free does have one cost, though: getting back to the car half-naked and dripping wet. We suggest bringing warm, loose-fitting clothing, preferably a bathrobe, to change into after soaking. Still shivering in the car, we were more than grateful to have a warm room and stocked kitchen waiting for us.
We were even happier once we remembered we were within walking distance of the bars—or saloons, as they're known in Gardiner. Like I said, most other establishments were shuttered for winter—but this is Montana, after all, and the bars never close. It's easy to forget that outside of our Bozeman bubble, Old Montana still exists, and Gardiner in winter is nothing like the bustling tourist-town of summer. However, an empty barstool was still hard to come by—K-Bar was hosting a party for all the Park employees. We grabbed our drinks and hustled to the back-corner of the bar, intimidated by the clamorous camaraderie.
Our evasive attitudes didn't bother the regulars—some of the more outgoing patrons had no problem asking if we were "stuck at the lodge" or lucky enough to be out on patrol. They didn't care one bit when we shook our heads and said we were just visiting from Bozeman. After swapping Park tales, we got invited to play pool at a neighboring bar. As we headed out, a sign that read "All are welcome except Jane Fonda" caught my eye. I asked the bartender about the sign, and she proudly informed me that the veteran-hangout made it clear who was welcome and who wasn't. I decided not to ask about any of their other signs. After badly losing in pool at Red's Blue Goose Saloon, we returned to our room tipsy and content, having experienced Gardiner like a local.
The next morning, tired from our Yellowstone romp and boozy night out, we didn't feel like cooking—which made finding breakfast the first adventure of the day. With Laura’s recommendation, we were soon stuffed with bean burritos from Tumbleweed Bookstore & Cafe.
We decided to enjoy the walkway to the Yellowstone River just outside our room before checking out. Across the river, deer and elk grazed winter forage, a good omen of the wildlife viewing yet to come. A photographer staying at the Cottages recommended the Lamar Valley—Yellowstone's Serengeti, as it's known—so we filled the car with gas and headed back into the Park. Lamar is known for its abundance of wild animals, especially wolves, which we had our hearts set on seeing. Predictably, bison strolled the windswept road while elk munched sage littering the rolling hills. More bighorn sheep gathered in clusters along trailheads and mule deer, in herds too big to count, stared at us wide-eyed as we passed. Still, no wolves—a disappointment, for sure, but also a great excuse to come back.
The drive to the Lamar isn't a short one, especially if you’re stuck behind a bison blockade. As the sun dipped toward the horizon, we turned back for Gardiner, where we were pleasantly surprised to find a comedy show called “The Yellowstoners” playing. The Electric Peak Arts Council hosts several other shows each winter, so we made a mental note to check them out next time.
On our way home, we added up our expenses: room, Park pass, snowshoe rental, gas, food, and drinks—two very comfortable and adventure-filled days for $270, or $135 apiece. Not bad for a couple "tourists" from Bozeman.