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Mountains Every Way You Look

The most scenic route to Yellowstone

By Genevieve Schmitt

OK, I'm biased. All the routes to the four gates of Yellowstone National Park are scenic, but none are as beautiful as the route that runs through my neighborhood. Paradise Valley is a 52-mile stretch of land between Livingston, Montana, and Gardiner, Montana, where the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park is located.

The Yellowstone River runs through this valley ("A River Runs Through It" was filmed here if you care.) The river is nestled between the Absaroka Mountains to the east and the Gallatin Mountains to the west. One of the reasons I moved to this valley is because it is one of the most amazing places to ride a motorcycle.

mountains every way you look paradise valley tom miner basin
Looking down on scenic Paradise Valley from high atop Tom Miner Basin. The Yellowstone River snakes along down the center of it.

In my opinion (the opinion of a local) the most scenic route to Yellowstone National Park coming from the west and traveling east starts in Bozeman, a Montana town many are familiar with, and ends in Gardiner 125 miles away, the location of the north entrance to Yellowstone. The route may be only 125 miles, but with all the picture taking you're going to do and all the rest stops, it will take you a day. 

On the east end of Main Street in downtown Bozeman, you'll head north on Rouse Street (Route 86). This is the road skiers take in winter to Bridger Canyon Ski Resort 16 miles away. As you head under the I-90 overpass about a mile from downtown, you'll leave the quaint housing district and start riding into an open canyon area. There lots of high-priced homes along this part, typical of ski resort areas.

mountains every way you look bridger canyon
The Bridger Range in Bridger Canyon.

 
mountains every way you look bridger canyon summit
The summit of Bridger Canyon.

This 37-mile stretch of smooth, winding pavement on Bridger Canyon Road (Highway 96) has areas of vast wide openness with stunning mountain views combined with a narrow, alpine pass. At the halfway point, you'll reach a modest summit of 6,372 feet. There's no scenic pull-off, just a big hill surrounded by tall pine trees. When you descend you'll encounter tight S-turns with a shiny new guardrail I noticed was just installed.

mountains every way you look bridger canyon motorcycle
The north end of the Bridgers with the season's first snowfall.

This second half of Route 86 is what takes my breath away. The Bridger Mountain Range is behind you, and before you way off in the distance is the Crazy Mountain Range. Take your time admiring the old cattle ranches along the way. The sage-covered fields seem to go on forever.

mountains every way you look big sky montana
The Crazy Mountains to the east are overtaken by the big sky of Montana.

After 37 miles the road ends at Route 89. Turn right. You'll be heading south toward Wilsall. Not much to do here but admire life in a small town. If you're hungry, hang on until Livingston about 30 miles away where there are plenty of top-notch eateries.

mountains every way you look montana
Remnants of the past.

Eight miles south of Wilsall, you'll have to slow down to 25 mph while passing through Clyde Park, another dot of a town. Note your mileage because 13 miles south, you'll turn right onto Old Clyde Park Road, a back way into Livingston. Look for a line of yellow storage sheds at the turnoff as a landmark. Old Clyde Park Road runs parallel with the Yellowstone River. You'll be awed by the views along here.

mountains every way you look livingston montana
Downtown Livingston where 80 percent of the buildings are on with the National Historic Register.

When you can't go anymore, turn left. You'll go over some railroad tracks and come to an intersection. This is Highway 10 or Park Street. Turn right and this takes you into downtown Livingston. This is also the same road you'll take all the way to Yellowstone Park. When it crosses under Interstate 90, it turns into Highway 89.

If you're hungry for a sandwich, stop at The Pickle Barrel on Main Street for an oversized deli sandwich. For a good steak, visit Montana's Rib & Chop House. Fancy bistro food can be found at The 2nd Street Bistro, and the Hearthstone Bakery on Callender Street is a quaint salad and sandwich shop. The Wheatgrass Saloon and Mustang Cafe offer healthy options right on Main Street. 

If you like history, you're in the right town. The Depot Museum on Park Street, explores the history of Livingston as a railroad town. The Yellowstone Gateway Museum at 118 West Chinook Street is loaded with local culture and Yellowstone Park history; and the International Fly Fishing Center at 215 E. Lewis Street is the home base for fly-fishing lovers. Art lovers will want to visit some of the 14 galleries in town. The area's beauty inspires the many artists and writers who live here, several of whom are quite famous.

mountains every way you look bridger yellowstone river
The Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley. It's the longest undammed river in North America.

Don't spend too long because Paradise Valley awaits. Head south on Route 89. It's 52 miles to Yellowstone Park. Take your time. Stop when you can to take pictures. There are gravel pull-offs alongside the road. Be careful though. This is a 70 mph road. Mallards Rest about 12 miles south is a fishing access and campground and my favorite place to take a picture.

mountains every way you look paradise valley
Mallards Rest, one of the most picturesque places in Paradise Valley.

Twenty-five miles from Livingston you'll come to a flashing yellow light signaling you're in Emigrant. The Old Saloon to your right has been there since 1902. Stop in for a moment to take in the character of the place. Up the road behind the Old Saloon is the Wildflour Bakery offering espresso and homemade muffins, scones, and bread, as well as a pleasing menu of sandwiches. Next door is the Follow Yer Nose Barbeque place offering a heartier menu and only open in summer.

mountains every way you look old saloon emigrant
Don't miss saying hi to the folks at the Old Saloon in Emigrant.

mountains every way you look railroad bed
The old railroad gravel bed that runs next to Route 89.

Before Highway 89 was the created, park visitors came by railroad. You can see the black railroad gravel bed, what's left of the railroad, running along the right side of the highway most of the way down. When I'm riding I envision what it must have been like peering through a railroad car window looking out at these gorgeous mountains.

mountains every way you look yellowstone elk
In the fall, the elk graze anywhere they can find green grass. Here they are in Gardiner just outside Yellowstone Park. Notice the sign.

Your trip wraps up in Gardiner. You can stay the night in one of the many fine hotels there before entering Yellowstone Park. The Park entrance can be seen from Route 89 as you enter Gardiner. Look for the big stone archway that Teddy Roosevelt had built in 1872.
mountains every way you look yellowstone arch
The famous arch marking the entrance to Yellowstone.

Route at a Glance:
Starting point: Bozeman, Montana
Ending point: Gardiner, Montana, and Yellowstone Park
One-way mileage: 125

Be sure to consult a map for more details. I originally wrote this story in 2006 and updated it in 2014. Thank goodness much hasn't changed and we all like it that way here. 

Related Articles
Book Review: Motorcycling Montana
Motorcycle Riding Through Yellowstone Park


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