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    Bozeman to Yellowstone: the best routes and things to see in Southern Montana

    Bozeman, MT

    Many people who visit Yellowstone start their adventure by flying into Bozeman, Montana.

    In this article, I’ll help you know what you can do in Bozeman, as well as your options for driving to Yellowstone from Bozeman.

    Is Bozeman a good base to visit Yellowstone?

    Bozeman is NOT a good home base to visit Yellowstone because it is too far away from the park. When visiting Yellowstone, you have to realize that the park is huge, so most of your driving will be INSIDE the park.

    Due to having the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, Bozeman is a good place to fly into to begin your Yellowstone adventure, but you will definitely want to stay inside Yellowstone, or in one of the border towns like Gardiner or West Yellowstone.

    Is Bozeman worth visiting?

    Though not a destination in itself, the city of Bozeman is a nice place to spend a little time.

    It’s located in Gallatin Valley with mountains surrounding the city in the distance (unlike Missoula, Montana, where the mountains are very close). Though it is only the 4th largest city in an already small state, it was the fastest growing city in the country from 2018-2020.

    It looks like a wonderful place to live (you didn’t hear that from me!), and there are also some interesting things you can see and do in the city.

    Things to see and do in Bozeman, MT

    Southern Montana: Bozeman, Virginia City, & More!

    Here are some of the things we enjoyed doing in Bozeman, Montana.

    Tubing or rafting the River

    Getting on the river is one of the most popular things to do in Bozeman! Kayaking, white-water rafting, and calm-water floats are all available within about an hour’s drive.

    Our Experience Tubing the River

    The Madison River is shallow and scenic

    There are multiple business that offer tube rentals and shuttle rides, but we used Madison River Company, which offers many outdoor experiences like rafting, horseback riding, and fishing.

    You can also just go to the local Big O Tire store and buy a $15 tube. It’s much cheaper but you’ll have to shuttle yourself and the tubes won’t be as nice. Nor will you have a flotilla (see below).

    • NOTE: We pay for all our adventures and don’t accept any payment from businesses so we can give you our unbiased opinions.

    The Madison River was very shallow in this location. It was a lazy 2-hour float on a sunny (kinda hot) day.

    We met them at a location west of Bozeman, and they provided us with the tubes. One of the things we liked most about it was that they tied the tubes together to create a “flotilla,” which allowed us to all stay together. We didn’t want our kids floating off ahead or behind us.

    They picked us up a few miles down the road and drove only me back to my vehicle at our original meeting point. I then drove to the end point to pick up my family.

    We used the Madison River Tubing Company

    They offered additional items for purchase:

    • Water shoes were a great purchase since we had to walk in the knee-deep water to pull the tube off the river’s edge occasionally.
    • A waterproof bag also worked to keep my phone dry. I kept it in my lap the whole ride, but it was nice knowing the phone wouldn’t just slide off my lap into the water. Of course, you can also just leave your phone in the car.
    • They also offered a cooler for drinks and snacks. We wish we would have purchased it, but at the time, we didn’t realize we would be floating in a flotilla. We thought the cooler might just float off down the river or something! Instead, it sits in the middle of the flotilla.

    Other options

    There are other tubing and rafting companies, of course. There are also other places to raft the river. The Gallatin River is due south of Bozeman (see below) and offers white-water adventures. We saw tubing companies and kayakers rafting this river as we drove through Gallatin Valley.

    Hiking

    Here are three popular hikes near Bozeman. We did Drinking Horse Mountain and The “M.” These are all located on the outskirts of Bozeman in the foothills of the mountains.

    Drinking Horse Mountain

    2.1-mile loop trail

    The view from Drinking Horse Mountain

    This was a very pretty hike that crosses a river and gets to a small mountain peak that provides views of two different valleys.

    It’s rated as moderate as there is a climb to the top of the hill. Note that there are two options to the top. One is shorter and steeper, the other has more switchbacks.

    Of the two we did, this was our favorite.

    Hike the “M”

    1.6 miles out-and-back

    Hiking to the M is steep but provides views of Bozeman from above

    This is called The M because the hike leads to a big M on the mountainside. The M is for Montana State University, located in Bozeman.

    The parking lot for this is located across the street from the parking lot for Drinking Horse Mountain.

    I believe this is the more popular of the two hikes, but we liked Drinking Horse better. The M is steeper, more exposed to the sun, and only offers views of one valley.

    Note that this also has a steeper option and an option with more switchbacks. But both are strenuous.

    Palisade Falls

    1.1 miles out-and-back

    This is located about 45 minutes south of Bozeman and is a very popular hike that leads to a pretty waterfall. We did not have enough time to fit this into our schedule.

    Museum of the Rockies

    T-Rex is the star of the Museum of the Rockies

    The Museum of the Rockies is the top museum in the city and offers some of the best dinosaur fossils around. The museum is run by Montana State University.

    The most famous display is the giant T-Rex, along with the many T-Rex and Triceratops skulls nearby. These really are incredible.

    For us, the rest of the museum was just ok. The section dedicated to Yellowstone’s 150th birthday was lackluster. There was a room full of local history that would be difficult for most people to get excited about.

    They devoted most of their energy to a display dedicated to the Native Americans in the area, but it was incredibly preachy. Rather than offering a historical perspective about who the tribes were and the interplay of tribes with each other and Europeans (in both cases sometimes peaceful and sometimes violent), it fell back on the simple narrative of white oppression.

    The museum also has an outside living history area with a pioneer home and a blacksmith shop. The blacksmith shop was the most interesting because we got to watch the blacksmith make nails for our kids. He also taught us the origin of the saying “dead as a doornail.”

    Overall, we were disappointed by a museum we heard so much about.

    Main Street

    A nice evening stroll along Main Street in Bozeman

    Bozeman has a nice downtown area with some older buildings and a lot of shops and restaurants. Note that the shops close down around 5 pm. We arrived just after that time, so we only got to window shop and eat dinner.

    We ate dinner at Lapa Grill, which offered outdoor seating and some really interesting dishes, such as the Wrap of Khan, a vegan plate that Cheryl enjoyed. I had the Buffalo Nomad, which had bison cubes. I’m no vegan, but I have to admit that Cheryl’s dish was better.

    Yummy Wrap of Khan from the Lapa Grill

    The next morning, we ate breakfast at the Western Cafe, which was AWESOME. My children loved their Snowman Pancakes, and I had the Bobcat Breakfast, named after the Montana State Bobcats.

    The delicious Bobcat Breakfast at the Western Cafe

    The interior of the cafe had the Old West decor, with old Yellowstone and Glacier National Park advertisements thrown in there for good measure.

    Western Cafe decor

    Sculpture Park

    Bozeman has many parks throughout the city. These parks are interconnected by the Main Street to Mountain trail system. There are miles of trails throughout the city that you could bike, run, or walk.

    The Sculpture Park has some artistic creations along a walking path

    We parked at the library and walked through the Sculpture Park and connected to Peets Hill/Burke Park. This gave us a great overview of the city and the nearby mountains, which were especially beautiful at sunset.

    Sunset in Bozeman, MT from Peets Hill

    How far is Bozeman from Yellowstone?

    Bozeman is about an hour and a half from the North Entrance to Yellowstone, or 78 miles (125 km). It is about an hour and 45 minutes from the West Entrance to Yellowstone, or 89 miles (143 km).

    So far, we’ve covered only the things to do in Bozeman. Now let’s look at the different paths to Yellowstone and what you can do along the way.

    Three Routes to Yellowstone

    There are actually three routes from Bozeman to Yellowstone. Each one goes through a scenic valley.

    The shortest goes through Paradise Valley to Gardiner, Montana, and Yellowstone’s North Entrance.

    But don’t overlook the other two options, as they aren’t much farther and offer some things to see along the way.

    Through Paradise Valley to Yellowstone’s North Entrance

    Highway 89 is the most direct route to Yellowstone, but it enters the North Entrance, which is close to Mammoth Hot Springs but is still far away from some of the main attractions such as Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

    Here are some things to see and do on the way.

    Montana Grizzly Encounter

    Visitors watch Bella the grizzly bear

    This is a bear park located right off I-90 and only takes about 30-60 minutes to see. They have four grizzly bears, which they bring out one at a time for us to see. The bears are very playful when they come out.

    It was a rudimentary park with few facilities and basic structures for its gift shop and viewing area, but we got to see the bears at very close range.

    Livingston

    Yellowstone Gateway Museum in Livingston, MT

    Before the automobile, Yellowstone visitors arrived on a train in Livingston, MT. Today, you can still visit the rail depot, walk around the cute historic downtown, and visit the Yellowstone Gateway Museum.

    The museum was closed by the time we arrived, and we didn’t have much time to check out the town, but it did have a nice “feel” to it. We heard Montana’s Rib & Chop House was the place to eat!

    Paradise Valley

    Paradise Valley

    Paradise Valley is probably the most scenic of the three drives from Bozeman to Yellowstone. It has mountains on both sides with a scenic valley in between. It’s a lovely drive.

    There are two roads through Paradise Valley: You can stay on Highway 89 or take the back way along Route 540. Though all in the same valley, Route 540 does offer some different views.

    There are also plenty of fishing opportunities all along the Yellowstone River, which flows through Paradise Valley.

    Chico Hot Springs

    There are many resorts on the edges of Yellowstone National Park. Chico Hot Springs is one of the oldest and most famous.

    Built around 1900, Chico Hot Springs prides itself on taking you back to a simpler time.

    It offers many lodging choices for varying budgets. We stayed in the original hotel, which had real keys and shared bathrooms.

    We had fun swimming and playing in the Hot Springs, which is more like a pool with warm water. Montana was going through a hot spell while we were there, so it was too hot to be in the hot springs in the day, but the morning and evening were fantastic!

    A popular thing to do is eat dinner in the fancy dining room, which does not allow cell phones. This was more than we wanted to spend (we have a family of six), so we opted instead to eat at the grill next to the pool, which was fantastic.

    Chico Hot Springs Dining Room: No phones allowed!

    They also have a cool-looking saloon next to the pool.

    Note: you need to make reservations for the hotel AND the dinner well in advance!

    Gardiner

    Finally, you’ll arrive in Gardiner, Montana, which literally borders Yellowstone National Park.

    We’ve written another article all about Gardiner, Montana.

    Through Gallatin Valley to Yellowstone’s West Entrance

    The drive through Gallatin Valley on Route 191 is very different than Paradise Valley, and it leads to the West Yellowstone entrance. Gallatin Valley is more of a canyon than a valley in some parts, then opens up to valley views in other parts.

    Ousel Falls

    1.7 mile out-and-back hike

    This is a very popular hike that leads to a nice waterfall.

    The overall elevation gain isn’t much, but you do have to go up and down a few times, so I’d rate it moderate. 

    It’s a nice hike along the river and ends with a pretty waterfall where the kids can play in the water and the adults can sit on some benches. 

    Big Sky Resort

    Big Sky Resort

    This is one of the largest ski resorts in the country. 

    But for summer travelers there is kayaking, swimming, riding the ski lift to the top of the mountain, restaurants, free games for the kids, and more. 

    Gallatin River 

    Gallatin River

    While driving through this canyon you’ll drive alongside the scenic Gallatin River. 

    Many resorts are located along the river and many companies offer white water trips down the river. We saw quite a few kayakers and rafters! 

    A strange section of Yellowstone 

    This is NOT one of the major entrances to Yellowstone

    Route 191 enters and leaves Yellowstone National Park before arriving in West Yellowstone. 

    There is not Ranger toll booth at this entrance, and to my knowledge, is not an official “entrance.” At least, it’s not labeled on any maps.

    Rt 191 veers in and out of Yellowstone (in green on the right)

    But there is a Yellowstone National Park sign to take your picture in front of! 

    During this 17-mile stretch the speed limit on Rt 191 drops from 65 mph to 55 mph, which must be a national park thing. 

    Before long, you’ll leave the park and encounter Hebgen Lake.  

    Hebgen Lake 

    Hebgen Lake is a man-made lake that offers camping and boating. 

    This is a very pretty area worthy of visiting if you’re looking for some water fun. 

    We’ve camped at Rainbow Campground before and it was beautiful. We heard coyotes howling in the night. 

    Strangely, it sits right next to Earthquake Lake; see below for more on this bizarre area.

    West Yellowstone

    Finally, you’ll finish your drive in West Yellowstone, which is a town that literally borders Yellowstone National Park. 

    Through Madison Valley to West Yellowstone 

    If white water rafting and ski resorts aren’t your thing, then consider driving through Madison Valley on Route 287, which offers some fun and interesting things to see and do. 

    Three Forks

    This is where the Missouri River begins! It’s called Three Forks because three rivers — the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin Rivers — converge to form the Missouri River.

    You can visit this convergence by going to Missouri Headwaters State Park.

    Nearby is a town named Three Forks, Montana, home to the Headwaters Heritage Museum.

    Ennis

    Ennis bills itself as the capital of fly fishing, and people come from all over to fish here. 

    The town economy basically revolves around fishing. There are many outfitters and fly fishing guides happy to help you catch a fish.

    If you’re not fishing, it’s a great place to grab something to eat or drink. DON’T forget to walk around the town to check out the sculptures of fish and fishermen!

    Virginia City

    Virginia City is a historic Old West town located near Ennis.

    Back in the 1800s, a gold rush brought prospectors to Virginia City. Many people were going West to find gold in Virginia City, but they had a little obstacle in their way: Yellowstone.

    So John Bozeman forged a shorter route by going around the park to the north. His path was called the Bozeman Trail, and eventually, the city of Bozeman was established.

    Virginia City is a well-preserved and still-functioning city. It capitalizes on its Old West image.

    We had a GREAT time in Virginia City checking out the old-timey main street, Boothill Cemetery, and attending a vaudeville show.

    Nevada City

    Nevada City is located just a few minutes away from Virginia City and was also part of the Old West Gold Rush.

    Today, it is a state park. All the homes and buildings in the town are preserved and you must pay an entry fee to see them.

    Unlike Virginia City, which is an actual living town with commercial activity, Nevada City is basically an outdoor museum.

    You can even ride a small train between the towns!

    Earthquake Lake

    This is a very scenic area with a tragic story.

    In 1959 a massive earthquake struck Yellowstone. It was so large, it caused a major landslide in Madison Canyon, and that landslide formed a lake right next to Hebgen Lake. That lake came to be called Earthquake Lake.

    Over 20 people died in the earthquake, which was as large as the famous San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.

    Today, there is a visitor center to interpret the earthquake. It’s managed by the Forest Service and is located on top of the landslide. A short walk takes you through some of the massive boulders and to a plaque with the names of those who died in the earthquake.

    West Yellowstone

    Finally, you’ll finish your drive in West Yellowstone, which is a town that literally borders Yellowstone National Park. 

    How Far is Bozeman from Jackson Hole & Grand Teton?

    While Bozeman is only an hour and a half away from Yellowstone, it is over 4 hours to Jackson, Wyoming, and Grand Teton National Park! The shortest path is to travel outside Yellowstone, then cut through the Tetons into Jackson.

    This leads me to one of the biggest challenges of visiting Yellowstone:

    Your NEED a game plan

    The size of the area as well as its mountainous geography makes visiting Yellowstone and Grand Teton a challenge for those who aren’t used to it.

    It’s difficult to know how to plan out your days and how many sights you can fit into one day. Just knowing where to stay to make the most of your vacation can be a major challenge.

    You don’t want to drive all over the place and miss out on the best attractions!

    That’s why we’re here. Our mission is to help you have a great trip to the West.

    We live nearby and have been visiting Yellowstone and Grand Teton for over 30 years.

    We know how to visit these parks! That’s why we created a game plan for YOU.

    With our day-by-day itinerary, you’ll see the BEST of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Not only that, but we provide an audio guide for you to tell you the best stories behind the park, like the Yellowstone Earthquake of 1959.

    Don’t miss out on this opportunity to have the vacation you want. Get your BEST game plan today!

    Resources

    ABOUT US

    We’re Matt and Cheryl, and we’re in the Rockies. :) We are both teachers. Cheryl teaches special ed, and Matt teaches American history. We love the American West and the national parks. We want to help you have a great vacation on your next trip to the Rockies.

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