Traveling to Montana is an RV enthusiast's dream vacation no matter which corner of the state you visit. However, if you want to experience what arguably may be the best portion of Big Sky country with your RV, the 77-mile path between Bozeman and the northern gateway to Yellowstone National Park at Gardiner is the place to be. This RV Adventure offers some of the best fishing, wildlife viewing and camping in Big Sky Country as well as fun towns and attractions to visit along the way. And with Yellowstone as your final destination, it all adds up to an ultimate road trip that you and your family will remember for years to come.
Hiking into the Yellowstone River in the Park gets you away from the angling pressure and onto fish that are eager to eat dry flies. Pack some sunscreen, a can of bear spray and a few dry flies, and you're good to go.
Photo by Jim Klug
Before you set out on your Yellowstone adventure, you'll want to check and update your GEICO insurance for your car or truck, and your camper or trailer (and your boat if you're pulling one) by visiting geico.com. And remember, in Montana and Yellowstone, you could experience weather that's representative of all four seasons . . . in a single day! So, come prepared. Fortunately, summer weather usually provides comfortable high temperatures in the 80-degree Fahrenheit range with perfect, cool evenings in the 60s. So, load up your RV and get ready to hit the road to adventure in Montana's scenic Yellowstone country.
Bozeman is where your Yellowstone Country adventure begins and if you arrive from the south or west and the air conditioning just isn't doing the trick, consider floating/tubing the lower Madison River. If you don't have the gear, meaning a kayak, stand-up paddleboard, raft or tube, don't fear — Madison River Tubing rents all of those items, plus PFDs, coolers and even waterproof Bluetooth speakers so you can listen to your favorite tunes while taking in the sun (tube $20/day including 25-mile shuttle to and from the river; SUP $27/day; inflatable kayak $35/day).
State parks, Bureau of Land Management lands, and Forest Service sites are all fair game when RVing and camping in Montana. This beautiful spot rests next to Harrison Lake just west of Bozeman.
Photo by Jim Klug
Conveniently, you can camp right next to the river at Red Mountain Campground, which is located just 25 miles west of Bozeman and right on the Madison. You can cast a line on the Madison during evening caddisfly hatches or drive a little farther west to Norris Hot Springs, aka Water of The Gods, and soak in a fir-plank lined mineral pool that maintains a 120-degree Fahrenheit water temperature. Team up your soak with live music on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. Onsite trailer camping is also available.
In the morning, you can drive 30 minutes east on Highway 84 to Bozeman. You can't drive through this town without stopping and walking both sides of what some people call the most vibrant main street in America. By doing so you can enjoy coffee shops, art galleries, fly shops, independent book stores, the classic Ellen Theatre, and a variety of appealing bars and restaurants — plenty of options to burn a full day or more if you choose to. If you want to dine with locals try The Western Cafe where breakfast is served all day. For dinner, you can hit Open Range for a 16-ounce hand-cut ribeye and a side of caramelized whiskey onions.
Before leaving Bozeman — especially if you're adventuring with kids — Museum of The Rockies is a must-see. MOR's dinosaur complex houses the largest collection of T.rex specimens in the world and the museum's planetarium offers a deep peek into the universe.
Also, this: if you are an avid mountain biker (meaning intermediate or expert) you may want to take Bridger Canyon Road (Montana 86) north of Bozeman for 14 miles. This takes you to the Stone Creek trailhead and the 24-mile single-track Bangtail Divide trail. The trail was designed specifically for mountain bikes and if you slow down long enough to look, you'll have great views of the Bridger, Gallatin, Absaroka and Crazy mountain ranges. Don't take your eyes off this trail for too long — dozens of switchbacks invite minor disasters. If you don't have a few mountain bikes on the back of your RV, you can rent mountain bikes in Bozeman at Owenhouse Cycling for about $50 a day.
Dinosaur fans won't want to miss The Museum of The Rockies in Bozeman, which houses the largest collection of T.rex specimens the world.
Photo Courtesy Museum of The Rockies
RV Essentials for Yellowstone Country
ears are not hiding behind every tree and you do not need to carry a can of spray in your hand to an outhouse, but do keep it quickly accessible for the rare close-range encounter. Want to eliminate potential bear conflicts? Store food properly and make a lot of noise while hiking and fishing. Bears are only a problem when attracted to food or surprised at close range. (Photo courtesy: National Park Service)
Roadside Assistance Card
The next time you're wondering what someone should get you for Christmas or a birthday, ask for a roadside assistance card or, better yet, change to GEICO's road assistance program.
This saves the day when you get a flat on your RV, especially if the weather is horrendous. This card also protects against major breakdowns and the possibility of getting towed out of Yellowstone Park or some far off campground . . . for a steep fee. (Photo courtesy: Geico.com)
RV and Boat Insurance
It makes sense to check your GEICO RV and boat insurance coverage before leaving on a trip. Anything can happen in muddy or snowy conditions and you might find those challenges any day of the year in Yellowstone country. Drive with a good conscious knowing that GEICO has your back and can help you get the right insurance at the right price. Call 1-800-865-4846 or visit geico.com today to get coverage. (Photo courtesy: Geico.com)
You'll want to bring quality camp chairs for waiting out traffic delays or just relaxing in camp around the fire. (Photo courtesy: Go RVing)
You'll find plenty of single-track bike trails in the area and whether you are going hard-core in the mountains or simply cranking away at a comfortable pace on a paved path, you need bikes to arrive in good shape. A sturdy bike rack on your RV makes transporting bikes a breeze. (Photo courtesy: Go RVing)
Flashlight and Headlamp
flashlight is required around the camper/camp and a headlamp should be stuffed in a daypack when you head out to hike, bike, fish or backpack. If anything goes wrong and you don't get back to camp before dark, you'll have something to light your way home. Carry spare batteries for both. (Photo courtesy: Browning)
You can rent equipment from local independent fly shops, but there's nothing better than fishing your own gear. In Montana and Yellowstone, that means a fly rod and the appropriate flies. (Photo courtesy: R.L. Winston Rod Co.)
Carry a tube of SPF 50 cream or spray at all times. Better yet, prepare for sun by wearing lightweight, long-sleeve shirts and lightweight pants. A baseball cap keeps the sun off your face. Hint: wearing a sun hood keeps your face, ears and, yes, that bald patch from getting scorched. Check out Simms' Sunhood or the full range of sun protection products from Buff. (Photo courtesy: SIMMS)
A cell phone shoots decent pictures, but this may be a once-in-a-lifetime trip and most pro photographers consider Yellowstone country to be one of the world's best photo grounds. Consider bringing a 35 millimeter DSLR camera with multiple lenses. If you can't do that, bring a smaller camera that shoots hi-res images, such as Leica's D-Lux, which comes with a 24-75 mm zoom lens and shoots 12.8 megapixel RAW or JPEG images. Also shoots 4K video. Team this with quality binoculars so you can spot subject matter, including wildlife, at a distance. (Photo courtesy: Leica)
Those long-sleeve shirts and lightweight pants keep the bugs under decent control, but at some point, you'll probably forget any health risks and lather up with DEET. Have some along for times when the bugs get nasty. (Photo courtesy: Off.com)
Livingston is your next stop and it rests just "over the hill" from Bozeman via Interstate 90. You can get there in 30 minutes with a stunning drive that takes you over Bozeman Pass (5,702 feet in elevation) and down the east slope of the Gallatin Range. As you "drop" into Livingston, Paradise Valley juts off to the south — this is your incomparable gateway to Yellowstone National Park.
Livingston is a classic frontier railroad town that is home to about 7,000 people and best known for its eclectic mix of writers and artists, including Tom McGuane, Jim Harrison, Tim Cahill and Parks Reece. Eighty percent of Livingston's buildings reside on the National Historic Register, including the Murray Hotel, which was built in 1904 and has housed such notables as the Queen of Denmark, Will Rogers, Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane. Today, a bevy of famous types, including director Sam Peckinpah, actor Margo Kidder and general bad-boy Anthony Bourdain, are seen here. In fact, Bordain listed the Murray as one of his top 10 hotels . . . in the world.
You could rub shoulders with just about anyone while walking through the Murray or riding to the rooftop hot tub on the hotel's 1905 Otis elevator. Ditto when grabbing a burger just downstairs at the Murray Bar. This is where fly-fishing guides, actors, writers, artists, ranch hands, and visitors trade stories and listen to songs with telling names — Say What; Let The Deal Go Down; Brokedown Breakdown; Back to Being Hillbillies; and Don't Care If I Do, are local favorites. Don't say I didn't hint at what you might be getting into.
If you're in town on the Fourth of July make sure you see the Livingston Roundup Rodeo, which is considered to be one of the best in the country. Before heading out of Livingston you'll want to fill up with fuel as prices increase the closer you get to Yellowstone.
Many of the smaller creeks in Yellowstone Country offer the chance to get away from the crowds and have untouched water to yourself.
Photo by Greg Thomas
Despite Livingston's charm its real merit is the plethora of outdoor adventures to be found directly south of town in the gorgeous Paradise Valley. Ringed by the towering Absarokas to the east and the Gallatins to the west, and divided by the Yellowstone River, which begins in Yellowstone Park and flows all the way to North Dakota, the valley provides great hiking, fishing and camping with the bonus of Chico Hot Springs Resort. Chico is located 22 miles south of Livingston and just east of Emigrant.
Chico was established in 1897 and offers two mineral pools that flow at a near steady 96-to 103-degrees Fahrenheit. You can order eats, including burgers, salads and pizzas, from the poolside grill. Or you can hold out for dinner in the formal dining room, which is connected to the quaint 48-room Victorian lodge. Choose from western classics, such as barbecue bison short rib ravioli, house-smoked rainbow trout, or the Chico prime rib. You don't have to stay at Chico to enjoy the hot springs — the pools open to non-guests between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m.
When visiting Paradise Valley, it would almost be a crime to not throw a line on the Yellowstone River, which is regarded as one of the world's greatest trout streams. That opinion is partially based on an abundance of large rainbow and brown trout that live here. But the snow-capped mountain scenery is equally impressive. Adding appeal is a summer salmonfly hatch that brings the biggest trout to the surface for dry flies. You can book half-day or full-day float trips, rent equipment, and get all the flies you need at Yellowstone Angler.
Here are some of the other fishing essentials you'll need:
- Waders and Wading boots: I know it's summer, but think about where that water comes from — snowmelt out of Yellowstone National Park. It's cold until August and wearing waders will keep you on the water for longer periods. Lightweight, breathable waders are the way to go. Check out the Redington Sonic Pro or stop at the SIMMS wader factory in Bozeman before you head out of town.
- Reel: A single-action reel with a drag is all you need. Scientific Anglers offers the Ampere for $89.99.
- Fly Line: Don't let all the options confuse you. If you are going to cast dry flies, such as grasshopper, ant and beetle imitations, you just need a weight-forward floating fly line (SA's Mastery line is a great option). If you want to get deep and go after big brown trout with streamers, add a sink-tip line to the mix (Airflo's Streamer Max is an excellent choice).
- Leaders: You'll need a few tapered leaders of 9-foot 4X and 9-foot 5X (ask for them at a fly shop).
- Flies: Aquatic insect hatches rule the fishing in Yellowstone country. During June and July fish salmonfly, pale morning dun, and green drake mayfly imitations. During late summer and into fall, try terrestrials, such as ants, beetles and hoppers. Any time the fishing is slow or a hatch isn't coming off, go underneath the surface with streamers and small nymphs.
For fishing, the Yellowstone isn't the only game in town. In fact, when the 'stone gets murky from thunderstorms, anglers often book days at several private Paradise Valley spring creeks — Armstrong's, Nelson's and DuPuy's. These creeks offer large trout in plentitude — Armstrong's is listed in the book Fifty Places to Fly Fish Before You Die — but the fish are wary. Bring your A-game. Book through local fly shops, including Anglers West near Chico.
All sorts of activities can be arranged at Chico Hot Springs Resort, including whitewater rafting, horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking, and of course, soaking in the hot springs.
Photo Courtesy Chico Hot Springs
If everyone in the family doesn't want to fish, don't fret. Paradise Valley and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness offer great hiking and backpacking trails. The wilderness, overall, contains 28 peaks that reach 12,000 feet high. And it offers hundreds of alpine lakes to visit, including some that offer the rare golden trout. Lightning Lake is one of these. Reaching Lightning, however, takes a 9.5-mile grind of a hike with an elevation gain of 3,000 feet. Only the brave and conditioned need apply.
If you want a quick hike, try the South Fork Deep Creek trail. This hike, which is located about 12 miles southeast of Livingston, is steep but offers great views of Paradise Valley and the Absarokas. If you have high-quality backpacking gear, boots and bear spray, you may want to hit the Mill Creek trailhead just a few miles south and east of Chico. This trail leads deep into the Absarokas and to several alpine lakes, including Thomas and Elbow. You can tent camp near these lakes or push even farther into the wilderness. Be prepared: mountain storms can be wicked and snow could fall any day of the year. Purchase detailed maps before you head into the mountains.
Gardiner is located at the southern head of Paradise Valley and serves as the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park. You can stock up on groceries here, and maybe grab a pizza and a huckleberry shake at K-Bar Pizza before heading into the park. Or, if you want a wild ride, book a raft trip through the Yellowstone River's Yankee Jim Canyon and its series of rapids. Paradise Rafting also offers horseback rides in the Absaroka Mountains just outside the park. These rides can be booked in Gardiner or when visiting Chico Hot Springs.
The Yellowstone River flows through Paradise Valley and provides great whitewater rafting through Yankee Jim Canyon. Trips can be arranged at Chico Hot Springs or from rafting companies in Gardiner.
Photo Courtesy Chico Hot Springs
Yellowstone National Park
The iconic Roosevelt Arch, which stands 50 feet high and 20 feet wide, and is inscribed with the words "For the Benefit and Enjoyment of All People," marks the north entrance to Yellowstone Park. Before entering you'll need to purchase a seven-day YNP vehicle permit for $30. You can buy the permit at the toll booth as you enter the park. For information on park fishing licenses and campgrounds (there are 12 in Yellowstone offering 2,000 sites) visit here. Campground reservations are managed by Xanterra Parks and Resorts.
Once in the park, head south five miles to see Mammoth Hot Springs, a collection of spring-fed terraces that defy imagination. These terraces are orangish/white and formed when spring water cools into travertine. You can learn more about the springs at the adjacent Albright Visitor's Center.
No matter which direction you head from Mammoth you'll find fascinating natural features, flora and fauna. In fact, there are 10,000 thermal features and more than 300 geysers spread through Yellowstone's 2.2 million acres. But, for me, heading east out of Mammoth, 18 miles, to Tower Junction, and then farther east on the Northeast Entrance Road, is the way to go. This places you in the park's northeast corner and offers quick access to several world-class trout waters, including the Lamar River, Pebble Creek, Trout Lake, and the real gem, Slough Creek.
All of these offer cutthroat trout, with some stretching to 18 inches long or longer. If fishing the broad Lamar Valley, keep an eye out for elk, bison, mule deer, wolves and grizzly bears. No matter where you fish in the park you'll want to carry bear spray, just in case "old Ephraim" gets grouchy.
Big brown trout are the draw while fishing the Yellowstone River inside and outside Yellowstone National Park. Cutthroats also abound here and there are miles of walk-and-wade options to be found.
Photo by Jim Klug
If you choose to fish Slough Creek you have several intriguing options. First, you can fish the lower river near Slough Creek Campground for as long or as short as you choose. But, realize, some of the creek's best fishing is located upstream in three distinct meadow sections that are only available to those who hike in, ride in on horseback . . . or ride in on a horse-drawn wagon. The Slough Creek wagon trail still serves as entry to the meadow sections and to the private Silver Tip Ranch, which is located just north of the park boundary.
You can camp along the banks of Slough Creek in its meadow sections or do an in-and-out hike with a few hours for fishing. Overall, you could turn the trip into a 22-mile jaunt, but the elevation change is only 400 feet. No matter how far you go, make sure to reserve campsites well in advance. These book up early.
Just want to get out of the vehicle and stretch your legs? Try a quick half-mile hike to Trout Lake. The trailhead to this beautiful lake is located 11.4 miles west of the park's northeast entrance and 1.8 miles west of the Pebble Creek Campground. Big cutthroats swim here, too and the photo opportunities are endless.
Speaking of endless, you could not begin to cover all the appealing RV options available in this amazing part of Montana and Yellowstone. Follow our prescribed path and you're sure to steer home with lifetime memories. But don't be afraid to venture off on your own path, too. Sometimes, the most rewarding memories come from finding those little hidden gems just off the beaten path. They're waiting for you in Yellowstone country. All you have to do is keep your eyes and mind wide open.