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Montana Road Trip: Yellowstone Country

Covering approximately 360 miles, this road trip through southern Montana makes a loop from Livingston through Red Lodge, dips into Yellowstone National Park, and concludes with a scenic drive back to Livingston. As you follow the route, drive a designated All-American Road surrounded by mountain peaks. Hike on a wilderness plateau. Raft the Stillwater River. Ride Horseback in Paradise Valley. Cross state lines into Wyoming to take in the grandeur of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Take selfies at the Roosevelt Arch at the original entrance to the park. See (or scale, if you're an expert climber) 12,799-foot Granite Mountain, Montana’s highest peak. And pull off the road at least once to soak in a pool fed by bubbling hot springs.

Livingston > I-90 to Columbus > MT-78 to Red Lodge > U.S. 212 Beartooth All-American Road to Silver Gate/northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park > Exit Montana to Wyoming > U.S. 212 > Grand Loop Road > US-89 to Gardiner/North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park > Exit Wyoming to Montana > U.S. 89 > MT-540/East River Road through Paradise Valley > U.S. 89 to Livingston.

Note: Portions of roads may be closed due to snow or ice; always check road conditions before taking this road trip.

All-American Roads are the nation's best of the best scenic drives, and Beartooth Highway (U.S. 212) certainly fits the bill. The road runs 68 miles from Red Lodge to the northeast entrance to Yellowstone near Cooke City and Silver Gate. The highway is open from the Friday before Memorial Day weekend to the Tuesday after Columbus Day. The drive takes you past 20 peaks of more than 12,000 feet and over the Beartooth Plateau at more than 10,900 feet. Stop at the Gardner Lake pullout for the best view of the Bear’s Tooth rock formation. Best Bet: An easy three-mile gravel road takes you up to Clay Butte Lookout, an old fire lookout tower; open July and August. Note: Beartooth Highway may be closed due to snow or mudslides; check ahead on conditions.

Start this road trip at Livingston, a quiet hamlet of about 7,000 people. Sights to see: Livingston Depot Center, an ornate 1902 Northern Pacific Railway station that serves as a museum in summer and community center in winter; Gem Valley, a do-it-yourself sapphire- and garnet-hunting operation; and the Yellowstone Gateway Museum, a small-town museum (housed in a 1907 schoolhouse) that features interpretive exhibits highlighting its extensive collections and its stories of Park County and Yellowstone National Park.

Trade in your car for a horse on this road trip. Paintbrush Adventures, headquartered in Absarokee, operates in the highest mountains in Montana and, on overnight trips, packs your gear up to camp so you don’t have to. Inside Tip: First-time riders usually choose horses Pudding or Molly. Experienced riders enjoy Fast Eddy, the most requested horse in the barn. Bear Paw Outfitters is a fourth-generation family-owned business operating out of Paradise Valley. They offer day trips and overnight pack excursions to places like Yellowstone and Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

Riding down a Montana river in a raft is a rush. Absaroka River Adventures in Absaroka paddles the Stillwater River; the lower portion has pulse-pounding challenges such as Beartooth Drop, Double Trouble, and Surprise. Paradise Adventure Company in Gardiner rows the rushing Yellowstone River in the park for 8- or 18-mile trips. Or you can opt for its gentle Scenic Float.

Yellowstone Park offers some great hiking, but so does the Beartooth wilderness area around Red Lodge. The day-trip length West Rosebud Trail #19 (5.7 miles), also know as the Mystic Lake Trail, starts at the Mystic Lake Hydroelectric Plant and climbs up to majestic Mystic Lake. Inside Tip: This is the main trail used by expert mountain climbers to reach Granite Peak, the highest point in Montana at 12,799 feet. Near Roscoe you'll find East Rosebud Trail #15, also known as the Beaten Path. One of two trans-Beartooth hikes, it runs 26 miles from East Rosebud Lake to just outside Cooke City. Bear Track Trail #8 is 12.5 miles long and starts at U.S. 212, then climbs to the Silver Run Plateau, one of the more accessible plateaus in the Beartooths. Rock cairns guide travelers across the plateau until the trail drops down and connects with the Timberline Trail #12 trailhead. Inside Tip: The Forest Service website lists dozens of day hikes in the Beartooth area.

Used to fend off grizzly and black bears in the local wilderness, bear spray is like insurance: You hope you never need it, but it comes in handy if you do. You don’t need to buy a can, however; you can rent bear spray from area retailers such as Bear Aware Rentals and just pay for what you use. See the People and Carnivores website for rental locations in the park.

This road trip takes you into Yellowstone Park and follows the Grand Loop Road to the south. Attractions along the way include the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, about 20 miles long, 1,500 to 4,000 feet wide, and 800 to 1,200 feet deep; the Mud Volcano area, which smells like rotten eggs due to the variety of mud pots, fumaroles, and hot springs bubbling hydrogen sulfide; and the Mammoth Hot Springs Area, a hotbed of constantly changing geothermal formations (a terrace collapsed in the fall of 2014). Inside Tip: The Yellowstone National Park website has videos about different parts of the park. Check out Along the Upper Loop Road, which covers things to see and do on the Grand Loop Road.

The original entrance (known as the North Entrance) to Yellowstone is in the town of Gardiner. The iconic Roosevelt Arch there is undergoing construction, so traffic is being rerouted around it.

Lodging in Livingston includes the Yellowstone Valley Lodge, a full-service resort with only 23 cabins that's located right on the banks of the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley. The 1904 Murray Hotel, located in Livingston’s historic district, was one of 11 hotels in downtown Livingston in the early days of Yellowstone National Park and is the only one remaining in service. It has 20 suites and five standard rooms, and the original tile floors in the lobby show the cracks from the earthquake that formed “quake lake” (Hebgen Lake) in 1959.

The Pollard was built in 1893 and, at the time, was the first brick structure built in Red Lodge. Famous guests are said to include Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Calamity Jane. The Pollard was renovated in 1994 and features 39 guest rooms (no two are alike), a formal dining room, a casual pub, and a health club featuring racquetball courts, a full gym, locker rooms, and saunas.

The towns of Colter Pass, Cooke City, and Silver Gate precede the northeast entrance to Yellowstone. Places to stay include Cooke City’s Big Moose Resort. In Silver Gate, Grizzly Lodge is a one-story hotel with three cabins on a creek, and Silver Gate Lodging consists of 29 cabins and a general store and features a view of Amphitheater Mountain. Best Bet: To view wildlife in the park up close, rent a Swarovski spotting scope from the Silver Gate Lodging general store.

Xanterra Parks and Resorts operates nine lodges and five campgrounds in Yellowstone National Park, including Grant Village Campground, Roosevelt Lodge and Cabins, and Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins. Inside Tip: Reserve early, as lodgings in the park fill up fast.

Along the way back to Livingston, stop at Chico Hot Springs Resort and Day Spa in Pray and sample its historically healing waters that flow into two concrete, open-air mineral pools. You can stay in one of many lodging options, including the comfortable North 40 cabins, or just pay to spend the day at the mineral pools. Best Bet: Visit the hot springs early in the morning, when they first open; it's the quietest and most relaxing time.

For breakfast in Livingston, head to Gil’s Goods in the Murray Hotel, a classic European café with a Montana feel. For lunch, try the Bison Bratwurst Pasta at the Sport. And for dinner, head back to the Murray Hotel to dine at the 2nd Street Bistro, owned and operated by the same people as Gil’s. Or try the Mint Bar and Grill, a classic Montana watering hole continuously operating since the twenties, or the Livingston Bar and Grille, once a place called the Bucket of Blood Saloon but now an internationally themed restaurant. Best Bet: Enjoy live acoustic music during Sunday Suppers at the Livingston Bar and Grille, when executive chef Jonathan Romans single-handedly prepares a three-course meal from scratch for patrons.

The best place for breakfast or lunch in Red Lodge is Cafe Regis, which locals know is pronounced REG-is, like register. Best Bet: Order the Special French Toast, which generally features fresh, often local and/or seasonal fruit topped with house-made whipped cream and a side of pure maple syrup; favorites are the Rhubarb French Toast and Peach French Toast.

If you're a beer fan, there are three must-stops in the Red Lodge area. Grizzly Bar and Grill in Roscoe, or "the Grizz" as locals call it, has been a gathering spot since the 1930s and specializes in sizzling steaks. The Bear Creek Saloon in Bearcreek is a steakhouse and bar that holds pig races every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night starting at 7 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Red Lodge Ales ranks as the third largest microbrewery in Montana. Annually, it cranks out about three barrels of beer for every person in Red Lodge—a town of just 2,500 residents. Inside Tip: If you see a guy in a kilt at the brewery, shout "Hey Beerbarian!" and he'll give you all the insider tips about places to go and things to do in the area.

As you enter Yellowstone National Park using the northeast entrance, stop for a bite in Cooke City or Silver Gate. Bearclaw Bakery is unique in the area because it makes everything from scratch. Best Bet: The owner starts baking at midnight, so coffee’s on when the lights are on. Start your day early by getting there at 5 a.m. for a Smothered Breakfast Burrito, Almond Crusted Bearclaw French Toast, or Fried Green Tomato Eggs Benedict. At Beartooth Café the cooler holds 130 different beers from around the world, and a crowd favorite on the menu is the Funk Burger, a half pound of ground beef mixed with butter and minced garlic. The Log Cabin Café Bed and Breakfast has been in business since 1937 and bills itself as making flapjacks from a “world-famous” pancake recipe.

Exiting Yellowstone at Gardiner you have a variety of eateries to choose from. Some local favorites: The Raven Grill, which has had items such as huckleberry crème brûlée on the menu; K-Bar Pizza, which has been serving pizza across the street from the northern entrance to Yellowstone since 1953; and Yellowstone Grill, which serves a local favorite called the Yellowstone Scramble, a homemade English muffin topped with scrambled eggs; homemade hollandaise; a choice of bacon, sausage, or Andouille sausage; fresh tomatoes; green onions; and pepperoncini—all served with hash browns.

The only place to shop along the Beartooth Highway (U.S. 212) is the aptly named Top of the World Store, located in the Shoshone National Forest at an elevation of 9,400 feet. The store carries supplies such as groceries, gas, camping and fishing gear, local artwork, souvenirs, clothing, ice cream, and books and maps.

If you're an angler, the place to shop in Livingston is Dan Bailey's, founded in the 1930s by the legendary Dan Bailey, a New Yorker who brought his friends, including journalists, to Big Sky and is credited with starting the fly-fishing craze in Montana. Bailey, an expert on tying flies, appeared in the first edition of Sports Illustrated.

For some solace and a bit of tea, stop into Red Lodge Books and Tea in Red Lodge. The store is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2016. The book side concentrates on outdoor, nature, science, and local titles and includes children’s books and a selection of plush local wildlife such as mountain goats, marmots, bears, wolves, moose, elk, and bighorn sheep. The tea bar has more than 150 different teas in stock. Inside Tip: The store makes soft, Bavarian-style pretzels, including the Big Sky Jumbo, a 24-ounce pretzel served in a pizza box. How fast can you eat one? The record is just under eight minutes.

The 4th of July weekend brings two big rodeos to enjoy along this road trip. The Home of Champions Rodeo in Red Lodge is celebrating its 85th year in 2015 with bareback riding, steer wrestling, barrel racing, bull riding, and other events. The Livingston Roundup Rodeo is the largest rodeo in Montana by purse, offering more than $200,000 in prizes to about 500 contestants.

Each Labor Day, tiny Reed Point holds the Great Montana Sheep Drive, when hundreds of sturdy, Montana-bred woolies ramble down Main Street’s six blocks. The celebration includes a parade, vendors, and an evening street dance.

U.S. 89 runs through Paradise Valley near the end of this road trip, but give yourself a treat and get off the crowded road and onto the less populated Paradise Valley Scenic Drive (East River Road, MT-540). Paralleling the Upper Yellowstone River between the Absaroka and Gallatin mountain ranges, the slower drive offers travelers the chance to savor the pasturelands of the lower valley, plus mountain peaks and river vistas, and provides access to public lands and lakes in the Absaroka Mountains.

This road trip runs around the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, known as the A-B by locals. Encompassing 943,377 acres in three states with 950 alpine lakes, the A-B boasts more than 20 peaks greater than 12,000 feet and is home to the 41 highest peaks in Montana, making it rich with opportunities for hiking, backpacking, camping, fishing, and more. Starting points for exploring the area include multiple trailheads, many off the Beartooth Highway (U.S. 212). Inside Tip: Learn about backcountry exploration and be sure to follow the rules; start with a fact sheet you can download.

If you're traveling through Yellowstone with young children, get Who Pooped in the Park? Yellowstone National Park: Scat and Tracks for Kids (Farcountry Press, 2004), a fun book that helps them identify traces of wildlife in the park.

The only hotel open in Yellowstone National Park with automobile access in cold weather is Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, near Gardiner, at approximately 6,200 feet in elevation, open from December to March. The Snow Lodge at Old Faithful is also open in winter, but needs to be accessed by snow coach or snowmobile.

At Greycliff Prairie Dog Town State Park, near Big Timber, prairie dogs live and play on a 98-acre protected habitat.

Day One: Livingston

Day Two: Livingston to Red Lodge

Day Three: Red Lodge to Yellowstone National Park

Day Four Yellowstone National Park

Day Five: Yellowstone to Livingston

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