Want to experience some of the West’s most spectacular scenery in a town that can feel like a cross between Northern Exposure and Animal Planet, given its wild neighbors living up the street in Yellowstone National Park?
Head to Gardiner, Mont. Sitting at the only year-round entrance to the world’s first national park, pretty much everything in Gardiner is colorful from the scenery and people to the names of dishes on menus, adding an almost poetic slant to your visit. Where else can you order sandwiches named after dogs (Tumbleweed Bookstore and Cafe) or an ice cream flavor called Stuck-in-a-Rut that comes with an optional espresso shot poured over it (Yellowstone Perk)?
Even its town name has a curious story. It’s named after an early fur trapper Johnson Gardner, who spent time in the area and had a reputation as an outlaw. But when the Langford-Washburn-Doan Expedition came through the area in 1870, making detailed maps and observations, they misspelled “Gardner,” adding an unnecessary “i.” The spelling stuck.
Most of Gardiner’s residents work for the park or in the tourism industry. And they all seem to share a great sense of pride in Gardiner’s rough-around-the-edges feel and the natural beauty surrounding it. It’s the antithesis of its glamorous, larger cousin to the south, Jackson Hole, where luxury hotels and upscale boutiques line a picturesque downtown. While both were named after fur trappers, comparisons pretty much end there. The closest you are going to get to a five-star anything in Gardiner is by looking up at the sky after night falls.
But that’s what makes Gardiner and its end-of-the-road feel so special. You come to Gardiner for the same reason its 800 residents settled here ⎯ it’s authentic western atmosphere, friendly inhabitants and the fact it lies just 5 miles from Yellowstone’s steaming terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs, one of the park’s many natural wonders.
Facelift for National Park Service 100-year Anniversary
If you’ve been to Gardiner before, you’re in for a surprise. In 2017, the 136-year-old town has received a much-needed and incredibly expensive facelift ⎯ $22 million, to be exact ⎯ which beautified the town with historic-looking street lamps and trees lining Park Street as well as smoothed out perennial parking issues.
Moreover, you won’t have to take your life into your hands in your quest to take a selfie near the iconic Roosevelt Arch built in 1903. It’s named after President Teddy Roosevelt, who happened to be vacationing in the park and spoke at the ceremony to lay the arch’s cornerstone. Thanks to new pull-offs and sidewalks, you can safely walk to the arch on a path dotted with interpretive panels, spinning the history of Gardiner, Yellowstone and the National Park Service.
You also won’t get stuck in as much traffic, thanks to a new Roosevelt Arch bypass road that provides an alternative route to the park.
Wet and Wild in the Rivers Near Gardiner
The Yellowstone River, the longest undammed river in the lower 48, runs through Gardiner. Which means you shouldn’t leave this area without getting wet. About three miles up the road is the Boiling River, the only hot springs in the park where you can legally soak. About three miles south of Roosevelt Arch, look for a parking area on the east side of the road. Park and walk upstream about a half-mile to where the footpath intersects with the river.
If you want to get away from the crowds, relax on the sandy beach and take a cold dip at the local’s swimming hole about three miles north of Gardiner. Remember that rivers and streams in the Yellowstone area have swiftly flowing currents; use extra caution.
Or join the legendary Flying Pig Adventure Co. for river rafting, fly fishing and even land activities like horseback riding and park tours. Flying Pig’s rafting office sits so close to the river you can walk to your boat. It also offers multi-day packages that include lodging, which enables you to leave the stress of trip planning at home.
Gear Up in Gardiner
No need to call off the camping portion of your trip, if your significant other leaves the tent poles behind in your garage. Gardiner Market has tents, bear spray, lanterns and other camping supplies. Flying Pig Camp Store and Fly Shop sells everything you need for camping, fishing and boating, including items made by GoPro, Kavu and Columbia.
And after you stock up on your outdoor essentials, head a few doors down to buy a scoop of ice cream at the Yellowstone Perk, which also is a pharmacy, coffee and gift shop. Flavors like Graham Slam and Pecan Praline are sinfully delicious and made up the road in Livingston, Mont., by the regionally famous Wilcoxson’s Ice Cream.
Lunch on the Go
A nod to man’s ⎯ and woman’s ⎯ best friend, the sandwiches and wraps at Tumbleweed Bookstore and Cafe are named after dogs ⎯ owner Anna Holloway’s dogs, locals’ dogs, plus a bunny and cat. There’s even a locals’ wait list to get their dogs name and photo on the menu, which only happens when a featured pet passes away.
Offering gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan options, it’s open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, although the dinner menu is the same as lunch. Starting at 7 a.m. in the summer, you can order lunch to go. Don’t forget to try one of their great coffee drinks, baked goods or peruse the bookshelves, which has a good selection of Yellowstone area field guides.
Gardiner Market, a grocery/hybrid store, has readymade deli sandwiches to go, featuring organic and local meats. They also bake muffins, scones, bars and cheesecake daily, in case you need to satisfy your sweet tooth. Interested in a leisurely breakfast or lunch? Head to Yellowstone Grill.
Grab a Drink at Gardiner’s Watering Holes
For an Old West feel and to talk to locals and tourists alike, grab a drink at Red’s Bluegoose Saloon (406-848-7434) ⎯ look for the large blue goose sign hanging above the door. You’ll find a couple of pool tables and a jukebox, too. Or head to the Two Bit Saloon and Restaurant, which has pool tables, as well as live bands, karaoke and DJ nights in its dance hall. To watch the sun set behind Electric Peak on the best deck in town, visit the Iron Horse right on the banks of the river.
The Dinner Bell
Don’t let the uninspired decor at The Raven Grill turn you away from a fantastic meal. This favorite is known for its steaks, but it’s well worth branching out with elk lasagna or Crazy Mountain Alfredo, made of sausage, chicken and prosciutto and peppers. There’s great pizza and beer at KBar Pizza. Corral Burger (406-848-7627) offers indoor/outdoor seating. Under new ownership, it offers great freshly made burgers, homemade fries and great salads. If you want dinner on the go, stop in the Gardiner Market and ask for Frick’n Chicken, roasted chicken that’s hot and ready for you to whisk away.
Where to Stay in Gardiner, Montana
Staying in Gardiner, Mont., makes visiting Yellowstone easy. With the park boundary a stone’s throw away, Gardiner is home to campgrounds, bed breakfasts, cabins and national chain hotels. Vacation rentals also are popular for area visitors.