The quaint town of Livingston, Mont., has attracted cowboys, ranchers, the rich and famous and artists enamored by the scenery for more than 100 years. It's also been featured in A River Runs Through It, The Horse Whisperer and Marlboro advertisements.
On any given day you could run into Earl Craig, Montana’s poet laureate who works as a farrier—someone who shoes horses—when not writing poetry; or John Bailey, the fly-fishing expert who coached Brad Pitt in casting for the movie A River Runs Through It.
It was Thomas McGuane, one of the many writers who lives in Paradise Valley, near where Livingston is located, who introduced Robert Redford to Norman Maclean’s story A River Runs Through It. Redford then turned it into a feature film of the same name. The story actually takes place in the 1920s in Missoula, with the fishing happening on the Blackfoot River, but Missoula and its river were very different by 1992 when the movie was filmed.
Downtown Missoula was no longer all quaint red brick buildings. The Blackfoot had suffered at the hands of humans. There was the failure of a tailings reservoir that released tons of toxic sediment into its headwaters. Generations of timber harvesting had left mountain creeks and streams full of sediment, and grazing and irrigation had killed much of the native fish population. Redford knew that Livingston had a downtown that, with a little work, could be brought back to the 1920s. And the nearby Gallatin River was a healthy fishery. So Livingston was transformed into 1920s Missoula and the Gallatin River stood in for the Blackfoot. A River Runs Through It won the Oscar for best cinematography in 1993. Since the early 1990s conservation groups have been successfully working to restore the Blackfoot and the river is now close to being the great fishery it once was.
Today, explore downtown Livingston and its lively restaurants and shops, some of which have been around since the 1800s. Still owned by the Fryer family, the iconic Sax & Fryer Co. bookstore and stationary store opened in 1883 and is the oldest stationary store in Montana. It moved to its new location on 109 W Callender St. in 1914. A block away is the Murray Hotel and Bar, built in 1904. Home to the upscale 2nd Street Bistro, it ranks as one of chef Anthony Bourdain’s favorite in the world. Singer John Mayer has shown up at the hotel bar with his guitar.
Speaking of which, there’s an incredible music scene in this town of 7,800- check out The Mint Bar and Grill, The Office Lounge and Liquor Store, Pine Creek Lodge and Chico Saloon at Chico Hot Springs.
You’ll even get a window into the history of Yellowstone at the Yellowstone Gateway Museum (Livingston was the original gateway town to the park). Housed in a 1907 schoolhouse, this museum contains area items from 12,000 years ago to present day and explores area and Yellowstone history. Learn more below.
Then get outside. Drive 15 minutes south of Livingston to the Pine Creek Campground. Walk 1.5 miles to reach Pine Creek Falls or five miles to reach Pine Creek Lake.
Here are four other places to check out.
1. International Federation of Fly Fishers
According to local John Bailey, nowhere has the variety of fishing that Livingston does. There are big rivers like the Yellowstone, which runs right through town and which you can fish year-round. There are spring creeks like Armstrong’s. And there are small stream fisheries like Mill Creek. And then there are all the secret spots local fishermen won’t dare share for publication.
It makes perfect sense then that Livingston is the headquarters for the International Federation of Fly Fishers. This group works to conserve fly fisheries around the world and educate people about the sport. It also preserves the history of the sport, which it turns out you don’t need to be a fly fisherman to appreciate. Included in its collection of thousands of flies, from antique to modern, is one tied by the illustrious British angler Frank Sawyer, who was a river keeper in the early- to mid-1900s. (The musician Sting owns one of the sections of river Sawyer was once responsible for.) Sawyer is best remembered as the inventor of sunken nymphs. These flies were unique at the time because they were tied with copper wire, which was heavier than the thread typically used at the time.
The museum’s collection also includes memorabilia that once belonged to fly-fishing power couple Lee and Joan Wulff and a variety of rods. Lee Wulff is credited with inventing the fishing vest; Joan is considered the best female fly fisherman in the world. 5237 US 89S, Suite 11, (406) 222-9369, www.fedflyfishers.org
2. Yellowstone Gateway Museum
Housed in a 1907 schoolhouse, this museum contains items from 12,000 years ago to present day and explores the history of the area and Yellowstone National Park. Find out more at yellowstonegatewaymuseum.org.
3. The Murray Hotel and Bar
Built in 1904, this legendary hotel ranks as one of chef Anthony Bourdain’s favorite in the world. Singer John Mayer has even shown up at the hotel bar with his guitar. It’s home to the upscale 2nd Street Bistro. Learn more at murrayhotel.com.
4. Katabatic Brewing Co.
Stop here for a microbrew and order dinner from Fiesta en Jalisco, a Mexican restaurant next door. It's named after the katabatic winds [meaning “cooling” winds] that sweep through the area. Learn more at katabaticbrewing.com.
For more information:
Livingston Area Chamber of Commerce
Convention and Visitor Bureau
303 E. Park St, Livingston MT 59047
This piece includes excerpts from On the Road Yellowstone by Dina Mishev, a book produced in partnership with National Park Trips Media and Lyons Press.