If you follow the Yellowstone River as it snakes south through Paradise Valley, it’s easy to imagine early settlers pressing forward, by wagon and on horseback, deep into Yellowstone Country. When you make the journey now, you’ll most likely see herds of elk and deer grazing the valley floor before reaching the unassuming frontier town of Gardiner, Montana.
Cradled between the soaring peaks of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and at the northwest doorstep of Yellowstone National Park, Gardiner is a natural base camp for outdoor adventure. Bison wander the streets, marmots wrestle on the riverbanks, and owls serenade you as the stars come out. Roads through town and into Yellowstone stay open year-round, so there’s no need to fight the summer crowds here. Enjoy Gardiner’s laid-back vibe in fall, winter, and spring, when wildlife viewing is at its best and Yellowstone’s majesty is yours for the taking.
YELLOWSTONE’S FIRST GATEWAY
Gardiner is surrounded by scenic hiking options. - Yellowstone National Park
Originally named Gardner’s Hole after fur trapper and reputed outlaw Johnson Gardner, Gardiner happens to be the first named destination in the region. The surveyors and politicians of the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition of 1870 made it official, though Gardiner had been stomping grounds for trappers and mountain men for decades. It’s rumored that Jim Bridger himself was responsible for updating the name to its current spelling. Founded in 1880, Gardiner’s population boomed with the 1883 discovery of gold in nearby Bear Gulch and the 1903 extension of the Northern Pacific Railway to downtown. That same year, Theodore Roosevelt visited to place the cornerstone for the towering Roosevelt Arch. The iconic monument still greets you like a familiar friend as you enter the park.
Gardiner is so close to Yellowstone that the shops along Park Street straddle the park boundary. Five miles up the road, Fort Yellowstone, the 1880s base of operations for troops arriving to protect the park from developers and poachers, stands watch next to the historic Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. Pass Mammoth’s ethereal travertine terraces as you turn east to follow the Yellowstone River to the famed Lamar Valley.
ADVENTURE BASE CAMP
Gardiner offers you easy access to a huge and diverse population of free-roaming animals. - @rsseattle
Exploring Yellowstone from Gardiner, you have the only direct, four-season access to the Northern Range’s vast grasslands, one of the most diverse communities of free-roaming animals on Earth. While buffalo jams and selfie-obsessed tourists dominate the summer, the cycle of life across the plateau makes for magical and intimate animal encounters the rest of the year.
Listen for the massive bull elk’s autumn bugle call. In the fields around Mammoth and Gardiner, bulls spar with their huge antler racks, jockeying for dominance over herds of females and calves grazing nearby. As snow buries the park’s interior, the Northern Range becomes the winter home for elk, mule deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, bison, and white-tailed deer. Major predators like grizzlies, black bears, gray wolves, foxes, coyotes, and eagles follow suit in search of their prey. And only in spring can you witness a baby bison’s wobbly first steps or a burly mama grizzly’s tender attention to her newborn cubs as they emerge from their den.
Spotting bison in the distance near Gardiner. - Yellowstone National Park
The Gardiner community is passionate about Yellowstone, and a number of local tour guides and organizations are ready to transform your scenic drive into a wildlife safari. Cross-country ski, hike, and snowshoe the Northern Range; learn animal tracking, wildlife photography, and wilderness first aid with the Yellowstone Forever Institute; or book a tour with a local guide who knows exactly where and when you’re most likely to see wildlife.
If you’d rather explore on your own, rent your gear at Park's Fly Shop or the Flying Pig Camp Store in Gardiner, or The Bear Den Ski Shop at the Mammoth Hotel. Consider hiking the half-mile trail to the Boiling River, one of just a few legal thermal soaking areas in Yellowstone. Hot springs bubble into the cold waters of the Gardiner River for a invigorating soak, especially when snow flurries and steam rising from the springs shroud the area in dreamy clouds. Observe National Park Service guidelines in this fragile and beautiful area and check for hours of operation and seasonal closures before visiting.
HEARTY EATS AND AN OLD WEST SALOON
For a laid-back frontier town, Gardiner has a surprising variety of restaurants and shops, with no lines or crowds once summer ends. Stop for a breakfast burrito at Tumbleweed Bookstore and Cafe on your way into the park, and a jumbo waffle cone stuffed with local favorite Wilcoxson Ice Cream at Yellowstone Perk on your way out. The Gardiner Market will prep a bag lunch for your day treks, and there’s loads of downtown dine-in options for lunch and dinner, from Yellowstone Mine and The Corral to Yellowstone Safari Grill. Celebrate sundown Old West style with local microbrews and themed dance nights at The Two Bit Saloon.
CAMPSITES TO CABINS
The setting moon over an elk at Mammoth Hot Springs. - Yellowstone National Park
Want to experience this rugged country like the frontiersmen did? Camp inside the park at Mammoth Hot Springs’ year-round campground or just outside the park in campgrounds around Gardiner, Montana. For the comforts of home, book a room in any of Gardiner’s many lodges and inns. Live like a homesteader just a few miles outside town at Bear Creek Cabins. Stay in the heart of downtown Gardiner at Cowboy’s Lodge & Grille. Or book a room inside the park at the newly renovated Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.
No matter the time of the year you visit, Gardiner offers everything you need to enjoy America’s first national park—and one of the most beautiful parts of the country.
Written by Jess McGlothlin for RootsRated Media in partnership with Gardiner CVB.