As summer temperatures drop and autumn starts approaching fiery fall colors adorn the mountainous backdrop of Gardiner, Montana, the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park, and the surrounding area. Yellows splash green hillsides and reds decorate roadways creating a dramatic canvass of color pleasing to drivers, hikers, and photographers. Be it a short-but-sweet excursion or an all-day adventure, autumn offers scenery and fun for every visitor. Wake up early and grab a breakfast burrito from the Grizzly Grille, a breakfast sandwich from the Tumbleweed Bookstore and Café, or a savory muffin or scone and coffee from the Wonderland Café and Lodge; and head into the wilds of Greater Yellowstone to see what this special season has to offer!
Fall foliage along the Gardner River, courtesy of Ann Skelton
Gardiner to Indian Creek Campground (1-3 hours)
Starting in Gardiner drive through Roosevelt Arch on your way to Mammoth Hot Springs. A map of the park can be found here, at the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce, or at the park’s north entrance station. In Mammoth, keep driving south through Golden Gate on your way to Swan Lake Flat. Enjoy the bright-yellow aspen mixed with evergreens on your way past volcanic rock and a waterfall and then the golden grasses of the glacial valley. South of Swan Lake Flat, cross the Gardner River and enjoy a picnic-style breakfast along a babbling creek amidst fall foliage at either Indian Creek Campgound, open until Sept. 9, or Sheepeater Cliff Picnic Area. Watch for wildlife including groups of elk, which are in the midst of their mating season. This is also a good trip for an evening outing and can be easily paired with an exploration of the Mammoth Terraces or Historic Fort Yellowstone. Listen for bugling bull elk in the early morning and late evening.
Autumn hues in Lamar Valley, courtesy of Yellowstone NPS
Gardiner to Lamar Valley (3-5 hours)
To get to Warm Creek Picnic Area turn east in Mammoth instead of south and drive past the red-roofed Albright Visitor Center and Fort Yellowstone on your way to Tower Junction and later Lamar Valley. As you climb in elevation, look for bright-yellow aspen on Bunsen Peak and along Sheepeater Cliffs as you drive over the Gardner River. After passing through wide-open sagebrush-steppe east of Mammoth look for showy magenta fireweed and red-leafed shrubs and bushes decorating the forest floor while golden aspen intermix with dense evergreen forests. After reaching Tower Junction, turn left onto the Northeast Entrance Road toward Cooke City; cross the Yellowstone River; and pass through the Lamar River Canyon into Lamar Valley. Here, colorful cottonwood trees dot the valley floor along the Lamar River. The valley is one of the most wildlife-rich locations in the lower United States and is often home to vast herds of American bison, wolves, bears, pronghorn, foxes, and coyotes.
A misty autumn morning in Hayden Valley, courtesy of Yellowstone NPS
Gardiner to Hayden Valley and Mud Volcano (4-7 hours)
To get to Hayden Valley turn south at Tower Junction and drive up and over the mountainous Dunraven Pass toward Canyon Village. After stopping at Canyon for a visit to the Canyon Visitor Education Center—and a stop at one of the area’s many scenic overlooks of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and its waterfalls—keep heading south into Hayden Valley, where golden autumn grasses undulate like ocean waves and bison, elk, and other wildlife forage and make their living. Parallel the Yellowstone River toward Mud Volcano Geyser Basin to see one of the most interesting, yet underrepresented, hydrothermal areas in Yellowstone. The basin smells of hydrogen sulfide and showcases mud pots and other hydrothermal features during a short loop in the front and a longer, more-intense route in the back. Specialized plants in the basin turn colors in the fall’s cooler temperatures. Be sure to carry sunscreen, water, bear spray, and a camera. Look for migrating raptors like red-tailed hawks circling the open valley and grizzly bears searching the high country for pine nuts, moths, and other food sources. Head back the way you came over Dunraven Pass or take a detour home via Norris Geyser Basin on the way back to Mammoth and comfortable food, lodging, and shopping in Gardiner. Road conditions, construction, and closures can be found by clicking here.
Fall color in Paradise Valley, courtesy of Jean Modesette
Gardiner to Paradise Valley – Emigrant (1-3 hours)
For a different take on the Greater Gardiner experience head north on scenic U.S. Route 89 toward Livingston, Montana, through the mountain-encompassed Paradise Valley. Here, ranches and open space give way to large views of the Yellowstone River and rugged peaks stand stark against the surrounding lowlands where wildlife start to migrate in fall to lower elevations. Cottonwood and aspen trees color the valley along the Yellowstone River; old barns and tractors paint a picturesque setting; and stacks of hay and alfalfa sit ready for horses and cattle. This morning or evening outing features rural Montana at its finest and is best accompanied by breakfast or brunch at the Wildflower Bakery and Café or dinner at the Follow Yer’ Nose BBQ which features arguably the best pulled pork sandwich in the valley—with all the fixings. For their menu, hours of operation, and schedule for live music please visit their website here.
If you find you have trouble capturing the colors of fall on camera on your own consider looking into the professional landscape and wildlife portraits for sale at Yellowstone Wild – The Gallery in downtown Gardiner or booking a trip with a local guide specializing in photography.
Chelsea DeWeese is a writer based in her hometown of Gardiner, Montana, the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park.