This post was written by Traveling Mel. Melynda Harrison writes about family travel and outdoor adventures from Livingston, Montana and around the world. Find her at TravelingMel.com. YellowstoneTrips.com and @TravelingMelMT on Instagram.
Unsurprisingly, summer is the busiest season for Gardiner and Yellowstone National Park. There are so many things to do in Gardiner, Montana in summer and a lot of people want to get in on it. It’s a good idea to come prepared both mentally and logistically for a bustling place.
We live just north of Gardiner and visit regularly year round. (See my post on things to do in Gardiner in winter.) It’s our favorite entrance to Yellowstone, but there is also so much to see in and around Gardiner itself.
Summer visitation creeps up every year and in 2021, it is expected that 6 million people will visit the world’s first national park. To make the most of your trip to Gardiner and have the best time, I have a few suggestions:
- Plan ahead and make reservations.Book your hotels, campsites, and tours before you come if at all possible. You may be able to find a hotel room or book a tour once you arrive, but don’t count on it. Some campgrounds don’t take reservations, see this post on camping near Gardiner.
- Expect longer than usual wait times at some area restaurants or grab something to-gofrom the Gardiner Market or other eateries and have a scenic picnic.
- Get out early and latein the day. Bonus- this is the best time to see wildlife, too.
- Practice patience and kindness. Everyone is working to make your vacation an experience to remember!
Where to Stay in Gardiner, MT
Gardiner has a bunch of hotels, vacation rentals, campgrounds, and glamping sites and cabins available for rent. Be sure to make a reservation before you come (or get to first come-first served campgrounds and RV parks early in the morning) to ensure a spot to spend the night.
Hotels in Gardiner
Gardiner has a lot of clean, no-nonsense hotels that serve as ideal basecamps for your trip to Yellowstone. Most of them are right in town, so you can park your car in their lots (which is really nice as street parking can fill up) and walk to restaurants, pubs, and shopping.
Check prices, amenities, and availability for hotels in Gardiner on TripAdvisor or contact the hotel of your choice directly.
Vacation Rentals in Gardiner
There are a lot of vacation rentals these days. I recommend checking VRBOs in Gardiner. I have some favorites, but they depend on the number of people (and pets) in your party.
Camping in Gardiner
Whether you want to spend the night in an RV site with full hookups or pitch a tent in the woods, this post has everything you need to know about camping near Yellowstone’s North Entrance.
Find all of the lodging options in and around Gardiner in this online lodging directory.
Where to Eat in Gardiner, MT
While you should definitely make a lodging reservation, you can’t make restaurant reservations in Gardiner, so expect to wait for service. A historic fire in 2020 destroyed three restaurants and has led to further strain on an already low amount of existing establishments.
We love eating out in Gardiner, but when we don’t want to wait, we grab takeaway from:
- Gardiner Market -a comprehensive grocery store with pre-made lunch and dinner options.
- Yellowstone Grill – breakfast, burgers, sandwiches, and burritos.
- The Corral– a classic burger joint with picnic tables out front.
- Yellowstone Pizza Company– great pizza and pasta!
- Grizzly Grille– order tacos or a rice bowl burritos at the counter and sit outside at this food truck.
- Or check in with other eateries to see if they can package their meals “to-go.”
If you go the takeout route, call ahead and give them plenty of time to cook something delicious for you!
Once you have your food, find a lovely spot to enjoy it.
- The pavilion in Arch Parkis a great place to picnic and you have a spectacular view of the Roosevelt Arch. We often see wildlife on the hillside and on the high school football field while eating there.
- The La Duke Picnic Areais 7 miles north of Gardiner on US 89 and near the Yellowstone River.
- The Cinnabar Picnic Areais 8 miles north of Gardiner on US 89, cross bridge, 0.5 miles south. It is a quiet spot near the Yellowstone River and Yellowstone Hot Springs.
What to Do in Gardiner, MT
Over the years we’ve participated in a lot of the activities in Gardiner and we always have a good time. I think people sometimes forget that the National Forest just outside of Yellowstone is just as wild and beautiful as inside the park. For geyser gawking and hot spring viewing, you’ll want to visit Yellowstone, but for recreation, Gardiner and the Custer Gallatin National Forest can’t be beat.
Scenic or Whitewater Rafting Trips
There are several companies in Gardiner that offer both scenic and whitewater float trips on the Yellowstone River. Since we have our own raft, I haven’t floated with any of them, but I see them on the river and they look professional.
Be sure to book your trip as soon as possible.
Flying Pig Adventure Company, Yellowstone Raft Company, Wild West Raft Company, Paradise Adventure Company, and Montana Whitewater have all been in business for decades and float the same stretches of the Yellowstone.
Some of them team up with Hell’s A-Roarin’ Outfitters or Wilderness Connection to offer a “paddle and saddle” package which involves both rafting and horseback riding in one day.
Horseback Riding Trips
As with any tour, make a reservation as soon as you know you want to go.
We had a great time riding horses in Yellowstone with Yellowstone Pack Trips. They primarily do multi-day adventures, but I can’t recommend them highly enough.
In addition to Hell’s A-Roarin’ Outfitters (which also does fishing trips and streak cookouts), Rockin’ HK Outfitters, Yellowstone Roughriders, and Specimen Creek Outfitters and Adventures offer horseback riding in and around Yellowstone’s North Entrance.
As a former Yellowstone wildlife watching and natural history guide, I have a lot of connections with the people who do tours in the park. There are so many guides these days, so I’ll mention a few that I know personally.
We spent a winter day with Yellowstone Wolf Tracker and learned so much about the park, not to mention seeing a lot of wolves and other animals. It’s easier and more common to see wolves in winter, but they can be found all year.
A friend of mine owns Walking Shadow Ecology Tours of Yellowstone and I love her approach. She takes a deeper look at the park and its ecology. Her team is also really good with kids.
Take a Hike
We do a lot of hiking around the Gardiner area. As with anywhere in the area, carry bear spray and know how to use it. You can rent bear spray from the Trailquipt locker in front of Yellowstone Big Rock Inn.
You should also make sure you have the following with you on any hike:
- map of the area(don’t count on being able to use your phone).
- sunscreen/sun hat
- bug spray (and do a tick check when you return to your lodging)
- food and water (don’t drink from creeks)
- extra layer of clothing
- rain gear (it can rain any day of the year)
There are so many trails in the area, but these are a few of my favorites. Check out Day Hikes Around Bozeman, Montana by Robert Stone and Hiking Yellowstone National Park by Bill Schneider. We also use the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness map by Beartooth Publishing regularly.
Hikes Near Yellowstone
Getting there: Drive 10 miles north of Gardiner on Highway 89. Turn right (north) on Cedar Creek Road and follow the narrow dirt road to the end to reach the trailhead.
Distance: 2.6 miles round trip
This is one of our favorite easy hikes. Follow the (closed) gravel road through sagebrush and rolling hills to a historic dude ranch. The OTO was Montana’s first dude ranch and it is in various states of restoration.
Getting there: Drive 7 miles north of Gardiner on US 89 and look for the brown Forest Service sign on the right (north).
This is a bit of a steep hike, but the switchbacks help. It isn’t long before you have great views into Yellowstone and Sepulcher Mountain, Electric Peak and the Devil’s Slide. After a few miles you reach a meadow and Bassett Creek. Turn around here or keep climbing. At 4.3 miles you reach a high point (after quite a scramble).
North Fork Bear Creek Trail
Getting there: From Gardiner, drive up the Jardine Road 6 miles until it dead ends at the trailhead.
Distance: 2.6 miles or many more
I’ve done more skiing in the Bear Creek area than hiking, but I do enjoy walking the North Fork Bear Creek Trail. The first 1.3 miles follows the creek and is fairly flat. This is a nice walk for kids and families. Then you reach a junction and continue a long way in either direction. I prefer to go left toward Monitor Peak as off-road-vehicles are not allowed.
Hot Springs Near Yellowstone
The geothermal activity that creates the geysers, hot springs, fumaroles, and mud pots that Yellowstone is famous for doesn’t stop at the park boundary. There are a couple hot springs resorts where hot water is piped into pools perfect for soaking.
Yellowstone Hot Springs
Yellowstone Hot Springs is 8 miles north of Gardiner and a newer hot spring venue. There are 4,000 square feet of mineral hot springs divided into a big pool (102-degrees F) with two smaller pools inside it (one is a cold pool at 67-70-degrees F, the other is hotter than the main pool at 104-degrees F) and a kneipp walk.
They sell a few snacks and you can bring food and drink (no alcohol) onto the deck.
Chico Hot Springs Resort and Spa
Chico is probably the most famous of Montana hot springs. It is a turn-of-the-century, rustic, retreat snuggled into the Absaroka Mountains about 30 minutes north of Gardiner.
In addition to the two hot springs pools, there is a walk up bar, two restaurants, lodging, a horse barn, and spa.
Read more about these and other Montana hot springs here.
Shopping in Gardiner
There are several shops in Gardiner where you can pick up art or souvenirs. I won’t list them all — it more fun to walk around and discover what’s out there.
Here are some of my favorites:
- Park’s Fly Shophas everything for and about fly fishing and it turns into a ski and snowshoe hub in the winter. Rent skis and snowshoes here or book a winter fishing trip. It’s the oldest business in Gardiner under continuous family ownership. 202 Second Street South
- Gardiner Giftsfeatures unique gifts, ice cream, and espresso. 108 South Second Street
- Kellem’s Montana Saddleryis a working saddle shop with tack, chaps, chinks, leather care, and horse care products. They also sell Western clothing and have a great selection of hats, belts, gloves, purses, scarves, jewelry, buckles, and Western gifts. 214 Park Street
- Yellowstone Wild Galleryfeatures the fine art photography of C. Thomas Hoff. 222 Park Street
- Yellowstone Forever is the official non-profit partner to Yellowstone National Park. We stop here frequently to see the displays as well as shop for books, puzzles, and Yellowstone gifts. 308 Park Street
Museums in Gardiner
Heritage and Research Center: Yellowstone’s research library and museum is open by appointment. The museum collection contains “natural history, archeological, and cultural objects, including obsidian points, skulls from the first wolves reintroduced in the park, Thomas Moran’s original watercolor field sketches, William Henry Jackson’s photographs, furniture from the historic hotels and other historic structures,” and more.
Yellowstone Forever Institute: Yellowstone Forever is the official non-profit partner to Yellowstone National Park. The have a book and gift shop in Gardiner that has a few items on display. It’s sort of a museum, but also a really great place to get all things Yellowstone-related. It’s a good place to get up to date information on where to look for animals in the park. They also offer lots of education programs and field institutes.
Yellowstone National Park
For most people, a visit to Gardiner is not complete without spending time in Yellowstone. I have a whole website dedicated to Yellowstone.
If you just want to dip your toes into Yellowstone National Park, these sights are within ten minutes of Yellowstone’s North Entrance in Gardiner.
- Roosevelt Arch– The Roosevelt Arch is right in Gardiner and its cornerstone was laid down by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. It was built to add “grandeur” to what was once the largest entrance to Yellowstone.
- Rescue Creek Trail– an 8-mile through hike to Blacktail Creek Trailhead, but this trail is also a nice out and back that parallels the Yellowstone River for a bit and then passes Rattlesnake Butte. We like to hike out a mile or two or three and then turn around. If you do want to through-hike it, better to start at Blacktail Creek Trailhead and save yourself 1,000-feet of elevation gain.
- Boiling River– [Closed until further notice] It’s just a 0.05 mile walk to the point where the Boiling River cascades into the Gardner River. Where the two meet, users have built pools with rocks for soaking. Find a spot where the water mixture is just right and enjoy.
- Mammoth Terraces– The showstopper in the Mammoth Hot Springs area is the Mammoth Terraces. Hot water moves through a “plumbing system” in limestone rock, picking up minerals as it goes. When the water reaches the surface it deposits the minerals in scalloped shaped terraces. Algae, cyanobacteria, archaea, and plants add color, creating a sculptural spectacle. Boardwalks create trails around and through the terrace for viewing.
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Melynda Harrison writes about family travel and outdoor adventures from Livingston, Montana and around the world. Find her at TravelingMel.com. YellowstoneTrips.com and @TravelingMelMT on Instagram.