Montana’s Coolest Mountain Town Is Just 90 Minutes from Yellowstone
And the food is so good, it should be illegal.
At first blush, Bozeman, Montana—just miles down the old country road from the cowboy town of Livingston—doesn’t seem like the kind of place celebrities would go to hide out. After all, most of what surrounds this small town of 53,000 are endless golden plains, rugged mountains, and the occasional herd of cows grazing. Beautiful as it is, it’s a far cry from the fast lane.
But as you amble along downtown, you’ll quickly begin to understand why A-listers like John Mayer and Michael Keaton have chosen to while away their days in the blue shadow of the Bridger Range. A bunch of farm-to-table joints—so good, they should be illegal—and neon-lit dives filled with memorabilia line the main strip. Steamy hot springs and skyward trails lie in wait. A youthful energy rings throughout, with Montana State University just steps away.
If you plan on falling in love with Bozeman—which is all but inevitable, especially given its proximity to Yellowstone—you’d better do it quick: The secret is out about this mountain town, and the years to come will only see it grow in popularity. For the nature-lovers, the farm-fresh foodies, and those who just want to go somewhere they can rock a ten-gallon hat in peace, this is your guide to Montana’s coolest mountain town.
Let “farm-to-table” gain new meaning
Simply put, Bozeman is the best food city in the state. The meals here are the kind that’ll render you totally useless, so full that all you’ll be able to do is sit and stare blankly into space for a while. Sometimes “farm-to-table” sounds like a ploy; in Bozeman, you’ll be able to savor exactly what a difference it can make.
Grab brunch at Jam!, where the portions are huge and the cooks are clearly not afraid to use butter. If there’s a long wait, duck into Wild Joe’s right across the street for a cup of coffee. If you need evening plans, they also do pretty killer “Breakfast for Dinner” drag brunches with shows at 6 and 8:30 pm.
You will regret for the rest of your days missing out on dinner at Plonk. This is the definition of getting what you pay for: You’ll find big city prices and atmosphere, but plates the size of your head and stellar cocktails (I’m still thinking about the Coconut Lime Rickey). You need their pan-roasted chicken breast with Israeli couscous n’ cheese in your life.
Suffice to say, most meals you’ll have around town will knock you off your feet in a similar way: The perfect buffalo burgers at Montana Ale Works. The fluffy biscuits and crispy wings at Roost Fried Chicken. The piping hot pies at Cosmic Pizza. But really, it’s no surprise—when most residents’ pastimes include hiking through the hills that surround the town, it’s easy to see why the chefs out here pack so much heft into the food.
Hike to your heart’s content
If you weren’t aware, “Montana” means “mountain.” And if you take a look around, it ain’t that hard to see why! Drive just a few minutes out of Bozeman, and you’ll enter what is no less than a hiker’s wonderland in Gallatin National Forest and the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area.
There are options for all skill levels: Self-prescribed couch potatoes should take a quick outing to Palisade Falls. If you’re a pretty decent sport, go for the moderate, 6-mile Lava Lake trail, or the (steep) 2.1-mile, wildflower-lined Drinking Horse Mountain trail, both among the most popular hikes near Bozeman. And if you might as well be a billy goat, the Sacagawea Peak and Baldy Peak Summit trails—upon the latter of which you’ll gain over 4,300 feet of elevation!—are for you.
On all of the above, you’re bound to get some pretty impressive views of the lush greenery, crystal lakes, and classic Big Sky that define Montana, and maybe even spot some wildlife hanging out in the hills. And if by the end of it all you still haven’t had enough outdoorsy goodness, there’s good news: from Bozeman, Glacier and Grand Teton National Parks are both a little over four hours away, while Yellowstone awaits just 90 minutes south.
Spend an afternoon lounging in a hot spring
Opportunities to take a dip in hot springs abound—an ideal way to recover after a weekend of hiking, biking, or otherwise getting your ass kicked by the various mountain trails that surround the city.
Take your pick: Closest to town, there’s the Bozeman Hot Springs, a family-friendly aquatic center-slash-steam-powered oasis where bands often stop in to play shows while you soak. (In very Montana fashion, they’ve also got an onsite campground if you just can’t bear to part ways.)
About an hour south, you’ll pass through Livingston on the way to the old-school Chico Hot Springs and Resort, where you can check in for a night, get a full-spa treatment, or stop in for a drink at their saloon, among other things. There’s also Norris Hot Springs about 45 minutes west; here, you can snack on meals made from ingredients straight from their Garden of the Gods, plus sip on wine and craft beer while you relax (and DDs get free admission on their next trip!).
And if you’re more interested in water when it’s frozen and fluffy than piping hot, schedule your trip for winter and head to the Bridger Bowl for 2,000 acres of gold-tier level skiing, less than 30 minutes from downtown.
Relieve the glory days—whether that’s college or the Mesozoic Era
In this mountain town, it’s not too difficult to create a stacked itinerary. Those seeking a new look (or cowboy hat) should shop the racks of ultra-cool Western wear at The Johnny and June Vintage Shop beneath Headwest Bozeman.
Once you’re decked out, continue on to the Museum of the Rockies where you can view researchers hard at work recovering fossils from stone, as well as an impressive collection of dinosaur skeletons. They’ve also got exhibits on the history of Yellowstone Country, from its early Native American heritage through the mid-20th century.
As far as an evening of drinking goes, Bozeman admittedly has a ways to go, and the regulars that currently frequent the bars on Main are, for the most part, college bros. For now, either keep the party going at Plonk, or try the neon-lit Crystal Bar, a dive lined with slot machines, lost bras, and confiscated 90s-era fake IDs where you can knock back four drinks and only spend $13 (yes, actually). Then there’s Kitty Warren, a speakeasy hidden beneath Main Street that’s only open Thursdays to Saturdays. Just be forewarned: the options for late-night drunchies are few and far between.
Where to stay in Bozeman
Everything you’ll need in Bozeman can be found on Main Street, so you’re best off staying nearby. At the Element Bozeman, you’ll wake up to unobstructed views of the mountains; downstairs they serve up American fare and cocktails at their restaurant/bar, Squire House, which stays open ‘til 10pm (one of the later options in town).
Down the block, there’s also the newly-erected, very glitzy Kimpton Armory, with a music hall, two bars (including a rooftop spot), and a restaurant on-site. The big draw here is the rooftop pool, where you can gaze out across downtown Bozeman and the mountains.
If you’re working with a tight budget, no worries: Assuming you’ve got a ride, you can stay a little further afield. There’s the MountainView Lodge, a no-fuss spot just outside town, and the Lewis and Clark Motel, whose enormous, glittering sign looks like it belongs in Vegas.
Or, assuming you’re in Montana to harness the Big Nature that sits beneath the Big Sky, you can always pitch a tent. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Montana is essentially one giant campground, so if you’d rather forgo 1,000 thread count sheets for a bed under the stars—well, you’ll fit in just fine.