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10 Top-Rated Things to Do in Gardiner, MT

Written by Brad Lane
May 13, 2021

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In southern Montana, Gardiner is at the northern entrance of Yellowstone National Park - the nation's first national park. And Gardiner has served as its popular base camp for over 140 years.

There's a reason visitors still flock to Gardiner for their Yellowstone vacations. The most common route to get there is Highway 89 through the aptly named Paradise Valley. This inspiring region offers enough reason for a road trip alone. It connects Gardiner with communities up north, including Livingston and Bozeman. From Bozeman to Gardiner, it's approximately an hour-and-a-half drive.

Things to do in Gardiner comprise a mix of national park excursions and time spent in Paradise Valley. The area is brimming with adventures, like fly fishing, rafting, and camping throughout the summer. And the winter season also draws interest with hot springs and travertine terraces.

No matter the season, Gardiner equals adventure in Montana. Find your next memorable excursion with our list of the top things to do in Gardiner.

Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.

1. Visit Mammoth Hot Springs

Travertine Terrace at Mammoth Hot Springs
Travertine Terrace at Mammoth Hot Springs | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Mammoth Hot Springs is the closest region of Yellowstone to Gardiner, accessible with a scenic five-mile drive. The route passes through the iconic Roosevelt Arch and past parking areas for the Boiling River. But even these trip-worthy destinations don't compare to the surplus of natural attractions in Mammoth.

This historic area of Yellowstone is best known for its dynamic travertine terraces. These colorful staircase hot springs are the result of dissolved limestone building up for thousands of years. Today, boardwalk trails lend a close-up preview of these thermophile-filled natural wonders.

And there's a lot more to explore besides the boardwalks. Several land-based hiking trails also spread throughout the area, including the scenic Bunsen Peak Trail. Mammoth Hot Springs is also home to some of the oldest infrastructure in the park, located at Historic Fort Yellowstone.

Mammoth is a must-see when visiting Gardiner. The Old Gardiner Road is a historic five-mile route that leads back to town. This dirt road used to be the main throughway that connected Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel to the entrance of the park. Today, it's a one-way route that vehicles can only travel back to Gardiner. Mountain bikers are welcome to travel in either direction.

Official site: https://www.nps.gov/yell/index.htm

2. Go Fly Fishing in a Montana Postcard

Yellowstone River flowing next to Gardiner
Yellowstone River flowing next to Gardiner

Fly fishing has grown to symbolize Montana's adventure opportunities. And it's places like Gardiner that add to the Blue Ribbon reputation. That's because postcard waterways surround the town, including the Yellowstone River and its many tributaries.

Fly fishing in the region is nothing short of an art form that has taken some anglers years to perfect. Several logistics come into play when planning a fly-fishing vacation. These include seasonal fishing patterns and an overabundance of spots to cast a line.

The best way to go fly fishing in Gardiner is by consulting a local guide or bait shop. For many visitors, Parks' Fly Shop is the first place to visit for area advice and guiding services. This family-owned fly shop has occupied the same downtown space since the early 1960s. They offer walk and wade trips, powerboat trips, and casting instruction workshops.

And Parks' Fly Shop isn't the only fly-fishing business in town. Several of the local white water rafting companies also offer a full complement of fishing adventures. Places like Wild West Rafting and Yellowstone Raft Company both feature wading and floating fishing trips.

Read More: Best Places for Fly Fishing in Montana

3. White Water Raft on the Yellowstone River

Raft on the Yellowstone River
Raft on the Yellowstone River

The Yellowstone River begins in Yellowstone National Park and flows for over 600 uninterrupted miles into North Dakota. While not all the Yellowstone offers exciting white water, the section starting near Gardiner certainly does. And rafting the Yellowstone River in the summer months is a must-do when visiting.

The best way to go about getting on the water is hopping aboard with a professional guide. Reputable and local guiding services line the small downtown area of Gardiner. Flying Pig Adventure Company and Paradise Adventure Company are just a few of the outfitters offering half-day, full-day, and overnight rafting trips.

Read More: Best Rivers for White Water Rafting in Montana

4. Travel through Paradise Valley

Paradise Valley, seen from the Yellowstone River
Paradise Valley, seen from the Yellowstone River

The span of Highway 89 that connects Gardiner to Livingston passes through the aptly named Paradise Valley. The Gallatin Range to the west and the Absaroka Range to the east create this verdant countryside, with the Yellowstone River running right down the middle.

Unless driving through the national park from the south, the route through Paradise Valley is the only way to get to Gardiner. And this travel itself is an adventure on its own. Besides gawking out the car window, this valley north of Gardiner deserves a day or two of attention.

Custer-Gallatin National Forest, including the expansive Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, comprises much of the valley's mountain terrain. These public lands lend to miles of multi-use trails on either side of the highway. And the area also features a small selection of campgrounds and hot springs close to Gardiner.

5. Soak in Some Hot Springs

Yellowstone Hot Springs
Yellowstone Hot Springs | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Soaking in two of Montana's best hot springs is one of the top things to do in Paradise Valley. It's up for debate whether Chico Hot Springs or the newly instated Yellowstone Hot Springs is better. Still, it's fun to experience the merits of either.

On Highway 89 in the small town of Emigrant, Chico Hot Springs is one of Montana's most historic hot springs. A large and rustic hotel and resort surround the main swimming pool at Chico, dating back to 1900. This history adds a significant ambience to the large soaking area. And the historic Chico Dining Room offers a fine-dining atmosphere unmatched throughout the rest of the state.

Closer to Gardiner, less than eight miles to the north, Yellowstone Hot Springs is another great soaking experience. This relatively new commercial facility is right off the highway and not affiliated with the national park. It features a beautifully landscaped pool with up-close views of the Gallatin Mountains.

6. Stay the Night at a Campground

While Gardiner has many hotels and motels, one of the best ways to spend the night is pitching a tent or parking an RV at a nearby campground.

For those with recreational vehicles, places in town like Yellowstone RV Park and Rocky Mountain RV Park are often the first choice. These two RV parks are near the central downtown district and provide full hookups, including cable and Wi-Fi. Tent camping is welcome at Yellowstone RV Park, while Rocky Mountain offers camping cabins for this without a rig.

The U.S. Forest Service operates designated campgrounds in the surrounding Custer-Gallatin National Forest. The closest of these campgrounds is Eagle Creek Campground, less than a three-mile drive out of town. This primitive spot to pitch a tent is first-come, first-served and has basic amenities like pit toilets and fire grates. For more information on campgrounds in Custer-Gallatin, check out www.Recreation.gov.

The closest Yellowstone campground to Gardiner is Mammoth Campground, five miles south. It's the only campground in Yellowstone open year-round, with 85 sites available on a first-come, first-served basis. They can be competitive sites to get in the summer.

7. Take a Dip in the Boiling River

The Boiling River
The Boiling River | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

For a bite-size Yellowstone adventure from Gardiner, the Boiling River is a quick three-mile drive on the North Entrance Road. This popular roadside attraction is a burbling hot spring on the banks of the Gardiner River. Visitors can park a car, walk a short hiking trail, and soak in the spot where the icy cold river meets the steaming hot spring.

Because of the cold-water infusion, it's the only hydrothermal feature in the park guests can feel for themselves. Limited facilities at the trailhead limit the places to change into a bathing suit. Hikers will also want to bring along a towel or something to dry off with, especially if visiting in the winter months. The Boiling River has risen in popularity, and visitors should expect crowds throughout the summer.

To add to the bite-size adventure, the route to the Boiling River passes through the iconic Roosevelt Arch, welcoming the public to the park. If traffic isn't too heavy, this 50-foot brick arch offers an excellent photo opportunity. It also serves as a reminder of the area's history as the first entrance into the country's first national park.

8. Shopping and Dining in Gardiner

Downtown Gardiner
Downtown Gardiner |David Fulmer / photo modified

Gardiner has been a base camp for Yellowstone for well over a century. A primary focus of the community has always been the tourists and people from around the world who visit the park. And today, just as much as ever, Gardiner entices tourists with locally owned restaurants and unique shopping opportunities.

The number of quality restaurants in Gardiner speaks to the tourist traffic in this town of less than a thousand residents. Places like Yellowstone Grill and Wonderland Cafe have become community staples for hungry hikers and casual explorers alike. Similar spots like The Corral and the Cowboy Lodge and Grill are also well known for their casual American fare.

Alongside local restaurants and guiding companies, several retail storefronts also line the town. From keepsake Yellowstone souvenirs to authentic western wear, these fun shops offer an everyday activity to enjoy between adventures.

9. Enjoy the Winter Scene

Yellowstone in winter
Yellowstone in winter | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The winter is a gorgeous time to visit Gardiner and the adjacent Yellowstone National Park. A snowy coat adds a new scenic appeal to the mountainsides and hot springs, and the area is virtually free of traffic this time of year.

The Mammoth Hot Springs area of the park is one of the most accessible spots in Yellowstone to explore in the winter. The entrance remains open throughout the season, and visitors can drive all the way to the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. Here, a world of cross-country ski and snowshoe trails awaits those prepared for the cold temperatures.

Two other top things to do in Gardiner stand out in winter. While soaking at either Yellowstone Hot Springs or Chico Hot Springs in the summer is fun, the winter chill makes the hot water even better. Soaking at either pool with fresh snow falling qualifies as one of the top things to do in Montana in the winter.

10. Plan an Extended Yellowstone Vacation

Lone Star Geyser in Yellowstone National Park
Lone Star Geyser in Yellowstone National Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Gardiner has long been a gateway for visiting Yellowstone National Park. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, stagecoaches brought tourists into the park from Gardiner. While four other entrances exist today, the town remains a favorite place to begin an extended Yellowstone National Park adventure.

Mammoth Hot Springs is the first area of significance encountered in the park from Gardiner. And from here, the 140-mile Grand Loop Road connects several other scenic regions. Covering over 2.2 million acres, it takes multiple days to get a full taste of everything Yellowstone has to offer.

Read More:

Where to Stay in Gardiner for Sightseeing

With a long history of hosting visitors, Gardiner has a large selection of hotels and motels to spend the night. All these places to stay line Highway 89 through the center of town, and all offer a minute's drive into Yellowstone National Park.

  • Yellowstone Village Inn: This family-owned hotel offers rooms and suites on the edge of town, a mile from the Roosevelt Arch. The hotel has recently undergone renovations to become a favorite for visiting families. Yellowstone Riverside Cottages: This charming property overlooks the Yellowstone River and offers cottages, suites, and studios. The cottages and suites come with full kitchens, but the real appeal is a community deck with gorgeous views.
  • Travelodge by Wyndham: Near the Yellowstone Village Inn, this four-story Travelodge offers a reliable and convenient stay. Alongside comfortable rooms and suites, the hotel also features essential travel amenities like a business center and laundry services.
  • Hillcrest Cottages: Next door to the popular Yellowstone Grill, Hillcrest Cottages offers one of the best values in town. But comfort and cleanliness aren't sacrificed at this budget-friendly hotel. The cottages are modern in style and comfortably accommodate singles, couples, or groups of up to seven people.
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