At the gateway of the northern entrance of Yellowstone National Park is the otherwise quiet town of Gardiner, Montana. At the south end of the Gardiner, a strip of galleries, gift shops, and café’s faces the National Park’s entrance, and, during the season, the strip is a bustling footway of different cultures, languages, and attitudes. Most are browsing the row on the south end of town for last-minute souvenirs on their way out of Yellowstone, the town experiences a constant transfusion of people. Gardiner too is teeming with out-of-towners with dreams of rafting the Yellowstone River. Many have never been on a river, and they stumble around each other like lost children listening to the unfamiliar voices of river guides shouting their names over the noise of passing cars, other rafters, and elk snorting their frustrations of the seasonal takeover of their otherwise historic sanctuary.
Please be careful driving into, around, and from Gardiner, for the sake of both your health, your vehicle, and the lives of the wildlife that are crossing the road. The elk, bison, and mule deer are way too beautiful a creature to be buried under your cars. Please keep that in mind as you’re driving on HWY 89 to and from the Park. Most people view driving as a thing in between moments, and it’s not at all, and there are so many reasons why that mindset is thoughtless and potentially dangerous, and not just for you.
People don’t go to Gardiner, Montana, people go to Yellowstone by way of Gardiner, and I think that’s a bit of a shame. Gardiner is a great little town, and there’s enough to fill your itinerary without stepping foot into Yellowstone. For the most part, the locals have managed to regulate designated areas, and only a small handful of cafés and restaurants appeal to both tourists and locals alike; Main and Stone Streets have all but been gift wrapped for excited excursionists. The Corral has the best burger in town, and they’re famous for their bison meat. The Corral has a walk-up window, and private and covered patio seating along Scott Street. Tumbleweed Bookstore and Café is my favorite place to grab a sandwich, and then to either sit on the front deck of Tumbleweed’s or to take it into the Park with me for later. The Cowboy’s Grille and Iron Horse Bar & Grille are the best dinner spots, serving bar and southern comfort style foods, and they both have a deck that overlooks the river. After a day in the park, ordering a country fried steak and a beer from Cowboys, and sitting on the deck has been the perfect way to help transition from a full day dodging people on boardwalks awe-inspired by Yellowstone’s unique beauty and lying in bed and staring thoughtlessly as twilight is framed by the shadows of my room on my bedroom walls.
Eat Café is the best, and maybe the only reason to stop by sightseer row on the south end of town, every time I stop into Eat Café for a coffee, I end up buying some food stuffs also, the food is really good, and the cafés atmosphere is kind of post-modern meets 1950’s elite. I have on occasion ordered something at Eat Café and sat outside on the patio tables, people watching, and writing, and looking out knowing that Yellowstone National Park frames my mountainside view. I also like to grab something to go, an ice cream perhaps from Yellowstone Perk, and walk down to Arch Park, down the hill from Roosevelt Arch—Yellowstone’s original entrance—and sit under the gazebo and unwind. There are often elk or bison or both wandering around the park and under the shade of the Arch. It’s a great photo opportunity, but stay away from the animals, they might seem biddable, but they’re not. bison gore people in Yellowstone almost every day. The Gardiner Library, across the street from Arch Park, is open Tuesdays and Thursdays, and they have a great selection of books for sale in the back of the library. There are few interruptions as defensible as Old Faithful to disturb a good book.
Thinking about it now, there are a couple of great photography studios on sightseer row (Yellowstone Gallery and Frameworks and Yellowstone Wild Galleries) that are worth a walkthrough. I haven’t always been one to buy another person’s photography, until I started shooting, and selling my own photographs, and now I enjoy browsing and supporting another photographer. These two galleries focus on the wildlife of Yellowstone National Park, and there are some incredible captures of nearly every imaginable creature within the borders of the Park.
I might be one of the few people that will on occasion make the drive to Gardiner, and park somewhere in town, and then walk the streets at random, and never actually go into Yellowstone. Much of Gardiner goes unnoticed. First Street is residential, and boasts some of the oldest homes in town, built with stone, and in a style that screams historic Montana. Besides, it’s a pleasant walk. You may happen upon small town parks you never would have noticed; I discovered a relatively new gazebo at the south end of Park Street, a trail beyond the gazebo that winds down the hill, and down to the banks where the Gardiner and Yellowstone Rivers meet. There were people swimming in the Yellowstone River next to the bank, and just away from where the two currents come together, in a pool spiraling, before immersing with the rest of the waters.
Six miles north of Gardiner are the Yellowstone Hot Springs. And since living in New Mexico I like to think of myself as a hot spring aficionado. There are a number of natural, and unfenced hot springs, veiled by miles of forest and overgrown footpaths in the mountains of northern New Mexico. The Yellowstone Hot Springs are enclosed, and although they are natural waters piped in from the Park the pools are not fed by a natural onsite, and underground spring. The springs are regulated, there are three pools, and each is a different temperature, and they are deliberately maintained. Regardless, only a little is left to be desired at Yellowstone Hot Springs, and not just because you are actually soaking in the mineral rich hot springs of Yellowstone National Park, but also because the views are breathtaking. I have watched herds of bison and elk walking the hills to the east, bighorn sheep and bear on the mountain to the west, and golden and bald eagle soaring overhead, and when it snows, while you’re in the springs, it’s difficult to tell where the earth ends and heaven begins (just don’t go on Sundays; families with small children like to think that the hot springs are an alternative to a day at the city pool, and that’s called being a bad human, but they do it anyway, and on Sundays).
I know that Gardiner, Montana is going to be little more than a brief intermission in your trip through Yellowstone, still give the town a few extra hours of your time, be it to explore one of the restaurants, one or two of the local boutiques, the residential sidewalks, or even taking a walk across the bridge and stopping directly above the center of the small canyon, watching people climb into rafts at the bottom from Montana Whitewater Rafting. It might be fun to drive the ridiculously unmanageable dirt road up the mountain to the abandoned gold mining ghost town of Jardine, Montana, roughly six miles east of Gardiner. In any case, Gardiner is a great little town (as long as you never, ever go to Outlaw’s Pizza. I could definitely reuse that hour of my life). Gardiner deserves to be a part of your Yellowstone experience, and it’s not a difficult thing at all to make it so.