My father began his career as a wildlife photographer in the midwest. Anything and everything he saw on his outdoor ventures was a moment of stillness waiting to happen. He knew he loved the art of photography, back when it was old slides and film rolls capturing family wedding moments. It was the animals, nature’s sunsets, and the landscapes that were his true passion though, and it was Yellowstone that was the inspiration.
As a child, our family would venture every year out to Yellowstone and beyond, Dad would show us all the best spots to see elk herds or Bighorns. He'd tell the story of the time he saw the mama grizzly bear and her cubs discovering a moose carcass. Our favorite was the bridge where he got one of his infamous pictures. The one where he was almost trampled on by a herd of bison, just so he could get that shot.
We would then go check out the Boiling River, natural hot springs that he used to use before boardwalks or parking lots, when no one was ever there. Afterward, we’d get a room in Gardiner, stay in the historic town, Yellowstone’s gateway.
Little did I know years later what a treasure this area, this route, was. As an adult, I have worn these roads often. Camping, exploring, meeting new friends, living. It wasn’t until much later I realized it was a thing to add this to the bucket list, to travel The Paradise Valley Scenic Loop.
The Scenic Loop Traversing Montana’s Paradise Valley
Paradise Valley is so named for a reason, sandwiched by two gorgeous mountain ranges, The Absaroka and The Gallatin, and cut in half by the magnificent Yellowstone River, the route is popular for all sorts of travelers. Hiking, biking, hunting, fishing, floating, and more happen here every year, and that’s just the traffic not on their way to or from Yellowstone.
Two main highways run through Paradise Valley, making a nice sixty-two-mile easy loop with a handful of stops along the way for food, views, music, and brews. Officially the route starts south of Livingston where US Hwy 89 and East River Road meet. The loop begins and ends here and you have nowhere to go but through this junction when driving south from Livingston. No fretting or checking the map, just get out the camera and take in the drive.
If visitors just want to take a quick round to see what the views are about, approximately fifteen miles down the way Mill Creek Road crosses the highway. Take it all the way across to hit the other highway and head back homewards, keep driving past it another thirty-two miles and you’ll meet the highway on your own where you’ll turn back around onto the other side of the river.
Notable Stops You Can't Miss Near Emigrant and Chico
For those just looking for a quick tour with spots for photos and to stretch your legs, there are many. Mallards rest is one particularly popular stop for both camping and checking out the views and fishing. Camping fills up extremely fast here in the summer though. Book ahead or get in early, most are first come first serve.
For those who like to stop and enjoy some fun and food, Emigrant is a tiny town worth visiting. Right on the highway, you can’t miss it, you’ll see an old saloon-looking type building, aptly named, The Old Saloon. Outside is an outdoor stage, bar, and a few benches and makeshift tables. Big names come through here and the tiny saloon fills up quickly with lines running out the door. If you are there when it isn’t so busy, check out the black and white memorabilia on the walls. Serving outlaws and cowgirls since 1902, there's some cool history you won’t hear about in the books!
Right behind the saloon is one of Montana’s best barbeque restaurants, Follow Yer Nose BBQ. A newer setup, next to the delicious little Wild Flour Bakery, stop here for some delicious grub. With Montana beers on tap, outdoor seating on a quaint patio, and usual local music throughout the week, this is a perfect lunch or dinner time getaway.
Another quaint space, not as often noticed as you have to head to the middle of the Mill Creek Road bypass, is the Emigrant Outpost. A bar with delicious local diner fair and outdoor picnic tables offers fantastic views of the surrounding mountains. With volleyball nets and other open areas, this is a great place to bring the family and let the kids run.
Around the backside here are two more hidden gems. Chico Hot Springs and Pinecreek Lodge. Chico is a historically famous retreat, spa, restaurant, bar, hotel, and getaway. Old saloon-style buildings here are often used in movie sets and the covered wagons used for glamping make this a popular wedding destination. There's fun to be had for all if you are looking for a hidden weekend getaway.
Pinecreek Lodge is a whole different setting. A music venue built to accommodate a party, there is a large outdoor stage, bar with local brew on tap, and modern cargo container tiny homes for nightly rent. Another popular party destination, this one has some class music from all over that heads through here every week. Be sure to look ahead of time at the schedule as there isn’t a lot of space and the tickets sell out quickly!
Beyond the Scenic Route
Whether coming from Yellowstone or the north. One end of the highway offers the lively town of Gardiner. A bustling place in tourist season, you’ll find all sorts of outdoor fun and shopping here. Most stop through on a Yellowstone visit and there's always something to do.
Livingston is on the other end. Something between an outskirt of Bozeman and an old highway town, there's an abundance of amazing historical restaurants, bars, stages, and just as much western and art-oriented shopping. Stopping at either end of the valley for a meal, night, weekend, or extended stay is well worth it for prime access to exploring and experiencing what it is like in the real life of Montana.