Gallatin County is the fastest-growing part of Montana, but even as people flock to its mountains and valleys here in the southwestern part of the state, the rural nature remains. Bozeman, home of Montana State University, is the closest thing to an urban center in the area, with trendy shops and cafes sharing the streets with dusty, pickup trucks. But the spirit of a small mountain town is still fully intact. Especially in temperament.
"The number-one thing most people say to me is, 'I couldn't get over how friendly people were,'" says Robin Hoover, executive director of the Yellowstone Country Regional Tourism Commission. "That speaks to the character here. We're not an urban state. The rush of urban life — none of that applies here." From Bozeman, Gallatin County stretches a narrow arm south, nestling up against the western border of Yellowstone National Park. Crystal-clear streams connect the tree-covered mountains and plains. The waters wind their way down from the peaks, providing a home for the abundant trout as well as a quiet retreat for the fishermen and others who are drawn to the cool currents.
The prime time to visit is in the late spring or summer, when mild temperatures combine with nearly non-existent humidity to lure people outdoors.
Winter can be frigid and average "highs" in the cold months stay right around freezing, though the mercury will sometimes fall below zero. But this doesn't deter visitors flocking to area ski resorts or heading out on snowmobiles. Forty-five minutes south of Bozeman, the Big Sky Resort offers skiing in the winter and golf, mountain biking or just a scenic lift up to the top in the summer. The resort's buildings and accommodations crowd the base of the mountain, and log homes dot the surrounding area. You're reminded of the area's proximity to Yellowstone at the county's hot springs, where the geothermally heated water fills pools in a spectrum of temperatures ranging from merely warm to more than 106 degrees.
At the southern end of the county, West Yellowstone serves as a gateway to the famous park. Before entering the park borders, you can safely see the area's top predators at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center or simply walk along the Old West restaurants and shops of downtown, such as the 100-year-old Eagle's store. For those with the explorer's bug, there are several other small towns worth a visit, such as Three Forks, where the Madison, Gallatin and Jefferson rivers meet to form the Missouri River. Near Three Forks, two state parks offer a glimpse into area history — Parker Homestead is a restored sod-roof pioneer cabin, while Madison Buffalo Jump was a crucial spot for Native American hunters. "If you get off the beaten path and into the small rural communities, there's so much to see and do in them that the average visitor isn't going to know about," Robin says. No matter if you take a tour of the back roads or Bozeman's downtown, you'll still find a slow-paced character, which survives even as it attracts more folks to this Rocky Mountain gem. For more information:
Yellowstone Country Regional Tourism Commission 406-556-8680 | yellowstonecountry.net