West Yellowstone: A Gateway Town Worth Hanging Around

Come to West Yellowstone and you'll understand why the Buffalo Roam here. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Of Yellowstone's five gateway towns, West Yellowstone is my favorite. It's the closest to the park, as Yellowstone's West Entrance is at the end of Yellowstone Avenue, and it has this wonderfully funky vibe flowing through it.

Surrounded on three sides by national forest and the park on the fourth, West Yellowstone so far has managed to stave-off brand-name corporatization. Or perhaps it has simply fallen beneath Wall Street's radar. During a recent visit I didn't spy a Starbucks on any corner, and while there is a McDonald's, it's at least housed in a wood-covered building that blends with the surroundings.

Oh, there are the usual collection of chain hotels, but by-and-large businesses are locally owned, unique, and with personality, not antiseptically cast from a Wharton School of Business mold. We're not talking a big town, either.

You can walk from end to end in less than half-an-hour, and there are fewer than 1,000 year-round residents. You don't even need a car to enter the park, as the Riverside Trail leads from the east side of Boundary Street (yep, it's named for running along the park boundary) into the park and down to the Madison River.

Come winter the town is fueled by snowmobilers, those latter-day incarnations of 1960s' bikers, always ready to party and raise hell. That said, the cross-country skiing on the Rendezvous Trail system is superb.

In summer, a steady stream of tourists swims through town, stopping for a night or maybe just a bite, before heading into the park. Blue-collar, white-collar, grey-hairs, yuppies and Gen-Yers, the town provides a comfortable fit for all. There are greasy spoons and high-end eateries, cheap motels and pricey guest ranches, attractions and gift shops galore. You can watch grizzlies and wolves at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center on the south end of town, buy a $1,500 bison hide from Yellowstone Traders, or have Greg Huth at Silver Heels custom-design a piece of jewelry for you. Or you can simply chat with Greg, who knows a little about West Yellowstone, having lived there for 36 years or so.

"Jackson in the '60s was a pretty nice place," Greg tells me between drags on his cigarette. "Now you can't even walk down the street. It's a mob scene. Here, it's more, it's like ma and pa. It seems a lot easier. People are nicer."

True, West Yellowstone lacks the wooden boardwalks and elk-antler arches of Jackson, Wyoming, and it can't call Dick Cheney one of its own. Just the same, there's an honest and sincere Western charm to this town, an easiness, comfort, and lack of pretentiousness that makes you say, "Yeah, I could live here."

You can stay at the Three Bear Lodge, a favorite of cross-country skiers who come for the annual Yellowstone Ski Festival that is approaching the end of its third decade, check into the Holiday Inn or Best Western, rent a condo or even an entire house. Down at Free Heel and Wheel they'll not only sell you an espresso and rent you a bike (or skis in winter) but tell you where the best pedaling (and skiing) can be had.

Need a Stetson? Head to Eagle's Store, which has been in the same family for, oh, the past 99 years. Need a copy of just about any book ever published about Yellowstone? You'll no doubt be able to find it at the Bookworm. And if you were around for the 1988 wildfires that swept Yellowstone and want to, ahem, rekindle those days, head over to Canyon Street and the Yellowstone T-Shirt Co., which has commemorative T-shirts for sale.

You still might spy around town a few fancy bison (aka buffalo) painted all colors of the rainbow and depicting scenes from the park, its wildlife, and its history. They were part of the town's "Buffalo Roam" promotion a few years ago that raised money for economic development efforts.

The next time you head to Yellowstone, see if you can't arrange your trip through West Yellowstone, and let me know how the town feels. I'm guessing it'll fit just right.

Comments

Aww, man, now I'm hungry. My son and I are in the neighborhood in late August -- now I need to make a stop for BBQ...
I'm sure it's better than park concessionaire fare any day...

-- Jon Merryman

Yes I agree with ya Kurt it is a great gateway town. I was there in May and it had not changed too terribly much since I had last visited way back in 1981. I worked a summer in Yellowstone, at the Lake, and my friends and I always headed for Montana on our off time to re-supply or make merry. Jackson was just not an option, even back then, because everything was way more expensive, somewhat snooty and not worth the drive for the paltry shopping options. The same amount of driving northward to Livingston or Bozeman was a much better trip and Montana is such a much more laid back and Old West type of place than the Jackson Hole area. Dick Cheney and rich Hollywood phonies has only made it worse.

I think a good article for a future post would be to rate the gateway towns. I personally like West Yellowstone, Springdale, Torrey and Holbrook (great dinosaur statues and the Wig-Wam Motel). Everyone seems to deride Gatlinburg but if you're needing a good dose of roadside tackiness there's no place better this side of Las Vegas to get your fill.

Enjoying the new website. Thanks for your hard work and efforts.

Don't forget Moab (aside from the semi traffic down main street). And I must admit I have somewhat fond memories of Cooke(d) City from 1988 when I was there covering the fires.

Bar Harbor is another great one. Mainstream corporate America hasn't discovered it yet, either, and there are some fantastic restaurants (Cafe This Way, Rupunini, Eden). Estes Park has some memorable qualities as well.

Did you hear the folks at Ruby's Inn are trying to incorporate...and they're likely to get it!

As for Gatlinburg, sorry, but it'll never make any top 10 list of my favorite gateway towns.

As far as future posts rating the gateways, not sure about that, but we are planning to take a look at more of them down the road. Thanks for reading...

I hadn't heard about Ruby's Inn trying to incorporate - that's awesome. Nothing better than spending a couple of winter days and nights at Ruby's for about $49/night.

Off-season travel rocks!

We stayed in West Yellowstone last year while visiting the park and it was a great place to stay. Threre were some nice restaurants and the hotel we stayed at was comfortable. The access to the park is very good when you cannot find a place to stay in the park.

Hey Kurt,

I’ve been enjoying your latest posts on the Yellowstone trip, and looks like you’re really enjoying yourself. If forced to choose between Yellowstone’s gateway towns, I'd pick Gardiner over West Yellowstone (though all of the gateway towns, including Cody to the east, have their distinct charms). There’s certainly not as many dining out choices, but I feel Gardiner retains a more laid back, almost frontier-like vibe and it’s equally close to the park – let’s not forget the Roosevelt Arch on the town line welcoming visitors into the northern reaches of Yellowstone. Along with the great fishing to be had north of town along the Yellowstone River, Gardiner hosts the new Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center – hope you had time to stop by and get a tour while in the region, as it’s really an incredible resource.

I still wouldn’t mind being stranded in West Yellowstone for a spell, of course, especially if I could eat at Bullwinkles on Madison Ave every night. It’s on my short list for the best eateries in the whole region, with superb burgers and delicious pan-fried fish – I say go for the rainbow trout.

Cheers,

Stephen Timblin
Author
The Rough Guide to Yellowstone and Grand Teton
www.guidetoyellowstone.com

Our Sunday school class of 70+ young seniors came out to West Yellowstone last winter. We stayed in West and used it to try all different things. We took a snowcoach tour into West Yellowstone one day, learned to ride snowmobiles the next day and spent the day going along the groomed trails right outside of West Yellowstone. It was just as easy as driving our golf cart back home. Some of us even rented ski's for the day and tried the ski trail at the Rendezvous Ski Trails. We were the ones that always stopped to take pictures of the beautiful scenery (while really catching our breath). We had a lot of fun and actually meet many other people like the family that came up from Florida just so their kids could see snow for the first time. I have been to Yellowstone Park many times in the summer, but coming in the winter was a real adventure for anyone (of any age.)