Essential Friends + Gateways: West Yellowstone, A Gateway Town Worth Hanging Around

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Yellowstone Historic Center in the original Union Pacific Depot in West Yellowstone/Donnie Saxton, Montana Office of Tourism.

For more than a century, this classic Montana town has been the jumping off point for travel to Yellowstone National Park. At the turn of the 20th century, when fewer than 200 people called West Yellowstone home, stagecoaches pulled by horse and trains by Union Pacific engines brought a good portion of the 15,000-20,000 visitors who toured Yellowstone each year.

While there are no trains or stagecoaches to give you a ride into town, this gateway to Yellowstone exudes an honest and sincere Western charm, an easiness, comfort, and lack of pretentiousness that makes you say, “Yeah, I could live here.”

There are other gateways to the national park, but West Yellowstone is the only one that shares its name with the park, a particularly binding connection. Not only do you drive down Yellowstone Avenue to enter the park’s West Entrance, but you can even walk or mountain bike a short way into the park along the Riverside Trail. The trailhead is on the east side of Boundary Street, which, of course, is named for running along the park boundary. This trail offers a peaceful meander through lodgepole pines down to the bending Madison River and its trout fishery. (Biking is only allowed on some parts of the Riverside Trail and not all the way down to the river).

With fewer than 1,200 residents, and surrounded on three sides by national forests and the park on the fourth, West Yellowstone today isn’t too far removed from the outpost that welcomed UP trains in 1908. You can even spot a few bears in town, and some wolves, but they are safely housed at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, an educational facility that takes in grizzlies that otherwise might have been put down due to their encounters with people. Open 365 days a year, the center lets you safely view grizzlies and wolves and provides great interpretation on how they survive in the wild.

Time has brought changes, welcome ones at that, to West Yellowstone. Gateway towns play a key role in national park vacations—they offer lodging, eateries, souvenirs, and outfitters with the skills and experience to lead you on adventures into the parks—and West Yellowstone has mastered that hospitality. Drive slowly through town and you’ll spot the usual collection of chain hotels. By-and-large, most retail businesses and restaurants 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 yet, West Yellowstone manages to offer something for just about everyone, whether blue-collar, white-collar, gray-hairs or Gen-Yers. When you grow hungry there are both fast-food and high-end eateries, when you need a room there are both inexpensive chain motels and stately guest ranches, and when you’re looking for something to do there is a range of both challenging and relaxing activities.

The rich trout streams in the area—the Madison, Gallatin, Yellowstone, Henry’s Fork and Firehole—rightly earned West Yellowstone distinction as one of the country’s top 10 towns for anglers. Hebgen Lake, just north of town, is one of the top stillwater lakes in the Rockies. The Gallatin, Targhee, and Beaverhead national forests complement the national park with even more lakes and rivers for fishing and boating, trails for hiking, and gorgeous settings for simply relaxing with a good book. And if you’d like to have one of the locals help you explore these landscapes, West Yellowstone is home to a good many outfitters and guiding services that can craft an itinerary just for you.

A Blend Of The Past And Present

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West Yellowstone remained open for business throughout the 1988 wildfires, providing shelter for visitors forced out of the park and a logistics point for firefighters headed into the park / Jeff Henry, NPS.

Back in 1988 West Yellowstone had a front row seat to watch the wildfires that blazed across Yellowstone National Park. Smokejumpers and fire-retardant-dropping planes took off from the town’s airport, and firefighting equipment and the U.S. military passed through en route to the West Entrance and the park’s fire lines. Through it all, the town played the congenial host for both the flow of tourists that continued to explore Yellowstone as well as the fire bosses and their crews.

You can read up on the fires of 1988, as well as West Yellowstone’s earlier history, right downtown in the Yellowstone Historic Center. Within this beautifully restored log-and-stone building, once the Union Pacific Depot, you can envision what it must have been like to ride dusty stagecoaches through town and into the park, trace the railroad’s history with West Yellowstone, and gaze in wonder up at Old Snaggletooth, a Dumpster-diving grizzly renowned for coming to town for his meals. The museum offers special activities and events from Train Day in early June, “Pie on the Porch” on July 4th, to a “Night at the Museum” full of spooky stories and tours by flashlight in early October.

Those kernels of history add some interesting and helpful perspective to your travels into the park, particularly when you head to Old Faithful 30 miles from town and think what the trip must have been like in a jouncing stagecoach. Today you avoid the bouncing and the dust thanks to the smooth pavement that allows you to quickly make the trip.

How soon you reach Old Faithful, of course, depends on the rush you’re in, for there are some great places to stop along the way. You can meander along the Madison River and look for bald eagles that nest in the area, or you can take a side-trip along the Firehole Canyon Drive to view 40-foot-tall Firehole Falls. Fountain Flat Drive is a great place to stop for a picnic lunch, and Firehole Lake Drive not too much farther down the road takes you to the colorful Fountain Paint Pot basin and Great Fountain Geyser. Between there and Old Faithful stand the Midway Geyser Basin with iconic Grand Prismatic Spring as well as a nice hike to Fairy Falls, a hike to Mystic Falls, and Black Sand Basin with its colorful hot springs.

There also are the unexpected delays: the band of elk grazing along the Madison River, the bison congregating in the grassy flats anywhere between West Yellowstone and Old Faithful, and the occasional bears that turn up and create “bear jams” as motorists stop in the middle of road for pictures. This part of the park is most famous for bright red baby bison calves in spring, elk calves that cavort in meadows along the Madison River during dusk in June, and the September sound of battling bugling elk along the Madison.

Using West Yellowstone as a base-camp for your exploration of the national park brings all these attractions, and more, into reach.

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There are few better places to greet sundown if you're an angler than at Hebegn Lake.

Five Overlooked Aspects Of A West Yellowstone Stay

Madison-Hegben Lake area. Between these two bodies of water, one a river, the other a lake, you’ll find plenty of opportunities for kayaking, fishing, mountain biking, guided wildlife watching, even paddle boarding. You can rent kayaks from several businesses in West Yellowstone or a fishing boat from Kirkwood Marina.

The annual West Yellowstone to Old Faithful Cycle Tour. This, the only fully supported bicycling tour permitted in Yellowstone Park, runs from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful and back, with feed stations and sag wagons (repairs and rides) along the way. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and perfect for families. The tour is limited to just 350 riders and it always fills by mid-summer. Registration opens June 15th at www.cycleyellowstone.com

Enjoy a great family-friendly 4th of July starting with the local Fireman’s Bar-B-Cue at the Visitor Center followed by a small but mighty parade. What’s unique about the annual parade is that anyone can participate! Each year, families from throughout the USA and Canada get involved. In early evening, relax to free music in the City Park followed by a fireworks display. It’s a small town celebration at its best!

Watch history come alive with a trip down Trader’s Row at the Annual Smoking Waters Rendezvous encampment the first ten days of August. A full trapper’s camp is set up at the west edge of West Yellowstone. You can watch craftsmen in period dress card and spin wool, make butter, or do leather work. There are seminars on Native American culture and the fur trade. Lectures and competitions include cowboy poetry, storytelling, black powder shoots, and knife and tomahawk throws. The Rendezvous is free to the public.

Travel to Hebgen Lake to see the aftermath of a 7.6 magnitude earthquake that struck on August 17, 1959. The quake released an 80-ton landslide that traveled 100 mph down Sheep Mountain. Nearby geysers in Yellowstone erupted and the water in hot springs became muddy. Many homes and cabins were destroyed and 28 people lost their lives to this great natural disaster. You can see the earthquake’s lasting effects in the huge boulders that were carried by the landslide. One boulder has a plaque honoring the 28 people killed by the quake. Just 8 miles north of West Yellowstone on Highway 287 you’ll find information signs that detail the aftermath of the quake. You also can walk to a ghost village that was submerged by flooding after the earthquake.

Five Don’t Miss Attractions In West Yellowstone

Visit The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center at 201 South Canyon Street to learn about the ecology of these animals. While you might not spot a wolf or a grizzly during your travels in Yellowstone, here you can watch them upclose in natural settings. The bears actually earn their keep by testing Dumpsters, garbage cans, and even backpacker food containers to ensure they’re bear-proof. Along with viewing the wildlife, you and your family can take in naturalist talks. Don’t forget to sign up early for “Keeper Kids,” where kids get a chance to learn more about what grizzlies eat and then have a chance to hide food in the bear area, while the bears take a break inside.

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This whimsical poster was created in 1946 by Walter Oehrle, a commercial artist for the Union Pacific Railroad, to promote West Yellowstone as the best entry point for visiting Yellowstone National Park. The history of railroads and national parks is explained in Trains of Discovery, Railroads and the Legacy of Our National Parks by Alfred Runte, an expert on both national parks and railroads. / Poster from Mr. Runte’s collection.

Junior Smoke Jumper Program. Youngsters can meet with actual smokejumpers to learn about their important role in battling forest fires in Yellowstone National Park and surrounding national forests. The Junior Smoke Jumper Program includes lessons on fire ecology and how to prevent forest fires, as well as a chance to try on smoke jumper equipment and dig a fire trench line. This program is offered every morning Monday through Saturday during the summer months at the historic Madison Ranger District buildings located at the east end of the Visitor Center parking lot, just before entering Yellowstone’s west gate.

Wild West Yellowstone Rodeo. A taste of the cowboy West can be gleaned at the Wild West Yellowstone Rodeo held Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings in summer. Kids get their own chance to participate in the “Calf Scramble.”

Take in a play. The Playmill Theatre on Madison Avenue offers shows as well as a Youth Summer Camp.

Catch a movie on a rainy day. If rain interrupts your plans, stop by the Yellowstone IMAX Theater at 101 South Canyon Street to catch the latest film on Yellowstone and its wonders.