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.