No longer just a stop en route to Yellowstone, this burgeoning Montana city earns its destination status.
As a college town that happens to share a neighborhood with the world's first national park, Bozeman, Mont., finds new life every fall. This is a place where elk bugle in the suburbs, mischievous black bears show up in the police blotter, and locals squeeze in a little fly-fishing in the cool autumn evenings after work.
Ever since prospectors opened up the Bozeman Trail in the 1860s, this part of the Gallatin Valley north of Yellowstone has been a pit stop on epic road trips. But Bozeman (population 40,000) has become a destination on its own, especially for people who want a side of city fun with their mountain views.
In the historic downtown you're always within walking distance of tacos, pad thai, and sushi—fare that would have boggled the city founders. Montana State University students slurp up green curry soba at Naked Noodle while their professors sample lamb chops and roasted beet salad at Blackbird Kitchen nearby. Families find comfort food at Starky's Authentic Americana, a casual spot that serves a righteous beef-and-pork meat loaf wrapped in bacon, and adventurous diners savor curries rich with cardamom, coriander, tamarind, and mint at Saffron Table across town. Got a sweet tooth? La Châtelaine Chocolat Co. makes about 60 kinds of French-inspired bonbons, including dark chocolate morsels flavored with huckleberries and port.
Memorable drinks aren't far away. Montana Ale Works, a restaurant in an old railroad freight house, purveys the Bozeman Brewing Company's smooth Bozone Select Amber Ale and biting Hopzone IPA alongside burgers and salads. Nearby, Bozeman Brewing has its own taproom for anyone who wants to sample specialties such as Bozone Terroir Fresh Hop Ale, released each year in early October. "We bring in more than 200 pounds of whole-cone fresh hops from growers right here in the Gallatin Valley," says General Manager Tucker Kalberg. "The wet hops add a flavor and aroma—bright, earthy—that you can only get in the fall." Visitors to the newly built Bozeman Spirits Distillery, just a mile west, can sip cocktails featuring whiskey or huckleberry vodka in a friendly tasting room. Another new outfit, Wildrye Distilling, also pours tastes of its own creations, including a rum made from Montana sugar beets dubbed brum.
Even more distinctive finds are on tap in the shops up and down Main Street. Sundog Fine Art—more like a museum than a gallery—sells pieces of authentic, mostly 19th-century artistry, such as a buffalo-hide painting of Lakota warriors with an asking price of $225,000. A beaded Plains Cree knife sheath is a relative bargain at $8,500, and a stamped-silver Navajo bracelet from the 1920s is genuinely affordable at $40. Lovers of old books can get blissfully lost in the stacks at Vargo's Jazz City & Books; vinyl fans groove on the goodies at Cactus Records. Dee-O-Gee sells dog treats and toys fit for a canine-crazed town, among them elk-antler chews and squeaky, Montana-made stuffed grizzly bears. The Bozeman Angler offers copper zonkers and fire-bead Ray Charles flies—those are actual names— along with fall fishing advice for the local waters. Anglers looking for serious trout adventure can sign up here for a full-day guided float trip on the nearby Madison River, a world-famous stretch of blue-ribbon water packed with wild browns and rainbows.
Natural escapes are just minutes away no matter where you go around Bozeman. South of town, take a walk through the woods along Bozeman Creek. Or drive into Hyalite Canyon and make the half-mile hike to Palisade Falls, a curtain of water that shines on an autumn day. The zigzag trail through the golden aspens on Kirk Hill near the end of South 19th Road pays off immediately with huge views of the valley. Hikers commune with ducks, sandhill cranes, and other passersby along the East Gallatin River near the Bridger foothills. In the sky above the Bridger Bowl ski area, golden eagles gather in early October, a display celebrated during the Bridger Raptor Festival.
The area's most famous and fearsome creatures reside at the Museum of the Rockies, home of an ever-growing collection of dinosaurs. The new Tyrant Kings exhibit features a 40-foot-long T. rex skeleton—real fossil bones, not stand-ins—and a multigenerational medley of tyrannosaur skulls, ranging from that of a juvenile, nicknamed Chomper, to the largest specimen ever unearthed, dubbed Custer. "You can't see that anywhere else in the world," says Pat Leiggi, the museum's exhibits director. "I've been in this business for 35 years and I still go look at it."
If you start to come down with a case of glazed-eye museumitis, just step outside. The view on a clear day— and there are plenty of those in the fall—is inescapable and unforgettable: the soaring peaks of the Bridger Mountains shining in the autumn sun. It's a scene that's totally Bozeman and totally worth the trip.
This article was first published in Fall 2015. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.