Gardiner, Montana, is a paradise at the base of the Paradise Valley, and it’s best known as the northern gateway to Yellowstone National Park. Of course, Yellowstone has more than 900 miles of hiking trails to explore inside the park. Still, there are plenty of spots to plant your feet outside park boundaries as well—especially if you travel with a four-legged companion not allowed on Yellowstone trails. With the Custer-Gallatin National Forest and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness at Gardiner’s doorstep, you will never be bored exploring here. So lace up your hiking boots and check out some of these nearby spots.
Take this 2.5-mile out and back hike with minimal elevation gain (about 100 feet) to see Pine Creek Falls. Or gear up for a more intense day with 9.2 miles and 3,635 feet of elevation gain all the way to Pine Creek Lake. The burn is worth it if you like a good hard hike, though, because the payoff comes in rugged mountain views. If the feeling of your buns and calves burning isn’t your favorite, the waterfall is still a stunning stop. The trail departs from Pine Creek Campground, which is 17 miles south of Livingston.
Head north from Gardiner about 10 miles, and take a right on Cedar Creek Road, where you’ll drive to the end of this dirt road to park at the trailhead. The trail system goes for miles, so you can pick how long you’d like this out-and-back hike to be. In 2.5 miles round trip, you can explore the restored buildings of the OTO Ranch, Montana’s first dude ranch.
It may seem strange to pay for the use of a private trail system when there’s so much public land around, but hear us out. The trail system at Chico Hot Springs includes a 5-mile loop with excellent views of the Paradise Valley. And for $8.50, you get a day pass to the trails with the cost of admission to the hot springs included. That’s not a bad deal if you wanted a moderate hike, followed by a nice hot soak. They also offer trail rides, and the path has a disk golf course too. Plus, leashed pets are allowed.
Choose from Yellowstone Hot Springs, Chico Hot Springs, or the wild Boiling River (if it’s open) for an after-hike soak. Hot water feels amazing on sore muscles, and you can rehash the adventures of the day with your hiking buddies while you relax.
The Old Saloon (yes, that’s it’s actual name) in the town of Emigrant has been around since 1902, and it’s still a worthy stop for a beverage and a bite when the hiking day is done. You can share tales from the trail over a pint or two of local brews.
On all of these hikes, we recommend bringing bear spray. You should always pack the Ten essentials and be prepared for rugged terrain.
It’s best to prepare by picking up a physical map, the perfect backup to a digital copy downloaded to your phone or GPS. Make sure someone knows where you’re headed and when to expect you back. But most importantly, don’t forget to have fun!