The best day trips from Bozeman: from Big Sky to Yellowstone


Bozeman offers an embarrassment of scenic splendor just a short drive from downtown. Heading south will take you through glorious mountain and river scenery towards mighty Yellowstone National Park, one of America’s top adventures. 

Head west, and you’ll be traveling in the footprints of fur trappers, mountain men and Lewis and Clark. Drive east, and you’ll reach the Old West town of Livingston and the Paradise Valley, offering a glorious back route to Yellowstone. And all sorts of short walks and hikes are possible along the way.

With enough activities to satisfy young families, history buffs and hardcore outdoor adventurers alike, a day trip from Bozeman will give you a taste of the very best that central Montana has to offer. Even on a short trip, we encourage you to stay an extra day to make time for one of the following fun-filled day trips.

Livingston

Why go: Wander historic Western buildings, museums and art galleries

Historic Livingston is well worth a visit for its authentic and understated Western charm. Old-timers will tell you this is what Bozeman was like before the Californians arrived. The former railway town and one-time home of Calamity Jane also has some serious literary credentials, as the former home of writers Thomas McGuane, Jim Harrison and Tim Cahill.

The historic Murray Hotel still has lots of original Western touches, and you can stay in the suite where movie director Sam Peckinpah lived for a year. The town’s two local history museums and many art galleries are also worth a stroll.

How to get to Livingston:
Take I-90 east for 25 miles (40km) over the Bozeman Pass to the Livingston turnoff.

Chico Hot Springs

Why go: Unwind in historic hot springs & a honky-tonk saloon

For more than 120 years, visitors have been drawn through the beautiful Paradise Valley to historic Chico Hot Springs for three excellent reasons: stunning natural beauty, a soak in the region’s best hot springs and a slap-up dinner in the resort’s historic dining room.

Most day-trippers are happy with a soak and a poolside Chico Amber Ale, but the more ambitious can sign up for horseback rides and private mountain biking trails. Winter is particularly magical here, with dogsled rides and cross-country ski trips on offer. You might even spot the odd celebrity propping up the saloon bar, especially on Friday and Saturday nights when live music gets the cowboy boots tapping.

How to get to Chico Hot Springs:
Take I-90 east for 25 miles (40km) towards Livingston, then turn south on US-89 through the Paradise Valley. Chico is just south of Pray, a total of 50 miles (80km) from Bozeman.

A male skier skiing untracked powder at Big Sky, Montana
Big Sky is prime powder in winter and prime hiking country in summer © Craig Moore / Getty Images

Big Sky

Why go: For the outdoor activities – hiking, biking and horse riding

Montana’s premier winter ski resort is also a prime destination in summer, especially if you like getting active. Enjoy 360-degree mountain views if you take the tram up to the summit of 11,116ft (3388m) Lone Peak, or hike up if you’re super fit. Other options include the rewarding hike to Beehive Basin, or some epic, lift-served downhill mountain biking.

Families are well catered for, and walkers of all ages will enjoy the short 1.6-mile (2.6km) return hike to Ouzel Falls, a canoe paddle around Lake Levinsky or a mosey down the trail on a horse riding trip from a local ranch. And there’s whitewater rafting and zip lining, too, so teenagers won’t feel left out.

After all that calorie burning, refuel over a green Thai curry at Lotus Pad, or grab a craft beer and burger at Lone Peak Brewery.
 
How to get to Big Sky:
The turnoff to Big Sky is in the Gallatin Valley, 40 miles (64km) southwest of Bozeman, along a very scenic stretch of road. Big Sky Resort is a further 9 miles (14.5km) up a side valley.

Yellowstone National Park Loop

Why go: Buckle up for a whistlestop tour to see hot springs, bison and mud pots

If you only have one day to see Yellowstone National Park and are happy to spend much of that day in the car, two of Yellowstone’s entrances are easily accessible from Bozeman. Taking advantage of the northern entrance at Gardiner and the western entrance at West Yellowstone, you can make a grand loop that takes in the highlights of northwestern Yellowstone.

Entering the park at Gardiner, visit the naturally sculpted hot spring terraces at Mammoth before continuing past waterfalls to view the elk and bison herds grazing Madison Junction. If you have time, it’s worth detouring south to Old Faithful to view Yellowstone’s most spectacular collection of crowd-pleasing geysers and belching mud pots.

This is a long day trip, so break this itinerary into two days if possible. Otherwise, leave Bozeman at dawn!

How to get to Yellowstone National Park:
From Bozeman, head through the Paradise Valley to Gardiner, enter Yellowstone National Park and drive to Mammoth, Madison Junction and Old Faithful. Exit the park at West Yellowstone, from where it’s 90 miles (145km) back to Bozeman through the Gallatin Valley. Be warned: this is an epic 240-mile (386km) loop.

Woman looking out van window at bison in Yellowstone
Seeing bison in the wild is a true taste of the West © Abigail Marie / Shutterstock

Yellowstone’s Northwest Corner

Why go: Hike, ride horses or fly fish in Yellowstone’s most peaceful corner

Everyone thinks they know Yellowstone National Park, but few people visit the park’s secret far northwestern corner, accessible from the Gallatin Valley and an ideal spot for multi-day backpacking trips or horse treks. Experienced hikers can tackle the Gallatin Sky Rim Trail – a long day (or even better, overnight) walk that offers amazing views from its rugged volcanic ridgelines. Several outfitters run excellent day-long horse rides or multi-day pack trips in this part of the park.

The good news is that no park entry fees are required to see this area of Yellowstone. The bad news? There are more grizzlies than humans here, so bring bear spray and keep your eyes open.

How to get to Yellowstone’s Northwest Corner:
Head southwest from Bozeman on US-191 through the Gallatin Valley, pass the turnoff to Big Sky and continue south towards West Yellowstone. Trailheads line the road, starting 59 miles (95km) from Bozeman.

Headwaters of the Missouri

Why go: Learn about mountain men and Indigenous heritage

Fans of Western history should zip West of Bozeman for 40 minutes to reach Missouri Headwaters State Park, where the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers merge to form the mighty Missouri, North America’s longest river. Lewis and Clark camped here for a week in July 1805, and interpretive panels detail their voyage, as well as the stories of the fur trappers and mountain men who hunted and traded here. There are also family-friendly hiking and biking trails.

Also worth a visit is nearby Madison Buffalo Jump State Park, where for 2000 years, Indigenous hunters stampeded herds of bison over the deadly pishkun (cliffs). Hike up to the cliffs to take in the views and contemplate this undeniably efficient hunting method.

How to get to Headwaters of the Missouri State Park:
Head northwest on I-90 for 26 miles (42km) to Logan; from here, it’s 7 miles (11km) south to Madison Buffalo Jump or 5 miles (8km) northwest to the Missouri Headwaters State Park.

An empty road leading to mountains in Montana
Montana is epic driving country © Getty Images / iStockphoto

Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park

Why go: Head underground to explore stalactites and rock formations

To complete the day trip trio of state parks, continue 20 miles (32km) west of the Missouri headwaters to the Lewis & Clark Caverns, Montana’s first state park and the biggest cave system in the US Northwest. A two-hour guided tour (available May to September) will take you through the dripping, twisting cave complex, at one point descending a natural rock slide. It’s great family fun, and there’s also a shorter accessible tour for visitors with mobility issues. Simple but shady dog kennels (free) are available for your pup while you tour the caves.

How to get to Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park:
The caverns are 50 miles (80km) from Bozeman. Take I-90 northwest to Jct 274 near Three Forks, then follow US-287 for another 16 miles (26km).

This article was first published Dec 2, 2021 and updated Jul 10, 2024.



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