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Delightful detours: Have a Yellowstone experience without the crowds

Summer may not look the same in Montana’s Yellowstone Country gateway towns of Cooke City, Red Lodge, and Gardiner after flooding hit the northern half of Yellowstone National Park in June, but residents and businesses are adapting daily to new circumstances and making the best of mother nature’s challenges. Local business owners are reimagining their offerings to cater to smaller crowds with more intimate experiences. 


Red Lodge to Cooke City: Base camps in the Beartooths

Two women walking along a trail in Yellowstone National Park with trees and a mountain in the background.Andy AustinOne of the many hiking trails overlooking Red Lodge.

Mike Porco, the owner of the One-Legged Magpie restaurant in downtown Red Lodge, saw the flooding as a chance for his fledgling business to help out its neighbors. 

In the weeks following the flood, the Magpie served free meals to people whose homes were affected. Mike and his wife Kat devised a “flood fund” where customers who needed help paying simply drew a smiley face on their check at the end of the meal. 

“We don’t need to say anything or make a big deal out of it, it’ll just be covered,” Porco said. “It was a chain reaction of the community coming together and really embracing this idea.”

Local brews, local ingredients, and local music are the focus at the Magpie, which offers regionally crafted beers and kefir tonics as well as upscale seasonal dishes and ranch-raised natural beef. The downstairs dining area and bar feature a small stage for a “lounge-y type feel,” while larger concerts are hosted in the main music area upstairs. It’s an ambitious project for a business that just opened last fall, but Porco is rolling with the punches. 

“We’ve had a combination of us being new and not knowing what to expect from a normal summer, let alone this summer, especially with the pass closed,” he said. “But we’re still gonna try and promote these local nights and fundraisers.” 

While a portion of the famous Beartooth Highway between Red Lodge and the Montana border remains closed due to flood damage, engineering crews are hopeful they can have the stretch of road and its signature hair-raising hairpin turns open soon. 

It’s still possible to drive to the Beartooth Pass Summit just south of the Montana border. The overlook located at the highest point of the highway (a breathtaking 10,947 feet) offers stunning 360-degree views of the Beartooth range’s glacier-carved cirques, pristine mountain lakes, and the engineering feat of the “Highway to the Sky.”

Beartooth Slingshots in Red Lodge rents out sporty three-wheeled vehicles that seat two people and feature open convertible tops perfect for sightseeing on the pass. According to owner Richard Barnett, the slingshots are “low to the ground, offer good views, and won’t cause car sickness,” while speeding past steep drop offs. Plus, they feel safer than a car or motorcycle on twisty switchbacks. 

Even though traversing the full Beartooth Highway isn’t possible right now, drivers can still enjoy the scenery via a detour. “Until the pass opens in a few weeks, going down through Cody is the alternate route,” Barnett said. 

Travelers who choose to take the detour to Cody, Wyoming, and up the scenic Chief Joseph Highway to access the Beartooth Pass shouldn’t miss a chance to swing through nearby Cooke City. Once included on a list of the “Coolest Small Towns in America,” the historic gold mining town and its 63 residents are more than eager to furnish a unique frontier experience to those who make the journey. 

Usually a winter haven for backcountry skiers and snowmobilers, Cooke City and the neighboring hamlet of Silver Gate have plenty to offer visitors in the warmer months too. 

Troy Wilson, Cooke City’s fire chief and the longtime owner of the Cooke City General Store, said being cut off from the park opens up other opportunities. 

“Now that [the northeast gate to] Yellowstone is closed, I get to tell people where to go in my own backyard,” he said. 

Wilson’s original 1886 mercantile also serves as a fly shop and information hub for seekers of phenomenal hiking, fishing, and wildlife watching opportunities. 

Slight overhead view of a small town road in front of a massive mountain.Andy AustinCooke City, MT

“We have great access and hardly anyone fishing — we catch cutthroat, brookies, and rainbow (trout),” Wilson boasted of the blue ribbon trout streams and high country lakes that dot the area. “The fishing is just as good as in Yellowstone. If not better.”

Determined travelers can still enter Yellowstone Park’s northeast gate for free on foot to fish or take a dip in Soda Butte Creek. Chances to see moose, foxes, and bears abound, and “a couple buffalo live in town,” according to Wilson. 


Gardiner to Livingston, and Paradise in between

Much of Paradise Valley’s way of life revolves around the Yellowstone River, the longest undammed river in the U.S.

For visitors, the Yellowstone River offers world class fly fishing, boating, floating, and whitewater rafting as it runs through the beautiful backdrop of Paradise Valley and the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountain range.

Julie Walker offers a new way to explore the Yellowstone River and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: 20-foot wooden dories.

Walker, a guide and general manager of Yellowstone Wood Boat Tours, said her luxury floats, complete with a catered meal from Ranch Made Charcuterie, are a great way to see wildlife.

“This morning I saw 17 bald eagles, a black bear, and otters,” Walker said. “And a huge beaver.” 

The Yellowstone River is an immovable force, and recent flooding did change its landscape. For white water rafters, floaters, and fishers that means discovering how it has changed.

“Our town section is a bit more eventful with more continuous whitewater, it’s a lot more fun,” said Pat Gefell, manager of Wild West Whitewater Rafting in Gardiner.

A strip of store fronts with a parking lot in front of it and rolling hills behind it.Andy AustinGardiner, MT.

The town of Gardiner was spared from flood damage and is ready to host tourists, and Gefell said now is the time to visit. 

“There’s no doubt that everything is back open, running and it’s business as usual,” Gefell said. “Restaurants are open and the rivers are great. There’s plenty to do and it’s easier to visit because there’s not a huge wait for anything.” 

Wild West offers a variety of trips down the Yellowstone River: some trips pass through Gardiner, while others wind through Yankee Jim Canyon which opens into the Paradise Valley.

“Trips can range from just a short 2-hour float to a half-day trip down an 8-mile stretch of river to an overnight rafting trip replete with a campfire, steak dinner, and hors d’oeuvres,” Gefell said.

For those not aquatically inclined, Paradise Valley and Gardiner have plenty to do on dry land.

Two women sit at a table in a rustic restaurant and are waited on by a man wearing a baseball hat.Sam RoudaDinner at Sage Lodge in Paradise Valley.

Despite flood damage to the road connecting Gardiner to Mammoth Hot Springs, visitors can still access the park through the North Entrance. In early July, the park opened the gate to some foot traffic hikers and fishers, and visitors booked with a licensed tour guide. 

Entering through the Old Gardiner Road with a limited number of tour guides will offer a once in a lifetime experience of the northern loop of the park.

Between Gardiner and Livingston, there’s a camel-based discovery company (yes, you can ride a camel in Montana.)

Gem Valley, where folks can pan for gems and precious stones, is a great activity for children who could score a Montana sapphire or garnet.

The shot of a sprawling town with mountains and billowing clouds in the background.Keelia IsalyThe view from a hike in Livingston.

Or think like a local and go for a hike. A hidden gem is an easy 2.5 out and back jaunt to the O.T.O. Ranch (Montana’s first dude ranch) just outside of Gardiner at the Cedar Creek Trailhead. 

The area has award winning accommodations and restaurants and is home to famous residents like Michael Keaton and John Mayer. Visit Chico Hot Springs, home of Jimmy Buffet’s coveted “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” and the Sage Lodge in Pray for a more upscale experience. Follow Yer Nose Barbecue and Wildflour Bakery are local favorites in Emigrant.

A young boy is in mid air after being thrown up and out of a man with his back to camera. A woman and girl also in the pool, watch from the background. Jonathan FinchChico Hot Springs in Paradise Valley.

For a taste of cowboy nightlife, visit the Old Saloon in Emigrant. Established in 1902, the saloon offers food, drinks, and an outdoor concert venue where you’ll often find locals swing dancing to live country tunes. 

While Yellowstone itineraries may have changed, there are still plenty of ways to have fun and ample room to stretch your legs in some of the best small towns in the West. 

“Don’t be afraid to get out,” said Cooke City’s Wilson. “It’s a great time to see it because you get to feel like it’s all yours, and you don’t get that very often.”


If You Go

It’s always a good idea to carry bear spray, bug spray, bring plenty of water, and wear sturdy shoes when heading outdoors. Stay alert, go in a group, and make some noise to alert wildlife of your presence. If you encounter wildlife like deer, elk, or moose, stay calm, back away, and do not approach them.

Check recreation closures, alerts, and restrictions before you head out:

A single hiker is setting up a tent at a clearing in the forest.ReinhardHiking and camping are the best ways to experience the wonder of Yellowstone National Park.

Custer Gallatin National Forest

Beartooth Ranger District: (406) 446-2103

Bozeman Ranger District: (406) 587-6701

Gardiner Ranger District: (406) 848-7375

Hebgen Lake Ranger District: (406) 823-6961

Yellowstone (Livingston) Ranger District: (406) 222-1892

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks 

Bureau of Land Management Montana/Dakotas

Montana Department of Transportation

Federal reservation system for camping, lodging, tours, permits, and passes.


Upcoming Events


Old Saloon, Emigrant

This gritty, rustic venue offers live music on their open-air stage as well as a newly installed dance floor, and grandstand. 

Close shot of two men's hands playing two wood guitars, the men strumming wear a jean jacket and blue shirt respectively.Ampuero LeonardoOld Saloon is a great spot to kick back and listen to some country tunes.

Randy Rogers Band

Saturday, Aug. 20

All Ages Welcome

Tickets: $30 in advance, $40 at the door

Flood Benefit Show

Sunday, Aug. 21

All Ages Welcome 

Tickets: $35 

Rear view of a large group of unrecognizable people at a concert. Their hands are in the air, clapping.PyroskyAll kinds of music can be heard at Old Saloon, including rock and even pop performers.

                                 The Marshall Tucker Band 

                                 Saturday, Sept. 17

                                 All Ages Welcome

                                 Tickets: $35




Music Ranch Montana, Livingston

Experience dinner, dancing, and spectacular views at this family-friendly outdoor concert venue. 

Couple dancing in front of Country music band playing in nightclub.Miodrag IgnjatovicThese musicians will have you on your feet at Music Ranch Montana.

Cheyenne Dance Band

Saturday, Aug. 20

Tickets: $10–$45

Janie Fricke

Friday, Aug. 26 

Tickets: $30–$44

A group of friends having fun in a restaurant doing a country western dance. The focus is on the three people in the foreground, a man with women on each arm, laughing. They are wearing cowboy hats.KaliA concert is the perfect place to connect with friends and family.

                              Russ Nasset & The Revelators 

                              Saturday, Sept. 3

                              Tickets: $10–$45

                              The Idle Ranch Hands 

                              Saturday, Sept. 17

                              Tickets: $10–$42



Cooke City Street Dance 

Sat., August 6

Join the community for live music and fun right in the middle of the highway!


Shakespeare In The Parks

Wide view of an amphitheater stage surrounded by trees.istockSee theatre as it was originally performed, surrounded by nature.

Twelfth Night

Wed., August 3 at 6 p.m., Lions Park in Red Lodge

Free. Lions Park is adjacent to the Carbon County Arts Guild & Depot Gallery. 


Sat., August 15 at 6 p.m., Silver Gate Park

Also known as “The Tragedie of Cymbeline” or “Cymbeline, King of Britain”, this play is set in Ancient England and based on legends that formed part of the Matter of Britain concerning the early Celtic British King Cunobeline. Like Othello and The Winter’s Tale, it deals with themes of innocence and jealousy.

This content was written by the advertiser and edited by Studio/B to uphold The Boston Globe's content standards. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its writing, production, or display.