Bozeman, Montana & US 89 to Yellowstone


I had a long way to go from the north gate of Yellowstone to my motel room in Bozeman, Montana, but I didn’t mind.  The only way to get there was US 89, a road that’s incredibly pleasant to drive, as it follows the Yellowstone River north.

Since I was wrapping up Day 9, and the sun had already set, I didn’t have a lot of daylight for taking pictures.  Plus, I was tired.  So, I spent most of my time driving, with hopes that I’d catch anything I was missing, on the return trip, the next morning (described later on this page).

As soon as the road leaves Gardiner, Montana, it squeezes through the narrow Yankee Jim Canyon (described later).  Then, the valley surrounding the Yellowstone River widens out…

… and you’re treated to miles and miles of scenery like this.  Headed northbound on US 89, the biggest mountains are on your right — there are some smaller hills on your left.

Since the valley curves, many of those big mountains often appear to loom directly ahead of you.  Parts of the valley floor are used as farm or ranch land.  It’s another one of those roads that could go on forever, and I wouldn’t mind one bit.

Shortly after I snapped one more picture of a distant mountain to the east (one of several that top out above 10,000 feet), the road met up with Interstate 90.

I can’t tell you much about this stretch of Interstate 90.  By the time I got here, at the end of Day 9, it was almost dark, and I had to deal with several miles of construction (which is why there’s a double yellow line in the middle of the highway).  The following morning, this entire section of interstate was socked in by fog, which didn’t lift until (mercifully) I was back at the turnoff to US 89 south.

Bozeman, MT

There’s never anything fun about the final day of a vacation, but as I started Day 10, I not only had to look forward to the end of my adventure, but I also had to drive a very, very long distance.  My plan was to head back down US 89, through the northwestern corner of Yellowstone, out the west gate, then cross Idaho and northern Utah, arriving at Salt Lake City’s airport in time for a late evening flight.  Even though I had a lot of ground to cover, I decided to make a quick pass through downtown Bozeman, if for no other reason than to say I did it.

I was in Bozeman long enough to decide that this is definitely a place I could live.  It felt a little bit like Missoula, another college town further north (near Glacier National Park) — another town I also loved.  Bozeman has a nice business district, lined up along Main Street (US 191).  Tracy Avenue acts as the east/west divider.

Near the middle of things, you’ll find the Ellen Theater, and just beyond it, the Baxter Hotel (which now provides apartments and a few restaurants).

The Ellen Theatre was built in 1919, and like so many other play- and movie-houses, it suffered many years of neglect.  It last operated as a Carmike movie theater, before the chain sold the Ellen, and the Rialto (across the street) to Montana TheatreWorks, which (as of late 2008) is in the process of restoring the Ellen and making it their home for live performances.  You can get an update on their efforts, here

The cold weather in Bozeman convinced me not to stay long.  I hit the road, headed east on I-90, through that tremendous bank of fog that I mentioned earlier.  Once I turned onto US 89, the blue sky returned, and I was able to get another look at this fantastic road.

Morning light isn’t as fantastic as the evening sun, along US 89.  Since the most dramatic mountains are to the east (looking into the sun), I couldn’t take many great pictures on the way south.

The Yellowstone River still looked nice, though.  I managed to find the same turnout where I had stopped the previous night (and took the first couple of pictures on this page).  Watch for a wide gravel area, at the end of a guard rail.

A few minutes further south, there’s a rest area that also provides a nice view of the river and mountains.

The mountains to the east are part of the Absaroka Range, as well as the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.  The area contains the largest single expanse of land above 10,000 feet in the U.S. — and all of it drains into the Yellowstone River.

On a small hill, just above the rest area, there’s a tiny chapel that’s open to the public.

Inside, there are just a few seats.  With 400 miles left to drive, and about 3,000 miles to fly before the end of the day, this little chapel seemed like a good place to pray for a safe journey.

Yankee Jim Canyon

As I mentioned earlier on the page, US 89 passes through a narrow canyon named after “Yankee Jim” George, a settler who moved to the mouth of the canyon in 1872, then charged a toll for anyone who wanted to use the road through the canyon.  Nowadays, the road is much wider and, I dare say, easier to travel.  Plus, it’s free.

There are several turnouts that allow you to stretch your legs.  I chose a spot with a rocky pile, next to the highway, which gave me a little extra elevation…

… for the view up and down the valley.

The Forest Service and local officials have created an interpretive trail along opposite side of the Yellowstone River.  To access it, watch for Tom Miner Forest Service Road at the northern mouth of the canyon.

South of Yankee Jim Canyon, you’ll want to watch for a strange geological feature on a mountainside to the west (it’s more noticeable when you’re driving northbound).  Long ago, Devil’s Slide was a horizontal layer of rock.  Through time, the rock was pushed up, then water eroded away the soft shale, exposing the harder sandstone.

Personally, I think it looks like a slice of bacon.

Shortly beyond Devil’s Slide, you will arrive at Gardiner.  Enter Yellowstone National Park and drive south to Mammoth Hot Springs, then head south toward Norris on the Grand Loop Road (this is where the next page begins).

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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