Mighty Swell Bozeman, Montana
By Monique Burns
We Easterners like to think we’ve got the best of everything. And, if we don’t, we can always hop a plane and cross “The Pond” to Europe. I’m probably as provincial—and Eurocentric—as the next Easterner. Luckily, earlier in my career, I spent a lot of time out West. There I fell in love with big cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Portland and smaller ones like Santa Barbara and Santa Fe.
Bozeman is the latest Western city to cross my radar—and it’s a real find. In southwest Montana, it’s the state’s fourth-largest city, the seat of Gallatin County, and the unofficial capital of Yellowstone Country, the region surrounding Yellowstone National Park, home to iconic North American wildlife like wolves, grizzlies, elk and bison.
Yellowstone is less than 100 miles south of Bozeman, so most park visitors fly into Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport. Montana’s busiest, it welcomes nonstop direct flights from 15 U.S. gateways, including New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Bozeman is also home to several of the country’s top cultural institutions. Foremost is Museum of the Rockies, a Smithsonian Institution affiliate whose world-class Siebel Dinosaur Complex is guaranteed to astonish even if you haven’t thought about dinosaurs since you were knee-high to a grasshopper. Among its treasures: 40-foot-long Montana’s T. rex discovered in fossil-rich Hell Creek Formation, 300 miles northeast.
Downtown on West Main Street, you’ll find not one, but two, vintage theaters. The Ellen Theatre, a gilded movie palace celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2019, has hosted singer Judy Collins, stand-up comedian Paula Poundstone, the Paul Taylor Dance Company and international bands like The Irish Rovers. Luckily, my visit coincides with a rousing performance of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s famed Western idyll, Oklahoma!
Steps away, The Rialto, with its striking black-and-silver Art Deco marquee, is known for live bluegrass and country-rock. The Burn Box theater café serves wines, sakes, craft cocktails, and “beer-tails” concocted from local and foreign brews, plus small bites created by local “culinarians.”
Surrounded by farms, ranchlands and forests, Bozeman has emerged as a top destination for farm-to-table dining whether you like grass-fed Angus beef or wild elk, fresh-caught trout and salmon, or innovative riffs on just-picked herbs and produce. If you’re not a foodie when you come to Bozeman, you will be when you leave.
There also are a dozen craft breweries and liquor distilleries plus several wine bars. For teetotalers, Dean’s Zesty Booch, Kombucha Bar & Brewery offers kombucha, made from fermented tea, and other healthy probiotic drinks.
Bozeman has been on the map since the early 1800s when William Clark of the famed Lewis & Clark Expedition camped at Kelly Canyon, three miles east of what would later become Bozeman. In the 1860s, the Bozeman Trail connected Montana’s gold-rush fields to the Oregon Trail.
Since 1990, Bozeman has been one of Montana’s fastest-growing cities. But the city really has blossomed in the last decade. A lively college town, it’s home to Montana State University, the state’s largest university and a top research center for engineering, energy, optics and even mental health. MSU’s 16,000 students, known as “The Bobcats” or simply “The Cats,” bring a youthful energy to the city.
As for monumental Western landscapes, Bozeman is in the lush Gallatin Valley, which Native American tribes like the Blackfeet, Crow and Nez Percé called the “Valley of the Flowers.” In the 1920s, the valley was the nation’s “Sweet Pea Capital.” Today, its rich farmlands produce various crops, many destined for restaurants in and around Bozeman.
Nestled in the Rockies, Bozeman is almost completely surrounded by mountains: the Bridger Mountains to the northeast, the Horseshoe Hills and Big Belt Mountains to the northwest, the Gallatin Range to the south and the Tobacco Root Mountains to the west and southwest. Too far inland to be lapped by the mighty Pacific, the town is graced by the Gallatin River offering blue-ribbon trout and salmon fishing.
Those who regularly ski the West have known Bozeman for decades, too, well before a 2017 National Geographic Traveler article named Bozeman one of the “Best Ski Towns in the World” along with international stars like Chamonix, Cortina d’Ampezzo and Zermatt.
Three of Yellowstone Country’s four major ski areas are in or near Bozeman. A 20-minute drive north of downtown, the Bridger Bowl, opened in 1955, offers 2,600 vertical feet over 2,000 acres. Within 1-2 hours’ drive of Bozeman are Big Sky Resort and Red Lodge Mountain. All boast deep, fluffy white Western powder, the kind that makes skiers hyperventilate with excitement. Bozeman’s mountains also draw hikers and horseback-riders, rock-climbers and mountaineers, from around the world.
Moviemakers discovered Bozeman decades ago, too. A River Runs Through It, Robert Redford’s 1992 fly-fishing paean, was set in Missoula but shot in Bozeman. The 1996 movie, Star Trek: First Contact, was also filmed in Bozeman. Professor Jack Horner, former paleontology curator at Bozeman’s Museum of the Rockies, consulted on all five Jurassic Park movies.
Today, various celebrities live in and around Bozeman, including the notoriously reclusive Johnny Depp. But few locals are willing to talk about them. Like many Western cities, Bozeman has a laid-back, live-and-let-live attitude. Gossiping about the neighbors, especially famous ones who come there to escape the limelight, just “isn’t the Montana way.”
At Bozeman International Airport in nearby Belgrade, I rent a Jeep Wrangler, then make the 15-minute drive to Bozeman’s Main Street. One of America’s prettiest main drags, it runs for eight blocks, lined with two and three-story brick buildings housing restaurants, gift shops, Western-wear boutiques like Head West, and gourmet emporiums like Béquet Confections, known for luscious Celtic sea-salt caramels.
Steps from The Ellen Theatre, the seven-story, yellow-brick Baxter Hotel is a National Historic Landmark opened in 1929. It’s home to Ted’s Montana Grill, co-founded by media mogul Ted Turner and known for bison steaks and burgers. Look for the cute buffalo-shaped neon sign.
Opened in 2015 on West Main Street, The LARK, a stylish “boutique-motel,” immerses visitors in Montana’s easy-going, outdoorsy lifestyle while anchoring downtown Bozeman’s community.
In the motel’s 76 simple, comfortable rooms, black-and-white wall infographics by local artists feature state birds, geologic features and hiking trails. In the lobby’s Map Room, guests peruse U.S. Geological Survey maps while LARK Guides provide inside advice on where to hike, picnic or entertain the kids.
Gather around the patio’s wood-burning fire pit and enjoy treats made by Bozeman’s Genuine Ice Cream Co. and sold from a shiny aluminum-clad vintage trailer. The LARK’s breakfast room is run by yet another local gourmet enterprise, Treeline Coffee Roasters.
Hankering for something stronger? Head across the street to White Dog Brewing Company. Brothers Joe and Troy Moore serve up brews like Blond Ale, Blood Orange Hefeweizen and New England Hazy IPA in a red-brick taproom adorned with a big portrait of a grinning white bulldog. The bar’s custom-made frost rail keeps mugs icy-cold.
Next door, sister company Bozeman Spirits Distillery serves up Montana 1889 Whiskey, Bobcat Gold Bourbon, Ruby River Gin, Cold Spring Huckleberry Flavored Vodka and Prairie Schooner Spiced Rum. The Wild West decor includes oak whiskey barrels, and colorful posters of buxom, scantily clad Montana lasses in cowgirl hats and boots fly-fishing, skeet-shooting and biking while frolicking with white-furred yellow Labs. Clearly, Montana girls know how to have a good time.
You could spend a week exploring another 10 or so craft breweries and distilleries in Bozeman. In the industrial-style Cannery District, a five-minute drive north of downtown, are Dean’s Zesty Booch along with 406 Brewing Company, and Wildrye Distilling for bourbon, rum, gin, vodka and even apple liquor.
On downtown’s northwest fringe, MAP Brewing’s taproom is like a big living room with leather couches and a tall stone fireplace on one side and a wraparound bar on the other. Relax over Gravity Rider German Amber, Ridge Hippy Kölsch or Quiver Killer Pale Ale while local guitarists play blues and country. Or retreat to the sunny riverside patio ringed by mountain peaks.
Good eating is Bozeman’s other great gustatory pastime. Come morning, head to the venerable Western Cafe where hunting trophies adorn knotty-pine walls. Order the Bobcat Special with eggs, bacon, hash browns, and French toast made from platter-sized cinnamon rolls.
Many of Bozeman’s finest lunch spots are on West Main Street—handy if you’re catching a matinee at The Ellen Theatre. Brave the adoring crowds at Jam! for big, tasty salads, sandwiches, burgers and tacos. At Stuffed Crepes & Waffles, try the savory Monte with turkey, ham and Swiss followed by the sweet Zurich with strawberries, nutella and white-chocolate sauce.
Just off Main is Starky’s Authentic Americana Grill. Founded in 2003 by Glen and Kathy Stark, a transplanted Detroit couple, it’s famous for house-made chips, salad dressings and challah bread. Try the Green Goddess Salad, or Dolly’s Lunch, an overstuffed sandwich of chicken salad, bacon and avocado.
Downtown dinner choices seem endless. At Urban Kitchen, I dig into multicultural American specialties like calamari with Thai-spiced chile sauce and pork saltimbocca over polenta. Relaxing in the dining room with gunmetal-blue walls adorned with an elk trophy, mirrors and dimly lighted brass sconces, I feel like I’m visiting a relative’s heirloom ranch house.
Another evening, after exploring Yellowstone National Park with custom-tour outfit Yellowstone Wonders, I return to Bozeman for yet another fine meal. This time, I stay at the luxurious Element by Westin with indoor pool, fitness room, and stainless-steel grills on the patio for cooking the trout you caught fly-fishing the Gallatin River. Contemporary rooms have spacious sitting areas and well-stocked kitchens.
Not that you’ll do much cooking. There are too many good restaurants right outside the hotel’s front door. Even better, the Element has a private entrance to Squire House, a New American restaurant opened in 2016.
Owner Michael McGough, a transplanted Manhattanite, has all the effortless charm, urbane sophistication and foot-tapping impatience that my fellow New Yorkers are famous for. But he also knows what makes Bozeman’s culinary scene tick.
On the restaurant patio on a warm summer evening, I throw back a couple of craft cocktails, then dig into Brussels Bravas featuring my favorite crucifer in spicy Spanish sauce with tart lemon aioli. From the menu—with locally inspired mains like Elk Bolognese and grass-fed beef from Montana’s Bar 77 Ranch—I choose the Duroc pork chop as big as all outdoors and just as tender.
By now, I’m totally convinced that Bozeman’s larder is one of the country’s, if not the world’s, best. I’m also convinced that Bozeman owes its appeal to a unique blend of international sophistication along with a friendly, good-hearted, distinctly home-grown Western vibe.
I’ll probably never pull up stakes and leave the East for Bozeman, Montana. But, if I’m ever lucky enough to return, I’ll be mighty pleased.
IF YOU GO
Log on to www.visitYellowstoneCountry.com.
Monique Burns is a longtime travel writer and editor, and a European Correspondent for Jax Fax Magazine, a travel magazine for U.S. travel agents. A former Travel & Leisure Senior Editor, she travels frequently to Europe, but can sometimes be found in far-flung locales like India and Asia. After more than 30 years in the travel business, she still appreciates the world’s many cultural differences and can honestly say that she’s never met a place she didn’t like.