Livingston is a city of about 7,400 people on the Yellowstone River -- the longest free-flowing river in the lower 48 states -- in Park County, Montana. Livingston’s appeal includes its small-town vibe, historic downtown, surrounding wilderness and national forest lands, railroad and ranching history, and some of the best trout fishing in the world.
Just south of the city is the stunningly beautiful Paradise Valley. Fed by creeks flowing out of the surrounding mountains, the Yellowstone River runs through the valley, cold and clean. Follow the river south and you end up at Yellowstone National Park. The Crow Indians who lived here called themselves Absarokas, hence the name of the valley’s dominant mountain range.
The city began as a trading post and evolved into a railroad-ranching town and the original gateway to Yellowstone Park in the late 1880s. Those were the days when Calamity Jane lived here. By the time President Ulysses Grant established Yellowstone as a national park in 1872, more than 10,000 park-bound tourists per week rode the trains into Livingston.
Top employers range from high tech to healthcare, although some workers commute to the Bozeman area (25 miles west) or telecommute. Over the years Livingston has also become home to numerous writers and artists (and, yes, movie stars).
As the economy has become increasingly reliant on tourism, Livingston has filled with cafes and restaurants, boutiques, art galleries, and fly shops. Local bars feature live music, there is almost always a quality community-theatre production on stage and the annual Livingston Roundup Rodeo, held July 2-3-4, is considered Montana’s premier rodeo.
Wildlife watchers and hunters come from around the world for the abundant wildlife. And after hunting season, it’s time to play in the snow. Skiers head for the backcountry, or to Bridger Bowl Ski Area. Others don their cross-country skis and explore local trails, followed by a soak (and a cocktail) in the soothing “hot WADA” at Chico Hot Springs.
During the summer, locals get outside to fish, hike, run, bike, paddle, ride a horse, swim in the city pool and head into the backcountry for peace and quiet. Live music moves outside and festivals and performances abound. There are running marathons throughout the region. On Wednesday evenings, you can fill your basket at the Farmers’ Market in Sacajawea Park. And it is just 56 miles (straight down U.S. 89) to Yellowstone National Park (follow the crowd!).
Check out the delicious fresh bagels, delicious coffee and cool vibe at MT Cup.
For a real "Wild West " time it's the Old Saloon at the flashing yellow light at Emigrant. Don't eat there if you are watching your weight! Huge platefuls of pancakes, eggs and hash browns set in the historic saloon. It's just a fun experience!
Pinky’s is also a local favorite, serving a classic breakfast, including fresh-squeezed OJ and homemade biscuits. It’s right in the heart of historic downtown Livingston.
The owners of Gil’s Goods turned an old souvenir shop into a popular European-inspired café centered around a 15,000-pound wood-fired oven. Pastry chefs prepare fresh baked bread (get a baguette to go), croissants, and sweet treats daily in house, plus there’s biscuits and gravy, local bacon & eggs, Huevos Rancheros, or French toast made with Gil’s sourdough bread. Outdoor seating available in warm weather.
You’ll also find lots of breakfast choices at The Other Café on West Park Street or the 49er Diner on East Park Street.
All of the breakfast spots also serve lunch, too, so you have lots of choices!
My new favorite is Wheatgrass Saloon, located inside Elk River Books on Main Street. Lisa Snow Beaudin opened Wheatgrass Saloon in 2012 and serves up super healthy food (raw vegan smoothies and vegetable-laden Dragon bowls) and fresh cold-pressed juices. There’s also an eco-boutique and an upstairs art gallery.
When I’m really hungry, I head straight to the Pickle Barrel, which serves the biggest, best sandwiches around. It will fill you up all day! Top it off with a few scoops of Wilcoxson’s ice cream and stroll around downtown Livingston.
The Sport is under new ownership and is also a tasty stop for lunch or dinner.
Farm Girl Pizzeria and Bakery on Main Street has good pizza, along with delicious baked goods and other lunch items.
Next door is the Soup Bar, where Chef Hans Friedmann dishes up freshly made soup, sandwiches with house-cured meats, salads and appetizers. This location is also home to a wonderful bakery.
For dinner you have to consider Mustang Fresh Food at 112 N. Main St. A longtime lunch and catering favorite with locals (and celebrities!), Carole Sullivan now serves her classic gourmet food at dinnertime. Check out the great soups, Faroe Island Salmon, grilled local meats, or organic chicken roasted to perfection. Carole also serves classic European-style expresso drinks. Menu changes seasonally. Café-style sidewalk dining available in summer.
The Montana Rib and Chop House is always busy, always good. Great ribs, chicken and salads.
Chico Hot Springs Dining Room has offered fine dining (modern American cuisine) with a Western flair since the 1970s and consistently receives praise as one of the best meals in Montana. Fresh, exceptional food, with much of the produce coming from Chico’s own garden and other ingredients from Montana farms and ranches. One of Montana’s finest wine lists. Just a short drive to the heart of the Paradise Valley. Dinner reservations strongly recommended! (The poolside grill and the saloon also offer lighter, family friendly fare.)
The Sport Bar & Grill on Main Street has upped its game with a new French-inspired menu. Dinner choices include salads, burgers, sandwiches, hand-cut steaks and chops (try the 16 oz. bison or beef ribeye topped with fried leeks and huckleberry glaze), fresh seafood and pasta. The step-back-in-time Montana décor features the original tin ceiling, the old wooden bar, loads of taxidermy and historic photos. Full bar and wine menu.
Second Street Bistro in the Historic Murray Hotel opened its doors in 2004, a restaurant “based on the simple philosopy that good food and wine make life more enjoyable.” It found a place on the foodie radar in 2009, after the late author Jim Harrison (who lived in the area) joined Anthony Bourdain and local artist Russell Chatham for an episode of Bourdain’s show “No Reservations.”
Big Sky Thai recently opened in Clark’s Crossing, at 102 Rogers Lane, to rave reviews.
If you need lunch for the river, or a quick dinner solution, you have numerous options in the “to-go” department. Both Mustang Catering and Pickle Barrel are solid choices. And in the past year, Cluck (affiliated with Gil’s and 2nd Street Bistro) opened on West Park Street, serving “local, organic, grab-and-go chicken” (rotisserie or fried) with classic sides. Located in a section of the old Whiting’s Motor building that had been boarded up for more than a half-century, Cluck’s brick-encased, wood-fired rotisserie and counter are out front, with a commercial kitchen in the back.
The Murray Bar. This laid-back bar, a long-time local favorite, was remodeled in recent years to include a glass garage door, exposed soffit windows, new floor and lighting. Features live music, local craft brews, cocktails, plus food from Gil’s Goods next door. Watch your sports teams play on the TVs. A friendly watering hole.
The Owl Lounge used to be a literary haunt and is now apparently famous for its martinis! There is a little patio out back for smokers.
Glenn’s Food and Spirits is owned and operated by Livingston’s most-famous bartender, Glenn, who stood behind the old Livingston Bar and Grill’s massive bar for years. The patio is a great place to eat and drink outside during the summer. And local artist Edd Enders’ paintings line the walls. Happy Hour, Moscow mules and local microbrews keep the conversation lively.
The Stockman, Whiskey Creek and the Mint Bar and Grill, all in the first block of downtown Main Street, are old reliables.
Katabatic Brewing Company on Park Street opened in 2014 on West Park Street and never looked back. A kat•a•bat•ic is a cold, downslope, often-severe wind and the tagline, “Rugged, Yet Refined,” seeks to encapsulated the rugged mountains that surround Livingston and the refined quality of the microbrews. In addition to live music, the brewery also hosts regular “Beer for a Cause” events, when $1 from each beer goes to the nonprofit organization of the night.
Neptune’s Brewing on L Street is named after the Roman god of the sea and its taps feature the “golden trident.” With a dozen Neptune’s brews to choose from, you may want to add some food to your order.; locals rave about the sushi menu and there are lots of other options.The state of Montana limits breweries to certain hours for selling beer, so “8 p.m. is the cutoff!” Also, Neptune’s is moving to a new spot downtown, on the corner of Main and Clark streets, in the near future.
Farm Girl Pizzeria & Bakery: At the corner of Main and Callendar streets, this combo-eatery serves treats baked from scratch daily: sticky buns, donuts, puff-pastry, cakes and cookies, as well as pizza and pasta. You can also order “six-packs” of certain bakery items to bake at home.
Moon River: Housed in the Soup Bar on Main Street downtown, this cake shop has a variety of inspired desserts including cookies, bars, cupcakes and cake slices to go or eat in. The chess cake is over the moon and the signature cutthroat cookies are works of art. They also bake cakes for special occasions, with a nod to Julia Child, who once said, "A party without a cake is just a meeting."
Crust & Crumb Bakery: On West Park Street in the Yellowstone Gateway Mall (behind Ace Hardware), this bakery sells pastries, pies, breakfast sandwiches on homemade biscuits. You can also buy Crust & Crumb baked goods at nearby Town & Country grocery.
Surrounded by public land, including the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Area (ABWA), Crazy Mountains, Custer National Forest and Yellowstone National Park, you will never run out of places to hike in this neck of the woods. The ABWA alone offers 943,00-acres of wilderness, 20 mountain peaks topping 12,000 feet, nearly 1,000 alpine lakes, active glaciers, streams, canyons, wildlife, tundra plateaus, dense forests and mountain meadows, 700 miles of hiking trails, plus off-trail hiking and skiing opportunities.
Gotta be Pine Creek Falls, just about anyone can make it up there. It’s a one-mile hike to the falls, which are outstanding. Or, go another tough four miles and enjoy Pine Creek Lake, where you can camp and fish for your dinner; plenty of big trout in there! South of Livingston.
Mill Creek has several good hiking trails, including Passage Falls, a delightful four-mile round trip hike. Depending when you go the meadows are just filled with wildflowers. I consider Passage Falls a nice peaceful hike.
Thompson Lake is another great hike, about 10 miles roundtrip.
DOG-FRIENDLY & OFF-LEASH PARKS:
Miles Park (excluding the baseball fields) is a nice walk in grassy fields or along the levee abutting the Yellowstone River. You can do several laps around the ballfields, or head west on the ¾-mile levee trail actually runs further west along the river to 9th Street. But fair warning: dogs must be leashed once you pass the band shell and you have to stick to the trail as no dogs are allowed in Sacajawea Park.
Mayor’s Landing, also on the river down past the fairgrounds, is also enormously popular; do several loops on the ¼-mile trail to burn all that canine glee.
The Bozeman Trail Connector is a one-mile-long gravel trail connecting the city’s Northern Lights subdivision with Fleshman Creek road. A variety of birds and wildlife live along the trail; two small ponds provide clean water. Park at either end and make it a two-mile trek out and back.
PLACES TO RIDE
Livingston has many great places to road bike. Lots of wide open spaces make this one of my favorite places to ride my bike. The easiest and most accessible is the Highway 89 South Walking and Bike Path, a 4 ½-mile asphalt trail maintained by the city of Livingston and Park County. It begins near downtown Livingston on North 5th Street and runs South along Park Street until it stops at the intersection of Hwy 89 South and East River Road at Carter’s Bridge. This path is a great option for a longer run or bike ride with plenty of beautiful and varied scenery.
The Yellowstone River, of course!
This is mecca for anglers and they flock here from all over the world! In addition to easy access to more than 120 miles of the Upper Yellowstone River, Park County boasts the wonderful spring creeks (Armstrong, DePuy and Nelson) and is close to the Gallatin and Lower Madison rivers, the Boulder River (Big Timber) and Soda Butte Creek (Yellowstone Park).
For guided trips, check out the world-renowned Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop, George Anderson’s Yellowstone Angler, Sweetwater Fly Shop or Brant Oswald Fly Fishing Services. Get locally hand-tied flies and a fishing report at Hatch Finders Fly Shop.
If you’re into DYI, rent a raft from Rubber Ducky River Rentals on West Park Street and start exploring.
FLY FISHERS INTERNATIONAL: Livingston is also home to Fly Fishers International (FFI), a voice for freshwater and saltwater fly fishers around the world since 1964. Previously known as the International Federation of Fly Fishers, FFI represents all aspect of fly fishing – from the art of fly tying and casting to protection of the natural systems that support healthy fisheries and connecting habitat. Its mission is to ensure the legacy of fly fishing (“If we want this legacy to be experienced by future generations, we have to work to make that happen”) for all fish in all waters continues by focusing on conservation, education and a sense of community. Operate a Fly Fishing Learning Center, a casting certification program and a Fly Tying Skills Award program.
The north entrance to what we lovingly call "The Park" is in Gardiner, an easy hour’s drive south of Livingston. From Mammoth Hot Springs, head east to explore the famed Lamar Valley, home to many of the region’s wolf packs; south to Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River; or in any direction for fishing, hiking, camping or wildlife-watching. Yellowstone Park is at the heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, 34,000 square miles of one of planet’s largest, nearly intact, temperate-zone ecosystems. The park, established in 1872, contains about half of the world’s active geysers and protects the largest concentration of wildlife (bison, wolves, grizzlies, bighorn sheep, lynx, wolverines, elk, in the lower 48 states. Brimming with lodgepole-pine forests, sagebrush steppes, grasslands and alpine meadows, most of the park is above 7,500-feet in elevation and covered in snow for much of the year.
Paradise Valley is not only known for the amazing fly fishing, but also for Chico Hot Springs. One of the top places for dinner in all of Montana, Chicago is centered around a natural hot spring, with pools for soaking or swimming. I just love going midweek in January and February when it’s cold and snowing out, sitting in the hot pools of water is an amazing experience. There is also a window to the bar if you get thirsty! Chico also has a day spa, horseback riding, gift shop, easy access to hiking trails (climb Emigrant Peak!) and even dog sledding in the winter. Don’t miss it!
Celebrating its 94th year, the Livingston Roundup Rodeo consistently attracts sellout crowds, the best PRCA rodeo cowboys and cowgirls, and some of the best rough stock in the country. It all began in 1923 when Livingston’s own Charlie Murphy ran the Madison Square Garden Rodeo in New York and brought 28 top bucking horses to Livingston for a rodeo. Just two years later, the roundup had become one of eight Class A rodeos in the nation. The rodeo runs July 2, 3 and 4 every year, kicking off at 8 p.m. You’ll see saddle bronc, bareback, roping, tie-down roping, steer wrestling, bull riding, and barrel racing. These days, the total purse exceeds $200,000. Slack is held at 3 p.m. July 1; and the combo rodeo-Fourth of July parade happens rain or shine every year on July 2. Get your tickets early!
The Northern Pacific Railroad, which brought Yellowstone Park-bound tourists to Livingston as early as 1883, opened the Livingston Depot in 1902. The large Italianate brick building with a majestic colonnade and ornate architectural detail -- including NPR’s yin-yang emblem in terracotta -- is in a can’t-miss-it location on Park Street. It was designed by Reed and Stem in St. Paul, Minnesota, who also designed New York City’ Grand Central Terminal.
AMTRAK suspended passenger service to southern Montana in 1979 and Burlington Northern Railroad, NP’s successor, donated the depot to the City of Livingston in 1985. After a thorough restoration, the Livingston Depot Foundation reopened the buildings in 1987, beginning service as a classy community center, music and film venue, museum. The wonderful Depot Festival of the Arts in adjacent Depot Rotary Park coincides with the annual July rodeo. Train enthusiasts delight in the steady rumble -- and whistles -- of freight trains through town, and the Model Railroad Club is open twice weekly for visits all year.