riding away on horses

Play by Day and Stargaze by Night in Montana’s Yellowstone Country 

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three people looking over a bridge at the partly frozen Boulder River in Montana

This post is sponsored by Montana’s Yellowstone Country Tourism Region.

If you are looking for a self-paced, off-the-beaten-path, unique Montana vacation, I have just the itinerary for you.

By following or adapting my Montana itinerary, you’ll get to leisurely play outside during the day and stargaze at our dark, pinpricked skies at night.

If you’ve been to this site before you know we live outside of Yellowstone National Park – the world’s first National Park. And it’s truly the Wonderland that it is often called. It’s also busy, even in winter.

Since we live here, we know many of the quiet places in Montana’s Yellowstone Country and we love to get out and explore.

Montana dark skies above the Boulder River

Here’s a secret: the areas along the Boulder and Stillwater Rivers are just as pretty and a little wilder than the busy corridors between the park and Bozeman (Highway 191 from West Yellowstone, through Big Sky, and up the Gallatin Canyon) and the park and Livingston (from Gardiner through Paradise Valley).

Not that you shouldn’t visit those places, but if you are looking for something truly authentic and a little different, check out this two-night Montana itinerary (or add it to a longer trip to Montana’s Yellowstone Country). 

We did this trip in winter, but we’ve also visited all these places in summer. It’s truly a year-round Montana trip. The advantage of a winter trip is that you don’t have to wait until 10 pm for it to be dark enough to see stars. 

Day One – Livingston, Fort Parker, Natural Bridge Falls, Big Timber

neon signs in historic downtown livingston montana

Livingston, Montana

We started in Livingston and had breakfast and a leisurely morning at home. If you are looking for things to do in Livingston or places to eat in Livingston, check out this post.

three people reading an interpretive sign with tipi poles in the background at the Fort Parker First Crow Agency Site Montana

Fort Parker Site

We made a quick stop at Fort Parker  – the First Crow Agency – at the Mission Creek exit. Tipi poles represent the Crow lodging and interpretive signs explain how the area was used for ranching and more. 

You can read more about Fort Parker on the Extreme History Project site.

woman standing by frozen waterfall Natural Bridge Falls Montana

Natural Bridge Falls

Then we drove to Natural Bridge Falls. In the spring, there is so much water that a huge waterfall forms. Most of the year, the Boulder River slips under some rocks and comes out about 1/3 of the way up a rock cliff. Any time of year, it is really cool to see.

Walk around the north side of the river on a paved, accessible trail to get views of the river and canyon. There are interpretive signs and picnic benches.

Cross the bridge to the south side to walk along a dirt trail that takes to a great view of the falls. You can walk down to the bottom of the falls – and we always do – but can be slippery with snow or water.

We walked around, took photos, and admired the frozen falls before having a picnic lunch.

See my post about Natural Bridge Falls for more information or to determine when there is enough water for the waterfall. 

view of downtown Big Timber with brick buildings and western fronts

Big Timber 

After an afternoon ramble around Natural Bridge Falls, we followed the Boulder River north and downstream to Big Timber where we checked into The Grand Hotel. “The Grand,” as it’s known by locals, is a historic hotel on Big Timber’s main street, McLeod Street. 

The hotel was built in 1890 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The hotel, bar, and restaurant are restored and still maintain the original historic charm.

Big Timber has a population of fewer than 2,000 people. It gets its name from Big Timber Creek, which was named by William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame. The large cottonwood trees along the creek inspired him.

We did a little reconnaissance for our nighttime outing with a walk around Dornix Park. Google Maps showed an interesting bridge that I thought might look good in the foreground of star photos. (Spoiler alert – I was right.)

It turned out to be a lovely area to walk along the Boulder River and past some old homesteads. The bridge is found at the far end of the Boulder Loop Trail.

Back in town, we had dinner in the bar at The Grand. They offer fine dining as well, but the dining room wasn’t open the night we were there. I believe it is basically the same food whether you eat in the bar or the dining room.

a bridge with starry sky behind it near Big Timber Montana

Stargazing in Big Timber

Bellies full, we headed out into the night to search for stars. We planned the trip during the new moon so stars would be at their brightest (the moon can be so bright as to make it difficult to see anything else up there). 

It had been cloudy all day and we didn’t have a lot of hope for seeing anything in the sky beyond the clouds, but were pleasantly surprised when the clouds parted and stars shone through. 

We first went to Dornix Park and the spot we had scouted earlier in the day. The bridge did look great in the photos. Then we drove down to the Big Rock Fishing Access Site to view stars through the cottonwoods above the Boulder River. 

Both spots proved to be great for catching the night sky show.

More things to do in Big Timber and along the Boulder River.

hikers with snowy mountain in back hiking in Montana

Day Two – Backroads, Stillwater Trail, Absarokee

After breakfast at a coffee shop in Big Timber and grabbing lunch supplies from the grocery store, we took to the backroads en route to the Stillwater Trail.

Backroads to the Stillwater Trail

Montana dirt road with snowy mountains in background

The Bridger Creek Road is a dirt and gravel road. I imagine it can get quite muddy and even snowy. There isn’t any cell service and there aren’t any other services, so be prepared to be on your own if you choose this route. 

We were looking for a little adventure and to go somewhere we hadn’t been before. We were delighted with the scenic drive along Bridger Creek Road and Stillwater River Road.

One fun surprise was coming upon a monument to the Bozeman Trail, which apparently ran through here. We’ve read about the Bozeman Trail (a “shortcut” of the Oregon Trail that was only in use for a few years) and it was pretty cool to see what the terrain was like.

Bozeman Trail monument

Of course, all of the area we were playing in was once the territory of the Apsaalooké (Crow), Salish, Cheyenne, and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ tribes (according to Native Land Map).

We took our time winding through the low hills and along Bridger Creek and the Stillwater River. We stopped at a couple of Fishing Access Sites to stretch our legs and enjoy the sunshine.

family hiking on a rocky montana trail by partly frozen river

Stillwater Trail (Sioux Charlie)

We finally arrived at the Stillwater Trail in time for a picnic lunch near the parking lot. 

The Stillwater Trail to Sioux Charlie Lake is a mellow, but dramatic trail. It starts out in a rocky canyon where the river cascades over shelves and dances among the rocks. Despite the name, this part of the Stillwater is alive and moving.

It’s about three miles to Sioux Charlie Lake (actually a widening of the Stillwater River) and worth the effort. Or just wander as far as you like and turn around. We’ve done both. 

two people napping on a rock with river and mountains in back

Another option is the 3/4-mile walk to Woodbine Falls. You can read about it and other things to do near Red Lodge

More things to do along the Stillwater River.

vacation rental near Yellowstone house across a river

Paintbrush Adventures

After our hike, we checked into our vacation rental on the Stillwater River in Absarokee. This beautiful house is owned by the Wilcox Family and Tini Starkweather as part of their Paintbrush Adventures.

cabin in Montana

In addition to their “Luxurious Cabin on the River,” they have a working ranch that’s been in the family for something like six generations, they offer guided horseback riding (which we would do the next day), day hikes, drop camps, fishing trips, pack trips, and ranch vacations.

three men walking out of a wooden cabin-style restaurant

Wildflower Kitchen 

After Wanda checked us in and we admired the view from the porch for a bit, we went for dinner at Wildflower Kitchen in Absarokee – highly recommended. We’ve eaten there before and never miss a chance when we are in the area. The food and drink are really good and the people are so friendly and welcoming. There is such a good feel about the place.

side of a house, a tree, and lotso fstars

Stargazing in Absarokee 

I had scouted a couple of places I thought might be good for stargazing in Absarokee, but once I saw the deck of the Paintbrush Adventures house, I knew we would look at the stars over the Stillwater River from the deck. 

Honestly, I spent most of the evening in the big bathtub, but I could see stars out the window. 

Another option might be to go up to the Whitebird Community Center. The white, wooden former schoolhouse could look great in night shots.

Day Three — Horseback Riding , Greycliff Mill

four people riding horses by river in Montana

Paintbrush Adventures Trail Rides

After breakfast in the house, we went across the river to meet our horseback riding guides. I was thrilled to find someone that does horseback riding year-round. I think they are the only people near Yellowstone that do. 

family on horses in front of Stillwater River Montana

We went for a one-hour ride through juniper and deciduous river flats and along Rosebud Creek and the Stillwater River. They offer longer trail rides in the same place as well as mountain rides when the weather permits.

Our horses were bomber, well trained, and comfortable to ride and we loved chatting with our guides.

interior of old barn turned coffee shop

Greycliff Mill

On our way home we stopped at Greycliff Mill, about three miles east of Big Timber. We have been looking at it from the highway since it opened last summer and wondered what it was all about. 

This 1760 barn with a water-powered gristmill is also a coffee shop serving espresso, BBQ, shakes, and pastries in a beautiful rural setting. They do farm-to-table dinners, music, and other events. The view of the Greycliffs and pond is lovely.

We had bagels and wraps along with fancy hot drinks, which proved to be the perfect ending for our trip. Maybe I should have called it “Play Outside, Eat All Day, and Stargaze by Night in Montana’s Yellowstone Country.

people standing on horses

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