This Short Montana Road Trip Is A Drive So Awe-Inspiring It's Called 'Paradise Valley'

Planning the perfect road trip can be a challenge, especially when you're trying to fit it into a limited timeframe. That's why it's crucial to make the most of the time you do have on the road with routes that are scenic, adventurous, and efficient. Fortunately, something like this exists in Montana. Welcome to Paradise Valley, an awe-inspiring 53-mile road trip from Livingston to Gardiner along Highway 89. The drive itself takes around one hour, but you can explore any scenic stretch of it as you wish and make as many stops — long or short — along the way.

Paradise Valley is a river valley folded between two ancient sub-ranges of the Greater Yellowstone Rockies: to its west, the Gallatin Mountains, estimated to be about 3.8 to 2.7 billion years old, and to its east, the 50 million-year-old Absaroka Mountains (named after the Absaroka Indians, also known as the Crow people). But this landscape painting isn't finished yet, because the Yellowstone River flows right through its heart, blending the sublime nature of these soaring mountains with serene riverbanks, rolling meadows, and vast blue skies.

Start your road trip in the historic town of Livingston, a must-visit spot in Montana. If you have the time, make a stop at the Livingston Depot Center, a beautifully restored railroad museum that provides a glimpse into the town's past as a popular hub for the Northern Pacific Railroad. Or, if you're a cinephile, seek out some of the filming locations from the Robert Redford film "A River Runs Through It" (1992).

Driving through Paradise Valley

It's time to hit the road again and hop on Highway 89 to experience all that Paradise Valley has to offer. While driving through this part of Montana, you'll pass by cattle, ranches, cowboys, cowgirls, and horses. After approximately 13 miles, at milepost 42, you will come across Mallard's Rest Fishing Access, a precious fishing site with campsites, a boat ramp, picnic areas, and more. It makes for a perfect pit stop, especially if you bring your fishing gear. However, even if you didn't, there's no need to worry. This spot also offers a breathtaking view where the Yellowstone River gracefully bends in front of the Absaroka Mountains, providing a stunning backdrop that will leave you in awe. 

It's worth noting that after leaving Livingston, you can turn off Highway 89 before Mallard's Rest Fishing Access to take the East River Road detour to escape some regular heavy road traffic. This access road is recommended for its more scenic views, slower speed limit, and better driving experience.

Travel for another 12 miles, and you'll reach one of the gems of Paradise Valley: Chico Hot Springs. This historic resort has welcomed guests for over a century with its romantic, rustic, and relaxing charm. It's the perfect place to break up your road trip with a rest stop and a rejuvenating stay. At Chico Hot Springs, you can indulge in spa treatments, soak in open-air mineral hot spring pools, enjoy a meal in a historic dining room, and drink at the saloon — all in one place.

The final stretch to Gardiner, Montana

Now, you're about halfway to Gardiner, Montana — the original entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Historically, back in 1872, road trippers would arrive in Gardiner on horseback to begin their adventure in the park. At that time, only about 1,000 people visited Yellowstone annually; today, that number has skyrocketed to 4.5 million.

Look out your window and observe the age-old trees, flora, and fauna. You might even be lucky enough to see elk, pronghorns, bighorn sheep, and mule deer right along the Paradise Valley. But this is just the beginning of Montana's wildlife. In this region, you can find the likes of grizzly bears, moose, mountain lions, and wolves. But look up: Ospreys and bald eagles can be seen flying high above the mountains of Montana, so bring your binoculars! For the best wildlife viewing — and less traffic — plan your trip for September to October or March to April, as these are the seasons when the animals are migrating with their offspring. Remember not to come too close and know how to protect yourself from animals if you plan on wildlife-watching outside your car. 

If you decide to visit Yellowstone National Park and are on a time crunch, check out our guide on what to do in the national park if you only have one day. Otherwise, if you just came along for the ride, Montana's Paradise Valley is a short trip along Highway 89 that can create some of your longest-lasting memories.