Camping Outside Yellowstone: Gallatin National Forest
Why Choose Gallatin National Forest ?
You are enjoying (or perhaps still planning) a fantastic trip to Yellowstone National Park. Congratulations, Yellowstone is just astounding! Old Faithful is so impressive, and the falls at the "Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" are indescribably breathtaking. Hopefully, you will spot some of the fantastic wildlife that resides in Yellowstone (and the surrounding areas) such as bison, elk, Bighorn sheep, moose, bears, wolves, otters, eagles and Trumpeter swans.
Yellowstone National Park is indeed a wonder, a hugely popular wonder that hosted nearly 3.7 million visitors last year, most of whom visited in the summer months. People from all over the globe travel to the world's first national park to enjoy the natural attractions, wildlife, and geographic splendor preserved in this part of America.
(A quick note here: according to Montana State Senator Art Wittich, 1/3 of the annual Yellowstone National Park visitors fly into the Bozeman, Montana airport and use HWY 191 to get to the park. If you are one of these travelers, you are driving right through the Gallatin National Forest, the very subject of this article.)
Some folks love being part of the crowd, but if you are seeking a little more solitude, you will not likely find it inside the boundaries of the park, at least not in the summer.
Perhaps when you envisioned your travels to the majestic mountains, you pictured something that looked like this:
Instead, you may find that sites within Yellowstone National Park can feel a bit too much like this:
Escape the Crowds
When you have had enough of the crowds and are ready to enjoy a little breathing room, follow me to a treasure trove for the outdoor enthusiast. I will include the best camp sites and excellent accommodations for those who are not camping or are simply tired of roughing it. So here we go!
West Entrance/ Exit of Yellowstone National Park: HWY 191
Yellowstone National Park has 5 entrances: North, South, East, West and Northeast. 3 of the 5 are in Montana, the remaining 2 (the South and East) are in Wyoming.
Exit the West entrance (yes, you will be leaving the park) through the small and aptly named town of West Yellowstone. This town offers a few don't-miss attractions, but more on that later. Do pick up a fishing license and any groceries you might need, this is your last stop to shop.
In West Yellowstone take HWY 191 north out of town. HWY 191 runs along the border between Yellowstone National Park and Gallatin National Forest. Continue on 191 for approximately 20 miles. The campground I am sharing with you will not likely be found on any map. Therefore, I have marked it on a topographic map (see below.) Look for a small sign which says Taylor Fork Road and a larger brown sign for Nine Quarter Circle Ranch. Turn left onto Taylor Fork Road. This road is a well maintained dirt road, suitable for large campers, RVs and even horse trailers.
Camp sites just northwest of Yellowstone National Park
National Forest Camping/ Taylor Fork (click to enlarge)
Designated Campsites in Gallatin National Forest
After a few miles, you will see large designated camp sites on both sides of the road. This road and the adjoining camp sites continue back into the beautiful Madison mountain range for more than 10 miles.
Approximately 5 miles in, you will pass the aforementioned Nine Quarter Circle Ranch. This is a guest ranch which seems to specialize in horseback riding but also has other activities. I have never stayed at this ranch, but it is very picturesque and open to the public. For more information go to www.ninequartercircle.com/ or call (406) 995-4276.
If you've got your camper with you, just roll on by the ranch (slowly, you don't want to spook the horses.) About 8 miles back there is a fork in the road that is marked with an old sign. To the left is Lightning Creek Road, which leads to the Taylor Falls trail head. There are several more camp sites along this road (assuming you haven't already selected one by now,) and the Taylor Falls trail is a pleasant hike. Remember, you are hiking in bear country; please see the link below for tips on safe hiking in bear country:
National Forests just beyond Yellowstone National Park
The road on the right is to Cache Creek, which has several more prime camping spots. You do not have to go this far back (about 10 miles) as there are great camp sites starting from mile one or two, but the farther you go, the more beautiful it seems to get.
Aside from the lack of crowds, camping in Gallatin National Forest has many perks. For one, it is totally free, as is the abundant wood for campfires (I think firewood is $5 or more per bundle in Yellowstone.) You will still see all the wondrous wildlife, just like inside the park boundaries. In fact, I see moose in Taylor Fork quite often and have never seen them in Yellowstone National Park. Do remember your bear country camping rules, or see the link below.
Tips for Camping Safely in Bear Country
- Camping with Kids in Bear Country
Know how to play it safe when camping in bear country...
Please don't trash our treasure!
Now that I have shared this pristine place with you, I implore you to do your part to keep the "treasure state," of Montana beautiful. Here are some tips for keeping your impact on nature to a minimum and preserving this beautiful place for generations to come:
- Pack it in/ pack it out. In-other-words, if you brought it, take it with you when you leave. Don't leave anything behind including food scraps, bottles or cans, plastics, paper, broken whatever-its, etc.
- Plan ahead and bring trash bags, zip-lock bags and whatever else you will need to keep your garbage to yourself.
- Use existing campsites. Don't trample over new vegetation.
- Use designated fire rings and make certain your campfire is completely out before you leave.
- Dispose of human waste properly. If your camper has no "facilities" you must pack out toilet paper and hygiene products and bury solid waste at least 8 inches underground and 200 ft. away from your tent, water and trails.
- Dirty dishwater, urine and other liquid waste should also be kept 200 ft. away from the campsite, water and trails.
- Use biodegradable soaps, shampoos or detergents. These are available at most camping supply stores.
- Respect the wildlife. Do not disturb, follow, feed or approach wild animals...ever!
- Please refrain from playing loud music or making other disruptive noise.
Other Great Stuff To Do...
In addition to top notch camping, there are many super fun things to do in the immediate area. You may feel like you are in the middle of nowhere, when in fact, you are a mere 20 miles from the 2 charming towns of Big Sky and West Yellowstone, Montana.
Big Sky, Montana
Continue a bit further north on HWY 191 and you will arrive at the peaceful resort town of Big Sky. Big Sky is a ski town and a popular winter destination, but I have never seen Big Sky crowded in the summer. This doesn't really make sense because there are many, many things to do in Big Sky, in the summer, such as:
- Horseback riding: Jake's Horses (406) 995-4630(406) 995-4630(406) 995-4630(406) 995-4630, Lone Mountain Ranch (406) 995-4644(406) 995-4644(406) 995-4644(406) 995-4644, Cedar Mountain Corrals (406) 539-4065(406) 539-4065(406) 539-4065(406) 539-4065, 320 Guest Ranch (800) 243-0320(800) 243-0320(800) 243-0320(800) 243-0320.
- Whitewater rafting: Geyser Whitewater Expeditions (800) 914-9031(800) 914-9031(800) 914-9031(800) 914-9031, Montana Whitewater Raft Company (800) 799-4465(800) 799-4465(800) 799-4465(800) 799-4465.
- Fly fishing: Wild Trout Outfitters (406) 995-2975(406) 995-2975(406) 995-2975(406) 995-2975, East Slope Outdoors (406) 995-4369(406) 995-4369(406) 995-4369(406) 995-4369
- Free Outdoor Live Music Festival (July -September) in the Big Sky Town Center, every Thursday night at 7pm. For more information call (406) 995-2742(406) 995-2742(406) 995-2742(406) 995-2742.
- More free live music at Choppers Grub and Pub in the Town Center starting at 10pm Thursday nights and 9:30 pm on Saturday nights, for more information cal (406) 995-3830(406) 995-3830(406) 995-3830(406) 995-3830
- Golf: Big Sky Public Golf Course: (406) 995-5780(406) 995-5780(406) 995-5780(406) 995-5780.
- Thrills and Chills at the Big Sky Resort Base Camp: ZIpline, High Ropes Course, Climbing Wall, Bungee Trampoline, Paintball/ Laser Tag, Skeet Shooting, Archery, Disc Golf and more. Call (406) 995-5769(406) 995-5769(406) 995-5769(406) 995-5769.
- Mountain Biking: Rentals and rates at (406) 995-5769(406) 995-5769(406) 995-5769(406) 995-5769.
- Enjoy a therapeutic massage at Ozssage Spa. Call (406) 995-7575(406) 995-7575(406) 995-7575(406) 995-7575.
- There are also many hiking trails such as the Ousel Falls Trail. For more information about Big Sky, MT call the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center (406) 995-3000(406) 995-3000(406) 995-3000(406) 995-3000 or go to www.bigskychamber.com.
- Big Sky also has several great dining options. Stop by Bugaboo Cafe for a fantistic breakfast (406) 995-3350(406) 995-3350(406) 995-3350(406) 995-3350 or Choppers Grub and Pub for a Huckleberry Lemonade cocktail and a killer bison burger (406) 995-3830(406) 995-3830(406) 995-3830(406) 995-3830.
- If you are looking for hotel accommodations in Big Sky, I recommend the River Rock Lodge (406) 995-4455(406) 995-4455(406) 995-4455(406) 995-4455/ toll free (866) 995-4455(866) 995-4455(866) 995-4455(866) 995-4455.
- Try Priceline, Expedia or Kayak for information about flights and hotel accommodations in Montana.
West Yellowstone, Montana
I mentioned West Yellowstone earlier because they are home to the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, a non-profit wildlife park and educational facility. My children and I love this place. Not only do you get to see some incredible animals, but you can learn heaps about bear and wolf behavior and more.
This is not a zoo, these animals were all rescued for one reason or another. With or without kids, don't miss the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center: www.grizzlydiscoveryctr.com.
Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center
Hopefully, I have laid it all out clearly. I am not suggesting for one minute that you miss Yellowstone National Park. I just wouldn't want you to spend your entire vacation battling the crowds when you are just a few miles away from a veritable sanctuary.
Whatever you decide to do, I hope that you enjoy your trip to one of the most spectacular places on earth!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.