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Journey Through Paradise

Yellowstone River. Paradise Valley, Montana, 2023.

On nearly every trip to Yellowstone National Park, I enter through the Northwest entrance just past Gardiner, Montana. It is the quickest way to the park from Washington State, via Interstate 90. And while still some fourteen hours, it is a straight shot and, once out of Seattle, has little traffic and some really beautiful scenery. And towards the end, you have that endless Montana Big-Sky Country!

Sentinels! Paradise Valley, Montana, 2023.

Still a long drive, but I can break that into multiple days. On this last journey to Yellowstone, I was in a hurry to get to the park and drove for ten-plus hours, and then just collapsed in a roadside motel. I didn’t have an extended period to be away, and I had planned on two full days to get there, two days in the park, and then the same for the drive home. Not much time, but I needed time away, even if just for a brief period. The beauty was that by driving longer, I was able to get on the road early and get an extra half day in Southwest Montana among the mountains, ranchland, bears, sheep, bison, and other wildlife.

Bighorn! Paradise Valley, Montana, 2023.

When I finally exited 90 in Livingston, Montana, I drove south along Highway 89 for fifty-three miles along the Yellowstone River to Gardiner, and then into the park. That area from Livingston to Yankee Jim Canyon, fifteen miles north of Gardiner, is Paradise Valley. The Valley is flanked by the Absaroka Range on the east and the Gallatin Range on the west.

Last Barrier! Paradise Valley, Montana, 2023.

As the name implies, Paradise Valley is beautiful, scenic, and awe-inspiring. A true gateway to our first national park, and the route taken by early Yellowstone expeditions and the only recognized route into the park when it was established in 1872.

With almost all of my previous trips through this area, it was either snowing heavily, or with grey rain falling, or I was just too anxious to get to my final destination. Not this time! My most recent trip through the valley was beautiful. The sun was peeking over the mountains, turning the fields to gold, and highlighting elk, sheep, and cattle. The sun on the snow in the high peaks was glistening, and white pelicans in the Yellowstone River were radiant as well. I still wanted to get to the park, but it was such a special morning and I vowed to take my time and explore this phenomenal location on my way home.

Osprey along the Yellowstone River. Paradise Valley, Montana, 2023.

In the park, I had early spring whiteouts of snow, light rain showers, turbulent skies and clouds, cold mornings in the twenties and warm to hot afternoons in the sixties and high seventies.

White Pelicans on the Yellowstone River. Paradise Valley, Montana, 2023.

On my last morning I got up a half-hour early (forty-eight degrees and a ripping wind), counted on the extra hour I would get from Pacific Mountain Time (vs. Pacific Time back in Bellingham), and looked forward to exploring Paradise Valley in depth. I started with hot chocolate and sticky buns at the Wild Flour Bakery and Café in Emigrant Montana, and then I started to look for back roads and scenic stops along the river. Most of the Valley is private land, but there are some scenic drives if you look for them. They are worth investigating.

Road to Paradise! Paradise Valley, Montana, 2023.

I had never before seen this valley in the stunning beauty of early morning light, and each mile driven, and at each stop, I was enraptured by the beauty surrounding me. Clouds massing over the mountain passes, herds of elk, bighorns along the ridgetops, hawks and owls in the trees, and those pelicans floating passively in the currents and basking along the Yellowstone shoreline. What a spectacular morning to be alive and present in all of this vastness and beauty.

Sentinel II! Paradise Valley, Montana, 2023.

All too soon, my internal alarms sounded reminding me that I needed to be heading home. It hit eighty-nine degrees in Post Falls, Idaho, I hit rush-hour traffic in Seattle… but I kept right on smiling. My car and body were back but my mind and spirit were still in Paradise.


· Montana & Wildlife – The state is simply beautiful, and it has so much to offer visitors. For someone like me wh0 is looking to photograph wonderful landscapes and wildlife, Montana has more than 1,000 grizzly bears, 1,100 wolves, 15,000 black bears (and more than 150,000 horses). Alaska has more, some 14,780 to 17,780 wolves, and more than 30,000 grizzly, black and polar bears – but they can be much harder to see in Alaska due to its size – you could fit Montana into Alaska four times!

· Montana & Tourism – Nearly one-third of Montana is public land, and with more than 12 million visitors annually (2021 data) spending $5.15 billion and supporting more than 47,000 jobs, tourism is one of Montana’s leading industries (the estimated total contribution of nonresident spending to Montana’s economy was $7.56 billion in 2021). Montana’s outdoor recreation industry contributed $2.6 billion to the economy in 2021, and a fun fact, the television series “Yellowstone” brought more than two million visitors and $730 million to Montana in 2021.

· Locals & Tourists – Like so many states, the feeling towards tourists is mixed in Montana (and Idaho, Wyoming, eastern Washington, and Oregon, and almost every other state). While so many depend on the tourism industry, others just feel like they are being invaded. That their way of life is being threatened. Growing up in the east, this was the case for decades in West Virginia, when my friends and I were paddling, skiing, caving, and most of the local economy remained locked into coal development (it was the first, and only, time I was ever yelled at and called a vegetarian communist!). Montana is similar, known as the “Treasure State” since the 1860’s for all the gold, sapphires, coal, and oil buried in the ground. But times are changing, and the gas and oil industry delivered (in 2021) approximately $1.7 billion in income, and supplied some 28,000 jobs (compared to $5 billion income and 47,000 jobs for tourism). The purpose here is to provide some insight and history for those planning to visit … well anywhere! As with any exploration, do your homework before you go. Understand local customs, beliefs and history. Be nice! Don’t trespass on private lands, don’t randomly express your political and religious views. Do tell people why you are visiting and how much you love their home state. Make friends if you have the opportunity. This is the best way to build tourism and guarantee your next visit is even better.

· Many of the statistics I found came from a really good article at Not only does it provide great data, but is also offers additional clues on how to make friends, not enemies, for your next trip to Montana.

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