Perched on the western edge of Yellowstone National Park, the town of West Yellowstone serves as a gateway to millions of Yellowstone visitors each year. But West, as it is affectionately known, is more than just a Gateway Town, it’s a destination in itself.
Check out these five ways to enjoy fall in West Yellowstone (plus a bonus!).
Hike Through Autumn Colors
The aspens and cottonwoods have turned shades of yellow and gold, while the willows are a vibrant red. There’s no better time than fall to wander along West’s rivers and through it copses. Look for a trail near a river or creek for the most spectacular colors.
This is a short walk along the Madison River where the colors are out of this world. On the uphill slope, aspens flutter in the breeze (until their leaves drop) and the riparian zone is covered in gold and red willows and other shrubs. The trail leaves from the east end of the small parking area, next to the vault toilet.
You’ll have to really look for the Ghost Village, most of the buildings destroyed in the 1959 Hebgen Lake Earthquake are now underwater or broken down. Across the river, a few cabins poke through the brush, and about 0.5 miles down the trail there is another cabin uphill. (See the Scenic Drive section for more on the earthquake.)
This is a very popular place for fishing since the “Big Browns” spawn from Quake Lake to the gravel beds just below the Hebgen Lake dam. (See the Fish Big Brown Trout section below.)
Getting There: Drive north on US 191 for 8.2 miles. Turn left on US 287 and continue for 13.9 miles to Ghost Village Road. Turn left and drive on the gravel, pothole-filled road until the end, about 1.3 miles.
From the trailhead walk east along the power line on the very flat and very straight Access Trail. The trail is even wider now since fire fighting equipment came through in the summer of 2016. At 0.25 miles you’ll pass a trail register and at 1.0 mile you’ll reach the junction with the Downriver and Upriver Loops.
Downriver Loop: Veer left at the junction and head down the hill towards the Madison River. You’ll cross an open meadow and then wind along the Madison River for 1.3 miles until the trail loops back to the top of the hill. Watch for the orange markers on the trees. It is another 1.0 mile to the Access Trail.
Upriver Loop: Head to the right on the road briefly, looking for the trail through the trees on the left. The trails winds through lodgepoles on a bench above the river. At about 0.5 miles drop down a steep 60 yards. In another 0.3 miles you’ll reach the Madison River. The trail follows the river downstream to the end of the loop and a mellow climb back to the bench where you’ll meet the Access Trail.
Getting There: The trails start on the east side of Boundary Street between Yellowstone and Madison Avenues. Look for the trail sign.
Fish Big Brown Trout
Kelly Almond at Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop told me, “We wait all year for fall.” That’s because the fishing is so good. Big Brown Trout spawn out of Hebgen Lake and up the Madison River.
“The rivers are so full of fish,” Almond said. “Look for deep runs and you’ll find the fish.”
People come from all over the world to fish Big Browns, so maybe you should, too. The Madison River inside or outside the park is teeming with fish, as is the section of river between Quake Lake and the Hebgen Lake dam (see Ghost Village hike above).
Walk Through History
I don’t want to spoil it for you, but most of West has burned down at one point or another. The buildings were constructed out of local wood, which is apparently quite flammable. Combine that with no central fire hydrants and the town was a real tinderbox.
Times have changed, but you can take a walk through history with the West Yellowstone Historic Walking Tour. You will also learn how important the railroad was to the development of this town. Don’t miss the Oregon Short Line – a fancy rail car you can walk through.
Pick up free Historic Tour Map at the visitor center, many places around town, or download it here.
Tip: Most of the stores have their summer stock on sale right now. Pop into shops on your walking tour if you like a bargain.
Scenic Drive to Quake Lake
It’s no secret that the West Yellowstone area is gorgeous! Take a scenic drive along Hebgen and Quake Lakes for stunning views and a history lesson. Start the Auto Tour just past the junction of US 191 and US 287 at the East Portal.
In 1959, Montana experienced its largest earthquake—the Hebgen Lake Earthquake. The resulting landslide moved at 100 mph and in less than one minute, over 80 million tons of rock crashed into the narrow canyon, blocking the Madison River and forming Earthquake Lake. This earthquake caused 28 fatalities and about $11 million in damage to highways and timber.
Unfortunately, the Earthquake Lake Visitor Center is only open from the end of May through the end of September, but the stops along the Auto Tour will give you a good overview of the event. From the fault scarp, to Refuge Point, to Ghost Village (see hike above), to Earthquake Lake itself, filled with standing ghost trees.
We stopped at the gate in front of the visitor center anyway. You can walk up to a great overlook and a relief map of the canyon. Farther up the hill you’ll find a memorial rock and even better view in both directions.
Download the Auto Tour brochure here.
Eat at Year Round Restaurants
Some restaurants close for winter, but there are plenty that stay open year round. A stroll around town will reveal many of them, but here are a few of our favorites.
Running Bear Pancake House – All day breakfast and lunch, plus espresso bar and boxed lunches. 538 Madison Avenue.
Ernie’s Bakery and Deli – Breakfast and lunch, boxed lunches and catering.
Slippery Otter – Lunch and dinner, lots of beer to choose from.
Wild West Pizzeria and Saloon - Lunch and dinner, live music in the adjacent saloon.
Bonus: Tour Yellowstone National Park
I know I said you didn't need to see Yellowstone National Park to appreciate West Yellowstone, but as long as you are there, take advantage of the waning crowds in the park. Drive yourself or take one of the many wildlife tours leaving from West. You can find lots of info on what to do in Yellowstone on this site.
I recommend visiting Two Ribbons, Harlequin Lake, Monument Geyser, and Artists Paintpots; Norris Geyser Basin; West Thumb Geyser Basin; the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone; or some combination of those places.
Or check out one of our guidebooks for even more details.
Are you convinced to enjoy fall in West Yellowstone?
By the way, West is fun year round. Check out our video to see why.