A Guide to Livingston, Montana, the Literary Town on the Yellowstone River

A Guide to Livingston, Montana, the Literary Town on the Yellowstone River

Nestled between the rugged Crazy and Absaroka mountain ranges on the banks of the Yellowstone River in southwestern Montana, the former railroad town of Livingston, founded in 1882, has lost none of its quintessential Old West ambience. But today its population of 7,000 includes a disproportionate number of artists and writers in addition to ranchers. Margot Kidder and Jim Harrison called Livingston home, and Thomas McGuane and Jeff Bridges still live nearby. While the wind sometimes blows in 60-mile-per-hour gusts in the spring, and the winters are brutal, Livingston’s natural setting can’t be beat: The low-slung 19th-century brick buildings that line the town’s Main Street give way to a breathtaking view of Livingston Peak, which towers above the horizon to the south.

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With Yellowstone National Park just an hour’s drive away, Livingston is a perfect base camp for hikers, and the town’s fishing guides make it their business to know every curve of the Yellowstone River. But the park’s mountains, streams and forests also play an integral role in the wild, eclectic art found in the community’s myriad galleries and boutiques. Considering Livingston’s lively restaurants, Old West architecture and three charming, well-stocked bookstores, visitors could be forgiven for opting to stay firmly within the town limits.

Located directly across from the town’s train depot, built by the Northern Pacific Railroad to greet visitors to Yellowstone National Park, the Murray Hotel, opened in 1904, has always occupied the heart of Livingston. Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane stayed here when Livingston was still a Wild West honky-tonk town; the film director Sam Peckinpah lived on the third floor in the late 1970s and ’80s. In the lobby, guests can see much of the hotel’s history on display in photographs and artifacts, and ride in the still-functioning hand-cranked Otis elevator. The property’s owners, Dan and Kathleen Kaul, who bought the Murray in 1991, have completed extensive renovations to the 25 rooms, which have a cozy old-world feel.

Halfway between Livingston and Yellowstone National Park lie the Chico Hot Springs, established in 1900 and known for their healing waters. Before the Gold Rush, Native American tribes such as the Crow, Flathead and Blackfeet frequented the pools, and later the area became a bathing spot, with two wooden tubs, for gold miners. These days, Chico — owned by husband and wife Colin and Seabring Davis — also has various lodging options: Guests can stay in a restored railroad caboose or one of eight luxury cabins on the hill, or camp in a Conestoga wagon. The best part of staying on the property is the opportunity to bathe in the natural mineral hot springs and take in the view of the majestic 10,900-foot Emigrant Peak in the morning, before the crowds arrive.

This cozy craftsman-style bed-and-breakfast is run by Mick Burlington and Donald Zanoff, a local couple who built and designed the property with help from their friends. Burlington is a popular two-step instructor, and Zanoff is a keen equestrian. Accordingly, A Stone’s Throw pays homage to the cowboy way with class: Most of the artworks that decorate the property’s walls were made by friends and have a western theme, and Zanoff picked up much of the furniture, and a few wagon wheels, from a ranch in Wyoming where he once worked. Burlington, meanwhile, serves up elaborate breakfasts at a large pine table equipped with a lazy susan that he built himself.

With the endorsements of famous gourmands such as the late chef and television host Anthony Bourdain and the writer Jim Harrison, the Bistro has long been on the nation’s culinary map. Chef Brian Menges took over the old Murray Hotel diner in 2004 and remade it as a fine-dining restaurant with an extensive wine list. Inspired by French cuisine, but not stuffy — Menges jokes that he was once a regional manager for the family restaurant chain Perkins — the Bistro’s classic fare makes the most of local beef, chicken and lamb and produce from the restaurant’s nearby farm. You can sometimes find Menges next door in the Murray Bar, which he also runs, drinking cheap beer and telling stories about Tony or Jimmy.

Mustang’s seasonal, rotating dinner menu highlights Montana ingredients like Yellowstone Grassfed Beef and Flathead cherries. At lunch, the intimate cafe offers upscale deli-style food, including the chef’s famous chicken potpies and a bison meatloaf sandwich. The owner, Carole Sullivan, has been cooking for Livingston’s celebrities since she opened a catering business in 1997, but she transformed Mustang into a restaurant in 2001. Locals Michael Keaton and Jeff Bridges still call Sullivan to cook for their parties, but these days she takes fewer catering gigs. Reservations are recommended.

Locals call this popular breakfast and lunch spot “Destination Pancake.” Stop in for strong coffee, fresh-squeezed orange juice and bacon and eggs after a night of dancing in one of Livingston’s bars. Chef Morgan Milton, looking for a change of pace from the frenzied world of fine dining, took over the business in 2013. He kept the name — a nickname of the former owner, the musician Rich “Pinky” Ruggles — but redesigned the space, which used to house dozens of plastic flamingos. Now the aesthetic evokes a modern farmhouse, and the kitchen serves what Milton calls “creative comfort food.” The pancakes are a particular favorite of the local writer Walter Kirn.

Friends Kristi Reed and Jessi Konley started their collective store in 2016 to provide a shared work and retail space for female artisans and entrepreneurs. Konley sews unique leather bags from salvaged fabrics and materials like old western blankets, vintage chenille brocade and elk hide. Reed has an eye for vintage clothing, and she has amassed a considerable selection of pieces, including high-waisted Wrangler jeans, flower-print dresses and Pendleton flannels. At the back of the shop, Reed’s sister-in-law, Jordan Reed Boyd, a former ballerina, sews custom leotards and swimsuits, and the stained-glass artist Katie Sisum sells handblown glass art inspired by Yellowstone.

Livingston still supports three bookstores. Elk River, run by the poet Marc Beaudin and journalist Andrea Peacock, occupies a bright storefront on Main Street that the landscape painter Russell Chatham formerly used as his studio, and keeps an unrivaled collection of books by local and Western writers. Peruse the Montana section, up front, with juice or tea from Wheatgrass Saloon, the raw vegan juice bar located in the back of the store. On Thursday nights, readings, lectures and concerts take place in an upstairs gallery.

Kathryn Bornemann, the owner of this shop for funky, midcentury western décor, has filled the place with eclectic estate jewelry, vintage hats, old signs, salvaged taxidermy, teapots, furniture and other rare finds. Among Bornemann’s treasures are a pair of 100-year-old locomotive horns and a tin of unopened Copenhagen snuff from 1907. The display cases hold vintage turquoise rings and bracelets, pocket watches, lockets and Livingston’s finest selection of bolo ties.

The painter Parks Reece moved his gallery to this brick building on Main Street in 2001, and it has shared the space with the Livingston Center for Art and Culture ever since. While the latter strives to provide affordable locally made art and a community gallery space, Reece’s gallery displays his own paintings, which tend toward Montana-style surrealism. Recent works include “Live Bait,” in which a huge trout threatens to eat a fisherman, and “Adam and Eve Tour Yellowstone,” a lithograph depicting two nude figures riding in a trout’s mouth.

When William Clark camped along the Yellowstone River in 1806, he wrote in his journal that the river was “wide, bold, rapid and deep.” Today the Yellowstone, the longest undammed river in the United States, remains a fisherman’s paradise despite increasing pressure from recreation, floodplain development and climate change. In the summer, rafts and drift boats dot the river from the Emigrant fishing access site to Springdale. One of Livingston’s several guide shops can outfit a visitor for an excursion and connect prospective fishermen with one of the town’s many guides. Some of the most sought-after guides work out of Sweetwater Fly Shop, just outside of town on U.S. 89 South, or Dan Bailey’s, a longstanding fly shop on Park Street downtown. When the water is low enough, local kids still float down the river in old black inner tubes bought from tire shops for $15. Visitors can rent rafts, kayaks, paddleboards and other watercraft from Rubber Ducky River Rentals.

On the way from Livingston to Yellowstone National Park, visitors pass through the Paradise Valley — an enclave of celebrity homes and still-functioning cattle ranches that families homesteaded just after the Civil War. Much of the land above the valley bottom lies in the 944,000-acre Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness; to get a taste of the area, stop about nine miles south of Livingston in Pine Creek, still the site of a one-room schoolhouse, and hike to the Pine Creek waterfall. The wilderness is a study in careful post-fire forest regeneration and — if you hit it just right in early summer — it’s rife with huckleberries to snack on.

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