Bozeman, Montana: Gateway to Yellowstone

The skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex stands outside the Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University in Bozeman.

A Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton stands outside Bozeman’s Museum of the Rockies. (BG)

Ask our favorite city in the state of Montana, and we don’t have to think twice. It’s Bozeman, in the Gallatin Valley just 80 miles north of Yellowstone National Park.

The presence of Montana State University, the largest school in the state, has helped to make Bozeman a liberal enclave in an otherwise conservative region, with an economy driven as much by its ranches as by tourism. Its 16,000 students represent a huge slice of the 44,000 people who call the city home.

The central eight blocks of Main Street in Bozeman, Montana,, is well known for its shops and restaurants.

Main Street is filled with fine shops and restaurants. (BG)

Located on Interstate 90 at an elevation of 4,800 feet, Bozeman has a fine selection of lodgings, restaurants and lounges, plus ready accessibility to outdoor recreation, from skiing and kayaking to fishing and hunting.

Unique shops and restaurants, coffee bars and brewpubs line both sides of Main Street for eight blocks, climaxed by the historic, seven-story Baxter Hotel. Built in Art Deco style in 1929, the Baxter is now a residential and commercial property. Although we couldn’t stay there, we found two great places nearby.

Where to sleep and eat

Back in the 1960s, the 38-room LARK Bozeman was an Imperial 400 inn. New owners kept the Streamline-era design during a lengthy renovation, and reopened in 2015 with a thoroughly modern look.

The Lark hotel stands on Main Street in downtown Bozeman, Montana.

The Lark Bozeman Hotel. (BG)

A map room just off the lobby desk offers assistance to visitors looking for hiking and sightseeing options in the area, and a large Victory Taco outlet in a vintage Spartan trailer stands just outside the front door. A 29-room expansion is scheduled for completion in summer 2018.

The Element by Westin is a new five-story hotel, one block north of Main Street, built to eco-friendly standards. In addition to a modern fitness center and swimming pool, it loans bicycles to guests who want to get around the local area without driving. There’s a complimentary breakfast bar, an outdoor barbecue patio, and kitchenettes for those who want to do their own cooking.

Open Range is a popular restaurant in downtown Bozeman, Montana.

Diners join drinkers at Open Range. (BG)

But downtown fine-dining choices are legion. The duck at Open Range was some of the best I’ve had anywhere; it was served on a semolina gnocchi cake with mushrooms, kale and roasted tomato. Barb felt the same about her pork chop with chimichurri sauce and crispy Brussels sprouts.

A night earlier, in the basement digs of the Copper Whiskey Bar & Grill, the steak was amazing. Another highly recommended Main Street restaurant, Bisl Food, has great vegetables and ramen bowls. Breakfast at the side-street, Cajun-style Cateye Café provided a spice-driven recovery from a later-than-usual night at a couple of live-music venues.

Two centuries of history

The Gallatin Valley, where Bozeman is located, was originally a homeland of the Crow Nation. William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition passed through in 1806 on his homeward journey from Fort Clatsop, but no settlement was established until 1864. That was when adventurer John Bozeman extended his namesake Bozeman Trail as a branch of the Oregon Trail, leading to the Montana gold-mining boomtown of Virginia City.

Yellowstone was established as the world’s first national park in 1872, and the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived in 1883. From a depot in Livingston, 25 miles east of Bozeman, intrepid tourists could travel by horse or stagecoach south to Fort Yellowstone, near Mammoth Hot Springs. When the Union Pacific built a link in 1908 from Bozeman to West Yellowstone, park traffic reached into the tens of thousands. Today more than 4 million visitors from all over the world explore the great park, many of them through the Bozeman gateway.

The American Computer & Robotics Museum, in Bozeman, Montana, is the oldest of its kind.

Gallery of computers at Bozeman museum. (BG)

The Gallatin History Museum, a few steps from downtown, recalls the region’s history in exhibits that include a relocated log cabin from the 1870s, a model of an old fort, jail cells and a hanging gallows.

The American Computer & Robotics Museum, in a small industrial park near the university, will intrigue all ages. Tracing the history of communication — from Cro-Magnon cave paintings and Babylonian clay tablets to an original Apple I computer (signed by creator Steve Wozniak) and NASA space guidance systems — this fascinating small museum has something for everyone. I especially appreciated its recounting of the evolution of the internet, up to the present day.

Prehistoric discoveries

Bozeman’s leading attraction is the Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University. One of America’s pre-eminent collections of dinosaur bones is contained within its walls, including 13 full skeletons of Tyrannosaurus rex, more than anywhere else on earth. All of them were discovered in and around eastern Montana, due in part to the efforts of the university’s world-renowned paleontology studies program.

The museum is more than just dinosaurs. It incorporates a state-of-the-art planetarium, galleries on regional history and nearby Yellowstone National Park, a children’s discovery center and a living-history farm. A traveling exhibit on Julius Caesar’s military genius will be replaced in May by a summer-long show titled “Guitar: The Instrument that Rocked the World.”

The skeleton of a Deinonychus at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana.

Deinonychus, perfectly preserved. (BG)

But the single best reason to visit is the Siebel Dinosaur Complex. It is highlighted by its sheer number of T. rex and Triceratops skeletons, including a study of their growth and presumed behaviors, from hatched eggs to fearsome adults. The Siebel Complex also includes a public-viewing window on a working laboratory, where fossil specimens are extracted from rock and prepared for study.

Most of the fossils date from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, about 200 million to 65 million years ago. They include:

Maiasaurus, a herbivorous duck-billed dinosaur and Montana’s official state fossil;

Deinonychus, a North American cousin of Velociraptor, the small but vicious carnivore that terrified viewers of the “Jurassic Park” movies;

Oryctodromeus, a burrowing dinosaur that cared for its young in underground dens; and

Plesiosaurus, a large marine reptile that ruled the inland seas when ocean waters covered the Great Plains.

T. rex lives here

It’s the Tyrannosaurus rex that is truly exceptional. The world’s largest dinosaur (its name, translated from Latin, means “tyrant lizard king”) once roamed the Great Plains east of the Rockies.

Tyrannosaurus rex at Bozeman's Museum of the Rockies.

Tyrannosaurus rex towers over visitors at the Museum of the Rockies. (BG)

The largest specimen, known as “Montana’s T. rex,” lives up to its reputation with enormous, razor-sharp teeth and claws. It stands 12 feet tall and 40 feet from nose to tail. Paleontologists estimate that it would have weighed nearly seven tons. This was one of 31 dinosaurs discovered in a four-year period, before and after 2000, in the Hell Creek Formation on Fort Peck Reservoir in far northeast Montana.

That dig also yielded Catherine B. rex, whose soft tissue and flexible blood vessels survived 68 million years after the creature’s demise — and created new interest in paleo-microbiology. The new revelations have led to speculation that dinosaurs, like their modern descendants, birds, may have been covered not just with tough skin but with colorful features, as fancifully demonstrated in re-creations.

Back in 1983, Montana State University scientists unearthed Maiasaurus eggs, some with babies nearby, in the Rocky Mountain foothills south of Glacier National Park. That has helped paleontologists to make judgments about the reptiles’ parenting skills and to build lifelike dioramas of family groups.

Could it be that the cloning of dinosaurs is not as much of a stretch of imagination as one might wish to believe?


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