By area, Montana is the fourth largest state in the US, yet ranks forty-third by population.
On its own, this US Census data explains a few of the reasons people love Montana: Here, there are far more small towns than there are large cities and, regardless of size, most of these areas are separated by vast tracts of wide open space.
More notably yet, out of the 129 towns and cities that make up Montana, only seven are home to populations that exceed 10,000 people. This means that if you were to pull out a map of Montana and pick a random destination, there’s a 95% chance you’d end up in a small town. While seemingly scattered all over the state, several of these quaint towns lie in striking distance from Bozeman, each with their own uniquely charming draws.
Manhattan: The Little Apple
Situated just 10 miles west of the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, Manhattan is a great place to spend the day fishing (even in the winter), and is also home to one of the best steak dinners you’ll find anywhere. This small town sits further from the mountains than neighboring communities, so Manhattan’s winter temperatures are typically some of the mildest in the Gallatin Valley. Favorable weather, combined with its close proximity to both the east and west branches of the Gallatin River, makes this small town a beyond-ideal winter fishing destination.
After fishing, head to Sir Scott’s Oasis for one of, if not the best, steak dinner experiences in Montana. The word “experience” is relevant here because once seated, patrons of the Oasis are treated to a distinct flavor of old-school Western hospitality that is incredibly rare to find in the 21st century. A homemade relish plate, soup, salad, crackers, sundae and coffee come standard with every dinner here, and the staff is always intent on making sure nobody leaves without having enough to eat.
If the sun hasn’t gone down by the time you’ve had your fill of fishing and food, take the long way home by going south out of town, toward the tiny communities of Amsterdam and Churchill. This scenic route will take you through working agricultural land, over rolling hills and through draws steep and narrow enough that you’ll forget you’ve been in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains all day long.
Ennis: The Old West, Today
Made famous in the modern era by its proximity to the Madison River, the sub-1,000 resident town of Ennis is only an hour away from Bozeman. That might sound like a longer period of time than you’d ordinarily like to spend in a car, but the drive itself is far from ordinary. The quickest route from Bozeman to Ennis follows the Lower Madison River as it meanders through steep cliff walls and fields lined with sagebrush and prickly pear. It’s a desert landscape that is more commonly associated with the Southwest than the Northern Rockies.
As the road leaves the Madison, it begins following a creek filled with geologically heated water to its origin, at Norris Hot Springs (AKA Water of the Gods). The main hot spring here is improved and open for business. It’s a great place to take a soak and have a healthy lunch, complemented by one of many local beers they have on tap. Once rejuvenated, it’s time to head over a steep mountain pass and into quaint downtown Ennis.
With many of its buildings donning classic false-front architecture and covered walkways, you’ll feel like you’re in the Old West when you’re in Ennis, because you are. While you’re there, you can check out a real working distillery (Willie’s), shop for souvenirs in one of the many downtown shops or just take in the stunning views of the Madison mountain range from a quiet park while the family runs around town.
If you hop on I-90 in Bozeman, a short, spectacular 25-mile drive eastward will bring you into the old railroad town of Livingston. This quick journey takes travelers through the Bridger mountains by way of historic Bozeman Pass, the same route Sacajawea led William Clark and his men on to explore the Yellowstone River, in 1802.
Built in 1902, the Livingston Train Depot is one of Montana’s best examples of living history, and a must-visit for anyone remotely interested in train travel. The depot was originally built as a method of bringing people into Yellowstone National Park and, although no longer operational, the building’s original intent lives on in spirit, as thousands of travelers use Livingston as a launching point into Yellowstone every year.
To this day, downtown Livingston’s historic architecture showcases remnants of the wealth held by the Northern Pacific Railroad at the turn of the 19th century. Here, century-old brick and stone buildings line the streets, which is rare to see in small-town Montana. The buildings are still home to dozens of thriving restaurants, shops and hotels, and most businesses have preserved much of the original interior architecture, making it easy to imagine what it would be like if you were on the same small-town day trip, 100 years ago.
Interesting US Census Data (2010):
Montana has: 129 towns
72 with fewer than 1,000 people
96 with fewer than 2,000
113 with fewer than 5,000
122 with fewer than 10,000
126 with fewer than 50,000
128 with fewer than 100,000