Up the Yellowstone River and Back

a drive to dine, soak, hike, and dine again

Eager for a day-long road trip that includes stunning scenery, opportunities for adventure, and tasty food? Roll down U.S. Highway 89 towards Yellowstone National Park through Paradise Valley, as a friend and I recently did.

It’s a Sunday morning in Livingston, Montana, and we are late getting going on a dining and soaking excursion. The delay sharpens our hunger and deepens our desire for a cup of coffee, so we put the pedal to the metal once we’re in the car. Our first destination: Pine Creek Lodge Café located in the community of Pine Creek near Pine Creek. As one may conclude, a forest of stately pine trees grows there.

Five miles south of Livingston we turn left onto East River Road, which immediately crosses the Yellowstone, the longest undammed river in the contiguous United States. Our eyes are peeled for ospreys and bald eagles. The jagged peaks ringing the valley are snow-capped and draped with clouds. The road winds along the base of the Absaroka Mountains, past cattle ranches and subdivisions. We agree: Paradise Valley suits its name.

PINE CREEK LODGE

The first thing you notice about Pine Creek Lodge (PCL) is its fabulous sign: a curved arrow adorned with light bulbs, it is one of the most original historical signs around. We enter the log building to find a jovial crowd. The soapstone woodstove in the middle of the room is unlit, but we are immediately warmed by the embrace of our dear friend who is on a twenty-four-hour date with her husband.

A young local musician named Weston Lewis is playing guitar and singing while diners brunch on delectable offerings from the music-themed menu: Neil Young, a classic breakfast; Nirvana, trout scramble; Led Zeppelin, breakfast burrito; and so on.

My friend orders Avocado Toast, which apparently is too new a concoction to deserve a rock band name. I order the Carlos Santana, huevos rancheros.

The entertainment history of Pine Creek dates back decades. Out back under the pine boughs and strings of lights, a stage and dance area play host to many a midsummer revel. Thankfully, the new owners of the lodge have not only embraced PCL’s legacy but upped the ante by booking bigger-name bands such as The Black Lillies, The Young Dubliners, and Blitzen Trapper.

The vibe of Pine Creek Lodge is homey and funky. The lodge was built in 1946. It once had a general store and a collection of quaint log guest cabins. After a fire, the cabins were replaced with shipping-container accommodations that are pleasantly arranged to form courtyards. Campsites are also available. In summer it’s a great spot to pop in for Montana’s own Wilcoxson’s Ice Cream with a slice of home-baked pie, or for a beer from Neptune’s Brewery of Livingston.

Sated and caffeinated, we hit the road. Although we had planned to stretch our legs, friends at the café informed us that the road to Pine Creek Falls trailhead is snow-covered and impassable. We opt out of a walk, but plan one for another day, because Pine Creek Falls is one of our favorites.

The trail winds through deep woods up the creek one mile to falls that reward you with cooling mist and a meditative place to eat lunch. If eager for a longer hike, then we would continue up to Pine Creek Lake, ascending 3,000 feet in four miles.

The Pine Creek Lodge features an historical sign.

YELLOWSTONE HOT SPRINGS

We cross back over the Yellowstone River at Emigrant Fishing Access as a pair of sandhill cranes flies overhead. The river offers world-class fly fishing and floating, though even without a rod or a boat it is worth a visit, and can be accessed at any number of locations throughout Paradise Valley. Like Pine Creek Falls, these sites make great picnic spots, so a traveler anticipating lunch outdoors should make a morning stop in Livingston at The Gourmet Cellar for charcuterie, cheese, wine, olives, crackers, and other accouterment such as a wine opener.

At Emigrant we rejoin Highway 89 and continue south. Twenty-five miles later we reach Yellowstone Hot Springs (YHS). Situated along the Yellowstone River, this newly constructed resort is on the location of the historic Corwin Springs Hotel (1909–16). We immediately notice the old “plunge” building that the owners hope to refurbish.

The plainness of the new buildings belies the beautifully landscaped grounds and elegance of the new hot spring amenity, which is terraced into pools holding water of varying temperature. Today the hot plunge is 105 degrees Fahrenheit, the cold plunge is sixty-two, and the main pool is 101–103.

As we relax in the hot pool, we scout the hillsides for elk. Summertime possibilities for the place include doing a “float and soak,” or swimming after an excursion to Yellowstone National Park, the northern entrance of which is only eight miles away. We learn that by then there will be a food truck on location and a deck for bands to play live music.

I’m curious about the health aspects of the geothermal mineral water, knowing that people the world over seek out hot springs for their healing properties. Yellowstone National Park sits atop the caldera of one of the world’s largest volcanoes. Otherwise known as a hot spot, it is overdue for a blast. This worries me not. I’m comforted by the fact that this water was heated by magma within the earth’s crust and is rich in exotic trace elements, many of which originated deep within the mantle. We are swimming in the essence of the earth.

The hillsides next to Yellowstone Hot Springs provide an opportunity to scout for elk.

We cross back over the Yellowstone River at Emigrant Fishing Access as a pair of sandhill cranes flies overhead.

YELLOWSTONE VALLEY GRILL

Feeling blissful, we head homeward and decide that there’s no place better to end our day than at the Yellowstone Valley Grill (YVG). Not only is the location sublime—the restaurant is situated on a ridgeline above the Yellowstone River facing the Absaroka Mountains—but the food and wine match the scenery. With its focus on farm-to-table fare, the restaurant is a favorite among locals and visitors alike.

We arrive as the sun is sinking behind the Gallatin Mountains and are eager to sit outdoors by the fire before dinner. It’s balmy but breezy, and we are optimistically underdressed, so we sit instead under the roof of the open-air dining room and order glasses of white wine: the 2017 De Wetshof Estate Limestone Hill Chardonnay and the 2017 Buty Winery Wildebeest. Both are light and crisp. I note that there is also an extensive craft beer selection.

The restaurant is bustling, having recently opened.

Marcos Mustain and Sari Mustain in the kitchen at Yellowstone Valley Grill.

Executive Chef Marcos Mustain and his partner, Sari Mustain, the sous chef and baker of pastries, spend some winter months traveling to exotic locales like Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Spain, and Thailand to learn new techniques, then delight diners with unfamiliar tastes each spring. As a result, they’ve earned cult status with local foodies.

Our feast begins with delicate sashimi of Loch Etive trout, mahi mahi and bigeye tuna served with house-pickled ginger and home-brewed tamari. We share the arugula salad with figs and locally made chevre. A second glass of wine appears as alpenglow turns the mountains pink. Great Horned owls nesting in a nearby evergreen hoot to call in the night.

Dinner is served at an appropriately leisurely pace, so we have time to tell stories and watch our friends’ adorable two-year-old girl run around. In this way, YVG is family-friendly fine dining. It is also a lodge that offers contemporary cabins for rent and an in-house guide service with Montana Fly Fishing Guides.

The rotating charcuterie appetizer at Yellowstone Valley Grill includes house-made chorizo served with royal red shrimp, local bumblebee tomatoes, and roasted corn in a tequila-lime butter sauce.

A second glass of wine appears as alpenglow turns the mountains pink. Great Horned owls nesting in a nearby evergreen hoot to call in the night.

Local spring creek trout is listed on the menu, but we chose Braised Wolfridge Lamb Shank and Indian Spice Rubbed Chicken. I can’t identify some of the spices in the chicken and Mustain tells me it’s a very twisted dish, with a combination of Sri Lankan and Spanish flair. He calls his style “FrAsian,” as it combines his training in French cuisine with his knowledge of Asian food. My succulent lamb dish has a hint of Thailand.

We do our best, but are unable to finish. Yet just for good measure we taste Grandma Mildred’s Almond Brittle. It’s a sweet ending to a sublime day.

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