Ah, Bozeman. My own college town, and a spot regularly recognized as one of the best small towns in America. Despite its meager population, it has so much to offer, including endless outdoor opportunities: downhill and cross-country skiing, hiking, mountain biking, snowshoeing, kayaking, rafting, the list just goes on and on.
One of the things I loved most about living in Bozeman was how connected you feel to nature, especially the mountains. The Bridger Range is only ten minutes from downtown, and the east side of town has a network of trails that weave their way through a number of green spaces.
And what better to complement all that activity than top-notch coffee shops, local breweries, and restaurants boasting (often vegetarian-friendly!) farm-to-table fare? It’s impossible to fit all of Bozeman into a short trip, but if you have just a few days, this itinerary will give you the best it has to offer – whether you visit in the summer or winter.
Of course, if you hate the outdoors, Bozeman probably isn’t the place for you; even though you can have a good time indoors, your attitude won’t be shared by anyone else!
Breakfast: Nova Café
What sets Nova apart from many other breakfast joints in town is its focus on locally sourced ingredients (and if you saw our Burlington restaurant guide, you know we’re all about that). Most everything they use travels less than 100 miles to reach the restaurant, and the menu is full of omelets, pancakes, pastries, smoothies, and other breakfast specialties. On weekends, get there early; the brunch crowd forms a line down the sidewalk.
The M, just a few miles north of town, is easily Bozeman’s most popular hike. The giant letter, made of painted rocks, was built by MSU students as a symbol of university pride in 1915. The shortest route up to it is a straight ascent, using the trail on the right at the parking lot. The easier way up uses the trail on the left, which has a series of switchbacks. To do it like a local, make a loop by hiking up the right side and coming down the left.
For those more interested in an “urban” run, the Galligator Trail extends from the public library on East Main Street to the Museum of the Rockies. The trail follows Bozeman Creek through a residential area, and while it goes within a hundred feet of people’s houses, the dense tree cover along the creek will make it feel like you’re in the woods.
If you need a break in the middle, stop and visit the museum. They have some amazing dinosaur exhibits (museum paleontologist Jack Horner was the inspiration for the lead character in Jurassic Park), a planetarium, and a number of traveling presentations.
Winter: Bridger Bowl Ski Area
We heaped praise upon Bridger in our Montana skiing post, but not enough good things can be said about this hill. It’s only a 25-minute drive from Bozeman, and the powder that falls there is mythical in its fluffiness – you’ll feel like you’re gliding on air. It doesn’t matter if you stick to the bunny hill or ski their expert-only Ridge; a day at Bridger is going to be a great time. Even if you don’t ski at all, the lodge is an excellent place to people watch and take in some local color.
Looking for a classy night out in a town full of cowboy hats and hiking boots? Plonk has you covered with their exquisite cheese boards and huge wine selection. It’s only a three-minute walk from Over the Tapas, so you can easily enjoy a little vino and an appetizer before heading to dinner. During the summer, Plonk opens up their back patio, where you can enjoy your wine while watching a beautiful sunset over the Gallatin Valley.
Dinner: Over the Tapas
When it comes to international cuisine, Montana can be quite lacking, but both Bozeman and Missoula are exceptions to that rule. This unassuming little shop a half block off Main Street makes the state’s best Spanish tapas. So many choices, and you’ll want to try everything on the menu, maybe even having seconds on a few. Tapas menus aren’t always the most friendly to vegetarians, but that’s not the case here, with choices like roasted plantains, patatas bravas, goat cheese croquettes, and the most amazing grilled asparagus you’ve ever had. Even if you don’t care to try the lamb sliders or pork belly bouche, it won’t feel like you’re missing out. (UPDATE: Over the Tapas is in the process of relocating)
Breakfast: Bagels Etc.
*Unfortunately, Bagels Etc. has closed, but you can still get great tasting bagels at Bagelworks!
I had the hardest time deciding whether to suggest Bagels Etc. or Bagelworks. Bagelworks has long been a go-to place for bagels in Montana, and is where I became a bagel lover. But Bagels Etc. may have usurped their title of the best bagels in Bozeman. Unlike most shops, they flavor your cream cheese when you order it, which is excellent for my personal favorite, the jalapeno-cheddar bagel with jalapeno cream cheese, since it means freshly sliced jalapenos with all their fiery kick intact. They also have a good selection of bagel sandwiches and skillets for those looking for more than the standard schmear.
Summer: Hyalite Reservoir
The reservoir, 12 miles south of Bozeman, is a hub for outdoor recreation during the summer. If you’re interested in hitting the trails here, the one to Hyalite Lake, which is 5.5 miles and about 2,000 ft. above the reservoir, passes 11 waterfalls and is considered one of the best in the area. Be sure to look back towards the reservoir as you approach the summit, as the views of the U-shaped Hyalite Canyon are postcard-worthy.
If it’s too hot for slogging up a mountain, the reservoir is the perfect spot for a quiet afternoon paddle. The water is crystal-clear and nearly motionless, save for any other kayak traffic or the occasional fishing boat. There are plenty of sites to pull your boat ashore for a romantic picnic, too, if you’re visiting with a significant other. You can rent kayaks from Northern Lights Trading Barn, a few miles west of Bozeman, for $30-40.
Winter: Lava Lake Snowshoe Hike
This trek in the Madison mountain range, only 30 miles from Bozeman, is one of the area’s most popular winter hikes. The main attraction is the picturesque frozen lake at the trail’s end, but the six-mile out-and-back route follows Cascade Creek for its entirety and is chocked full of winter wonderland photo opportunities. Hikers who’ve never donned a pair of snowshoes will have no problem completing this hike; it’s wide, clearly-marked, and not too steep. You can rent snowshoes at The Roundhouse for $8, or $15 with trekking poles.
Dinner: Montana Ale Works
Back when Jen was in the Peace Corps in Rwanda, she would dream about the delicious foods not available there, and Ale Works made frequent appearances. The restaurant is built inside a historic train depot, creating a rustic atmosphere that makes it feel characteristically Bozeman. While most people come for the steaks and burgers (including a bison burger), the veggie burger is packed with so many delicious grains and vegetables that even the most devote carnivore would enjoy it.
Drinks: Bozeman Brewing
A ten-minute walk north of Ale Works will take you to Bozeman’s original microbrewery. Not very big, and somewhat crowded on Friday and Saturday nights, it’s where craft beer was born in this town. Favorites like Bozone Amber Ale and Hopzone IPA are dispensed at numerous bars in the area, but it always tastes better when you’re drinking it at the source. A popcorn machine in the corner is the only food served (though there’s sometimes a BBQ truck in the parking lot).
Breakfast: Granny’s Donuts
Buzzfeed touted Granny’s as the best donuts in Montana, and I can’t help but agree. Located right across from MSU’s towering dorm halls, this shop has been serving up tasty treats to Bozemanites for the past 14 years. There are always a few standbys like maple bars and chocolate cake, but donut master Robert McWilliams is always coming up with new seasonal flavors just for the hell of it. He doesn’t accept credit cards though, so be sure to hit up the ATM beforehand; nothing could be as painful as smelling his creations and then not being able to taste them.
Coffee: Wild Joe’s Coffee Spot
Rated as Montana’s top coffee shop by the Food Network, it’s Bozeman’s take on third wave coffee culture: hand-pulled espresso, pour overs, and milk sourced from a small Montana dairy (or hemp milk, if that’s more your style). None of it feels pretentious, though; it’s a great place to chat with friends, do some work on your laptop, or just enjoy a quality cup of coffee. Check out their events calendar too, as a lot of local musicians come by to play.
Summer: Floating the Madison River
This is the quintessential summer activity in Bozeman. When it gets too hot for hiking in the mountains, cool down with a couple hours on the Madison. There will be hordes of college kids out on the weekends, but is there any better way to hang out with the locals? The float starts at Warm Springs Fishing Access, not far from the wild rapids of Bear Trap Canyon. The river then makes its way through an absolutely stunning valley to the take out point at Black’s Ford Fishing Access.
Pick up your inner tubes at Big Boys Toys ($10) near Four Corners or Madison River Tubing ($13) on Main Street. They’ve even got cooler tubes to hold your beverages and Bluetooth speakers to play your tunes. Madison River Tubing also provides a shuttle from their store, no car needed.
Winter: Crosscut Mountain Sports Center (formerly Bohart Ranch)
If you’re looking for a serious workout and a Nordic skiing adventure, drive just a few miles past Bridger Bowl. Crosscut Mountain has 35 miles of groomed tracks that crisscross the spectacular Bridger Canyon. On an uncrowded weekday, you might feel like you’re the only one on the trail.
A day pass to the trails will cost $20 and a season pass is $250. Rentals and lessons are not being offered this season, but may be added in the future.
Dinner: Pizza Campania
This is hands-down the best pizza in the Bozone! The crust is the perfect level of chewiness, the toppings are all fresh, and the dome-shaped pizza oven in the back is downright impressive. Our favorite is the Verdure: spinach, eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, basil, and balsamic vinegar. The dining area isn’t very big, but if it’s crowded and you have to wait for a table, just grab a beer next door at 406 Brewing.
Drinks: 406 Brewing
Just a short walk through a dirt parking lot from Pizza Campania, and you’re enjoying a cold brew at 406. I love how experimental this brewery is – sometimes a beer just doesn’t turn out they way they’d hoped, and that’s fine by them. A flavor combination doesn’t mesh, a certain ingredient overwhelms, or the batch just doesn’t taste right? Back to the drawing board (kitchen? I don’t know where beer recipes are planned)! It’s only beer, and I’m happy to have 406 trying out new ideas. They also host live music and other events – check their Facebook page for details.
If your sweet tooth is calling, get yourself over to Toppers. It might seem like a pretty standard yogurt shop, with a wall of self-serve machines and a counter full of toppings, but they go beyond the bright-colors-and-plastic-chairs aesthetic of the major fro-yo franchises. It feels more like a classy coffee shop, and it’s usually not too crowded, so you could get some work or studying done here if you were so inclined.
When you’re planning to spend the day outdoors, packing a picnic lunch is probably the way to go. (Of course you can also eat at the Bridger cafeteria if you’re skiing)
But if you find yourself in town around lunchtime, be sure to try our favorite cafe, Sola. It feels like so much more than a restaurant. When you first walk in, there’s a mini grocery store filled with produce, spices, teas, and much more. Opposite the order counter is a slew of handicrafts for anyone who needs to make their kitchen or living room feel a bit more Bozeman. Sola’s menu features sandwiches and salads made with farm fresh ingredients, as well as quite a few daily specials, plus an array of pastries and coffee drinks. As an added benefit, the upstairs seating area is reserved for people who need peace and quiet to work, which is great for digital nomads like us (or just a college student wanting to study).
With so many things to do in Bozeman, 72 hours might not feel like enough time. But remember, you can always come back, and there’s a whole other season of activities to enjoy.