16 things to know before you come to Bozeman, Montana

Hailed as one of the hippest towns in the American West, Bozeman is luring growing numbers of visitors thanks to its proximity to mountain wildernesses and its diverse demographic.

Old-school ranchers in plaid shirts and Stetsons, Hollywood escapees, environmentalists, writers, climbers, college kids, hipsters and craft beer brewers all contribute to the town’s eclectic, outdoorsy and community-minded vibe.  

In many ways, it’s a dream town for outdoor enthusiasts – a 10-minute drive will take you from a downtown martini to a mountain trailhead. And Bozeman combines Montana’s space and natural beauty with a hip, progressive outlook that’s a decade ahead of the rest of the state in terms of food, sustainability and environmental awareness.

But the cost of living is climbing rapidly. Remote workers drawn by a post-pandemic appreciation of space, clean air and a balanced quality of life have fueled a spike in house prices, and Montana’s fastest-growing town is now its most expensive place to live. For visitors, though, Bozeman retains its reputation as one of America’s coolest small towns.

With Bozeman’s growing popularity as the gateway to the north and west of Yellowstone National Park, it pays to do some advance planning. Here are some practical and cultural tips to bear in mind.

A cyclist rides a mountain-bike downhill in a wooded area with purple wildflowers
Be ready with the layers as the weather in and around Bozeman is very changeable © Jeremy Thurston / Getty Images

1. Pack plenty of layers

The continental climate in Montana is notoriously changeable, especially in spring and fall, so bring a selection of warm clothes, even in summer. When hiking, you can experience all four seasons in one morning – boiling hot in the valleys, and freezing as you gain elevation – so be sure to pack an extra windproof layer. The town has lots of good outdoor gear stores if you do arrive unprepared.

2. Book your campgrounds in advance

Bozeman’s campgrounds get very busy in summer, especially along the roads leading to Yellowstone National Park. Almost all sites in the Gallatin region can now be booked in advance at Recreation.gov, so be sure to reserve yours, especially for a summer weekend.

3. Read up on Bozeman’s literary giants

The region around Bozeman has long attracted a literary crowd, so get some advance insights into the Montana state of mind by reading the works of its most famous writers, including such Montana icons as Tim Cahill (of Lost in My Own Backyard fame), David Quammen (Yellowstone: A Journey Through America’s Wild Heart), Thomas McGuane (Gallatin Canyon) and Jim Harrison (Legends of the Fall).

4. Get fishing-ready

Reading Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It or watching the 1992 Robert Redford movie is as obligatory for prospective fly-fishers as a state fishing license. To get the aforementioned license, follow the guidance on the Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks authority website. Fishers in the state need a conservation license, base fishing license and an Angler Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Pass (AISPP), so get all the paperwork in order before you cast your first line.

An intersection on a Main Street in a town with low-rise red-brick stores
Downtown Bozeman is centered on Main St © lucentius / Getty Images

5. Get to know the neighborhoods

Bozeman has several distinct neighborhoods, so here’s a primer for first-timers. Downtown is focused on Main St and stretches for around six blocks, starting with the Lark motel and ending with the Montana Ale Works. To the southwest is Montana State University (MSU), the largest university in Montana. North is the old brewery industrial district, still home to a couple of hip microbreweries. Big box stores line N 7th Ave and N 19th Ave to the northwest, with chain hotels clustered by I-90.

6. Know when to drink in Bozeman

Thanks to Montana’s curious alcohol laws, craft breweries in the state can only serve three pints of beer to each customer and have to stop pouring at 8pm, so come early and bring a growler (portable beer bottle) for takeaways. Non-brewery tap rooms, bars and restaurants can serve brews until 1am, so if you want more beer, head here when the microbreweries throw you out.

7. Try the best local foods

Plan your dining in Bozeman around local foodstuffs from the Montana hills. For the quintessential Bozeman meal, eat local with a grass-fed bison rib-eye steak, elk mince bolognese or locally-caught pan-fried trout, and accompany this with a Lee Metcalfe Pale Ale or a huckleberry martini. Top things off with a slice of Flathead cherry pie, with ice cream from Livingston-based maker Wilcoxson.

8. Dress casual, even when going out for dinner

The dress code in Montana is relaxed and informal, even in the best restaurants. Plaid shirts, down vests and Teva sandals or hiking shoes are the look, along with the occasional pair of cowboy boots and an increasing amount of Patagonia trekking wear. You won’t need a tie or tux, fancy frock or heels.

9. Don’t be starstruck if you encounter a celebrity

For years, celebrities have been flocking to the valleys around Bozeman. At various times, Paradise Valley has been home to Jeff Bridges, John Meyer, Dennis Quaid and Ted Turner, while Bozeman itself is home to climber Conrad Anker and actress Glenn Close. Montanans are generally unfussed by celebrities and are admirably non-starstruck, so if you do spot someone famous, be cool and give them space. This is Montana: a raised eyebrow is considered the maximum response.

Two people running along a trail with two dogs
Want to go on vacation with your dog? Then come to Bozeman, where well-behaved pups are very welcome © Jordan Siemens / Getty Images

10. Bozeman is extremely welcoming of dogs

As well as being environmentally friendly, bike-friendly, and pretty much everything else friendly, Bozeman is very dog-friendly. Your well-behaved dog will be welcomed on trails, in craft breweries and on restaurant patios. In fact, many businesses lay out bowls of water and snacks for their canine visitors. The town has a dedicated dog park and even a dog beach at Bozeman Pond Park.

11. Understand the local character

If we had to generalize, we’d say Montanans are informal, unpretentious and unstuffy. Their rugged individualism is a product of both a wild, unforgiving environment and a long frontier history. Boasting and bragging are frowned upon; self-reliance is respected and often a necessity.

Most Bozemanites share a love and respect for the great outdoors, combining the best wilderness ethics with strong environmental credentials. Indeed, this healthy work-life balance is what brought many residents here in the first place.

12. Locals are united by a shared love of the outdoors

There are definitely two visions of Montana. One version of Bozeman is the liberal, environmental, organic-fed college town, which loves its progressive politics and Bikram yoga classes. Then there’s the old-school version espoused by many ranchers, loggers and oil workers for whom hunting, pickup trucks and gun ownership are cultural cornerstones. Tensions certainly exist between the two groups, but a shared love and respect for the outdoors unites most locals.

13. The pandemic pushed Bozeman’s population and costs right up

Even before COVID-19, Bozeman was one of the fastest-growing small towns in America, and the pandemic has pushed this growth into overdrive. The city now has about 56,000 residents, up from 41,000 just a decade ago, and the median home price has doubled in the same period.

Rents in 2021 jumped almost 60% from the year before, and while they have stabilized more now, many working-class locals are feeling squeezed out of the housing market. The cost of living in Bozeman is 20% higher than the national average, while the median income is about 20% lower, creating hurdles for both locals and visitors trying to manage on a budget.

Grizzly bear walking in a meadow in Montana
Grizzly bears roam the mountains near Bozeman, so take bear spray with you when hiking or biking © Dennis_Casey / Getty Images

14. Be grizzly aware

Grizzly bears – also known as brown bears or “bruins” – roam the mountains and forests south of Bozeman. A black bear even wandered into Bozeman High School during classes in 2015! If you are hiking or mountain biking anywhere outside of town, don’t hike alone, carry bear spray and know how to use it (you don’t want to accidentally spray it on yourself like mosquito spray!).

Note that you can’t take bear spray on a plane, so buy or rent a can in town and dispose of it responsibly at the end of your trip, either by donating it to Forest Service staff or recycling it at Bozeman airport or Yellowstone National Park ranger stations.

15. Use bug spray

From May through September, mosquitoes can be a major irritation in the forests and meadows around Bozeman, so be sure to pack an effective mosi spray and a long-sleeved shirt. Mosquitoes in Gallatin County have been known to carry West Nile Fever, though human cases are extremely rare. Ticks are found in areas frequented by deer and can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever, so check your body for ticks after a hike.

16. Watch for wildlife on the roads

The risk of a collision with wildlife while driving the roads in Montana is very real. Pay extra attention when driving through country areas around Bozeman. Check your speed and watch the verges for movement around dawn and dusk, particularly in the fall. 

This article was first published Jan 4, 2022 and updated Jul 9, 2024.

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