There's perhaps no better way to experience the stunning mountain scenery around Bozeman than to pack a sleeping bag and camp beneath a ceiling of Montana stars. The fresh scent of pine needles, the warmth of a crackling campfire and the taste of outdoor cooking are an unmissable part of the Montana summer experience.
An excellent range of campsites awaits you within an hour's drive of Bozeman, and all offer their own draws. Spend your day hiking, biking or fly fishing, before heading back to a camp chair and s’mores next to a roaring fire. It's the best seat in the house. Here are some tips to make the most of your adventures.
Don't forget to bring cash
It's easy to forget important things when heading out on the season's first camping trip. Create a checklist beforehand and always remember matches, charging cables, flashlights, spare batteries and bug spray. If you are headed to a Forest Service campground without reservations, bring a range of bills because you often need to pay cash in exact change.
Make reservations far in advance
Campgrounds around Bozeman are popular in summer, especially on weekends, and they become busier the closer you get to Yellowstone National Park. Most accept reservations through Recreation.gov, so book a site in advance, preferably a few weeks.
Take bear safety precautions
Most of the campgrounds around Bozeman are in grizzly country so follow essential precautions - keep your food and toiletries out of your tent, preferably in your car, and don't leave any food out overnight. When backpacking, hang a food bag from a tree. Bear spray is recommended, especially in the backcountry.
Forest Service campgrounds include a fire ring and table
All the Forest Service campsites listed here include a fire ring and picnic table, but only vault (not flush) toilets and no RV hookups. Most are open from mid-May to mid-September and cost $20 per site. Outside formal campgrounds, dispersed camping is allowed only at numbered sites or half a mile from a road.
Spire Rock Campground offers trail access to great hikes
Hikers love Spire Rock Campground for the trail access to two classic lung-busting hikes: to 7170ft Storm Castle Peak (almost 2000ft gain in two miles) and longer Garnet Mountain (2800ft elevation gain, 8mi return), both of which offer superlative views. Rock climbers come here for access to local granite, while families flock to rafting and zip lining at nearby Montana Whitewater. The popular Lava Lake day hike is also nearby.
The secluded campground ($16) is 3mi off Hwy 191, down Squaw Creek Rd, with one-third of the 19 sites backing onto Storm Castle Creek for tent-side fishing access. It's 27 miles from Bozeman.
If you’re headed to or from Yellowstone, try Pine Creek
Perched on the side of the beautiful Paradise Valley, Pine Creek Campground is halfway between Bozeman and the northern entrance of Yellowstone National Park.
There are plenty of things to do here, both natural and man-made. A popular hiking trail leads from the campground up to popular Pine Creek Falls (easy, 2mi return) and, more ambitiously, to Pine Creek Lake (10.5mi, six hours, 3400ft elevation gain), high in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. It's also a base for a visit to the hot springs and rollicking saloon at Chico Hot Springs, 16 miles southwest, or the artistic Western town of Livingston, 15 miles north.
If campfire cooking sounds like a drag, drive downhill for 3 miles to Pine Creek Lodge for good food, weekend brunches and excellent live music.
The 25 sites ($20) offer fine views over the northern Paradise Valley. RVs might have difficulty climbing the winding road up to the site.
Head to Hyalite Canyon Campgrounds for all the outdoor adventures
The Hyalite Canyon is a popular weekend outdoor destination. There's loads to do here, from demanding single-track mountain biking and big day hikes up to Blackmore or Hyalite Peaks to slower-paced paddling on Hyalite Reservoir. The three Forest Service campgrounds here make for a great car-camping base.
Langohr is the closest to Bozeman – 12 miles (a 30-minute drive) away – and ideal for anglers casting for Arctic grayling and brook trout.
Five miles further up the valley are the 25 sites of Hood Creek. It’s next to Hyalite Reservoir, which makes it ideal for paddlers, sunset watchers and family fun.
A mile further, the quieter 10-site Chisholm is closest to the accessible trail to popular Palisade Falls, and it has hiking and mountain biking access to the epic Hyalite Creek and Emerald Lake trails.
Hike, bike or snowshoe to one of the Forest Service cabins
Best for adventurers
An interesting compromise between a lodge and camping is the handful of remote cabins offered by the Custer Gallatin Forest Service. Most are accessible only on foot, mountain bike or cross-country ski (sometimes snowmobile) and are pretty rustic. You'll get a wood stove, bunk beds, table and an outhouse but no electricity or running water, and you'll have to pack everything in and out. Cabins cost $55 to $65 for up to four people and you can (and should) reserve them up to six months in advance. They offer incredible potential for an authentic adventure.
For the best views it's hard to beat the former fire lookout cabin atop 8245ft Garnet Mountain in the Gallatin Valley. It's a steep hike up the 3.5mi Garnet Mountain Trail, or an ambitious winter expedition on the 10-mile snowshoe, ski or snowmobile trail from Rat Lake. You'll get a stove, propane cooker, mattresses and an outhouse, along with 360-degree views and fabulous sunsets from the balcony, but you need to pack water. Bring a copy of Phillip Connors’ excellent book Fire Season, detailing his years as a fire lookout, or pretend you are the writers Jack Kerouac or Gary Snyder, both of whom spent seasons in similar lookout cabins.
Another gem is Mystic Lake Cabin, offering great scope for lakeshore fishing, wildlife spotting and hiking. Hike, mountain bike, ride a horse (there are two corrals at the cabin) or ski the eight to 10 miles here from Sourdough Canyon Trailhead in Bozeman's southeastern suburbs.
Also worth investigating is the summer-only Windy Pass Cabin, which was built in 1934 atop the dramatic Gallatin Divide Trail.
Soak in the hot springs at Bozeman Hot Springs Campground
Best for hot spring soakers, first-timers and RVers
This family-friendly place attached to Bozeman Hot Springs, a 15-minute drive west of Bozeman, is the only campground open year round. This isn't a wilderness experience. Instead, showers, laundry, wi-fi, RV hookups and simple cabins are available, along with live music at the springs every Thursday and Sunday (until 10pm). Most important, two hot springs passes are included in every booking. Tent sites start at $43 and RV sites with hookups start at $65.