Yellowstone National Park hosted 4,257,177 visitors in 2016, making it America’s sixth most popular national park. Finding reasonably priced accommodations near such a big attraction is challenging enough, let alone unearthing one that feels special. Our advice: Start planning your summer vacation now and lock in a few nights at the rustic Elk Ridge Cabin in Pray, Montana. Located 45 minutes from Yellowstone’s North Entrance (near the Mammoth Hot Springs Historic District and the gateway city of Gardiner, MT) and 50 minutes south of Bozeman, the cabin is a goddamn national treasure. Bookable via Airbnb, it costs around $125/night—which beats the pants off many of the overpriced, rundown accommodations lurking in the park’s shadow.
The drive up from Yellowstone is a dream—you’ll pass rugged mountains and wide open fields dotted with herds of elk. The cabin sits at the end of a long gravel drive, within eyeshot of the neighbors but still very isolated-feeling. It is just the right size for two people: clean, cozy, and picturesque with its knotty pine interior, river rock fireplace, and comfy custom-made log bed. Towels and toiletries are plentiful. The kitchen is well-outfitted for cooking and there is a Weber barbecue grill and seating on the front porch. A fire pit—with firewood already chopped—invites late-night S’mores sessions when the winds are still. The cabin is equipped with board games, satellite TV, and fast WiFi (all the better for streaming The Great Outdoors or binge-watching Stranger Things). There’s even a washer and dryer. And hallelujah for pet owners: Elk Ridge host Vicky allows guests to bring dogs for an additional fee of $10 each.
The knockout views of the cabin’s surrounding Paradise Valley span 360 degrees and the pitch-black sky is perfect for stargazing. When dawn breaks, you’ll see elk grazing on dewey fields, magpies and bluebirds hovering near the tree feeder, hawks swooping overhead, and gophers darting into their gopher holes. It’s pure magic.
And though it feels totally remote, the cabin is just a five- to ten-minute drive from touristy soaking spot Chico Hot Springs; The Wildflour Bakery and Follow Yer’ Nose BBQ, a must for scratch-made loaves of bread and enormous pulled pork sandwiches, respectively; and Shining Mountain Gallery, an artists’ boutique specializing in Western and Native American oil and watercolor paintings, wildlife photography, woodcarvings, rakus, bronze sculptures, rope basketry, barbed wire art, and more. If the weather holds out, take the easy 2.5-mile out-and-back hike to Pine Creek Falls. Leashed dogs are welcome.
Twenty minutes north of Elk Ridge is the small Western town of Livingston (population: 7,401). Here, you can pick up elk sausages and ribeye steaks at Matt’s Old-Fashioned Butcher Shop & Deli, lovely greenhouse-grown produce and small-batch grocery items from Woods Rose Market, and everything else you need for cooking at the Town & Country Foods co-op. Or, make a day trip of it and go junking at Out of the Blue and Junk & Disorderly; pour over regional guidebooks and outdoor lit at Elk River Books; shop for lumberjack-worthy Pendleton gear at Bob’s Outdoor; and dig into a vegan kelp noodle dragon bowl and lavender smoothie at the Wheatgrass Saloon.
Note to winter travelers: Not all businesses in Paradise Valley operate year-round, and many roads in Yellowstone National Park close to wheeled traffic during the harshest months of the year. Call ahead to confirm all dates and hours before setting out, especially between the months of October and May. For current weather and road conditions, keep an eye on the frequently updated Montana Department of Transportation’s interactive Road Report Map.