Bozeman, Montana Is Becoming One of Best Small Towns in America

Bozeman, Montana Is Becoming One of Best Small Towns in America

It would make for a pretty lame T-shirt: “I went to Bozeman, and didn’t once set foot on a hiking trail.” On a recent visit, I avoided this mortifying distinction by scrambling up Drinking Horse Mountain Trail, a two-mile loop that starts in town. But there is so much going on in the paved parts of this idyllic town that you could easily go days without finding time to take in the natural splendor that surrounds it, which includes a half-dozen mountain ranges and a little park called Yellowstone.

I wanted to go to Bozeman because I’d spent a decade falling in love with—and dreaming of relocating to—Big Sky Country, as it’s known. I had recently been hired to teach writing at the University of Montana in Missoula, the state’s laid-back alternative to what Missoulians see as Bozeman’s glitz.

But I felt like I’d ended up with the wrong partner. Despite having nearly twice Bozeman’s population, Missoula seemed to vibrate with half the energy. Many Montanans prefer that. But I was moving from New York City, and it was Bozeman that offered the singular satisfaction of enjoying a world-class meal on the way from one barren rock face to another.

A view of the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley, Montana

The Yellowstone River winds through Paradise Valley, south of Livingston. | Credit: Matthew Johnson

Winter comes early to Bozeman, which sits at an elevation of nearly a mile, and my visit last October coincided with the area’s final week of fall. It was a pageant: the paper birches and Ohio buckeyes blazed with such fire against the tawny humps of the Bridger Mountains, a subrange of the Rockies, that I had to shield my eyes. Bozeman is all of 20 square miles, and wherever you look, you see peaks.

But I was headed downtown: 15 blocks with hardly a chain store in sight. Bozeman has never lacked lodging with personality. Several years ago, the Element by Westin, near Main Street, had been good enough not only for my wife, but the members of Kiss. (You haven’t lived until you’ve chatted up Kiss over continental breakfast.)

On this trip, I was staying at the newly opened Kimpton Armory Hotel, a nine-story reinvention of a National Guard regiment’s headquarters that started almost a decade ago, when the head of a Bozeman-based adventure-travel company saved the structure from the wrecking ball.

The Armory is the latest marker of Bozeman’s transition from “sleepy cow town” to a budding city with sashimi bars and cocktail lounges that could hold their own against San Francisco’s and Seattle’s. My Bozeman acquaintances maintain that this hasn’t changed the soul of the place: people still say hello on the street, they insist, and businesses funnel profits back into the community.

Nonetheless, I wondered whether the arrival of another global hospitality brand—not to mention all the transplants who relocated here during the pandemic—could enrich Bozeman without changing the best things about it.

Two photos show a pasta dish with wine, and a street scene in Livingston, Montana

From left: Celeriac ravioli with chimichurri-butter sauce at Little Star Diner; the Murray Hotel, in Livingston. | Credit: Matthew Johnson

Here’s a test for whether a place has gotten too big too quickly: Do they honk at you if you’re going down Main Street at 10 miles an hour?

I was riding along with Jasmine Lilly, a self-described “creative hummingbird” who had offered to give me a tour of a town she’s called home for 27 years. She was being generous with her time: later that morning, she had her very first appointment in the bridal shop she had just opened on the east side of downtown as the natural extension of her wedding-planning business.

Over the past decade, passionate locals have revitalized Bozeman’s commercial districts, and to drive around town with Lilly is to realize that many of the most passionate are millennials. In the Mill District, in northeast Bozeman, Lilly’s friend Shaw Thompson has transformed an old grain mill into the Misco Mill Gallery, a furniture workshop, art gallery, and vacation-rental apartment.

A block away, her friend Thompson Limanek runs Green Seam Designs, a furniture maker and high-end upholsterer that takes eco-consciousness very seriously and design very playfully (think 20-foot-wide sheepskin headboards). Lilly had a pivotal role in the transformation: in 2015, she cofounded the Bozeman Flea, which became an incubator for start-ups.

“It’s a very entrepreneurial community,” she said, adding that this quality may be a reflection of the times in which her generation grew up. “There weren’t jobs lined up for us.” But even as rents have risen steeply, for Lilly there is no question of going elsewhere. “I’ve invested my life here,” she said.

Two photos show a shop owner, and pizza makers at work, in Bozeman, Montana

From left: Dennae Tirrell, founder of design collective Biome Slow Craft; pizza preparations at Blackbird. | Credit: Matthew Johnson

Lilly had to leave for her appointment, but not before she pointed out the Ugly Onion, a mobile wood-fired pizza pop-up that had scored perhaps the most prized gastronomic real estate in all of Bozeman, between Wild Crumb, a bakery, and Treeline Coffee Roasters, which serve the town’s best pastries and coffee, respectively. “The Onion’s pizza is as good as Blackbird’s,” Lilly said, “so you know that’s saying something.” Blackbird is the Chez Panisse of Bozeman’s reinvention. Since 2009, it has been serving flawless Italian-inflected American food on Main Street.

Blackbird shows no age, but Bozeman’s evolution means that you can now find a high-quality meal in more than one restaurant in town. Later, I made my way to the most persuasive contender for Blackbird’s mantle: Little Star Diner, opened a block off Main Street (just across from Lilly’s bridal shop) in 2017 by husband-and-wife team Charley Graham and Lauren Reich. Graham cooked at Blackbird for five years, but in subtle ways he was heading in his own direction: Kamut noodles with Bolognese sauce, parsley, and aged sheep-milk cheese; fried green tomatoes with spicy grilled peppers, chimichurri mayo, feta, and cilantro. The latter, followed by a Kamut-noodle soup and rutabaga ravioli in butter sauce, set this traveler right on what had turned into a rainy day.

Kamut, otherwise known as khorasan wheat, is a Montana mainstay, thanks to a pioneering family that seized on the grain’s health benefits 30 years ago and now farms 85,000 acres of it organically. Its ubiquity on Graham’s menu tells you how comprehensively locavore he aims to be in his sourcing. Reich grows almost all the restaurant’s summer vegetables on an 11-acre plot in the Gallatin Valley—no small achievement at 4,800 feet above sea level.

“It’s fun to anticipate how flavor works,” Graham said. “But more and more I’m interested in limiting my cooking to ingredients that are from here. There are enough to make food that’s unique.”

Two snowy trail scenes in Bozeman, Montana

From left: Drinking Horse Mountain Trail, in Bozeman; Bear Canyon Trail, just outside Bozeman. | Credit: Matthew Johnson

Like any small town, Bozeman is a place of serendipities. Like few small towns, there is sometimes too much to do to be able to take advantage of all of them. One afternoon, I looked in on the Emerson Center for the Arts & Culture, a former elementary school that has been converted into artists’ studios and performance spaces. In the first room I walked into, I chatted with the painter LeeAnn Ramey, who asked whether I wanted to join her at a happy hour upstairs, where a musician with the improbable name Thomas Thomas was going to rehearse a Brahms concerto while his supporters from other Emerson studios availed themselves of shrimp and champagne. Ramey’s friend Carrie Lawrence was going to join, too. Lawrence, it turned out, is one of the owners of the Kimpton Armory.

I was eager to meet her, not least because the hotel had quickly become a sanctuary as I dashed from one place in town to the next. The Armory is spiffy and new, but novelty is just gloss if it lacks the Armory’s subtlety and restraint.

In addition to being a welcome upscale lodging proposition in Montana—a four-to-five-star hotel in a state of three-stars and resorts—it felt like a place for grown-ups, with works by 13 local artists hanging around the hotel, including a massive painting depicting the Montana State University band (which used to practice in the basement of the Armory) by the painter Hannah Uhde, a sixth-generation Montanan. It’s prominently displayed in the hotel’s music hall.

Two photos show a chandelier at a hotel cafe, and a man drinking beer at a brewery

From left: The Farmer’s Daughters Café at the RSVP Hotel; Dash Rodman, co-owner of Map Brewing. | Credit: Matthew Johnson

But I was due at Map Brewing, on the north edge of town. I was craving a Märzen, the fizzier, crisper German version of an American Oktoberfest beer, and I wanted to meet Dash Rodman, a co-owner. There are a dozen breweries in Bozeman alone. In the five years since opening, Map has become the state’s largest self-distributing brewery and one of its busiest taprooms. It was easy to spot Rodman—he stopped shaving his beard when he stopped working for someone else, and its length today is a testament to Map’s success.

Rodman told me that Map ended up throwing a community fundraiser on its first day as a business. “But it pays dividends,” he said, cradling an IPA. “Over 20 years in town, I’ve built relationships. We just had a raffle because of the wildfires—we raised $28,000 in a week. I called people and said: ‘Twenty-nine houses were lost, people’s lives were turned upside down.’ And people were sending me $10,000 worth of product to raffle off. There’s so much of that.”

He went on: “When I got here in 1998, it was all Carhartts and fleece. Now you’ve got Audis and Porsches cruising down Main Street, and construction all over the place.” But Rodman is unfazed by the influx. “The underlying community feeling is strong. I think people are moving here because of what it is, not because of something they want to turn it into.”

He added: “The backcountry is ours. The trailhead may be busy, but one mile in, you’re not seeing anyone.” Even that trailhead is hardly tame country—I saw a black bear cavorting in Bridger Creek, at the base of Drinking Horse Mountain, when I came down.

What Map does is also representative of other businesses in town. Two days a week, Feast Raw Bar sends 10 percent of its sales to local nonprofits. The design collective Biome Slow Craft hosts free clothes-mending and repair workshops for kids in the Big Sky Youth Empowerment program. Fork & Spoon, Montana’s first pay-what-you-wish restaurant, brings in chefs to serve things like local-beef stew over cheddar grits. By some counts, Bozeman has the largest number of nonprofits per capita in the country.

“It’s a hard place to leave,” Lilly had said when we were standing in her shop, eating pears from a tree in her backyard. “There’s so much going on, but what keeps people here is community.”

Some Bozemanites do leave—to have dinner in Livingston, 25 miles away. Livingston (population 7,000) is to Bozeman as Bozeman is to the rest of the world: the most unexpected of oases. “As we say sometimes, the best restaurants in Bozeman are in Livingston,” one local acquaintance told me, perhaps being a little unfair to a town where I had just had kimchi fritters and bison carpaccio.

But there’s another reason people go to Livingston. The beauty of Paradise Valley, which lies south of the town, transports visitors to a different spiritual plane. The first time I went, it took me nearly an hour to drive 10 miles because I kept stopping and trying to fit what I was seeing into the viewfinder of a camera: the Gallatin range on one side; the Absaroka range on the other; the Yellowstone River, one of the world’s great fishing destinations, tracing the valley.

That trip was a pilgrimage. Livingston is home to as many writers as ranchers, all living in generally peaceful coexistence. It was one of those writers—the novelist, poet, and gourmand Jim Harrison—whose books had made me want to become a writer myself. Having crossed paths briefly in 2003, when I was working at The New Yorker, I wrote him in 2008, during a disoriented moment in my writing life, asking what I should do.

That question ended with me driving across the country to drink vodka with Harrison at the bar of the Murray Hotel, which is as iconic as it is synonymous with Livingston. (Film director Sam Peckinpah lived there in the late 1970s and, as the story goes, would occasionally fire bullets into the ceiling of his suite.) Harrison and I became acquaintances after that—he brought this kind of light and hope to the lives of many young writers.

Harrison died in 2016, and for some years I couldn’t quite bring myself to set foot in Livingston, as I didn’t know if it would make sense without him. But, due to urban flight, tech money, and the possibility of remote work, things are changing rapidly here—listings in the real estate office windows now often start at seven figures. I decided to take a measure of the place before it became unfamiliar.

Wanting to talk to someone who’d seen all of it, I stopped in at Mustang Fresh Food. Carole Sullivan, the restaurant’s proprietor, got her start in Livingston fine dining 25 years earlier. The painter Russell Chatham, known as the godfather of Livingston food and a friend of Harrison’s, sent Sullivan three $100 bills to pay her airfare from Minnesota to come interview for a job at his Livingston Bar & Grille, which is still going strong.

I asked Sullivan what she thought of the many young faces, many clearly transplants from elsewhere, wandering the streets. Were they violating the spirit of the place in some way? I had been to a brewery slash sushi pub, with a color scheme that crossed a Greek taverna with a millennial Brooklyn boutique, and thought I’d felt the ground move a little as Harrison turned in his grave.

Sullivan gently set me straight. “The sense of community is as strong as ever, if not more so,” she said. “These young people care about where they live, and they don’t mind paying taxes for the things they believe in. Almost one hundred percent of the reason they came here is the land. And this area needs protection.” (Sullivan’s faith in the next generation is such that in July, after many years of running Mustang, she sold it to new owners. She now advises the county on healthier dining options for schoolchildren.)

Across the street I found perhaps the most meaningful example, in the dining category, of what Sullivan was referring to: Campione, a new Roman-style restaurant opened by three young friends who had converged in Livingston from New York, Australia, and Taiwan. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t open for dinner for two hours, and I had to get back to Missoula. In the restaurant’s window, they had posted an interview that Jeff Galli, one of the owners, had given to a local newspaper.

He said he and his partners, Anthony Sferra and Josh Adams, had decided to stake the restaurant’s reputation on the meatballs—”We felt that if we can’t make meatballs right, then we really shouldn’t open an Italian restaurant.”

One did not have to get inside to tell they had succeeded—the staff must have been prepping them then, because the scent was so rich that it was wafting out into the street. I consoled myself by inhaling as much as I could and remembering a saying that Jim Harrison, who was also a dedicated wanderer, bequeathed to me: unlike an eater, the wise traveler always leaves something on his plate.

The Best of Bozeman and Livingston

Where to Stay

Kimpton Armory Hotel: This 122-room property has redefined luxury lodging in Bozeman.; Doubles from $430.

Murray Hotel: A Livingston institution with perhaps the best restaurant in town, the Second Street Bistro. Doubles from $160.

RSVP Hotel: A former Bozeman motel transformed into a boutique temple of distinctive design. Doubles from $160.

Where to Eat & Drink

Blackbird: Casually elegant New American food with an Italian accent, in Bozeman. Entrées $14–$26.

Campione: Roman-inspired dishes in Livingston. Entrées $15–$22.

Devil’s Toboggan: An upscale Bozeman bar with classic cocktails and small bites.

Feast Raw Bar & Bistro: A festive, seafood focused alternative to Bozeman’s downtown dining scene. Entrées $15–$50.

Little Star Diner: This superb Bozeman spot is scrupulous about using only local ingredients. Entrées $16–$24.

Map Brewing: This Bozeman establishment has a postcard view, a beer selection that ventures far beyond IPAs, and a strong community spirit.

Ugly Onion: Wood-fired pizza from a Vermont transplant to Bozeman. Pizza $16–$20.

Wild Crumb: This Bozeman bakery’s breads, pies, and pastries justify rising early and braving the line.

What to Do

Bozeman Symphony: With a new, rising-star music director, Norman Huynh, the symphony specializes in eclectic programs.

Where to Shop

A version of this story first appeared in the October 2021 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Moving Mountains.