The Waypoint to Yellowstone That Is So Much More

The name "Yellowstone" is almost synonymous with "National Parks." Images of Yellowstone's iconic free-roaming bison and the majestic spout of Old Faithful permeate the collective consciousness of America's natural splendor.

This month, the National Parks program celebrates its 100th anniversary. The parks are more popular than ever, and Yellowstone has certainly reaped the benefits of extra foot traffic as the fifth most visited national park.

But it takes more than wildlife and geysers to bring people out to the park — the old Western towns along the way are just as important to the traveler's journey.

Red Lodge, Montana, is one such gateway to Yellowstone. Nestled in Southern Montana about 60 miles away from the park, the tiny town hosts many travelers over the year.

"Tourism is our bread and butter," says Peter Italiano, community development director at the City of Red Lodge. In a town where parts of the main highway are closed throughout the winter, competing with nearby cities like Billings is not viable. Shop owners often have 12 weeks out of the year to make ends meet, so everything from a planning perspective must consider tourists.

Red Lodge, Montana. Photo by Flickr user Jeff Myers (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Red Lodge: Zoning for Charm, Revenue

A lot of this has to do with our main street," explains James Caniglia, Red Lodge city planner. "Tourists come and say, 'What a cute town!' They are more likely to come back after visiting once."

Broadway Avenue, the main thoroughfare of the classic Mountain West settlement, was named a Great Street in 2010 in part for the sense of place it contributes to the town. Many of the classic Western storefront styles reflect European influences, a reminder of the immigrants who came to the town during the coal mining boom of the 1800s. Most of the structures that once served as the headquarters for different labor organizations have been restored and converted to museums, restaurants, visitor centers, and local craft shops — one industry making way for another.

To maintain the historic style that is popular with tourists, city planners have adopted a unique zoning plan. Red Lodge is the only city in the state that does not allow typical strip mall development or parking in front of buildings. Even structures that are not in the central business district are required to use local historical materials and colors.

But community leaders like Italiano have learned where to compromise. Many houses along Broadway Avenue once had micro-garages, designed to accommodate cars the size of a Model T. Because they were far too small for modern cars, residents were not inclined to renovate the garages and many had fallen into disrepair. The recently revamped zoning code allows larger garages. The change improves the quality of the streetscape and property values and draws in more tax revenue — a win-win-win from Italiano's perspective.

The intimate feeling of Americana does not only spring from the style of the buildings. Much of Red Lodge's planning efforts are made possible through the robust culture of volunteerism amongst its tiny population. Even in a town of just about 2,100 people, there are about 60 nonprofit organizations and people are always willing to lend a helping hand in planning projects.

"It creates that Norman Rockwell kind of feeling," says Italiano.

Downtown Red Lodge, Montana. Photo by Jimmy Emerson, DVM (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Walkable Gateway to Scenic Beauty

Walkability is also key to Red Lodge's success. Travelers to Yellowstone have often been driving for many hours up winding roads, so the pedestrian-friendly Broadway Avenue is a big draw. Bulb-out curbs provide pedestrians with a little extra space for added safety. Speed limits along the main thoroughfare are capped at 25 miles an hour to avoid hitting both pedestrians (and the occasional animal guest). The town's active transportation plan has added bike racks all over town.

"A lot of people cycle here, so we're trying to accommodate that," Caniglia explains.

Broadway Avenue is more than just saloon-style facades and charming promenades; it is the main access point to U.S. 212. The highway's scenic 63-mile stretch, known as the Beartooth Highway, is one of 17 official scenic highways in the United States, affording views of Custer National Forest and Granite Peak, the highest point of the Northern Rockies.

For those not traveling by car, Broadway Avenue is part of the "Mainstreet to Mountains Rocky Fork Trail." In 2006, the Red Lodge Comprehensive Trails Plan connected 80 miles worth of trail fragments into a network that provides hikers, bikers, and cross-country skiers direct access from downtown to the neighboring scenery and wildlife. It also connects the avenue at the corner of Broadway and 8th Street to Red Lodge Mountain ski resort and scenic surroundings.

"We want to encourage trails and connectivity, so tourists want to come back," says Caniglia.

Red Lodge, Montana. Photo by Flickr user sshreeves (CC BY 2.0).

Beyond Yellowstone Gateway

Though tourism to Yellowstone has supported the town's development, planners are trying to emphasize the wealth of other travel opportunities Red Lodge provides. Yellowstone is not the only park that tourists visit from Red Lodge — they can also make their way to the stunning Beartooth Mountains, Custer National Forest, and the Absaroka Mountains.

"The Chamber of Commerce is now branding us as the 'Basecamp to the Beartooths," Caniglia says. "They are pushing for us to be more known for our local mountains rather than as a pass-through to Yellowstone."

Italiano aims to invest more marketing and advertising dollars to emphasize the winter season as much as the summer.

When it comes to the 100th anniversary of the national parks, Red Lodge has certainly benefitted from the influx of visitors.

"We haven't done anything extra for the 100th anniversary," Caniglia said, "but it has been a very good summer!"

Top image: Red Lodge, Montana. Photo by Flickr user Frank DiBona (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

About the Author
Samantha Schipani is APA's Great Places in America communications intern.

August 15, 2016

By Samantha Schipani