One week or two. Depending on how long you want to linger, you can travel it in a fast week or a more relaxing two. If you're driving in, start anywhere; if you're flying, nearby starting/ending points are Bozeman and West Yellowstone, Montana; and Cody, Wyoming. Other possibilities: Billings, Montana, and Jackson, Wyoming.
Day one: Guest ranches
The northern Rockies contain some of the best guest ranches in the world―resorts that range from simple and affordable to the luxurious, once-in-a-lifetime splurge. (When tallying up the costs, keep in mind that you're paying for lodging and all food, and for experiences―expert riding and fly-fishing instruction, for example―not always easy to find elsewhere.) Most ranches require a full-week stay in summer; still, it doesn't hurt to ask about last-minute vacancies for shorter amounts of time. For lower rates and more flexibility, definitely consider a late August or, if you don't have kids who need to get back to school, a September visit.
Below, we list two excellent ranches along the tour route. For more, contact the Montana Dude Ranchers' Association (888/284-4133 or montanadra.com) or the Wyoming Dude Rancher's Association (307/673-1618 or wyomingdra.com).
Mountain Sky Guest Ranch. This Paradise Valley retreat has a long pedigree. As Ox Yoke Ranch, it welcomed its first guests in 1929. Today it's one of the most luxurious guest ranches in the West, with superb food, spacious cabins, an excellent children's program, and terrific riding instruction. It's not cheap, although if you're a single person sharing a cabin with a friend, the rates get more reasonable. From August 27 to October 11 (and next year in May and early June) the weeklong minimum-stay requirement is relaxed. 30 units from $2,940 per adult per week, including meals. On Big Creek Rd. (off U.S. 89), Emigrant, MT; 800/548-3392 or mtnsky.com.
Nine Quarter Circle Ranch. Run by the Kelsey Family for decades, Nine Quarter Circle sits breathtakingly high in the Gallatin National Forest, about 40 miles north of Yellowstone's west entrance. The cabins and main lodge are rustic and informal; the riding, hiking, and fishing opportunities nearly endless. 22 cabins from $1,407 per adult per week, including meals and activities. 50 miles south of Gallatin Gateway, MT; 406/995-4276 or ninequartercircle.com.
Day two: Bozeman, Montana
What to do
Downtown Bozeman. Centered along Main Street, downtown holds a number of galleries (like Montana Trails Gallery, 406/586-2166), restaurants, coffeehouses, clothing stores, and bookstores.
The Emerson Center for the Arts & Culture. Regional arts center in a restored elementary school. 111 S. Grand Ave.; 406/587-9797 or theemerson.org.
Museum of the Rockies. It's famous for its superb displays of Montana dinosaurs ― many of them discovered by the museum's curator of paleontology, Jack Horner ― but there are fine exhibits on Montana and Plains Indian history too. $9.50, $6.50 ages 5-18, ages 4 and under free. 600 W. Kagy Blvd.; 406/994-2251 or museumoftherockies.org.
Where to eat
Community Food Co-Op. Sleek organic food store with a great upstairs coffee bar. $; breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. 908 W. Main St.; 406/587-4039.
The Emerson Grill. In the Emerson Center for the Arts & Culture, a convivial spot with savory pasta and a decent wine list. $$; lunch and dinner Mon-Sat. 207 W. Olive St.; 406/586-5247.
John Bozeman's Bistro. Sophisticated, contemporary cuisine with a Montana twist ― for example, elk tenderloin and goat cheese on grilled focaccia. $$$$; lunch and dinner Tue-Sat. 125 W. Main St.; 406/587-4100.
Mackenzie River Pizza Co. Locally based chain, and good. $; lunch and dinner daily. 232 E. Main St.; 406/587-0055.
Moo Casa On a Montana summer afternoon, homemade ice cream is mighty welcome. $; lunch and dinner Tue-Sat, ice cream daily. 12 E. Main St.; 406/585-4565.
Where to stay
The Olive Branch Inn at the Lindley House. Near downtown, an elegant, cozy Victorian. 6 rooms from $100, including breakfast. 202 Lindley Place; 866/587-8403 or theolivebranchinn.com.
Day three: Red Lodge, Montana
What to do
Beartooth Highway. One of the must-do drives in the world, closed last year but reopened for 2006: From Red Lodge you drive 68 switchbacking, beautiful miles into the 11,000-foot-high Beartooth Range to reach Cooke City, Montana, the northeast gateway to Yellowstone. For road conditions, call the Red Lodge Area Chamber of Commerce (601 N. Broadway; 888/281-0625).
Downtown Red Lodge. The center of town is filled with historic buildings, many of them spruced up to hold outdoor and clothing stores and coffeehouses. Pick up a map at the Chamber of Commerce (601 N. Broadway; 888/281-0625).
Where to eat
The Dining Room at the Pollard. The dining room lives up to the comfortable elegance of the hotel: tasty French toast for breakfast; pistachio-crusted salmon and other entrées for dinner. $$$; breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. 2 N. Broadway; 800/765-5273 or thepollard.net.
Red Lodge Cafe, Lounge & Casino. A neon tepee outside, a swell Rocky Mountain mural inside; buckwheat pancakes and burgers and home-baked pies. Really, what more could you want? $$; breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. 16 and 18 S. Broadway; 406/446-1619.
Bear Creek Saloon and Steakhouse. Outside of town, big steaks and ― we're not kidding ― pig races. $$$; dinner Thu-Sun. 108 W. Main St., Bearcreek (7 miles east of Red Lodge, MT); 406/446-3481.
Where to stay
The Pollard Hotel. Built in 1893 and handsomely restored, this is one of the prettiest small hotels in the West. Comfortable (if not overlarge) rooms, plus notably good restaurant. 39 rooms from $105. 2 N. Broadway; 800/765-5273 or thepollard.net.
Day four: Cody, Wyoming
What to do
Buffalo Bill Historical Center. Five excellent museums in one: Western art, Plains Indians culture, Rocky Mountain natural history, firearms, and the life and times of showman Bill Cody himself. A must-see. $15, $10 ages 13-17, $6 ages 5-12, ages 4 and under free. 720 Sheridan Ave.; 307/587-4771 or bbhc.org.
Chief Joseph Scenic Byway. Lesser known than the Beartooth Highway, this route ― State 296 from north of Cody, joining U.S. 212 near Cooke City, Montana ― is nearly as spectacular, rising from plains to undulating hills to mountains. For road conditions, call the Cody Chamber of Commerce (307/587-2777).
Cody Nite Rodeo. Now in its 68th year, this is the longest continuously running rodeo in the United States, whooping it up from June 1 through August 31. 8 p.m.; $16, $8 ages 7-12, ages 6 and under free. Stampede Park (on U.S. 20); 307/587-5155.
Historic Trail Town and Museum of the Old West. A treasure trove of historic buildings moved intrastate; among them is a cabin supposedly used by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. $3. 1831 Demaris Dr.; 307/587-5302 or codystampederodeo.com.
Where to eat
Irma Hotel Grill. An evocative place for a meal or drink. $$; breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. 1192 Sheridan; 307/587-4221.
Maxwell's. Pastas and beef in a beautifully restored home with a pleasant patio. $$; lunch and dinner daily. 937 Sheridan; 307/527-7749.
Where to stay
Irma Hotel. Built by Bill Cody, who named it for his daughter. The hotel porch offers a good perch to watch Cody's nearly nightly mock gunfights. 20 historic rooms from $115 and 20 modern rooms from $75. 1192 Sheridan; 307/587-4221 or irmahotel.com.
Best Western Sunset Motor Inn. Tidy chain motel very near the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. 120 rooms from $119. 1601 Eighth St.; , 800/624-2727, 307/587-4265 or bestwestern.com.
Mayor's Inn. Restored 1905 home was moved to a new location in 1997 and turned into an attractive four-room inn plus a cottage. 4 rooms from $115, including breakfast; cottage $105, breakfast $8. 1413 Rumsey Ave.; 307/587-0887 or mayorsinn.com.
Day five: Yellowstone National Park
Advance planning really enhances a trip to Yellowstone. To figure out which parts of the park you most want to see―and by extension, where you should stay―visit the Yellowstone National Park website. You can cruise through the park in a hurried day, but to enjoy all its highlights―Old Faithful geyser, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Mammoth Hot Springs―and take in the good ranger-led programs (check the park newspaper for these), you'll need at least two or three days.
What to do
Yellowstone Association Institute. This nonprofit runs hundreds of field seminars and other programs in the park throughout the year. The three-day Yellowstone for Families program ― based at Grant Village or Mammoth Hot Springs ― is designed for kids. From $594, $365 ages 8-12, lodging, activities, and some meals included. 307/344-5566 or yellowstoneassociation.org.
Where to stay
All in-park lodging is handled by park concessionaire Xanterra Parks & Resorts (307/344-7311 or travelyellowstone.com). The lodging options are as follows:
Canyon Lodge & Cabins. Big and busy but convenient to the heart of the park; lodge rooms have more amenities than the cabins. 83 rooms $146 and 469 cabins $61.
Grant Village. Pleasant motel units alongside Yellowstone Lake. 300 rooms from $116.
Lake Lodge Cabins. Modern "western" units and 1920s-vintage "pioneer" cabins. 100 western cabins $123 and 86 pioneer cabins $61.
Lake Yellowstone Hotel & Cabins. For sheer beauty, the classically elegant, butter yellow hotel rivals Old Faithful, and the lake views are stupendous. 194 rooms from $129 and 102 cabins from $103.
Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins. On the northern edge of the park, small, cute cabins and a sprawling, old-fashioned hotel. 95 hotel rooms $102 with bath, $76 without, and 117 cabins from $68.
Old Faithful Inn. The brown-shingled 102-year-old hotel is a testimony to the power of architecture. And it's next to the most famous of the park geysers. Stay here if you can; if you can't, be sure to visit. 329 rooms from $109 with bath, from $85 without. Nearby are 96 Old Faithful Lodge Cabins from $62.
Old Faithful Snow Lodge & Cabins. Newest of the park's hotels, and nearly as handsome in summer as it is covered in snow. 100 lodge rooms $171 and 34 cabins $85.
Roosevelt Lodge Cabins. Wonderfully rough-hewn lodge and cabins (some with shared baths) date from 1919, and lie near great wildlife watching in Lamar Valley. Also the site of Old West cookouts and horseback and stagecoach rides. 80 cabins $96 with bath, $59 without.
Camping. Indian Creek, Lewis Lake, Mammoth, Norris, Pebble Creek, Slough Creek, and Tower Fall campgrounds ($12-$14) are operated by the National Park Service on a first-come, first-served basis. Bridge Bay, Canyon Village, Fishing Bridge RV Park, Grant Village, and Madison Junction ($17-$34) are operated by Xanterra Parks & Resorts; call 307/344-7311 for reservations.
If you can't or don't want to stay in Yellowstone proper, you can find motels near the park boundary in West Yellowstone, Gardiner, and Cooke City, Montana.