This Montana Valley Was “Paradise” for Jimmy Buffett

Where the cheeseburgers come with a scenic backdrop

September 8, 2023 1:25 pm
Paradise Valley in the Gallatin National Forest north of Yellowstone National Park
Paradise Valley in the Gallatin National Forest north of Yellowstone National Park

Paradise looks different to different people. For some, its beachside bliss or piña coladas by the pool, while others might envision a snowy chalet or the tropics of the Caribbean. The latter has long been eden for the late great Jimmy Buffett, a musician practically synonymous with island life, and one who loved the region so much he opened the first Margaritaville in Key West and co-founded the Save the Manatee Club.

But despite his island-loving reputation and his pantheon of Parrotheads, Buffett also had a special soft spot for another region of the U.S. — one that swaps coral reefs and key lime pie for soaring mountains and rootin’ tootin’ saloons. In fact, Montana’s Paradise Valley was so beloved by the singer that locals vouch that “Cheeseburger in Paradise” was actually inspired by cheeseburgers in Paradise Valley. And considering the quality of cuisine in the area, and its heaven-like landscape, it wouldn’t be a surprise that this stunning section of North Yellowstone stirred one of the most beloved musicians to ever pluck a guitar. 

Paradise Valley is a region in southwestern Montana’s Yellowstone Country that winds along the Yellowstone River between the Absaroka and Gallatin mountain ranges. Upriver from the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park, the only entrance open year round, it’s home to the charming town of Livingston and scenic Highway 89, all engulfed in quintessential Montana ranch country and dotted with vintage inns, saloons and campgrounds. Far quieter than the nearby national park, it’s a region that conjures that same sense of Yellowstone awe, including wildlife like elk, bison and eagles — minus the tourbus traffic. And it’s that same serene awe that’s lured the likes of Buffett, as well as other famous residents, like John Mayer, Peter Fonda and Jeff Bridges, whose hit show Yellowstone is set there. Meanwhile, one of Anthony Bourdain’s favorite hotels in the world was apparently in Livingston. 

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For the Mayor of Margaritaville, he began frequenting the area — especially Livingston — in the 1970s, and wrote the song “Livingston Saturday Night,” painting the small city as a fun place for deviled eggs, beer kegs and casual sex. One of his most famous songs, “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” paints a more wholesome picture, allegedly inspired by burgers at a bygone Americana joint called the Pop Stand. His time in Montana also inspired other songs like “Ringling, Ringling,” based on the town of Ringling, and he even performed “Margaritaville” at a kegger outside of Missoula before releasing it on an album. While the exact “paradise” in question is hard to prove (apparently Buffett had a reputation for telling various businesses he wrote songs about them so he could get free meals), there’s no denying his enduring love for the region. 

Buffett always described his music as “Gulf and Western,” and while the former was widely known amongst his Parrotheads, it’s the lesser-known latter that beget some of his most iconic works. It’s a testament to the pastoral valley that a legend synonymous with the Florida Keys could find equal respite in a setting that looks, feels and tastes utterly different. Although some of Buffett’s old stomping grounds have since closed, here’s where to go and what to eat to find your own paradise in Paradise Valley. 

Under Canvas
Under Canvas
Buffalo Media

Where to Stay

The Murray Hotel, in downtown Livingston, is a handsome, historic property that dates back to 1904. The boutique inn contains just 25 rooms and suites that straddle the line between rustic western aesthetic and twee, contemporary updates — marble decor and red oak doors share space with hardwood floors, gilded mirrors and vintage TVs and phones. Beloved by Bourdain and frequented by celebrities, the hotel and its saloon-like bars have been a timeless anchor for the increasingly touristy town of barely 8,000. Everyone from Calamity Jane to the Queen of Denmark have stayed here, and Robert Redford treated the Murray Bar like his very own Cheers while filming A River Runs Through It in the valley. An intimate time-warp to another era, it’s the quintessential wild west abode, complete with multiple bars and restaurants, a rooftop patio, frequent live music and an on-site fly fishing shop. 

From age-old to brand new, another lodging option — and an idyllic way to immerse yourself in the paradise of it all — is the newest location of Under Canvas. The upscale campground, known for its chic safari-style tents fully loaded with hotel-like comforts, unveiled its latest location in Paradise Valley this June, getting guests up close and personal with the breathtaking landscape. The perfect blend of rustic and glam, spacious accommodations eschew things like WiFi and TVs in favor of wood-burning stoves, complimentary camp activities, and the opportunity to unplug and commune with nature and each other, all while keeping cozy with king-sized beds and ensuite bathrooms. Thanks to its perch on the Yellowstone River, offering more than a mile of access to the iconic waterway, guests can conveniently book fly fishing outings or river floats right from the main lobby tent, then make it back in time for dinner — the bison burgers here are in the running for the new cheeseburgers in paradise. 

The Yellowstone River
The Yellowstone River

What to Do

A true paradise for outdoorsy adventure, and only about 40 minutes north of Yellowstone National Park, the valley is an all-natural playground for the avid adventurer. With the Yellowstone River weaving through its entirety, water activities are prominent, especially fly fishing. The tranquil sport, a far more relaxed and encompassing experience than traditional spin fishing, is a huge draw for the region, with rental equipment and guided trips offered by companies like Yellowstone Fly Shop. In Livingston, Dan Bailey’s is a gear shop in the same building as the Murray Hotel, offering rental equipment and guided outings, along with wintry ware like sky rentals and snow shoes. 

Rafting and paddling are also popular pastimes on the river, with outfitters in the region such as Rubber Duck River Rentals. For something more unique and upscale, book a guided trip with Cajune Boats, a company that designs and builds wooden boats that look more akin to Venetian gondolas than typical river rafts. Guided floats are offered in the mornings and evenings, and last about two hours as you drift peacefully down the babbling waterway (this section of river only reaches Class 1 rapids, so the risk of getting wet is minimal). And thanks to its ambient flow, floats have the option to add charcuterie kits and BYO wine, which makes for a romantic evening under the bald eagles. 

On land, hiking trails are just as epic, like the Pine Creek or Passage waterfall trails or the trek up Emigrant Peak, whose 5,000-feet of elevation gain is not for the faint of heart, but is well worth it for the valley vista. Either way, a soak in a local hot spring, like Chico Hot Springs or Yellowstone Hot Springs, is a soothing balm. 

Considering its history with Buffett, live music is a key part of the experience in Paradise Valley. Chief among them is Pine Creek Lodge, a wooded retreat with an adult summer camp vibe and a backyard stage between soaring pine trees, where bluegrass and country bands host summer shows under the twinkling lights. Wine and local beer are available, and folks are welcome to bring their dogs and/or dance the night away. In Livingston, Music Ranch Montana puts on dances and concerts in an amphitheater-style setting, while The Attic Montana skews far more intimate. 

Elsewhere in Livingston, boutique shops downtown run the gamut from Elk River Books and Dangling DooDads to The Alchemy Exchange and The Obsidian Collection; the Empire Twin Theatre provides a retro setting for your next Barbie viewing; and a surprising surplus of art galleries includes Parks Reece Gallery, 10 Gallery and Visions West Contemporary

Neptune’s Taphouse & Eatery
Neptune’s Taphouse & Eatery

Where to Eat

Buffett’s beloved Pop Stand may be gone, but vestiges of his old haunts remain. The musician was a regular at the equally historic — and still kicking — Livingston Bar & Grille, whose deviled eggs may or may not have inspired the line “Hum a song, play some pong, eat a deviled egg.” They also serve cheeseburgers made with fresh Montana beef, which sounds like something Buffett would have enjoyed. 

In the Murray Hotel, its collection of eateries and watering holes include Euro-chic 2nd Street Bistro, breakfast and lunch spot Gil’s Goods, and the Murray Bar, an old-school treasure trove filled with local beer and framed photos of local fly-fishing guides. Nearby, Neptune’s Taphouse & Eatery looks like the perfect mix of “Gulf and Western” with sunny nautical decor and a menu that mixes cheeseburgers with sushi. 

Even older is the aptly dubbed Old Saloon, a ca. 1902 barroom in the town of Emigrant that channels legit wild west vibes with taxidermy, creaky wooden floors, a pool table and a whiskey-soaked back bar. In fact, it’s so legit that the facade almost looks like an eerily perfect saloon homage you’d expect to see in Disneyland. But this place is the real deal, complete with bartenders in old-timey garb and a huge outdoor patio with a live music stage. And yes, they too serve cheeseburgers. In literal Paradise.


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