Notes from the Road: How to Hitchhike in Yellowstone Country

When I was little, my dad used to regale me with stories from, “When the world was a safer place.” He told of his epic adventures jumping trains on the east coast and how his best friend Carl (who would later become my, “Uncle Carl,” even though we weren’t actually related … a fact I never knew until I was in high school) would hitchhike to get back to New York from Boston to see my dad.

He always prefaced the stories with, “Now I don’t ever want you to hitchhike. It’s a different world out there, but when I was your age …” To which, I can now respond, “Sorry, Dad.”

Hitchhiking in Montana’s Yellowstone Country is a relatively safe endeavor. In a place where public transportation options are hard to come by and most everyone understands the challenges of living in a mountain town (mainly, that even your own car can fall victim to snowy roads, below zero temperatures or rocky trailhead approaches), the sense of “being a good neighbor” is high and rides to town, the ski hill or the trailhead aren’t too hard to come by. Here are a few types of hitchhikers that you’ll routinely see (and that I may have been myself, once or twice).

The Skiing Hitchhiker
I’ll admit: I’ve picked up a few people clad in ski gear, holding their snowboard and optimistically thumbing on the way up to Bridger Bowl. All of my experiences have been positive; I’ve met a new person, chatted during the 15 minute ride and sometimes have even taken a few warm-up runs with them, once getting to the hill. It’s not required that you hang out with your ride when you head out on the slopes, but a gesture of thanks (like a beer or the offer to buy an après-ski drink) is always welcome.

This particular form of hitchhiking is best if heading to the hill on your own. It’s rare to find a car or truck big enough to haul two people and ski gear up to the base.

The Yellowstone National Park Hitchhiker
Abundant in the summer along Route 89—and sometimes along 191—how can anyone ignore a couple of kids trying to see the Park during summer break? Since most of the traffic heading south from I-90 is headed toward the Park anyway, a hitchhiker can expect a plethora of options to get them from I-90 to Yellowstone.

Best if in a pair. Somehow, the idea of having a couple of hitchhikers seems a lot less scary than picking up a lone wolf (YNP pun intended) on the side of the road.

The Fishing/Rafting Hitchhiker
If you’ve ever spent a day on the river, you’ll know that if you float down one way, there’s no real way to get back, other than to walk or hitch a ride (assuming you didn’t shuttle cars). Sometimes, a daytrip on the river will push you more than 10 miles (maybe even 20), so walking isn’t in anyone’s best interest. However, people in Yellowstone Country know that if they drive a stretch of a blue-ribbon river, they’re likely to see someone trying to get a ride back to their car. They’ll stop for you (but may hold out a beer as collateral).

Best for someone who looks like a fisherman/rafting guide and who isn’t sopping wet. It’s only polite to dry off before bumming a ride on someone’s leather seats.

The Craigslist Hitchhiker

By far the most common (so much so that there was an entire movie made about it), Craigslist is a virtual coffee shop for people driving in and out of Yellowstone Country. Mostly, the drivers wouldn’t mind having someone along to share driving responsibility, cost of gas and the monotony of eastern Washington and the hikers prefer a road trip to a costly plane ticket. While this is really no different than sticking your thumb out on the side of the road, somehow knowing that you can Google someone’s email address makes the idea of getting into the car with a perfect stranger a little more appealing.

Best for someone who doesn’t want to have to figure out finding a new ride after getting dropped off in the middle of Spokane when the truck you thumbed is headed to Seattle and you’re trying to get to Portland.

Has anyone hitchhiked in Yellowstone Country? Leave us your stories in the comments.