Skip to main content

A Love Letter to the Old Saloon, Emigrant, Montana’s Most Famous Bar

There’s a bar in western Montana that hasn’t changed much in the last 120 years. While it sports a television or two, some neon signs, and a jukebox, everything else is pretty much original. It’s as though they just built four walls and a roof around whatever existed there in the first place and called it a drinking establishment.

The place is called the Old Saloon and it’s one of the greatest bars in the American West. It opened in 1902, an excuse to stop roughly halfway between the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park and Livingston. Back then, a rail line ran through it, transporting miners, farmers, and their goods. It was likely a blessing for a lot of people after an exhausting day in the field.

It burned down in its infant years but was quickly rebuilt. The gorgeous bar fixture, which is still there, came by steamboat from St. Louis via the Missouri River. Prohibition shut the place down for a shockingly long spell (1920-1962), but the Old Saloon again rose from the ashes to quench the thirst of the few people who live in and around Emigrant, Montana, and the many more that pass through.

The surroundings are breathtaking. Emigrant Peak looks on to the east, one of many points along a dramatic stretch of the Rockies. The Yellowstone River is just across the street, carving its way through the Paradise Valley, which more than lives up to its name. It’s practically a Bob Ross painting.

Paradise Valley Montana
Mark Stock/The Manual

It’s set next to the only traffic light within miles, a blinking yellow bulb advising motorists coming in from the feeder roads to yield to north-south highway traffic. There’s a gas station, laundromat, and general store across the street. On the bar’s side, a fly-shop, post office, and church.

Inside, the bar is a mix of old wallpaper and furniture, mounted critter heads, and some friendly faces. The elk meatloaf is fine and so are the drinks but that’s not really of much concern. They’ve added more craft beer and wine options to appease the tourists, but that’s not really the point, either. The charm of the Old Saloon is its very existence. To park yourself in one of its chairs is to travel back to an era when the bar was a gathering place and nothing more — when guests asked the barkeep for a book of matches, not an iPhone charger.

It’s a convincing place, to say the least. So many western bars go over the top with their rugged decor, as if to compensate for something. The Old Saloon boasts the proper amount. In other words, it doesn’t look like the set of some old shoot-em-up film with high noon gunfights. It feels like a place where things like this actually took place. When you pay for your tab, you wince a little, worried that the place might only take precious metal as currency (or, as a last resort, a stint washing dishes).

Old Saloon Montana
Mark Stock/The Manual

The bar is home to a special kind of bar fly. There’s not really such a thing as too drunk here. The photos patrons share with each other are not of significant others or recent trips. They’re of black bears found in the backs of trucks or unexpected September snowdrifts—and they’re often real, hold-in-your-hand photographs, not just phone-captured ones.

The roadkill stories told here don’t involve cats or squirrels. They include bison, moose, and grizzly bears, and typically conclude with a totaled car. Better, these stories often unfold next to visitors speaking a different language on their way to the Park or the occasional executive looking for a place he can tell his pals was authentic when he gets back to the office. Some are in from nearby Livingston, looking to escape the big city (population 7,800) for a spell. And everybody gets along. 

In that sense, Old Saloon is like a wonderful little train station in the middle of nowhere — one that happens to have a stable to deal with summer crowds. It’s a marvelous outpost nestled in one of the prettiest places on planet Earth. And it’s not trying to stand out. It’s simply fitting in. 

Old Saloon, you’re alright by me. May you thrive for centuries to come, reminding us always of the simple pleasures.

Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
7 of the best spirits for spiked apple cider
Add a twist to your apple cider with one of these spirits
Glass mug with spiked apple cider

There's nothing better than a wintery and blustery day. Just kidding; there is, actually. It's called spiked apple cider and booze. You know the kind where you take spices and apple cider, then heat it, and after it gets to a nice hot temperature mix in your favorite spirits? Sit in your favorite chair and just sip the cold away.

Speaking of cold, you can definitely make your own concoction to ease the symptoms of the common cold -- it's called a hot toddy. Sick or not, it's delicious and may keep that cold at bay. In the meantime, we put together a list of some of the best spirits for those cold winter nights. But these aren't just for winter, you can enjoy these drinks year-round, as they can either be made into spiked hot apple cider or cold spiked apple cider cocktails. Consider them the adult's apple juice, and no matter if you decide on a hot or cold cocktail, you're going to enjoy it.

Read more
The best breweries in America: The ultimate bucket list if you love craft beer
Want to combine craft beer and travel? These breweries have great ales and more — worth booking a vacation for
Prairie Artisan Ales Brewery

If you didn’t know it, there are currently more than 9,000 (yes, you read that right) breweries operating in the U.S. That’s a lot of IPAs, pilsners, and barrel-aged stouts. Honestly, it’s way more beer than you or I could ever hope to drink. This also means there are a ton of breweries that, to put it a bit bluntly, aren’t worth your time. There are also a lot of great outfits, brewing award-winning beers. There are also a few that stand above the rest both in terms of quality and atmosphere. These are the bucket list breweries that every beer fan should visit at least once.

The best part? These gems can be found all over the country. There are Chicago breweries, Asheville breweries, and outstanding, can’t-miss breweries from Petaluma to St. Pete. We’re talking names like Tree House Brewery, Russian River Brewing, Brewery Ommegang, and Portland, Maine’s stalwart Allagash Brewing to name a few.

Read more
Apple cider donuts are a fall tradition – this is the only recipe you need
You'll love this tasty, simple apple cider donut recipe
Apple cider donuts with sugar

This time of year, the sweet treats are out to play, and we couldn't be more thrilled. Pair all the deliciously spicy fall flavors with chilly days that make you want to snuggle up with something cozy and sugary, and we're happy campers. Perhaps slightly chubbier ones, but that's what the cable-knit sweaters are for. If you've never made (or even tried!) piping hot, cinnamon-sugary, crisp and spicy, fresh apple cider donuts, what are you even doing with your life? This chilly weather treat is a must for autumn days, and it's about time you learn to make these spicy little love cakes.

Why are apple cider donuts so good?
We all love our local corner donut shops for a quick sugar fix and a cheap cup of coffee. Nothing says "it's going to be a good Saturday morning" more than one of those cheerful pink boxes. Now imagine that instead of your usual maple bar or classic glazed, the donut in your hand is fresh and warm, infused with crisp, autumnal apple cider and fall spices, warm cinnamon and sugar crystals dusting your fingertips. And instead of a fluorescently lit shop in a strip mall with chipped laminate flooring, you're enjoying that donut at a stunningly fragrant, gorgeously picturesque apple orchard, owned and run by kind and jovial local farmers.

Read more