Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

Yankee Jim Canyon Whitewater and History

Yankee Jim Canyon is a short, narrow canyon on the Yellowstone River about 13 miles north of Yellowstone Park. The canyon has the largest rapids on the Yellowstone River outside of the Park (boating on the Yellowstone River is banned in Yellowstone Park). Yankee Jim Canyon is less than five miles long and the whitewater rapids are confined to the first couple of miles. Rafting and kayaking are popular and there are a number of whitewater rafting companies located nearby.

The Upper Yellowstone

The Yellowstone River exits Yellowstone Park in Gardiner, MT and for the next 18 miles it runs through canyons cut into the surrounding mountains. Gardiner itself is split in half by the river with a bridge connecting the two sides. The canyon here is very steep and the wild river is quite narrow. The mountains gradually pull back to form a shallow valley in the Corwin Springs area which continues to Yankee Jim Canyon.

Upstream of Yankee Jim the Yellowstone River has two very different sections. The 8-mile section that begins at the Yellowstone Park boundary is mostly fast water and whitewater. The river descends quite rapidly and there are a number of class II rapids. This is a popular stretch for floating and several raft companies offer guided ufloats on this stretch.

At Corwin Springs, MT the character of the river changes significantly. The gradient becomes very gradual and the river gets flat and slow for five miles before entering Yankee Jim Canyon. The Canyon is very obvious from the river. As you approach from upstream you are drifting through a broad flat valley while watching the mountains pull together into a deep V shape canyon approaching ahead. The river itself is much like the surroundings. Broad and flat during the approach and narrow and steep in the canyon.

Hwy 89 closely follows the Yellowstone River on its journey from Yellowstone Park to Livingston. In Yankee Jim Canyon the road is quite close to the river. In fact, there are paved pull outs above several of the rapids. On the opposite side of the river is an abandoned railroad bed which once served as the primary means for tourists to access Yellowstone National Park. Today the rail line is long abandoned but in a few places the rail bed is very obvious perched above the river.

Photo opf Yankee Jim Canyopn at low river level
The Yellowstone River has dramatic seasonal differences between low and high water. In the narrow canyon sections the river will commonly have a more than 20 ft difference in elevation. Of course, this has a dramatic impact on the rapids of Yankee Jim Canyon. This is a low water shot of a diminished rapid. Note the abandoned rail bed cut into the canyon wall.

The Yellowstone is a Wild River

The Yellowstone River is undammed and flows fluctuate significantly on an annual basis. In the early summer the river becomes swollen with snow melt and grows dramatically in size and power. The US Geologic Survey operates a river gauge station at Corwin Springs and has recorded flow information since the1890s. Low flows are often below 500 cfs (cubic feet per second) and high flows reach above 30,000 cfs. This is a huge difference and the characteristics of river floating are markedly different at different flow rates.

This is especially true in Yankee Jim Canyon. I urge you to make sure you understand the river level and its effect on the rapids when you plan a float. The information here is just a rough guideline and is not intended to be the basis of any decision you may make about floating. You can always check on the flow level at the Corwin Springs Gauge Station

This the same rapid as the photo above but taken from upstream at much higher water flows. The rapids of Yankee Jim Canyon are not technical in nature but at high flows there is some big water.

The Rapids of Yankee Jim

The Yellowstone River’s biggest whitewater is in Yankee Jim Canyon. While this section is fairly mild in low water it can be life threatening during runoff for those who are not properly prepared. The following information is based on my personal experiences. I guided this stretch of river for more than a decade in the 1980’s – 90’s and have made more than 1,000 trips through the canyon. The following descriptions are based on my rafting experiences and are not specific to kayaking.

Yankee Jim’s Revenge

As you enter Yankee Jim Canyon the river’s pace increases and the first rapid comes very quickly. This rapid, commonly known as “Yankee Jim’s Revenge”, can be very difficult. At certain medium high to high flow levels the rapid has a dangerous wave that’s very hard to avoid. The wave itself is quite deceptive and most people who stop and scout from the highway look at the waves and don’t consider it to look like any sort of a problem. However, the unique hydraulic of this wave has flipped many a boat.

The entrance to the rapid is an obvious V left of center. At high water the wave shows up as a breaking wave about two thirds of the way through the obvious set of waves that are otherwise great fun rollers. Unfortunately, if you’re riding the rollers you’re likely to hit the bad wave unless you pull hard to escape. It’s possible to enter the rapid in the V and cross above the wave to avoid it. However, at higher flows, especially at flood levels, it’s more prudent to stick to the eddies and skate your way down the left-hand shoreline. I always recommend you avoid hitting the wave.

Through the 1980s I probably saw 100 boats flip on this wave, including 18 ft rafts with a dozen passengers. However, its been years since I floated the canyon at the concerning flow levels so the shape of the wave may have changed.

Big Rock Rapid

The next rapid you come to in Yankee Jim Canyon is a classic pool and drop rapid called the “Big Rock” rapid. The rapid is obvious because of the house-sized rock splitting the river in half. At most flows this is the biggest rapid in the canyon and is great fun. As long as you avoid the rock you can bounce your way through the waves but the best run is on the right-hand side of the rock.

The first drop into the rapid is a pretty steep drop and as you approach from upstream it almost looks like the river just ends in a flat line. If you are in a multiple boat situation watch the boat in front of you as it briefly vanishes from sight and pops up on top of the first wave below.

Big ROck Rapid in Yankee Jim Canyon at moderately high water
While most of the rapids in Yankee Jim Canyon get larger in high water, the Big Rock Rapid actually smooths out. Here the Big Rock is just covered. At most flows, this house sized rock towers above the water.
The Boxcar Rapid

Below the big rock rapid is a stretch of fast water and it’s a straight shot down the middle of the river with the Boxcar Rapid approaching just ahead. The Boxcar Rapid is the narrowest point in Yankee Jim Canyon and you can see the sheer rock walls coming together ahead as you approach. Just above the Boxcar Rapid is a stretch of waves that vary in size based on flow. Run them right down the center. The waves rush you towards the choking narrows where the force of the river is piled into a narrow dogleg turn with a big rock in the center of the river.

The real danger in Boxcar comes at maximum flood levels. At extreme high water the hydraulics between those two cliff walls are really significant and it is best to be avoided. Even at ordinary high water this rapid can be a white knuckle experience. At low flows it can be hard to imagine the nasty water of flood levels.

The massive wave that forms in Boxcar Rapid at flood levels is very dangerous for most boaters. However, if you have the skills, it can be very exciting!

Boxcar Rapid gets its name from a train crash that occurred here. The railroad ran right next to the river on a sheer bank. There was a derailment and several cars went off into the river. For many years there was railroad debris from the crash scattered ion the river bank. Today all that remains are the stories.

From here out the canyon walls pull back from the river and the remaining white-water is of little consequence. However, it’s still a beautiful float in a beautiful canyon. Few people realize that there’s excellent fishing for native cutthroat trout on this stretch of the river.

History of Yankee Jim Canyon

Yankee Jim Canyon was named for one of the early settlers to the area. “Yankee Jim” George was a miner who never struck it rich and settled down in the mouth of the canyon. The canyon was a significant barrier to horse and foot traffic so Yankee Jim built a road. He turned it into a toll road that was pretty much the only way through the canyon. Yankee Jim operated a prosperous business charging people that traveled his road. He later added to his business by building a small guest house.

Yankee Jim George was a well-known local character full of many quirks. For example, to move stock through on his road he charged a nickel a head for cows but a dime a head for sheep – it was widely known that he hated sheep.

Yankee Jim Meets the Railroad

Unfortunately for Yankee Jim, the railroad had plans to make their way through the canyon to reach Corwin Springs. The railroad made Yankee Jim an offer for his road but he didn’t like that idea one bit and turned them down.

The railroad wasn’t going to take no as an answer so they reached into their bag of tricks and sent back east for help. Soon a negotiator arrived with a couple of cases of whiskey. He visited Yankee Jim and by the time they were done talking the whiskey was gone and Yankee Jim had signed away all rights to his road.

The railroad built Yankee Jim a new road that went up and over and twisted around. Needless to say, this was pretty much the end of Yankee Jim’s business. The railroad ran along the river and went right by Yankee Jim’s house. Every day he’d hear the train coming and he’d run outside shaking his fist and cursing as it passed by.

Yankee Jim Meets the President

Yankee Jim George was a famous storyteller. He was so good that Rudyard Kipling praised him for his ability to tell a yarn. Yankee Jim’s stories of fighting bears, wolves and Indians had people amazed at his tales of bravery and daring do.

The story goes that in 1902 when Teddy Roosevelt came out to dedicate Yellowstone National Park he heard stories about Yankee Jim and decided he wanted to meet him. The President was staying in his private rail car which was set up at Corwin Springs about 5 miles away. The president sent one of his officers on a horse down to see Yankee Jim. The messenger told Yankee Jim that the president would very much like to make his acquaintance and would like to have him come visit. Yankee Jim reportedly looked at the messenger and told him “If Teddy wants to talk he knows where I live”.

Well, of course, this upset that young officer to no end but Yankee Jim refused to change his mind. The officer had no choice but to ride back to Corwin Springs where he had to face the president. He nervously approached the President and said “Very respectfully Mr. President, but Yankee Jim says you tell Teddy that if he wants to talk he knows where I live.”

Legend has it that by the time Roosevelt quit laughing he had saddled up his horse and ridden down to Yankee Jim’s cabin where they spent the rest of the day swapping lies. Now this might not all be the truth, but it sure makes a good story.

Learn More
There are a number of excellent books about the Yellowstone River and the Upper Paradise Valley. I particularly recommend:
Montana’s Yellowstone River: From the Teton Wilderness to the Missouri
Paradise Valley On the Yellowstone (MT) (Images of America)

Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

West Boulder River

The West Boulder River is a favorite place for camping, hiking and fishing close to both Big Timber and Livingston, MT. Popular with day hikers and backpackers, the West Boulder Meadows are an ideal place for a first ever backpack trip. The combination of excellent hiking, camping, fishing and scenery make this a very special place.

The West Boulder River originates high in the Absaroka Mountains and the entire upper drainage is in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. After leaving the wilderness the river quickly enters private lands and joins the main Boulder River in McLeod, MT. The Boulder continues flowing northward for about 20 miles until it enters the Yellowstone River at Big Timber.

Getting to the West Boulder River

To get to the West Boulder trailhead drive south from Big Timber on the Boulder River Road (MT 298). This great drive travels up a broad valley with fantastic scenery in every direction. Stay on this paved highway for 17 miles until you reach the tiny town of McLeod. You will cross the West Fork as you are passing through McLeod and reach the intersection with the West Boulder Road (also known as the Swingley Road) in less than a half mile.

Turn right (west) here and stay on this major gravel road as it follows the river. After 7 miles you will reach a well signed intersection for the West Boulder forest access. Turn left (south) onto this gravel road and follow it until you reach the campground and trailhead about 7 miles ahead. Note: the Swingley Road continues on to just east of Livingston. This is a very scenic but rough road – if you are coming from Livingston, consider taking this 24 mile route.

The West Boulder access road travels through private property all the way to the campground. Please respect the property rights of the landowners and don’t ever leave the road right-of-way. The campground and trailhead parking area are completely surrounded by private property so again, please do not trespass.

Photo of West Boulder River trail along a hillside
The West Boulder River trail is generally in great shape. This view is typical of the stretch at the top of the switchbacks you encounter just after crossing on the bridge. Looking up canyon the, the meadows are about a mile ahead. The trail continues on until it crosses the mountains and descends into Paradise Valley.

Trailhead, Camping & Cabin

The West Boulder River trailhead area is part of the Custer Gallatin National Forest and includes a campground, a Forest Service operated cabin and a parking area for hikers and horse riders. This is also the parking area for the Davis Creek Trail. This is a fairly high use area and it’s not uncommon to find hikers and horses at the trailhead or on the trail. There are no services at the trailhead so be sure to arrive fully prepared. The West Boulder River trail continues on far beyond the West Boulder Meadows and a fair number of backpackers and horse packers use the trail.

The West Boulder Campground is open all year but the access road may be impassable at times. The campground has no services except vault toilets. There is a camping fee which is paid on site as there is no reservation system. There are only 10 campsites and the campground does fill a few times each summer. Plan to arrive early to get a site.

The West Boulder Cabin is available to rent by the night. This is a forest service cabin so understand that it is rustic. Reservation are required to stay in the cabin and need to be made at least three days in advance. Cabin reservations are not made through the local office so use the info on the West Boulder Cabin to make your reservations.

West Boulder Trail

The West Boulder Meadows are a couple miles of easy hiking from the trailhead.. The Meadows are popular with anglers, as they provide great fishing for wild trout.

The parking area for the trail is large and well signed. The road continues past the parking area but do not drive further! Everything ahead is private property, including the road. From the parking area the trail starts by hiking on the road for 50 – 100 yards past the cattle guard that is right at the parking area. After this short distance the trail heads off to the left at an obvious intersection. This is the beginning of an easy hike that gently climbs through the forest.

Photo of the West Boulder River Meadows as seen from above on the trail approaching the meadows
The West Boulder Meadows sit in a beautiful mountain canyon. The fire that burned through in 2006 left lots of standing dead trees but has really opened up the views.

This heavily used trail is in great shape and it’s mostly smooth and easy hiking. After a mile of so you enter a section of forest that was thoroughly burned in the 2006 Jungle Fire. This major blaze burned a lot of the back country in the Boulder River drainage. The burn on the West Boulder was pretty significant and the contrast between the unburned and burned areas is rather dramatic. While many believe the burned forest somehow looks unattractive, I find that it has charms of its own. Fields of wildflowers spring up, there is lots of lush new green vegetation and the views really open up so you can see a lot more. In particular, this fire seems to have spurred a lot of new Aspen growth.

Soon the trail reaches the very sturdy bridge that crosses the West Boulder. After crossing the bridge the trail enters the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness and begins to climb. After a couple of switchbacks the trail levels out and the follows the creek through a nice canyon area. This section is through burned forest and there are great views of the creek below and the surrounding mountains. Continue to follow the trail for about another mile until you reach the West Boulder meadows.

West Boulder Meadows

There is no doubt that you will know when you reach the West Boulder Meadows. The canyon becomes a very flat valley for about a half mile and the river slows and meanders through beautiful meadows. The big slow pools formed in the meadow are great habitat for fish, wildlife and birds.

Photo of a large pool in the West Boulder River Meadows
This pool is found right where the meadows begin. Its slow clear water is filled with cruising trout which fisherman can spot and cast directly to. There is a nice camp site located in the trees on the right.

There are several good backpacking campsites in the meadows making this an excellent place for an overnight hike. With the fairly short hike on a good trail makes this a perfect place for a first ever backpacking overnight. Be aware that the bugs can be bad at times. This is a very dark area so plan on world class stargazing.

Fishing the West Boulder

The West Boulder Meadows are very popular with anglers who come to fish for the wild trout that inhabit the cold clear waters. Through the meadows the river is clear and slow, making it a great place to spot feeding trout and to “sight fish” by casting directly to fish you can see. The trout in the West Boulder come in all sizes and it’s not uncommon to find multiple people in fishing in the Meadows during good fishing months.

If you have the Meadows to yourself you can start fishing right at the outlet end where the Meadows end and the canyon section begins. The long deep pool that is right above this outlet usually holds a number of nice fish. Start with this pool and gradually fish your way upstream  for a memorable angling experience.

The fish here are all Yellowstone cutthroat trout that have been hybridized with rainbow trout. Historically the river was stocked but today the fish are all wild and reproducing. Management agencies have thoroughly inventoried all of the waters in the West Boulder drainage looking for genetically pure populations of the native cutthroats. However, none of the pure strain fish have been found. You can learn more about these efforts in the Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout Conservation Strategy

Into Deep Wilderness

For those interested in exploring the West Boulder further, the trail continues on past the Meadows for many miles. About 5 miles further on you reach the junction with Falls Creek, a major tributary. A smaller meadow area called Beaver Meadows is another 3 miles or so along the trail. According to MFWP there is a fish passage barrier just above Falls Creek and the West Boulder is fishless upstream of that point.

The trail continues on until it steeply climbs up and over the Mill Creek pass. From there it’s downhill into the Yellowstone Valley. This is an excellent multi-day backpacking trip that begins at one trailhead and ends at another. Along the way you will intersect other trails which offer access to much of the Absaroka back country.

If you want to explore the wilderness beyond the West Boulder Meadows I urge you to get a good map or maps. The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness West Map is excellent and highly recommended. The DeLorme Montana Atlas & Gazetteer has large scale topo maps of the West Boulder and of all of Montana. Of course, Topo maps of the area are very helpful and the USFS has good maps but you may have to buy them in person.

Despite the great backpacking opportunities, most hikers will stick to the 6 mile round trip hike into the West Boulder Meadows and there are few better short hikes than this. I especially recommend this as an easy overnight backpacking trip. The West Boulder Meadows are a beautiful place with world-class fishing opportunities and the trail is a great hike. Be sure to try this one if you ever get a chance.  

A description of this hike and many others can be found in Hiking Montana which is a book that every hiker should own.

While you are in the area you might want to visit:

Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

South Fork Deep Creek Trail

The South Fork Deep Creek trail provides great hiking just a few minutes south of Livingston, Montana. The trail provides access into the north end of the Absaroka Mountains and the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. The trail is mostly used for day hiking but it connects into a trail network that offers great backpacking opportunities.

Deep Creek

The Yellowstone River runs through Paradise Valley south of Livingston and the rugged Absaroka Mountains make up the eastern edge of the valley. A series of creeks run out of the mountains and most provide access to the Custer Gallatin National Forest. Suce Creek is the closest to Livingston the North Fork Deep Creek and South Fork Deep Creek come next, followed by Pine Creek.

While the USFS often refers to the South Fork Deep Creek trail as the Deep Creek trail, Deep Creek itself only runs through private land without reaching the forest. There is no access on the main fork of Deep Creek. However, both the North Fork Deep Creek and the South Fork Deep Creek trails are close by and provides good access.

Photo of the Paradise Valley looking south from a vista on the Deep Creek Trail
The first section of the trail climbs up the bare ridge that faces Paradise Valley. The view from the ridge line is great.

To reach the trailhead travel south from Livingston on US 89 toward Yellowstone Park. About 5 miles south of town take the branch road to the left (MT 540 or East River Road). The road crosses the Yellowstone River and follows the east side of the river. Follow this road for about 7 miles. The road to the South Fork Deep Creek Trail is well signed. Turn left on to a gravel road that runs straight as an arrow up the mountain. In less than a mile the road ends in the parking lot for the trail. There are no facilities at this trailhead so don’t expect anything.

The Deep Creek Trail

The trail goes past the sign posts and up the big ridge that stares you in the face. This is open exposure as the trail climbs to a point along the ridgeline. Here the trail crosses into forest and drops down to meet Deep Creek, a beautiful stream rushing out of the Absaroka Mountains. The trail stays close to the creek for a short distance as it soon reaches a creek crossing. From here the trail climbs up the opposite side of the valley. The trail works its way through woods and clearings, climbing upward and soon entering the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

Photo of the view ferom along the Deep Creek Trail
As the trail nears the top of the divide bare rock mountains and distant vistas make a visual delight.

This is a typical Absaroka-Beartooth trail. The trail itself is in good shape and is well maintained. Wildflowers abound and, depending on the year, berries are available for pickers. About 4 miles in you reach the bottom of the steep switchback section of the trail. From here the trail begins a series of almost continuous switchbacks climbing and climbing. The view behind you into Paradise Valley can be spectacular on this steep but beautiful climb.

Your reward for climbing the 1,400 ft vertical switchback section comes when you reach the top of the divide. Here you can look to the east into the Davis Creek drainage and back to the west towards Paradise Valley. If you’ve arranged a shuttle you can continue hiking from here down the Davis Creek Trail (trail #38). This trail runs about 10 miles to it’s trailhead on the West Boulder River. However, most hikers make the Davis Creek divide their destination and turn around here, retracing their steps back to their car.

Davis Creek drainage from teh top of Davis Creek Divide
Looking east into the Davis Creek drainage from the top of the Davis Creek Divide. The Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness stretches out in all directions. The top of the divide is smooth and flat with a covering of small gravel and very sparse vegetation.

The Pine Creek Fire

On a hot windy day in late August, 2013 a fire was sparked near the Yellowstone River that spread out-of-control. The fire swept northeast – through Pine Creek and into the Deep Creek drainage. Over the next 48 hours the fire jumped back and forth and burned a total of about 12,000 acres. Although the fire burned through the heart of the Pine Creek community, remarkably few buildings were lost.

The Deep Creek trail runs through lands that were hit hard by the fire. Its remarkable to see the rapid forest recovery taking place. The hillsides are lush with new growth and young trees show that it won’t be too many years until this is forest again. Take caution if you are hiking this trail in the early 2020s. The standing dead trees that were killed in the fire have been falling at an increasing pace and falling trees could be a real hazard!

A Good Trail to Visit

The South Fork Deep Creek Trail is a hike that can be any length that suits you with interesting terrain along the way. If you’re too early in the year you may find snowbanks persisting as you approach the top of the divide. However, they usually are not a barrier to achieving the divide. South Fork of Deep Creek Trail is not one of the most popular trails in this area but it is common to see other hikers on the trail. I highly recommend this hike for those looking for a good place to get into the woods near Livingston, MT.

After visiting the Deep Creek trail you might want to try these nearby trails

Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

Pine Creek Falls and Pine Creek Lake

Pine Creek is a tributary of the Yellowstone River that enters in the heart of Paradise Valley. While the National Forest campground attracts some, most visitors come to hike to Pine Creek Falls or Pine Creek Lake. This is the most popular hike in the Livingston area. It’s easy to access and the hike to the falls is only about a mile on an excellent trail.

The Paradise Valley

The Yellowstone River valley south of Livingston is known as Paradise Valley and is truly a special place. Paradise Valley is defined by the Absaroka Mountains that rise dramatically to form the eastern boundary of the valley. The valley floor is broad and flat at about 5,000 feet elevation. The mountains rise straight in a series of peaks ranging up to nearly 11,000 ft.

Along the length of the valley a number of streams come out of the mountains and the drainages these creeks cut into the mountains provide the primary access points into the Custer Gallatin National Forest and the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. The Pine creek drainage is on the east side of Paradise Valley about ten miles south of Livingston, MT.

To get to Pine Creek take the clearly marked access road that branches off Hwy 541 (East River Road) just south of the small community of Pine Creek. The paved access road climbs steeply for a short distance then meanders through the woods for a couple of miles. The road runs through private land so be sure to stay on the road and respect the property owners.

Pine Creek Campground

Entering National Forest lands, you soon reach a road leading down to your left (north) that accesses the Luccock Park church camp. Near here a short spur road on the right leads uphill to the south to the parking area for the George Lake Trail. Continue on the road until you quickly reach the entrance to the Pine Creek Campground.

This is a nice campground in a forested mountain setting that offers excellent car camping. There are a couple of loops to the campground and in the summer you will find friendly camp hosts on duty. The campground has drinking water, trash removal and vault toilets. There are 25 campsites each with a fire ring and a picnic table. Here are some suggestions for selecting a campsite. If you camp here make sure you properly store all foods. This is bear country!

Photo of Pine Creek Falls near Livingston, MT
Pine Creek Falls is a beautiful place to visit. It is only a mile from the parking lot on a well maintained trail. This is a very popular hike for good reason!

The Pine Creek Trail

It’s a short drive through the campground to the trailhead parking area. Parking is spread out and at times it can get crowded. Fortunately, there is always more room a bit further away. This is a popular hike and its fun to see the geographical diversity of license plates in the parking lot.

The trail is well marked and begins as a wide flat easy hike. The trail soon narrows slightly but remains wide and easy and climbs gradually. A couple of hundred yards from the trail head you reach a side trail heading south that leads to the George Lake trail. When the George Lake trail was first constructed this was the original trailhead. However developing a dedicated trailhead was a much better option and today few people access George Lake from this trail.

The trail continues through the forest and you soon reach a bridge crossing Pine Creek. This is a big heavy duty bridge crossing a beautiful mountain stream. After crossing the Creek the trail begins to climb a bit more steeply. It is somewhat rockier and narrows. However, it remains an easy hike and presents little difficulty for most hikers. It’s about a mile total to the falls.

Photo of side falls at Pine Creek Falls
At high water flows Pine Creek Falls splits and flows over a second, smaller falls.

Beyond Pine Creek Falls

A sturdy bridge leads over the creek at the base of the falls and the trail continues on. From here the nature of the trail changes dramatically, very dramatically. Pine Creek Lake is only four miles ahead but, in those four miles, the trail climbs 3,000 feet. What this means on a practical level is lots of switch backs, steep climbs and long unrelenting uphill hiking. Fortunately, it’s great hiking through an interesting area.

Many people only hike this trail far enough to get to the top of the Pine Creek Falls where you can sit on the slick rock cliff top and watch the creek pour over the edge and out of sight. This is a great place to get some sun and is the turn around point for most people who are not heading to the lake.

Continuing on, the trail climbs through the woods for the next couple of miles following the creek upwards. After some distance the trail climbs out of the woods and climbs a series of steep switchbacks through a massive rock field. This is just the first of these rock fields which alternate with stretches of forest until you reach the smaller lake just below Pine Creek Lake. This is a beautiful little lake fed by a waterfall plunging down from above.

Pine Creek Lake

Making still another climb you reach a small meadow ringed by bare rock. Just beyond this bare rock lies Pine Creek Lake, a true gem of a high mountain lake. Its nestled in a cirque of spectacular sheer rock mountain peaks at nearly 9,200 ft. The 32 acre lake is fed by a cascade plunging in at the east end of the lake. While not too big around, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks reports it as 170 ft deep!

Much of the western and northern shorelines are bare rock. Easy to walk on and great to fish from, the lake plunges rapidly from these rocky shores. The east (inlet) side of the lake is shallower and the associated shoreline is not as steep. Hiking around the southern side of the lake is difficult. The mountain plunges straight into the lake on this side and it’s not possible to walk the shoreline. It takes scrambling up the hillside to find a place where you can circle this side of the lake.

Pine Creek Lake can be visited on a day hike or as an overnight backpack trip. Campers will find limited good camping areas so please to be sure to minimize your impacts. There is no firewood available at the lake so be sure to plan on cooking on a stove.

The trail ends at the lake and there are no trails going further from here. Very experienced back country hikers can climb the mountains to the north and northeast to cross into the Deep Creek or Mission Creek drainages. In a straight line it is not far to Elephanthead Mountain. However, this is for expert hikers only as it crosses very rough and dangerous terrain.

Fishing Pine Creek

Pine Creek is not a popular fishing destination but Pine Creek Lake is. The creek is quite steep and the trout populations seem to be pretty low. Rainbow and brook trout are found in the creek. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MFWP) stocked the creek with rainbows until 1984 when they stopped all stocking. The lower end of Pine Creek is all on private property with no access. Upstream of the forest boundary the creek is very fast and most anglers seek other waters.

Pine Creek Lake offers great fishing for Yellowstone cutthroat trout. MFWP plants cutthroats every three years which provides anglers with fish of several sizes. Flies or spinners work well and the lake can be fished from shore in many places. Some of the cutthroats move downstream into the outlet stream and even over the falls to the small lake below. If you have the time its fun to explore with a fly rod.

Hiking to Pine Creek Falls or Pine Creek Lake is one of the finest hikes in an incredible hiking area. To learn more about this hike and more than 100 other great hikes check out the book Hiking Montana.

Here are some nearby hikes that you will enjoy

Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

Natural Bridge Falls and the Boulder River

The Boulder River is a tributary of the Yellowstone River that originates high in the Absaroka Mountains south of Big Timber, MT. Natural Bridge Falls is the main attraction on the Boulder but the river and surrounding lands provide incredible opportunities for fishing, camping and exploring.

The Boulder River Valley

The headwaters of the Boulder River are in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. This vast wilderness borders Yellowstone National Park and is one of the wildest areas in the lower 48 states. The Boulder begins from snow melt in the high mountains. It travels nearly 30 miles through US Forest Service land before leaving the mountains. The river canyon opens into a broad open agricultural valley. The Boulder River has long been renowned within Montana for its excellent recreation opportunities. Many residents will tell you that the Boulder is one of their favorite places to visit.

State Hwy 298 parallels the river until the National Forest boundary where it becomes the Boulder River Road. Heading South from Big Timber, MT, Hwy 298 is an excellent paved road that runs through a broad valley studded with family ranches. This is productive agriculture land and the working ranches that fill the valley remind us of the traditional Montana lifestyle. The lands surrounding the river are private property and its difficult to access the river through this stretch.

About 16 miles south of Big Timber is the tiny town of McLeod, MT. The first post office in the Boulder valley opened here in 1886. Don’t expect to find much here today. The town is at the junction of the West Boulder and main Boulder Rivers. The West Boulder River is a sizable tributary that is well known for its fly fishing and great hiking trails. A gravel road intersects with Hwy 298 near McLeod. This road is called the East Boulder Road but becomes the Swingly Road after a bit. The Swingly Road travels cross country to the outskirts of Livingston. It makes a great drive as well as providing access to hiking trails and other explorations.

Past McLeod, Hwy 298 continues south toward the rapidly approaching mountains. It’s about three miles to the East Boulder River where an access road leads to several trailheads in the East Boulder Drainage. The East Boulder is a significant mining area that was first developed in 1893 when Ansel S. Hubble, one of the first prospectors in the area, filed claims in the drainage. Today, the East Boulder Mine is a major underground mine that producing large amounts of platinum and palladium.

Natural Bridge Falls as seen in low water. The dry creek bed is obvious above the falls. The river has completely gone underground upstream of here and works its way through the porous sandstone to where it shoots out to become a surface river again. In high water the entire creek is pouring over the edge as well as through the underground channels. Prior to its collapse in 1988 the creek was spanned by a natural bridge that gave the park its name.

Natural Bridge Falls

5 miles south of the East Boulder junction the paved road ends and you enter the Gallatin National Forest. Almost immediately the Natural Bridge Falls Picnic Area is on the left. This Forest Service day use area is a fantastic place to visit and well worth the trip to see.

At the Natural Bridge Falls the Boulder River pours over the lip of a 105 foot tall limestone rock layer. This rock is soft and easily eroded and historically there was a beautiful natural bridge that spanned the river here. Unfortunately, the Natural Bridge collapsed in 1988 and all that remains are memories and photos. However, the falls remain and they are spectacular.

The limestone rock layer erodes easily and several major underground channels have been cut through the rock. In low water the entire river goes underground above the falls. The river erupts from several places to come bursting out of a cliff wall. At high water these streams are joined by the bulk of the river pouring over the lip.

The Natural Bridge Falls parking area is right next to the road where the highway ends and the gravel road begins. There are handicap accessible outhouses, paved trails, interpretive signs and numerous river overlooks. This is also the trailhead for the Green Mountain Trail which is reached by crossing the river on the sturdy bridge. Casual visitors will want to cross the river and follow the trail heading downstream. It is a short walk to the vantage points opposite the Falls where the photos on this page were taken. The hike is about a 1/4 mile on gentle trail through a mixture of clearings and forested areas.

Kayaking Natural Bridge

Natural Bridge is an impressive falls. At high water the Boulder is a significant river and the water shoots over the falls with an amazing force. The Boulder River has always been the playground for boaters (mostly kayakers) and it’s easy to imagine that many have looked at the falls and wondered if it would be possible to survive an attempt at jumping the falls.

One man decided that he had to find out and in 2008 Bozeman native Ian Garcia kayaked over the falls. Ian is a noted waterfall jumper and had studied this for years. Ian survived the jump but did have a swim after being ejected from his boat. Read more about kayaker boats over Natural Bridge Falls.    

Photo of kayaker jumping Natural Bridge Falls
At high water the Natural Bridge Falls is a very impressive sight. The water flowing over the lip is enhanced by the flows erupting from the underground waters. If you look closely you will see Ian Garcia in his kayak going over the top of the falls. Although he was ejected from his kayak, Ian was able to swim out of the maelstrom at the base of the falls.

Although most boaters avoid the Falls, the upper Boulder is popular with whitewater kayakers who come to enjoy it’s wild waters. The 20 plus miles of river above Natural Bridge offer some very difficult waters and serious boaters flock to the Boulder for spring run off. If you want to float these stretches of the river you must be prepared. This website is not the place to get the info you need. Do your homework and don’t consider boating on the Boulder until you are certain you are prepared for the boating conditions.

The Upper Boulder River

From Natural Bridge the road continues for about 25 miles, making a very deep incursion into the heart of the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. This road can be very rutted and slow driving so don’t ever plan to hurry. There are a number of private in-holdings along the road but most of the land is National Forest. There are about a half dozen USFS developed campgrounds along the road. These all have toilets and some have water. Most charge a small nightly fee. In addition, there are many dispersed camping spots on forest land along the road and river.

Besides the camping opportunities, the USFS operates the Fourmile Cabin as a rental cabin. The cabin is about 15 miles south of Natural Bridge Falls. It sleeps 4 and is available for a modest fee on a reservation basis.

Into the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness

Beyond the end of the Boulder River Road there are jeep trails that lead even higher and further. There was a history of mining on the highest mountains in the area and there are private mining lands at the top of Independence Peak, which is to the east of the River. I don’t recommend that you try to travel these 4wd roads. Rather, stay with the main road which ends at about 8,000 ft elevation in a meadow surrounded by 10,000 ft peaks. From here there are trails into the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. This is beautiful mountain country.

The Upper Boulder is classic mountain terrain and there are great hiking trails that take off from trailheads along the road. The upper sections of the Boulder River are just over the mountains from the Paradise Valley of the upper Yellowstone River. Head west from the upper Boulder and you will encounter Crow Mountain which is reached from the Mill Creek drainage on the other side of the mountains. 

If you want to visit these areas make sure you have appropriate maps. USGS topo maps are available from local hiking stores. The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness West National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map fully covers the area and the DeLorme Montana Atlas & Gazetteer has topo maps of the entire state.

Fishing The Boulder River

The Boulder River is a famous fishery and fly fishermen from afar visit to fish for the wild trout that inhabit it’s waters. The Boulder River is a very popular fishery for native Yellowstone cutthroat trout and mountain whitefish as well as for wild brown and rainbow trout. The river is open to fishing all year long but most anglers find the best success in summer and fall. There is a reason that people come from around the world to fish here

The upper river has almost unlimited access as the road runs very close to the river for many miles. Since this is almost all Forest Service land you can fish wherever you think it looks likely. However, below the forest boundary access is a lot tougher. Just outside of McLeod there is a Montana State Fishing Access Site located on the river. The Boulder Forks Fishing Access Site offers great access to an excellent fishing section of the Boulder River.

The Boulder River drainage makes a great place to escape into the mountains of Montana. It offers great hiking, camping, fishing and, for the very experienced, great whitewater boating. This is a wonderful place to go for a quick escape or for an extended expedition. Natural Bridge Falls is a very spectacular natural feature that anyone interested in Montana should see. Be sure to take the opportunity to visit this great area.

Nearby attractions in the Big Timber area:
Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

Mystic Lake, Bear Canyon and New World Gulch

Mystic Lake is a favorite destination near Bozeman, Montana for hikers, mountain bikers, anglers and hunters. Mystic Lake can be accessed from a couple of different trailheads but the access in Bear Canyon is the shortest. Located about 5 miles east of Bozeman, the Bear Canyon area offers hiking, mountain biking and cross country ski opportunities.

Finding the Trailhead

The trail to Mystic Lake begins at the main trailhead parking area which is alongside the Bear Canyon Road. Take Interstate 90 to Exit 309 and head south. Look for the small sign for Bear Canyon on your left about 1/4 mile from the Interstate. Turn left (east) on this road and travel about 3 1/2 miles to the parking area.

There is little hiking information at the trail head and no outhouses or water so come prepared. The parking area is large with room for many vehicles. This is a well used horse trail so at times you might find trailers taking some space in the parking area.

The trail begins right at the info sign and heads up the hill. Follow the trail up and you soon encounter the small stream in the bottom of New World Gulch. This stream will be your companion for a couple of miles as you follow it upstream. There is a looped trail that is possible to take but is very poorly signed. Unless you are comfortable with your maps I suggest you stick to the main trail. Topo maps are great or Bozeman, Big Sky, Bridger Range – National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map 723

Hiker on the trail to Mystic Lake
Soon after beginning your hike the trail follows the stream flowing through New World Gulch.

Hiking the Mystic Lake Trail

The trail follows the stream for about 2 miles. Sometimes the trail is creek side while at other times it climbs away from the water. This first section of the hike is generally quite steep. The trail climbs steadily, sometimes up a pretty good slope. However, it’s generally a moderately easy hike. In places the trail is very rocky which can present difficulties. During spring melt or in wet weather the trail gets muddy and can be difficult.

After dropping down to the creek one final time, the trail turns to the southeast and begins to climb away from the water. This section of trail is about three miles in length and is a nice hiking trail, wandering up and down through meadows and forest. From spring through mid-summer the meadows are a riot of color from the multitude of wild flowers. In wet places clouds of butterflies provide a living kaleidoscope of swirling colors. Keep your eyes peeled as you hike as the area is home to elk, deer and other wild creatures.

Mystic Lake Trail traveling through forest and meadow
The Mystic lake trail wanders through a combination of open forest and mountain meadow. Watch for Elk and Deer in the meadows.

The trail continues to gradually work higher until the top of a very gradual pass. From here it’s a mild downward walk along a long rounded ridge top. This is an easy stroll that makes you wonder why all trails can’t be just like this!

Exploring Mystic Lake

After a short time you can begin to glimpse Mystic Lake in the distance to the south. Gradually the trees open to present better views and soon you are looking down onto the beautiful meadow that fills the shallow valley to the north of the lake. A steep climb down brings you to the edge of the meadow and the lake seems to be within short distance.

Mystic Lake
Mystic Lake as seen from the north end of the lake. The large meadow is a treat to the eyes.

This is where you need to decide where you want to go.  If you stay on the trail it will quickly climb above the lake to the East. Here you can connect with the closed roads that are in the area and can hike on to the US Forest Service Mystic Lake Cabin.

If the lake itself is your objective there is little to gain by climbing to the East. Instead, either pick a trail through the meadow or follow the bottom of the hills on either side of the lake. While the meadow might seem an obvious choice it can be a very difficult hike in wet times. The meadow is laced with small streams and marshy areas and can be a very difficult place to hike. Beware, the insects can be bad in this area.  

Fishing Mystic Lake

There are endless fishing opportunities in this area and Mystic Lake is less popular than most destinations. Although most anglers search out other waters, those who fish Mystic Lake report catching mostly brook trout. However there is a population of larger cutthroat trout which sometimes are biting. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks does not show that they have any stocking or survey records for the lake.

Mystic Lake covers 13 acres and sits at an elevation of 6,586 ft. At one time is was a major source of drinking water for Bozeman. In 1903 – 1904 a dam was built to increase the lake’s water storage. The 43 ft high dam was 400 ft long and significantly increased the storage capacity. The dam was breached by a landslide in 1984 and was permanently removed in 1985. In 2010 the Bozeman city commission considered a plan to build a new dam on Mystic Lake to increase the city’s water supply. Although the project didn’t move forward there’s no telling if the proposal will resurface.

With the history of use the lake has, it is no surprise that there are historic roads in the area. While they are not open to the public the USFS sometimes needs to use them for access.

The Return Trip

To complete your hike return following the same trails.  If you are experienced and comfortable there is a second trail that runs more to the East of the New World Gulch trail.  This trail is clearly marked on maps but can be hard to find when in the area. The few trail signs will not help you find this trail.  The return trip is more downhill than up which can be very welcome.  

The distance from the parking lot to the lake and back is about 12 miles and can be done as a day hike. However, as with most Montana hiking, your personal hiking speed and style may dictate that you approach this hike differently. Backpackers will find campsites in the area and for those who would like to camp for more than one night, the nearby Bear Lakes make for an interesting side hike.  You can also make a backpacking loop by continuing past Bear Lakes to connect with the Bear Creek trail.

Mystic Lake is a great hike with easy access.  Although it is a 12 mile round trip to the lake, this trail is a great place to go for a shorter hike. Wildflowers, butterflies and the chance to spot big game make this a great place to take a hike.

There are a lot of other hikes in the Bozeman area. You can learn more in these books:
Day Hikes Around Bozeman, Montana

Hiking Montana: Bozeman: A Guide to 30 Great Hikes Close to Town

Nearby Hikes:

Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

Lava Lake

Nearest CityBig Sky – 15 miles
SeasonOpen All Year
AttractionsHiking, Backpacking, Fishing
ManagementCuster Gallatin National Forest
Elevation7,193 ft

Lava Lake is a great hike that climbs to a beautiful mountain lake in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. The trail is located in the Gallatin Canyon between Bozeman and Big Sky and is one of the most popular trails in the area. The lake is almost exactly 3 miles from the trailhead but the trail gains 1,600 feet elevation in those three miles. This climb can make it a tough hike for those who are unprepared.

The Lava Lake trailhead is easy to find but it can be difficult to access. The trailhead is located just off US 191 about 20 miles south of Gallatin Gateway and 15 miles north of Big Sky. The access road to the trailhead turns off US 191 at the Cascade Creek bridge. The bridge is where the highway makes a near 90 degree turn and crosses the Gallatin River.

Photo of the Lava Lake trailhead near Big Sky, Montana
The Lava Lake trail begins from the parking lot which is alongside the access road on the banks of the Gallatin River. The trail climbs all the way to the lake.

When approached from the north the access road is well signed and is a right hand turn off US 191. Be alert, the road heads off right at the bridge. If you find yourself crossing the bridge you will have to head back to try again.

Left turns are not allowed from US 191 onto the access road. If you are approaching from the south you must drive past the access road to the signed “Lava Lake Turn Around” on US 191 and head back to approach from the north.

The Lava Lake Trail

Once you are on the access road getting to the trailhead is simple. In a couple of hundred yards you reach the parking area on the side of the road. The parking area is divided into several sections and its common to find a number of vehicles at the site. There is no water at the trailhead but there is a pit toilet (outhouse).

A photo of the rocky trail leading to Lava Lake
The Lava Lake Trail is often very rocky and can be hard to walk. Be sure to pay attention to where you place your feet as you hike.

The trail leaves from the parking area and you immediately get an idea of the trail conditions you’ll find along the entire hike – a steep rocky trail. In fact, the trail climbs steadily and consistently for almost the entire distance. Although it is rarely steep, it is unrelenting. The trail climbs about 500 feet in each of the first 2 miles and 600 feet in the last mile. This is a consistently rough trail with lots of rocks and roots. Rarely will you find a flat trail surface so you have to pay attention to where you are putting your feet.

Photo of bridge crossing Cascade Creek along the trail to Lava Lake
At the two mile mark you cross Cascade Creek on a sturdy bridge. From here it is one mile and 600 feet of elevation until you reach the lake.

At almost exactly 2 miles there is a sturdy bridge crossing the creek the trail has been following. This is Cascade Creek and the constant drop in elevation makes it easy to see where the creek gets its name. After crossing Cascade Creek the trail steepens and climbs through a series of switchbacks. This is the last steep climb. In about 3/4 of a mile the trail begins to flatten and even drops down a little. This last stretch is an easy hike to the lake which is nestled in the high mountains.

Fishing Lava Lake

For anglers, the 47 acre Lava Lake provides active fishing for foot-long wild rainbow trout. The lake can be popular and its common to find one or more anglers fishing. There are places to easily access the lake shore and its possible to walk the shore all the way around the lake.

Fishing Lava Lake is typical for Montana’s mountain lakes. The fish are often aggressive feeders, especially early in the season. You can find out specific information about the fishing conditions at area fishing stores.

Photo of fisherman at Lava Lake
A lone angler tries his luck at Lava Lake. The lake is home to a wold rainbow trout population.

Lava Lake has large populations of chipmunks and rock pikas. Both of these small creatures abound in the rocky areas around the lake. The chipmunks will often boldly visit you to see if you have any food to offer them. Although these creatures may seem docile and friendly remember they are wild animals and will bite if they feel threatened.

Camping at Lava Lake

Backpackers and overnight campers will find a number of suitable campsites but be aware that there are special fire restrictions and you cannot build a campfire if you camp near the lake. The lake sits at 7,193 ft and even in the summer the nights can be cold. Bring plenty of warm clothes because you can’t use a fire to warm up.

Lava Lake is the final destination for some hikers while others will continue on. The lake sees a mix of day hikers, backpackers staying at the lake and backpackers passing through on a longer hike.

Forest trial 445, the Table Rock Trail, splits off just before the lake. This trail heads south, climbing above the lake and toward the surrounding mountains. This is a good hiking trail but it is very steep and climbs nearly 2,000 feet in the next mile or so. Fortunately, after that climb the trail reaches the high country and hiking becomes easier. This is high altitude terrain is typically the realm of the backpacker and not usually visited by day hikers. In fact, I recommend that only expert hikers attempt the trails above Lava Lake.

Lava Lake in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Gallatin National Forest

A Hike to Be Enjoyed

Lava Lake is a very popular hike. It’s easy access and relatively short length attracts lots of hikers. Many come from the Bozeman area but there are also lots of tourists who are directed to the trail. On a nice summer weekend day you may encounter as many as 20 parties on the trail or at the Lake. However, the trail tends to separate people and you are usually alone on the trail.

Don’t be surprised to find people sitting beside the trail who’ve abandoned the climb. People commonly stop and wait for their party to pick them up on the way back down. Although it is only a 3 mile hike, the unrelenting climb is too much for some unprepared hikers.

The Lava Lake hike is a great Montana hiking experience. It’s a beautiful mountain lake that showcases the high country. The trail is easy to find and easy to follow. Although it climbs steadily for its entire length, the trail is manageable for most hikers. If you are in the Bozeman/Big Sky area take the opportunity to try this hike and see for yourself why it is a favorite for many hikers.

Explore nearby

Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

Goose Creek Trail Area

The Goose Creek trail area near Bozeman and Livingston Montana is popular for all types of outdoor recreation. Goose Creek is part of the Custer Gallatin National Forest and has been actively managed by the Forest Service. Most of the area has been logged in the past and the abandoned logging roads provide today’s trail system. This is a popular area for both motorized and human powered activities so expect to find yourself sharing the roads and trails.

The Goose Creek trailhead is easily reached from Bozeman or Livingston Montana. It is accessed by exiting Interstate 90 about 7 miles east of Bozeman at Exit 316, the Trail Creek exit. Head south on Trail Creek road for 3 miles to the well marked road heading up Goose Creek. Follow this road for 2 miles through private property until you reach the locked gate and parking area. Please respect the private property owners and stay on the road until you reach the parking area. The trail is obvious from the parking area as it follows the road upward.

Cross country skiier on the Goose Creek trail
This is typical of several options for skiing the logging roads in the Goose Creek area.

The Goose Creek Trails

The trails here are all old logging roads that wend their way upward from the parking area. There are lots of trail options where side roads split off and you can chose the routes that look good to you.  The main road continues about 5 1/2 miles to the Trail Creek Cabin. This Forest Service rental cabin is a popular overnight destination for winter trips. Its often reached by access from the Newman Creek Road which intersects the Trail Creek Road east of the Goose Creek turnoff.

With the completion of the Chestnut Mountain Trail its possible to link these trails. This creates a point to point trip if you can arrange for a vehicle at each end. This is especially popular with mountain bikers. It is also possible to continue on to Bear Canyon leading toward Bozeman.

Cross Country Skiing

No matter where you go on the Goose Creek trails you will find relatively flat and even trails that climb steadily away from the parking area. These trails are old logging roads so they are wide, flat and never too steep. In places the “road” quality of the trails is gradually lessening as time has softened the road cut but its always obvious that you are on a road. Consequently, the Goose Creek trails are not great for hikers but I highly recommend them as ski trails.

Goose Creek offers great cross country skiing for all abilities. For easy skiing you can stick to the roads to find many miles of enjoyment. For more aggressive skiers Goose Creek provides access to some backcountry downhill runs. You can switchback up the mountains on the logging roads or head straight up but either allows access some downhill runs.

Absaroka Mountains from Goose Creek
The Absaroka Mountains as seen from Goose Creek

Views of Three Ranges

Depending on which trails/roads you follow you will get great views of a number of mountain ranges while on the Goose Creek trails. The views from Goose Creek look across Paradise Valley from west to east with the Absaroka range on the eastern horizon. The Crazy Mountains are prominent to the northeast and the Bridger Mountains are to the north. Whichever way you look, the vistas are great.

Goose Creek is popular for motorized recreation so, if you are seeking a wilderness experience, you won’t find it here. Snowmobiles are common in the winter and 4-wheelers and motorcycles are abundant in the summer. The roads make for pleasant mountain biking and are a great option for a family bike ride and for ski touring. All the different road options Goose Creek provide a lot of opportunities for trails. However, most hikers will probably want to visit one of the other nearby hiking trails.

Nearby Hikes

Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

Elephanthead Mountain

The trail to Elephanthead Mountain (forest trail #37) is a favorite hike for many in the Livingston/Big Timber area. The Elephanthead trail is in the headwaters of Mission Creek which comes out of the Absaroka Mountains and runs into the Yellowstone River east of Livingston. The trail is part of the Custer Gallatin National Forest and it’s easy to reach the Elephanthead trailhead from either Livingston or Big Timber. However, most come in from the Livingston side as the road from Big Timber is a long drive on a gravel road.

Photo of hiker on the Elephant Mountain trail
The trail to Elephanthead Mountain is a well maintained trail that climbs steadily. Much of the trail is through areas that were burned in the 2003 Rough Draw Complex fire. As the remaining fire-killed trees decay and fall, vibrant new growth shows how much fire is a part of the natural ecosystem.

To get to the trailhead, drive east out of Livingston on US 89 (Park Street — the main street through Livingston). Cross the Yellowstone River on the east edge of Livingston and continue for about 1 mile to a well signed turn to the right onto Swingly Road. Follow it for 6-7 miles until you reach Bruffy Lane which branches off to the right. Take this gravel road about 1 mile until you reach the 63 Ranch. Turn right toward the ranch and when the road forks bear left and go through the green gate. Continue on for 1 mile to the trailhead.

The Elephanthead Mountain trailhead is accessed by crossing the private property of the 63 Ranch. Please respect their rights at all times. Close the gates if that is how you find them. Be sure to stay on the road through the ranch and avoid disturbing the guest ranch operations.

Photo of the view downcanyon from near the top of the Elephanthead Mountain trail.
The trail to Elephanthead Mountain offers great views down the Mission Creek drainage.

Hiking to Elephanthead Mountain

The Elephanthead Mountain trailhead is at about 5,750 ft elevation and the trail parallels Mission Creek for the first three miles or so. The trail is mostly in very good condition. The lower sections of the trail are used by ranch guests as well as by locals and its common to encounter other hikers on the trail. The Elephanthead trail runs up the mountain following Mission Creek, climbing through the woods and heading consistently to the west. The trail climbs steadily upward following the creek higher and higher.

You will reach the base Elephanthead Mountain at 8,900ft after about 5 miles of hiking. The trail ends at a three-way intersection with the North Fork Deep Creek trail (#45) and the Blacktail Creek trail (#337). This is also the divide between the Mission Creek drainage to the east and the Yellowstone River drainage to the west.

trail junction sign

There is no developed trail to the top of Elephanthead Mountain. However, it’s not difficult to find a route to the summit. It’s a hike & scramble to the top of the mountain. Most hikers manage to get to the top but some find the final approach to be too challenging. From the top you will enjoy great views of the surrounding mountains and out into the Yellowstone Valley.

Elephanthead Mountain as seen from the trail junction
Elephanthead Mountain as seen from the trail junction

Hiking Beyond Elephanthead

Most hikers are day hiking to visit Elephanthead Mountain but some hikes go further. From the trail intersection the Blacktail Creek trail (#337) heads south for about a mile to Blacktail Lake. From here it continues on to intersect with the Davis Creek trail (#38).

The North Fork Deep Creek trail (#45) heads west and drops about 5 miles to it’s trailhead just south of Livingston. If you have two vehicles it is a great trip to come up one trail and down the other. Even better find a few friends and have part of the group start from each trailhead. You can then swap car keys at the top so there is no vehicle shuttling involved.

There are several options for backpacking from here. Good maps are very helpful. The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness West [Gardiner, Livingston] (National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map (721) is very useful and everyone interested in exploring Montana should have a copy of the DeLorme Montana Atlas & Gazetteer

Hikers who turn around find an easy hike back down as the trail loses altitude at a steady pace, making this a great hike for just about anyone who enjoys the outdoors.

More Nearby Hikes

Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

Passage Creek Falls

Passage Creek Falls is a popular destination for hikers in the Livingston/Bozeman area. The hike to Passage creek Falls is 5 miles round-trip on an easy trail. Many hikers turn around at the falls but the trail is also a primary access to the backcountry. The Passage Creek trail begins as part of the Wallace Creek trail (Trail #58). The Passage Creek trail (Trail 558) branches off before the falls while the Wallace Creek trail continues into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and on to Yellowstone Park.

Directions to the Trailhead

It’s easy to find the Passage Creek Falls trailhead. Drive south from Livingston US 89 through the Paradise Valley for 16 miles to the well signed major intersection with the Mill Creek Road. Turn left (east) and cross the Yellowstone River to an intersection with Hwy 540, the East River Road. Continue straight on the Mill Creek Road which travels through ranch land as it climbs toward the approaching mountains. After 6 miles the road will change to gravel as you reach the Custer Gallatin National Forest boundary. From here on the road is an excellent gravel road that is suitable for most vehicles in normal weather conditions.

Continue on the Mill Creek Road (forest road 486) and in about 6 miles you will reach the Snowbank Campground. This is where the road is closed to vehicle traffic during the winter months. Mill Creek is popular for cross country skiing, dog sleds and snowmobiles. Those interested in skiing the Passage Creek trail will park here and continue by skiing on the nearly flat road.

The Passage Creek trailhead is about 2.5 miles ahead. The road is right next to the creek and you’ll see a few private holdings and also turnoffs and undeveloped campsites along the road. Unless specifically posted otherwise, National Forest lands are open for camping wherever you find a nice site. This is called dispersed camping and is one way to Find A Good Campsite.

Photo of bridge across Mill Creek as it is being joined by Passage Creek
The Passage Creek/Wallace Divide trail begins at a bridge across Mill Creek. The water ahead is Passage Creek just as it enters Mill Creek. Mill Creek is running below the bridge in this photo and it is hidden from the camera view The trail here is easy hiking as it follows the creek upstream.

Hiking to Passage Falls

The Passage Creek (Forest Trail 588) and Wallace Creek (Forest Trail 58) trails start from the same parking area and trailhead. This is a major access and the the sign is very obvious. The access in on the right side of the road heading up canyon. The large parking area is between the road and Mill Creek. Wallace Creek Trail is a high use trail for horse packing and the parking area is large enough to handle at least a few horse trailers. There are no toilets so come prepared.

The trail is very obvious as you immediately cross Mill Creek on a large bridge. Much of the Mill Creek drainage burned in the 2007 Wicked Fire and the bridge is new since the fire. The trail is wide and smooth as it was once a road bed. After a distance it becomes a standard single track trail but it remains an easy hike. As previously stated, there is a lot of horse traffic on the trail and it is not unusual to find signs of their passing. Speaking of passing, if you ever encounter a horse on the trail please step off the trail as far as you can to allow them to safely pass.

Trail sign marking the trail to the falls

After about a mile and a quarter the Passage Creek Falls (Trail 588) trail splits off to the right from the Wallace Creek trail. This is a well signed intersection and you should have no trouble finding it. Take the right hand fork and continue on with an excellent trail, flat and wide. You will cross the creek on another bridge and from here the trail begins to narrow and steepen. Although it never gets too steep, the trail continues to climb until reaching a large clearing. Unfortunately, this entire clearing is part of a private in-holding in the Gallatin Forest. There are a number of cabins in the area and the entire section is private property. Never trespass on these properties.

Photo of a privately owned meadow near the falls
There is a section of private land that is surrounded by National Forest right near the Falls. When you reach this meadow the trail keeps you out of the private lands.

Passage Creek Waterfall

Just as the trail reaches the private lands there is an intersection. The trail to Passage Creek Falls splits off the the left. The well established main Passage Creek trail continues on straight ahead at this junction.

It’s a short hike down to the creek and views of the falls. However, this section of trail can be slippery and hard to walk. Be especially careful if there is any ice or snow on the trail!

Photo of the Passage Creek Falls waterfall
Passage Creek Falls is a beautiful place to visit. The trail takes you to this viewpoint at creek level. It’s only about a 4 mile round hike to visit the falls.

The area around the falls is usually shaded and cool which is very welcome on a hot summer day. The trail ends creek-side where there is no place to safely swim, wade or cool off in the water so stay well away from the stream banks. The Forest Service has done some stabilization work on the areas where the trail ends. There are a couple of great place to sit back and enjoy the falls. When you are ready just retrace the trail back to your car.

Passage Creek Falls is a popular trail so don’t expect to be on it alone; especially, if you are out on the weekend. There is a reason it’s popular. It’s an easy hike with easy access that gets you to a great destination. It’s only a 5 mile round trip and the trail is mostly broad and smooth. This is a great hike for those with kids or those who don’t have much time. If you have time the nearby Crow Mountain Trail is another good hike in the Mill Creek drainage.

Read about the Passage Creek Falls trail and about 100 additional great hikes in the classic book Hiking Montana. I highly recommend this book for anyone exploring the Big Sky State.

Nearby Hikes: