The Davis Creek trail (trail #38) runs into the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness from the West Boulder River. It travels about 9 miles to the top of the Davis Creek Divide where it connects with the South Fork Deep Creek Trail (trail #388). Along the way, it intersects the Blacktail Creek Trail (trail #337) which leads to Blacktail Lake and continues on to join several other trails.
West Boulder River Access Area
The Davis Creek Trail uses the same parking lot as the West Boulder River trail. To get there drive south from Big Timber on the Boulder River Road (MT 298) for 17 miles until you pass the town of McLeod. The road crosses the West Boulder River at McLeod and reaches the West Boulder Road (also known as the Swingley Road) in less than a half-mile.
Turn right (west) and stay on the road as it climbs through the West Boulder valley. In 7 miles there is 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.
If you are coming from Livingston you can take the Swingley road all the way. This is a scenic drive on a generally pretty good gravel road and is a much shorter route than heading through Big Timber. If you come this way you will reach the access road after traveling 24 miles on the Swingley road
Davis Creek Trailhead
The large parking area is used for several trailheads including the Davis Creek trailhead. There is parking along both sides of the road with a large unloading area for horse trailers. Never park in any way that blocks part of the road because the road continues on as a private drive.
If you are camping in the West Boulder Campground follow the signs that lead to the campsites. The Forest Service also operates the West Boulder Cabin which is available as a nightly rental and is in the same direction as the campground.
To get to the Davis Creek trailhead from the parking area follow the signs toward the campground and cabin. There are signs for the trailhead and you should have no problem finding the trail which begins at the large bridge crossing the West Boulder River.
Lower Davis Creek Trail
After crossing the bridge the trail can be a bit confusing as there are a number of trails/roads right past the bridge. However, there are plenty of signs as the trail begins to climb up the hillside. The trail is in good shape but from mid-summer on it can get overgrown with dense vegetation. There are some excellent berry patches along the trail which means there are often bears around. Always be Bear Aware!
The trail heads basically west and in about 4 miles it intersects with the Canyon Creek Trail (trail #56) which is a steep and rugged trail that heads north toward Shell Mountain. In another 1 1/4 mile or so the Davis Creek trail reaches the junction with the Blacktail Creek trail (# 337). The 5 miles from the trailhead to the Blacktail Creek trail climb a total of 1,200 ft so it’s not as steep as many Absaroka mountain trails.
The Davis Creek trail has been rerouted in places and most maps show the old trail route. The intersection with the Blacktail Creek trail has changed so follow the trail, not the map. The intersection is now nearly 1/4 mile west of what is shown on the maps. Normally, the trail is obvious so follow the trail and you should do fine.
Upper Davis Creek Trail
The Davis Creek trail heads generally west until its intersection with the Blacktail Creek trail. From this point, it turns south and follows the creek for about 2 1/4 miles. This section is in good shape and climbs about 400 ft per mile. However, from here the trail turns west and climbs ever more steeply.
Until the trail turns it follows Davis Creek. When it turns west it follows an unnamed tributary upward. There is no trail heading up the main Davis Creek but hikers can travel off-trail following the creek. This is the only way to access Davis Lake or McKnight Lake, both of which are nestled high in the mountains far from the trail. Few hikers travel into this area but some do make the hike. Don’t even consider heading into these off-trail areas unless you are an expert in wilderness travel and the use of map and compass.
Many hikers only come in this far on the trail as there is excellent fishing and hunting in this area. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks reports that the upper creek is home to Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Although I’ve not fished here, it does look like good water. I’ve found well-used campsites which lead me to believe it is popular for hunters
The Davis Creek Divide
The trail leaves Davis Creek behind and climbs through forest and meadows to the Davis Creek Divide. It’s only about 1 1/3 mile to the top but the trail climbs about 1,500 ft in that distance. To make it even harder, the trail is very poor in this section. In fact, it is easy to completely lose the trail at times. The meadow crossings are the worst and in many areas, there is no sign of a track at all. There are some cairns in a few places but they are often not close enough together to provide dependable guidance.
Very few hikers travel this trail so make sure you have good maps. I recommend both paper and phone app maps for anyone hiking here. Fortunately, as you head higher along the trail the divide begins to become obvious. Look for the saddle high up the mountains and it will help guide you. The final approach to the divide is a hike up a steep bare hillside.
From the top of the divide, you can either turn around and retrace your path or continue on. If you continue the trail becomes the South Fork Deep Creek trail which leads down into the Yellowstone Valley.