Livingston & Paradise Valley Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

Gallatin Petrified Forest Trail

The Gallatin Petrified Forest Interpretive Trail #286 provides an opportunity to explore a petrified forest area that has not been developed. Hikers delight in viewing the petrified wood right where nature put it.

Directions to Gallatin Petrified Forest

The petrified forest trailhead is at the south end of Paradise Valley right at the end of Yankee Jim Canyon. The turnoff from Highway 89 is onto Tom Miner Road 36 miles south of Livingston and 17 miles north of Gardiner. Turn west onto this well-signed road near mile marker #17. Cross the Yellowstone River on Carbella Bridge and turn left at the ‘T’ and continue for about 12 miles to the trailhead. The road is gravel all the way and the last couple of miles can be rough.

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The Tom Miner Campground is located adjacent to the trailhead and offers 16 forested campsites all available on a first-come, first-served basis. There are vault toilets in the campground.

What is the Gallatin Petrified Forest

The Gallatin Petrified Forest is a special place where trees got buried and gradually turned to rock as minerals replaced the cell walls of the wood. Trees that become petrified are usually buried by stream deposits or by volcanic debris. The Gallatin Petrified Forest is unique in that it has trees that were buried both ways. Most petrified trees are buried while laying on the ground but some of those covered by volcanic activity stand upright.

There are large and famous petrified forests in Yellowstone Park that are an extension of the Gallatin Petrified Forest. These petrified forests are special because they are composed of multiple layers of trees that have been buried on top of each other over many thousands (millions?) of years. In fact, some geologists believe that there are as many as 27 different petrified forests here that were covered about 50 million years ago. To learn more download The Story of the Gallatin Petrified Forest.

The Gallatin Petrified Forest covers thousands of acres on the Montana/Yellowstone Park boundary. The forest is located at the southern end of the Gallatin Mountains which form the western border of Montana’s famous Paradise Valley. Parts of the petrified forest can be reached from a number of trailheads but most hikers explore the area from the Tom Miner Campground.

Hiking the Gallatin Petrified Forest Interpretive Trail ( Trail # 286)

Beginning at about 7,100 ft, the trail from the Tom Miner trailhead (trail # 120) leads upward toward Buffalo Pass where it connects with other trails leading into the mountains. This trail leads to Ramshorn Mountain and Ramshorn Lake both of which are popular destinations. It runs through the petrified forest for its length but little petrified wood is found along the trail. To see petrified wood you have to get off the trail and climb to the cliffs.

Fortunately, the US Forest Service has constructed the Petrified Forest Interpretive Trail (trail # 286) which heads north from the main trail about a half-mile from the trailhead. This trail climbs more steeply and meanders past cliff faces that hold various types of petrified wood. There are interpretive signs in a number of places that do a good job of teaching about this special place.

Hikers on Gallatin Petrified Forest Trail
The Gallatin Petrified Forest trail follows a cliffside that is full of petrified wood and fossils. There are interpretive signs in places that teach about the fascinating geology of the area.

The trail is about a mile in length and gradually fades out along the cliffside with no defined endpoint. The trail has climbed about 650 ft and you can easily retrace your path to return.

Large stump of petrified wood
This large petrified tree stump shows brilliant color. The hiker provides a sense of scale – this was from a large tree

This is Prime Grizzly bear territory and it’s important to always be bear aware. Keep a clean camp and always carry bear spray. Yellowstone Park offers great advice for camping in bear country.

Collecting Petrified Wood in the Gallatin Petrified Forest

It is legal to collect a small amount of petrified wood for personal use. However, you must get a free permit in advance from the US Forest Service. Contact the Yellowstone Ranger District in Livingston at 406-222-1892. Plan ahead as it is unlikely that you will be able to obtain a permit on short notice.

Rules for collecting petrified wood in the Gallatin Forest:

  • Free permit required for any collecting!
  • Collection limited to 20 cubic inches (approx. 3” x 3” x 2”) of petrified wood per person, per permit year.
  • Collection allowed only within the boundaries of the Gallatin Petrified Forest Special Management Zone.
  • Expires December 31 of the year issued.

Collecting Tip! If you visit after the spring flood, try walking the banks of the creek that runs past the campground. You can often find pieces of petrified wood in the stream bottom.

If you don’t collect your own petrified wood and would like some as a souvenir you’ll find it for sale at the rock shop in Livingston. Often times petrified wood is polished into beautiful treasures. You can find pendants, earrings, and other jewelry that feature petrified wood in local galleries and at the rock shop.

Petrified wood log sticking out of cliff side Gallatin National Forest, MT
This petrified log is more resistant to erosion than the rock surrounding it. Most of the petrified wood in this area is surrounded by conglomerate rock.

Finding Petrified Wood in the Gallatin Mountains

Although the interpretive trail takes you right to excellent examples of the petrified wood found here, the Gallatin Mountains have many other places where you can find petrified wood. The designated petrified forest extends for miles to the north and west and deposits of petrified wood are scattered across many square miles of forest. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of effort to find them.

The main trails pass through the petrified forest but are not designed to lead to deposits of petrified wood. To find these you have to get off-trail and search. Loof for cliffs above with exposed faces where the petrified wood will emerge as the surrounding rock erodes. According to historical accounts, there was once a lot more present than there is today. Years of collecting have removed the best and most obvious pieces.

Despite this, the Gallatin Petrified Forest is one of the finest places in the country to search for petrified wood “in the wild”. It is definitely worth visiting.

Other Places To Find Petrified Wood

Petrified wood is fairly common but widespread across the Western US. Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona is the most famous location. Yellowstone Park (WY), Theodore Roosevelt National Park (ND), Zion National Park (UT), and Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park (WA) are other popular places to view petrified forests.

The Tom Miner Campground

If you want to make your visit a camping trip, the Tom Miner Campground is a great place to spend the night. This USFS campground has 16 campsites available on a first-come, first-served basis. Each campsite has a table, a fire ring, and a food storage cabinet. There are vault toilets in the campground. Complete information about the Tom Miner Campground.

Frequently Asked Questiuons

Can you collect petrified wood from the forest?

It is legal to collect a small amount of petrified wood in the Gallatin Petrified Forest. However, you must get a free permit in advance from the Forest Service, call 406-222-1892.

How long is the Petrified Forest trail

The Gallatin Petrified Forest Interpretive trail is about a mile one-way and climbs about 650 ft.

How old is the Gallatin Petrified Forest

The forest consists of multiple layers, one on top of another, that were deposited about 50 million years ago.

The Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness and the surrounding forests are special places that need our support. You can help advocate for these lands by supporting the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Association. They are a positive force in support of the wilderness and we all need to give them our support!