The North Fork Deep Creek Trail (Forest Service Trail #45) takes hikers into the Absaroka Mountains near Livingston, MT. The trail climbs into the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness for about 5.5 miles, ascending about 3,500 ft in that distance. The trail ends at an intersection with the Elephanthead Mountain Trail (trail #37) and the Blacktail Creek trail (trail #337).
Directions to the trailhead
The North Fork Deep Creek Trail and the Suce Creek Trail share the same trailhead. It’s one of the closest trailheads to Livingston and is very easy to find. Travel south from Livingston on US 89 for about 3.5 miles to the intersection with MT 540 – the East River Road. Take this left turn and travel 2.7 miles to the Suce Creek road. The road is on the east side of the highway leading toward the mountains. Take this well-maintained gravel road for about 1.5 miles to a junction on the right. The turn is well marked and there is a forest service sign for Suce Creek. Turn right and follow the road until it ends at the trailhead – about 1 1/4 mile.
The entire drive from the highway to the trailhead is through private property. Don’t leave the road and always respect the rights of the landowners.
Hiking the North Fork Deep Creek Trail
Be aware as you hike this trail that the route it follows is slightly different than what you will find on the maps of the area. In recent years the trail has been improved and rerouted in places. If you are using a mapping program to track your route it will often show you off-trail. However, the trail is well-used and obvious. I recommend you follow the trail and not try to find the trail shown on maps.
From the parking area the trail is obvious, heading straight up the open field above the parking area. After a short climb through the meadow you enter forest and immediately reach the trail junction. The Suce Creek trail is the main trail and it continues very obviously while the North Fork Deep Creek trail cuts off to the right and is a much less used pathway. Look for the trail sign and intersection as soon as you enter the woods and you will have no problem finding the route.
The trail climbs steeply heading almost straight south until reaching the divide between Suce Creek and the North Fork at about the one-mile mark. The trail gains about 900 ft in this first mile but it’s in great shape and is pretty easy hiking despite the climb.
From here the trail turns east and after another mile (and another 900 ft of climb) the trail opens up into a meadow that provides a preview of what’s to come. From here the trail begins to undulate a bit. It mostly continues to climb but sometimes drops downward. In fact, along the next couple of miles, the trail loses and regains about 475 ft. while climbing another 1,050 ft so the total climb along this section is more than 1,500 ft.
Meadows of Wildflowers
The trail travels through a mix of forest and meadow and the views of the Absaroka Mountains and Paradise Valley are incredible. This is bear country so be sure to take proper precautions. Be noisy so a bear can hear you coming and always carry bear spray.
The last mile of the trail gets even steeper and the finish is a climb of about 1,300 ft in about 1 1/4 mile. Most of this is through vast open meadows filled with wildflowers. This is a beautiful hike but it’s exposed and can be very hot on a summer afternoon!
The North Fork Deep Creek trail continues on to end at the trail junction where three trails join. The Elephanthead Trail (#37) heads east, the Blacktail Creek Trail (#337) heads to the south, and the North Fork Deep Creek trail heads back to the west.
As you approach the top Elephanthead Mountain dominates the skyline. Elephanthead is a popular destination for hikers but many choose to approach on the Elephanthead Mountain Trail (trail #37) which comes up from Mission Creek on the other side of the mountain. It’s also possible to get here by hiking the Blacktail Creek trail but that is a long hike and it’s mostly backpackers who come in this way.
Elephanthead Mountain is the dominant feature at the top of the North Fork Deep Creek trail. From here hikers can find a route to the top of the peak. There is no marked trail but it’s not hard to find a route. While this is not a technical climb, Some find the final approach to be daunting.
The top of Elephanthead Mountain is at 9,423 ft elevation. The trail junction sign is at 8,900 ft so it is a climb of a little over 500 ft vertical. The distance will depend on the route you choose.
Hiking Beyond Elephanthead
Most hikers on the North Fork Deep Creek trail will turn around at this point. However, there are options for hiking further. The Elephanthead trail (#37) continues heading eastward into the Mission Creek drainage for about 5 miles to its trailhead. The Blacktail Creek Trail (#337) heads south and intersects with the trail to Blacktail Lake (trail #105) where you can hike to the lake or continue on to join the Davis Creek trail (trail #38) in the West Boulder River drainage.
Good maps are important if you want to travel these trails and I recommend the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness West [Gardiner, Livingston] (National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map (721).
Hiking the North Fork Deep Creek trail is a real treat. Although the climb is significant, the incredible scenery is a great reward. Whether you are out for a day hike or heading on a backpacking trip this is a trail you ought to check out.