Bozeman Area

Ousel Falls – Big Sky, Montana

Located 2 miles from City Center in Big Sky, the Ousel Falls Trail is an easy hike to a beautiful waterfall. Open all year, this very popular hike is recommended for everyone!

Nearest CityBig Sky, MT – 2 miles
SeasonOpen All Year
AttractionsHiking, Fishing, Birdwatching
ManagementBig Sky Community Organization
Elevation6,580 ft

Ousel Falls and the Ousel Falls Trail are located within Ousel Falls Park which was acquired in 2003 by the Big Sky Community Organization (BSCO). The trail was developed and is maintained by BSCO and it’s a great community asset. The Ousel Falls trail is part of the 23.5 miles of community trails managed by BSCO. These trails provide opportunities for everyone to hike, bike, bird watch, ski, and much more.

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Directions to the Ousel Falls Trailhead

The Ousel Falls trailhead is 2 miles south of the Big Sky Town Center on Ousel Falls Road. The large paved parking area is well-signed.

In addition to the trailhead, the parking area has vault toilets, picnic tables, and interpretive sign panels.

Ousel Falls Trail Map showing Yellow Mule trails

Hiking the Ousel Falls Trail

The trail to Ousel Falls is described as a 1.6-mile round trip hike but, by the time I explore along the trail and at the falls, I usually walk a total of about 2 miles. The trail is very easy to hike. It’s broad and smooth with plenty of room to hike side by side. From the parking area, the trail immediately descends about 130 verticle feet to meet the South Fork of the West Fork of the Gallatin River.

A large sturdy bridge crosses the stream and the trail follows along, gradually moving upstream through the beautiful open forest. After another bridge crossing you are nearly to the falls. There are several areas from which to view the falls. The trail leads right to the overview location which is on a rocky cliff above and opposite the falls. From here it’s a walk down to view the falls from creek level. The third option is to walk to the top of the falls where you can look down the canyon. There are good signs that point to all the trails in the area.

Bridge over South Fork of West Fork Gallatin River Big Sky Montana

Hiking Beyond Ousel Falls

Most hikers visit the falls and return but the Ousel Falls trail also connects with several US Forest Service trails. Trail 162, the 1st Yellowmule Trail intersects with the Ousel Falls trail several times before climbing southward away from the stream. This trail continues on to intersect the 2nd Yellowmule Trail #62. Following either trail will take you to Buck Ridge Trail #10 which connects the two Yellowmule trails as well as leading into the larger Custer Gallatin Forest trail system.

Ousel Falls seen from overlook across from the falls
Ousel Falls in Big Sky, MT is a beautiful waterfall reached by a short hike on a good trail.

Why is it named Ousel Falls?

Ousel Falls is named for a small bird commonly called the American Dipper that inhabits the forested areas along the stream. Dippers (Cinclus mexicanus) are small dark-colored birds that are usually seen dipping and bobbing as they walk along and in the stream. They will often disappear completely underwater as they hunt for insects.

Ousels prefer to stay close to the stream at all times. They spend more time on the ground and in the water than in the air and when they fly they usually stay close to the water. In fact, they usually follow the stream to get from one distant place to another even when an overland flight would be much shorter. They don’t migrate and it’s a treat to see them dipping into open water areas of rushing frozen streams.

A Great Hike in all Seasons

The Ousel Falls trail is open all year and it’s well worth a visit in every season. In the winter snow piles up and you can usually make the hike in good snow boots. However, Ousel Falls is a great trail for snowshoes. In the spring, snowmelt swells the stream and the waterfall is at its most impressive. Spring and early summer bring amazing colors from wildflowers in bloom. Summer hikes are often shaded and cooler and the pool below the falls invites wading. Autumn brings fall colors and delightful afternoons that remind us winter is soon coming.

Fishing the North Fork of the West Fork Gallatin River

While not a stream noted for its fishing, it’s certainly possible to get some good dry fly action fishing for wild trout. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks surveyed the stream and documented a healthy population of rainbow trout/west slope cutthroat trout hybrids up to 13.5″ in length. The South Fork of the West Fork was last stocked in 1951 so all the trout are wild fish produced in the stream. Historically, the stream was stocked but the last stocking record is from 1951.

Anglers will want to avoid spring runoff so mid-summer probably offers the best fishing. The standard dry flies for the area should be perfect. My personal favorite is old school. I always start with a royal Wulff size 16 or 18.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are dogs allowed on the Ousel Falls Trail?

Yes, dogs are allowed on the trail but you should respect others by keeping your dog leashed and making sure to clean up any dog poop.

Are there bears along the trail.

Possibly, although they are not common in the Ousel Falss area, this is bear country and both black and grizzly bears travel through at times. Always carry bear spray!

Is camping allowed at the trailhead?

No, The Ousel Falls Park is for day use only. There is no overnight camping allowed.

Another great hike in the Big Sky area is the hike to Lava Lake. It’s a longer hike at 6 miles round trip but the hike to this beautiful wilderness lake is well worth the effort.