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.
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 sign is very obvious. The access is on the right side of the road heading up the 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 roadbed. 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.
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.
Passage Creek Waterfall
Just as the trail reaches the private lands there is an intersection. The trail to Passage Creek Falls splits off 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!
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 places 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.