2020 Custer Gallatin National Forest Plan Released

On July 9 the US Forest Service released the final plan for the Custer Gallatin National Forest. This is very significant as the plan will guide actions and activities in the forest for many years.

The plan has been in preparation for more than 4 years and there have been multiple opportunities for public comment. The final plan seems to make no one happy so it’s probably a true comprise. There is a ton of information available from the USFS about the 2020 Custer Gallatin Forest Plan

If you have questions Forest Plan Revision core team specialists will be conducting a webinar on Thursday, July 23 at 10:30 a.m., 3:00 p.m. or 5:30 p.m. (All times MST) – log-on to: (mobile device compatible) 

Although this is the final plan there is still an opportunity to object to the plan. For the next 60 days objections can be filed at

The plan is long overdue as the lands were being managed under two different forest plans. The Custer Forest Plan which was adopted in 1986 and the Gallatin Forest Plan which was implemented in 1987( the two forests were merged in 2014). The 247 page plan is comprehensive and it is obvious how much work went into its preparation.

As might be expected, the plan provides for a host of activities that most hikers don’t participate in but the plan does call for:
7 New Wilderness Areas (126,657 acres)
13 Backcountry Areas (208,960 acres)
10 Recreation Emphasis Areas (224,610 acres)

Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

The Lights of Anvil Lake

by Stan Clements          

It was probably the best I had ever seen the stars in my life.

It was the night of the new moon. The air was cold and dry. We were at high altitude, in wilderness miles from the lights of the smallest of towns. It was dark out. It was really dark out, good old country dark, here in Montana’s Beartooth Wilderness. My friend Bob and I had maybe the most adventurous drive of our lives over the Goose Lake Jeep Trail, just to get to the spot where we donned our packs. We walked and climbed into this rugged country, bushwhacking off the official trails, to reach remote Anvil Lake.

We had camp set up about fifty yards from the shore, just above lake level. Our tent was barely visible in the glow from the campfire. Two backpacks leaned against trees. It was a perfectly clear, cloudless night. Not a breath of wind disturbed the flames climbing from the fire, its smoke rose straight up.

In my usual restless manner, I wandered back and forth from the fire ring to the lake shore. Bob was accustomed to such behavior from me; he stoically tended the fire, perhaps silently amused at my pacing. Once I got away from the cheery glow of camp, I could see a glorious sky, full of stars. On one of my trips to the water’s edge, I couldn’t help noticing that two stars near the horizon were so bright as to cast a reflection upon the still waters of Anvil Lake, a wake of white light. On each of my successive trips to the shore, this apparition seemed to grow brighter, creating an ever greater impression upon me. I finally decided Bob Should See This.

I walked back to the fire and told Bob he should come see this sight I had found. Bob grunted, but stood and walked towards the lake. He saw the starlight on the water, and suggested that we hike up the bluffs that lined one side of the lake. We climbed upward in silence, in darkness only slightly altered for a few feet in the beams of our flashlights. We reached a spot high on the bluffs, to me it seemed as wide as a highway.

I looked up at all the stars, and then down at the lake. I was suddenly frozen by one of the most spectacular sights I have seen. It was dark enough, clear enough, and calm enough for the waters of Anvil Lake to reflect the stars in the sky. To me it looked like candles in paper bags were scattered all over the lake. The reflections were bright, like dozens of luminaries resting on a slate surface that was the big black lake. It took my breath away. I marveled at it in silence. Finally, I stated to Bob, “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. Have you?”

“Me neither,” Bob replied. “I’m just looking at it and enjoying it.”

We were in the right place at the right time. The incident was a good example of how Bob and I worked together. One of us gets an idea, and then the other takes it and runs with it. Years later, there was still awe in our voices whenever we mentioned “The Lights of Anvil Lake.”

Note:Anvil Lake is one of hundreds of special places in the Absaroka-Beartooth (AB) Wilderness. Its a little known and rarely visited lake, far from any developed trail. Off trail hiking in the AB is an amazing experience but not for the beginning backpacker. This is rugged, remote country with more grizzly bears than humans and you cannot expect assistance if you run into trouble in these remote areas. For those who are committed you can find more about Anvil Lake and other great places by studying the maps and books available about this special place. I recommend:
Hiking the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness
National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps
Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness East [Cooke City, Red Lodge]

Note Two: This story was written by the late Stan Clements who had a mighty thirst for wild places. He was a good friend who is greatly missed.

Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

Pine Creek Falls and Pine Creek Lake

Pine Creek is a tributary of the Yellowstone River that enters in the heart of Paradise Valley. While the National Forest campground attracts some, most visitors come to hike to Pine Creek Falls or Pine Creek Lake. This is the most popular hike in the Livingston area. It’s easy to access and the hike to the falls is only about a mile on an excellent trail.

The Paradise Valley

The Yellowstone River valley south of Livingston is known as Paradise Valley and is truly a special place. Paradise Valley is defined by the Absaroka Mountains that rise dramatically to form the eastern boundary of the valley. The valley floor is broad and flat at about 5,000 feet elevation. The mountains rise straight in a series of peaks ranging up to nearly 11,000 ft.

Along the length of the valley a number of streams come out of the mountains and the drainages these creeks cut into the mountains provide the primary access points into the Custer Gallatin National Forest and the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. The Pine creek drainage is on the east side of Paradise Valley about ten miles south of Livingston, MT.

To get to Pine Creek take the clearly marked access road that branches off Hwy 541 (East River Road) just south of the small community of Pine Creek. The paved access road climbs steeply for a short distance then meanders through the woods for a couple of miles. The road runs through private land so be sure to stay on the road and respect the property owners.

Pine Creek Campground

Entering National Forest lands, you soon reach a road leading down to your left (north) that accesses the Luccock Park church camp. Near here a short spur road on the right leads uphill to the south to the parking area for the George Lake Trail. Continue on the road until you quickly reach the entrance to the Pine Creek Campground.

This is a nice campground in a forested mountain setting that offers excellent car camping. There are a couple of loops to the campground and in the summer you will find friendly camp hosts on duty. The campground has drinking water, trash removal and vault toilets. There are 25 campsites each with a fire ring and a picnic table. Here are some suggestions for selecting a campsite. If you camp here make sure you properly store all foods. This is bear country!

Photo of Pine Creek Falls near Livingston, MT
Pine Creek Falls is a beautiful place to visit. It is only a mile from the parking lot on a well maintained trail. This is a very popular hike for good reason!

The Pine Creek Trail

It’s a short drive through the campground to the trailhead parking area. Parking is spread out and at times it can get crowded. Fortunately, there is always more room a bit further away. This is a popular hike and its fun to see the geographical diversity of license plates in the parking lot.

The trail is well marked and begins as a wide flat easy hike. The trail soon narrows slightly but remains wide and easy and climbs gradually. A couple of hundred yards from the trail head you reach a side trail heading south that leads to the George Lake trail. When the George Lake trail was first constructed this was the original trailhead. However developing a dedicated trailhead was a much better option and today few people access George Lake from this trail.

The trail continues through the forest and you soon reach a bridge crossing Pine Creek. This is a big heavy duty bridge crossing a beautiful mountain stream. After crossing the Creek the trail begins to climb a bit more steeply. It is somewhat rockier and narrows. However, it remains an easy hike and presents little difficulty for most hikers. It’s about a mile total to the falls.

Photo of side falls at Pine Creek Falls
At high water flows Pine Creek Falls splits and flows over a second, smaller falls.

Beyond Pine Creek Falls

A sturdy bridge leads over the creek at the base of the falls and the trail continues on. From here the nature of the trail changes dramatically, very dramatically. Pine Creek Lake is only four miles ahead but, in those four miles, the trail climbs 3,000 feet. What this means on a practical level is lots of switch backs, steep climbs and long unrelenting uphill hiking. Fortunately, it’s great hiking through an interesting area.

Many people only hike this trail far enough to get to the top of the Pine Creek Falls where you can sit on the slick rock cliff top and watch the creek pour over the edge and out of sight. This is a great place to get some sun and is the turn around point for most people who are not heading to the lake.

Continuing on, the trail climbs through the woods for the next couple of miles following the creek upwards. After some distance the trail climbs out of the woods and climbs a series of steep switchbacks through a massive rock field. This is just the first of these rock fields which alternate with stretches of forest until you reach the smaller lake just below Pine Creek Lake. This is a beautiful little lake fed by a waterfall plunging down from above.

Pine Creek Lake

Making still another climb you reach a small meadow ringed by bare rock. Just beyond this bare rock lies Pine Creek Lake, a true gem of a high mountain lake. Its nestled in a cirque of spectacular sheer rock mountain peaks at nearly 9,200 ft. The 32 acre lake is fed by a cascade plunging in at the east end of the lake. While not too big around, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks reports it as 170 ft deep!

Much of the western and northern shorelines are bare rock. Easy to walk on and great to fish from, the lake plunges rapidly from these rocky shores. The east (inlet) side of the lake is shallower and the associated shoreline is not as steep. Hiking around the southern side of the lake is difficult. The mountain plunges straight into the lake on this side and it’s not possible to walk the shoreline. It takes scrambling up the hillside to find a place where you can circle this side of the lake.

Pine Creek Lake can be visited on a day hike or as an overnight backpack trip. Campers will find limited good camping areas so please to be sure to minimize your impacts. There is no firewood available at the lake so be sure to plan on cooking on a stove.

The trail ends at the lake and there are no trails going further from here. Very experienced back country hikers can climb the mountains to the north and northeast to cross into the Deep Creek or Mission Creek drainages. In a straight line it is not far to Elephanthead Mountain. However, this is for expert hikers only as it crosses very rough and dangerous terrain.

Fishing Pine Creek

Pine Creek is not a popular fishing destination but Pine Creek Lake is. The creek is quite steep and the trout populations seem to be pretty low. Rainbow and brook trout are found in the creek. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MFWP) stocked the creek with rainbows until 1984 when they stopped all stocking. The lower end of Pine Creek is all on private property with no access. Upstream of the forest boundary the creek is very fast and most anglers seek other waters.

Pine Creek Lake offers great fishing for Yellowstone cutthroat trout. MFWP plants cutthroats every three years which provides anglers with fish of several sizes. Flies or spinners work well and the lake can be fished from shore in many places. Some of the cutthroats move downstream into the outlet stream and even over the falls to the small lake below. If you have the time its fun to explore with a fly rod.

Hiking to Pine Creek Falls or Pine Creek Lake is one of the finest hikes in an incredible hiking area. To learn more about this hike and more than 100 other great hikes check out the book Hiking Montana.

Here are some nearby hikes that you will enjoy

Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

Natural Bridge Falls and the Boulder River

The Boulder River is a tributary of the Yellowstone River that originates high in the Absaroka Mountains south of Big Timber, MT. Natural Bridge Falls is the main attraction on the Boulder but the river and surrounding lands provide incredible opportunities for fishing, camping and exploring.

The Boulder River Valley

The headwaters of the Boulder River are in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. This vast wilderness borders Yellowstone National Park and is one of the wildest areas in the lower 48 states. The Boulder begins from snow melt in the high mountains. It travels nearly 30 miles through US Forest Service land before leaving the mountains. The river canyon opens into a broad open agricultural valley. The Boulder River has long been renowned within Montana for its excellent recreation opportunities. Many residents will tell you that the Boulder is one of their favorite places to visit.

State Hwy 298 parallels the river until the National Forest boundary where it becomes the Boulder River Road. Heading South from Big Timber, MT, Hwy 298 is an excellent paved road that runs through a broad valley studded with family ranches. This is productive agriculture land and the working ranches that fill the valley remind us of the traditional Montana lifestyle. The lands surrounding the river are private property and its difficult to access the river through this stretch.

About 16 miles south of Big Timber is the tiny town of McLeod, MT. The first post office in the Boulder valley opened here in 1886. Don’t expect to find much here today. The town is at the junction of the West Boulder and main Boulder Rivers. The West Boulder River is a sizable tributary that is well known for its fly fishing and great hiking trails. A gravel road intersects with Hwy 298 near McLeod. This road is called the East Boulder Road but becomes the Swingly Road after a bit. The Swingly Road travels cross country to the outskirts of Livingston. It makes a great drive as well as providing access to hiking trails and other explorations.

Past McLeod, Hwy 298 continues south toward the rapidly approaching mountains. It’s about three miles to the East Boulder River where an access road leads to several trailheads in the East Boulder Drainage. The East Boulder is a significant mining area that was first developed in 1893 when Ansel S. Hubble, one of the first prospectors in the area, filed claims in the drainage. Today, the East Boulder Mine is a major underground mine that producing large amounts of platinum and palladium.

Natural Bridge Falls as seen in low water. The dry creek bed is obvious above the falls. The river has completely gone underground upstream of here and works its way through the porous sandstone to where it shoots out to become a surface river again. In high water the entire creek is pouring over the edge as well as through the underground channels. Prior to its collapse in 1988 the creek was spanned by a natural bridge that gave the park its name.

Natural Bridge Falls

5 miles south of the East Boulder junction the paved road ends and you enter the Gallatin National Forest. Almost immediately the Natural Bridge Falls Picnic Area is on the left. This Forest Service day use area is a fantastic place to visit and well worth the trip to see.

At the Natural Bridge Falls the Boulder River pours over the lip of a 105 foot tall limestone rock layer. This rock is soft and easily eroded and historically there was a beautiful natural bridge that spanned the river here. Unfortunately, the Natural Bridge collapsed in 1988 and all that remains are memories and photos. However, the falls remain and they are spectacular.

The limestone rock layer erodes easily and several major underground channels have been cut through the rock. In low water the entire river goes underground above the falls. The river erupts from several places to come bursting out of a cliff wall. At high water these streams are joined by the bulk of the river pouring over the lip.

The Natural Bridge Falls parking area is right next to the road where the highway ends and the gravel road begins. There are handicap accessible outhouses, paved trails, interpretive signs and numerous river overlooks. This is also the trailhead for the Green Mountain Trail which is reached by crossing the river on the sturdy bridge. Casual visitors will want to cross the river and follow the trail heading downstream. It is a short walk to the vantage points opposite the Falls where the photos on this page were taken. The hike is about a 1/4 mile on gentle trail through a mixture of clearings and forested areas.

Kayaking Natural Bridge

Natural Bridge is an impressive falls. At high water the Boulder is a significant river and the water shoots over the falls with an amazing force. The Boulder River has always been the playground for boaters (mostly kayakers) and it’s easy to imagine that many have looked at the falls and wondered if it would be possible to survive an attempt at jumping the falls.

One man decided that he had to find out and in 2008 Bozeman native Ian Garcia kayaked over the falls. Ian is a noted waterfall jumper and had studied this for years. Ian survived the jump but did have a swim after being ejected from his boat. Read more about kayaker boats over Natural Bridge Falls.    

Photo of kayaker jumping Natural Bridge Falls
At high water the Natural Bridge Falls is a very impressive sight. The water flowing over the lip is enhanced by the flows erupting from the underground waters. If you look closely you will see Ian Garcia in his kayak going over the top of the falls. Although he was ejected from his kayak, Ian was able to swim out of the maelstrom at the base of the falls.

Although most boaters avoid the Falls, the upper Boulder is popular with whitewater kayakers who come to enjoy it’s wild waters. The 20 plus miles of river above Natural Bridge offer some very difficult waters and serious boaters flock to the Boulder for spring run off. If you want to float these stretches of the river you must be prepared. This website is not the place to get the info you need. Do your homework and don’t consider boating on the Boulder until you are certain you are prepared for the boating conditions.

The Upper Boulder River

From Natural Bridge the road continues for about 25 miles, making a very deep incursion into the heart of the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. This road can be very rutted and slow driving so don’t ever plan to hurry. There are a number of private in-holdings along the road but most of the land is National Forest. There are about a half dozen USFS developed campgrounds along the road. These all have toilets and some have water. Most charge a small nightly fee. In addition, there are many dispersed camping spots on forest land along the road and river.

Besides the camping opportunities, the USFS operates the Fourmile Cabin as a rental cabin. The cabin is about 15 miles south of Natural Bridge Falls. It sleeps 4 and is available for a modest fee on a reservation basis.

Into the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness

Beyond the end of the Boulder River Road there are jeep trails that lead even higher and further. There was a history of mining on the highest mountains in the area and there are private mining lands at the top of Independence Peak, which is to the east of the River. I don’t recommend that you try to travel these 4wd roads. Rather, stay with the main road which ends at about 8,000 ft elevation in a meadow surrounded by 10,000 ft peaks. From here there are trails into the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. This is beautiful mountain country.

The Upper Boulder is classic mountain terrain and there are great hiking trails that take off from trailheads along the road. The upper sections of the Boulder River are just over the mountains from the Paradise Valley of the upper Yellowstone River. Head west from the upper Boulder and you will encounter Crow Mountain which is reached from the Mill Creek drainage on the other side of the mountains. 

If you want to visit these areas make sure you have appropriate maps. USGS topo maps are available from local hiking stores. The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness West National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map fully covers the area and the DeLorme Montana Atlas & Gazetteer has topo maps of the entire state.

Fishing The Boulder River

The Boulder River is a famous fishery and fly fishermen from afar visit to fish for the wild trout that inhabit it’s waters. The Boulder River is a very popular fishery for native Yellowstone cutthroat trout and mountain whitefish as well as for wild brown and rainbow trout. The river is open to fishing all year long but most anglers find the best success in summer and fall. There is a reason that people come from around the world to fish here

The upper river has almost unlimited access as the road runs very close to the river for many miles. Since this is almost all Forest Service land you can fish wherever you think it looks likely. However, below the forest boundary access is a lot tougher. Just outside of McLeod there is a Montana State Fishing Access Site located on the river. The Boulder Forks Fishing Access Site offers great access to an excellent fishing section of the Boulder River.

The Boulder River drainage makes a great place to escape into the mountains of Montana. It offers great hiking, camping, fishing and, for the very experienced, great whitewater boating. This is a wonderful place to go for a quick escape or for an extended expedition. Natural Bridge Falls is a very spectacular natural feature that anyone interested in Montana should see. Be sure to take the opportunity to visit this great area.

Nearby attractions in the Big Timber area: