The West Boulder River is a favorite place for camping, hiking, and fishing close to both Big Timber and Livingston, MT. Popular with day hikers and backpackers, the West Boulder Meadows are an ideal place for a first-ever backpack trip. The combination of excellent hiking, camping, fishing, and scenery make this a very special place.
The West Boulder River originates high in the Absaroka Mountains and the entire upper drainage is in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. After leaving the wilderness the river quickly enters private lands and joins the main Boulder River in McLeod, MT. The Boulder continues flowing northward for about 20 miles until it enters the Yellowstone River at Big Timber.
Getting to the West Boulder River
To get to the West Boulder trailhead drive south from Big Timber on the Boulder River Road (MT 298). This great drive travels up a broad valley with fantastic scenery in every direction. Stay on this paved highway for 17 miles until you reach the tiny town of McLeod. You will cross the West Fork as you are passing through McLeod and reach the intersection with the West Boulder Road (also known as the Swingley Road) in less than a half mile.
Turn right (west) here and stay on this major gravel road as it follows the river. After 7 miles you will reach a well signed intersection for the West Boulder forest access. Turn left (south) onto this gravel road and follow it until you reach the campground and trailhead about 7 miles ahead. Note: the Swingley Road continues on to just east of Livingston. This is a very scenic but rough road – if you are coming from Livingston, consider taking this 24 mile route.
The West Boulder access road travels through private property all the way to the campground. Please respect the property rights of the landowners and don’t ever leave the road right-of-way. The campground and trailhead parking area are completely surrounded by private property so again, please do not trespass.
Trailhead, Camping & Cabin
The West Boulder River trailhead area is part of the Custer Gallatin National Forest and includes a campground, a Forest Service operated cabin, and a parking area for hikers and horse riders. This is also the parking area for the Davis Creek Trail. This is a fairly high-use area and it’s not uncommon to find hikers and horses at the trailhead or on the trail. There are no services at the trailhead so be sure to arrive fully prepared. The West Boulder River trail continues on far beyond the West Boulder Meadows and a fair number of backpackers and horse packers use the trail.
The West Boulder Campground is open all year but the access road may be impassable at times. The campground has no services except vault toilets. There is a camping fee which is paid on-site as there is no reservation system. There are only 10 campsites and the campground does fill a few times each summer. Plan to arrive early to get a site.
The West Boulder Cabin is available to rent by the night. This is a forest service cabin so understand that it is rustic. Reservations are required to stay in the cabin and need to be made at least three days in advance. Cabin reservations are not made through the local office so use the info on the West Boulder Cabin to make your reservations.
West Boulder Trail
The West Boulder Meadows are a couple of miles of easy hiking from the trailhead. The Meadows are popular with anglers, as they provide great fishing for wild trout.
The parking area for the trail is large and well signed. The road continues past the parking area but do not drive further! Everything ahead is private property, including the road. From the parking area, the trail starts by hiking on the road for 50 – 100 yards past the cattle guard that is right at the parking area. After this short distance the trail heads off to the left at an obvious intersection. This is the beginning of an easy hike that gently climbs through the forest.
This heavily used trail is in great shape and it’s mostly smooth and easy hiking. After a mile or so you enter a section of forest that was thoroughly burned in the 2006 Jungle Fire. This major blaze burned a lot of the backcountry in the Boulder River drainage. The burn on the West Boulder was pretty significant and the contrast between the unburned and burned areas is rather dramatic. While many believe the burned forest somehow looks unattractive, I find that it has charms of its own. Fields of wildflowers spring up, there is lots of lush new green vegetation and the views really open up so you can see a lot more. In particular, this fire seems to have spurred a lot of new Aspen growth.
Soon the trail reaches the very sturdy bridge that crosses the West Boulder. After crossing the bridge the trail enters the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness and begins to climb. After a couple of switchbacks, the trail levels out and follows the creek through a nice canyon area. This section is through burned forest and there are great views of the creek below and the surrounding mountains. Continue to follow the trail for about another mile until you reach the West Boulder meadows.
West Boulder Meadows
There is no doubt that you will know when you reach the West Boulder Meadows. The canyon becomes a very flat valley for about a half mile and the river slows and meanders through beautiful meadows. The big slow pools formed in the meadow are great habitat for fish, wildlife and birds.
There are several good backpacking campsites in the meadows making this an excellent place for an overnight hike. The fairly short hike on a good trail makes this a perfect place for a first-ever backpacking overnight. Be aware that the bugs can be bad at times. This is a very dark area so plan on world-class stargazing.
Fishing the West Boulder
The West Boulder Meadows are very popular with anglers who come to fish for the wild trout that inhabit the cold clear waters. Through the meadows the river is clear and slow, making it a great place to spot feeding trout and to “sight fish” by casting directly to fish you can see. The trout in the West Boulder come in all sizes and it’s not uncommon to find multiple people fishing in the Meadows during good fishing months.
If you have the Meadows to yourself you can start fishing right at the outlet end where the Meadows end and the canyon section begins. The long deep pool that is right above this outlet usually holds a number of nice fish. Start with this pool and gradually fish your way upstream for a memorable angling experience.
The fish here are all Yellowstone cutthroat trout that have been hybridized with rainbow trout. Historically the river was stocked but today the fish are all wild and reproducing. Management agencies have thoroughly inventoried all of the waters in the West Boulder drainage looking for genetically pure populations of the native cutthroats. However, none of the pure strain fish have been found. You can learn more about these efforts in the Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout Conservation Strategy
Into Deep Wilderness
For those interested in exploring the West Boulder further, the trail continues on past the Meadows for many miles. About 5 miles further on you reach the junction with Falls Creek, a major tributary. A smaller meadow area called Beaver Meadows is another 3 miles or so along the trail. According to MFWP, there is a fish passage barrier just above Falls Creek and the West Boulder is fishless upstream of that point.
The trail continues on until it steeply climbs up and over the Mill Creek pass. From there it’s downhill into the Yellowstone Valley. This is an excellent multi-day backpacking trip that begins at one trailhead and ends at another. Along the way you will intersect other trails which offer access to much of the Absaroka backcountry.
If you want to explore the wilderness beyond the West Boulder Meadows I urge you to get a good map or maps. The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness West Map is excellent and highly recommended. The DeLorme Montana Atlas & Gazetteer has large-scale topo maps of the West Boulder and of all of Montana. Of course, Topo maps of the area are very helpful and the USFS has good maps but you may have to buy them in person.
Despite the great backpacking opportunities, most hikers will stick to the 6 mile round trip hike into the West Boulder Meadows and there are few better short hikes than this. I especially recommend this as an easy overnight backpacking trip. The West Boulder Meadows are a beautiful place with world-class fishing opportunities and the trail is a great hike. Be sure to try this one if you ever get a chance.
A description of this hike and many others can be found in Hiking Montana which is a book that every hiker should own.
While you are in the area you might want to visit: