Part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Custer Gallatin National Forest is found in south Montana next to the Wyoming border. Several separate ranger districts stretch all the way to southeast Montana and northwest South Dakota. Portions of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness and Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness are found within the forest’s boundaries as well. Administratively, the Custer and Gallatin National Forests were combined in 2014. Many of the best hikes in Custer Gallatin National Forest, described below, offer a great escape from the crowds at Yellowstone National Park while still providing all of the natural beauty that can be found in Montana’s mountain ranges. However, keep in mind the close proximity to the park and the city of Bozeman mean that parking often fills up quickly at trailheads so plan accordingly. Official Website.
|State||Montana; South Dakota|
|Nearest Metro Area||Bozeman, MT|
|Area Size||3,007,645 acres|
|Established||February 10, 1899|
|Hiking Trails||2,290 miles|
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Trailhead Traveler’s Recommended Hikes in Custer Gallatin National Forest
(*** = Top hikes in Custer Gallatin National Forest)
Beehive Basin Trail #40 – 6.4 miles out and back
This is a quintessential Montana hike featuring towering peaks, glacial lakes, and wildflower meadows. The views are beautiful the entire way with several fantastic lookouts. The trail climbs steadily rising about 1,500′ in a little over 3 miles but nothing most hikers cannot handle. Begin from the Upper Beehive Basin trailhead.
East Fork Hyalite Trail #434*** – 10.8 miles out and back
Beautiful trail with a gradual incline that ascends 2000′ in a little over 5 miles on its way to Emerald Lake and Heather Lake. Once you come to an overview of Emerald Lake, the trail splits. The trail to the left circles around the lake, and the trail to the right heads past the lake and up another half mile to Heather Lake. This is a very popular trail and the parking at the trailhead typically fills up early so plan accordingly!
East Rosebud Trail #15 (“The Beaten Path Trail”)*** – 26.0 miles one-way
The trail begins at the southern end of East Rosebud Road (Forest Road 2177) and climbs steadily for 16 miles to Fossil Lake. The trail continues on the Russell Creek Trail (Gardiner Ranger District) for another 10 miles to the Clarks Fork Trailhead. One of the most scenic trails in the Beartooths, this trail has a multitude of trout filled lakes, waterfalls, and cascading streams. If you want to shuttle cars, plan accordingly, as the 2 trailheads are about a 2.5 hour drive apart. For day hikers, the 3.5 mile trip to Elk Lake makes for a good turnaround point.
First Yellow Mule Trail #162 to Ousel Falls – 1.6 miles out and back
Quick and easy hike just south of Big Sky that takes visitors to a beautiful waterfall. This is a recommended hike during any season; in the winter, the falls freeze over and become a series of gorgeous, cascading icicles. Being so close to Big Sky, this trailhead is pretty crowded and the large parking lot typically fills up by the afternoon.
Hyalite Creek Trail #427 + Grotto Falls Trail #432*** – 16.2 miles out and back
For avid hikers, this is one of the best hikes in Custer Gallatin National Forest. The trail follows along Hyalite Creek past 10+ waterfalls gently climbing to Hyalite Lake with a little detour to the lake front. From the lake, the trail climbs steeply up switchbacks along the ridgeline to Hyalite Peak (10,296′). Heading north to south, the trail is mostly shaded and will have snow lasting into late summer. For more of a family-friendly hike along this trail, head to Grotto Falls and return to the trailhead for a 1.5 mile roundtrip journey.
Lava Lake Trail #77*** – 5.8 miles out and back
Popular out-and-back hike to a beautiful alpine lake in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. The rocky trail follows Cascade Creek through an evergreen forest passing a few waterfalls before reaching Lava Lake. Views are somewhat limited in the forest but open up as you get closer with Jumbo Mountain and Table Mountain coming into focus. Keep in mind that the trail gets busy on summer weekends so you might want to start early in the morning!
Palisade Falls Trail #433 – 1.2 miles out and back
Great option for a family-friendly hike on this short trail to the very scenic 80′ Palisade Falls. The wheelchair-accessible trail is paved and has little incline making it perfect for smaller children.
Pine Creek Trail #47*** – 10.6 miles out and back
Challenging but beautiful trail to Pine Creek Lake sitting in a granite mountain cirque formed between Mt. McKnight and Black Mountain. After an easy first 1.5 miles, the trail hits a series of difficult and steep switchbacks on its way up through the forested valley. In total, hikers will ascend approximately 3,000′ in elevation in a 4 mile stretch. The hike isn’t easy but the views at the lake make it well worthwhile and a great spot to enjoy lunch before heading back to the trailhead.
Sacagawea Pass Trail #518 to Sacagawea Peak – 4.6 miles out and back
Starting from the Fairy Lake Campground, the trail climbs through a glacial cirque and up to Bridger Divide before winding up to the peak. The hike is challenging at times but because the trailhead is starting out at such a high elevation, you will only have to ascend 1,800′ on your way to the highest point in the Bridger Range (9,665′). Also, it is fairly common to see mountain goats on the trail!
Storm Castle Mountain Trail #92 – 4.8 miles out and back
Moderately difficult but quick trail but to the summit of Storm Castle, aka Castle Rock. The rocky peak sits atop the east wall of Gallatin Canyon and offers amazing panoramic views of the surrounding area including Garnet Mountain to the south. The 1,800′ ascent in under 2.5 miles can be challenging but the nice part about this trail is that there are great views to look at the entire way, not just at the end.
West Rosebud Trail #19 – 11.4 miles out and back
This is a popular daytrip offering spectacular views of Mystic Lake. This is one of two popular routes which provide access to Granite Peak (12,799′), the highest peak in Montana. From the trailhead, Mystic Lake is 3 miles and the bridge over Huckleberry Creek is 5.7. Beyond Huckleberry Creek, you can cross a log jam to continue to Island and Silver Lakes. The log jam can be slippery and the trail beyond is not maintained.
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