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Cowboy Heaven Consulting, LLC
6116 Walker Road
Bozeman, MT 59715


Cowboy Heaven
Sweetgrass Hills
Lubec Ridge
Many Glacier
Gallatin Crest
Lava Lake
Beartrap Canyon
Emerald & Heather Lakes

The Gallatin Crest Trail

Via Windy Pass; high elevation scenery with comparatively easy access

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igh elevation country seems to hold a special attraction for most hikers. You’re above it all, so to speak, the scenery is great, and you have the feeling that you’ve left the more mundane lower elevation civilization behind. Of course, this feeling of adventure and solitude comes at a price; usually sweat and calories expended in a climb of many thousand verticalGallatin Crest.jpg (22939 bytes) feet. There are a few spots where you can drive to fairly high elevation to start with, though, cutting a few thousand feet off your climb. The most noteworthy example of this is the Beartooth Highway south of Red Lodge where you can drive to around 10,000’, but that is an unusual case in that you are then on a relatively flat plateau, without opportunity to hike appreciably higher than you can drive to. In looking for a hiking destination of this type I have used some admittedly somewhat arbitrary criteria, but they work for me as I’m sure they will for others. I want to be able to drive to a spot (without destroying my vehicle in the process) where I can reach scenic high country within reasonable day-hiking distance, say not over four or five miles with a climb of less than three thousand vertical feet. That narrows the list considerably, especially the part about not abusing your vehicle. There are some otherwise excellent spots in the Tobacco Root mountains, but the roads into them are an absolute fright; steep and rough jeep trails that have the potential to age you and your vehicle considerably.

First, perhaps we should define what I consider "high altitude". Montana’s mountains are generally lower elevation than some western states, although it is relief that makes for scenic grandeur, and Montana peaks hold their own nicely in that regard. Granite Peak at 12799’ is the highest point in the state, but in most Montana mountain ranges if you get up to 10,000’ or so you will be getting right up there.

One excellent spot that fits these criteria to a T is the Windy Pass area of the Gallatin Range, reached via the Portal Creek road in the GallatinMiracle.jpg (20573 bytes) Canyon south of Bozeman. Portal Creek departs the east side of US 191 five miles north of Big Sky and the road ascends the drainage for a little over six miles to its end and the Windy Pass Trailhead at 8000’. There is a possible point of confusion at the intersection for road to the Hidden Lake trailhead, but if you miss the signs stay to the left (actually more straight ahead) and you’ll be on the right road. Another possibly confusing spot is right at the trailhead; you want to take the trail departing to the east, not the old logging road with a trail sign pointing toward it. Portal Creek has been heavily logged in the past and is not the most scenic drainage in the Gallatin Canyon, but rest assured the view improves tremendously after you leave the road behind.

As always, you should have maps along, and while you could get by with the Gallatin National Forest travel plan map, I think you will be happier and have a better fix on your location using the 7.5 minute (1:24,000) USGS topographical maps: Hidden Lake MT, (covers mostly the route in through Portal Creek and just catches the trailhead, not absolutely essential), The Sentinel MT, and Lone Indian Peak MT (only necessary if you want to hike more than a mile south of Windy Pass).

From the trailhead the Windy Pass trail climbs gradually through the timber for 2.5 miles to the pass, gaining about 1100’ in the process. This is a quite easy hike, suitable for anyone in at least reasonable condition. While mostly in the timber, the trail does have a couple of open spots that afford good views of the Spanish Peaks to the west as well as the Hilgards southHilgards.jpg (16889 bytes) of Big Sky. Shortly before the pass the trail breaks out into the open, and the views become tremendous. The Windy Pass ranger station lies a quarter mile to the north, and in another quarter mile you reach the Gallatin Crest trail and will feel on top of the world. To the east the Big Creek drainage leads to the Yellowstone River, with the peaks of the Absaroka Range beyond. The northern end of Yellowstone Park is visible to the south, the Madison range rises to the west, and the Gallatin crest disappears off to the north. This view encompasses much of the most spectacular country in southwest Montana, which is to say some of the most spectacular country anywhere.

Those wishing to continue further have some excellent options from this point. Following the Gallatin Crest trail 2.75 miles south leads to 9976’ Eaglehead Mountain. The first part of this trail is relatively level, with most of the elevation gain in the last half mile. In addition to even better views of the previously mentioned vistas, you have a bird’s eye view of the upper Gallatin canyon.

An equal distance to the north lies The Sentinel at 9945’. The Gallatin Crest trail ascends steadily to this point, but I would still consider it easy hiking. Further attempts at describing the stupendous view would only be redundant at this point.

As mentioned, the hiking to the points described is quite easy, although you will definitely notice the effects of the altitude. I live at 4700’ and regularly hike in the 7000’ to 8000’ range, am in reasonable condition, and am obviously at least fairly well acclimated. Still, I was surprised at the feeling of not being able to get quite enough oxygen when close to 10,000’. Visitors coming from lower elevation should spend at least a day or two at more moderate elevation before hiking into the high country, consume plenty of liquids, and not over-exert or they could find the experience less than enjoyable.

The routes described are suitable for very enjoyable day hikes, but there’s no reason you couldn’t extent your trip if you desire. Although camping isWindyPass.jpg (17071 bytes) prohibited in the immediate vicinity of the Windy Pass ranger station, there are several good camping sites not too far away with springs available to replenish your water supplies. Water availability is likely to be the largest problem encountered if you decide to hike further on the Gallatin Crest trail. You are going to have to drop off into one of the side drainages if you need to get water, although at least through late July you should be able to find some high elevation snowbanks where you could melt snow for water.

South of Windy Pass the Gallatin Crest Trail ends at the intersection with the Rock Creek trail about four miles south of Eaglehead Mountain. Hikers could follow Rock Creek east toward the Yellowstone or drop into Buffalo Horn Creek. One popular attraction in this area is Ramshorn Lake. If one is enamored with staying on the crest there are more extensive possibilities north of Windy Pass. The truly adventurous could continue for fifteen rugged miles to the north end of the Gallatin Crest Trail at 10,299’ Hyalite Peak, before descending another four miles to the Hyalite Creek trailhead. I have only been about halfway on this route, which is the easy half according to the maps. Obviously, only experienced backpackers should attempt this trip.

Experienced or otherwise, though, the Windy Pass area provides a relatively easy way to experience the high country of southwest Montana. Instead of a lung and thigh-busting 4000’ climb, you are looking at a relatively casual 1000’ to 2000’ climb, spread over from 2.5 to 5 miles, after which you will be amply rewarded with panoramic views of peaks in every direction, whose summits you are nearly level with. You’ll feel like you are on top of the world, and that’s a sensation everybody can stand more of.

See you on the trail.



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