Gallatin National Forest Overview
|Gallatin National Forest (Gordon Wiltsie/National Geographic/Getty)|
Location, of course, is everything. And Gallatin National Forest has certainly benefited from having Yellowstone National Park literally in its backyard. The 1.8-million-acre forest in southwestern Montana shares not only borders with the famed national park, but also its Bighorn sheep, elk, and grizzlies, which cross between the two protected areas without disruption.
Gallatin also shares in Yellowstone's unique geology: The world's largest thermal basin has produced fault lines that run right through Gallatin, resulting in places like Earthquake Lake, formed by (surprise) an earthquake in 1959.
Besides the eerie thermal-basin formations and hordes of wildlife, Gallatin also serves up a huge playground for outdoor lovers. You'll find 2,200 miles of trails, 1,740 miles of fishable streams and rivers, and 700 high-mountain lakes and reservoirs. All are surrounded by dense timbered valleys, rugged peaks that reach to nearly 10,000 feet, stratified volcanic and metamorphic rock, and alpine meadows that explode with summertime wildflowers.
Late summer is considered high season in these northern reaches, but truly any season is good for discovering the forest's myriad Montana-made adventures: cross-country skiing, fishing, hiking, rafting, walking through a petrified forest, and driving one of America's most beautiful byways.
Drive the Beartooth Highway
It's no surprise that the Beartooth Highway, built in 1936 and designated a national scenic byway in 1989, offers knockout scenery. After all, geological upheaval has thrust jagged mountains up all over this region, and driving into them affords glimpses of snowcapped peaks, immense valleys, and high-altitude lakes. But the 64-mile-long road, which stretches between Red Lodge and Cooke City, also offers a glimpse into Western history, as it follows the path taken by General Phillip Sheridan in 1882 on his inspection tour of the Yellowstone area. The best part: Trailheads line the entire route, so you'll be able to get out and stretch those legs.
Ski Cross-Country Heaven
Gallatin is the answer to every cross-country skier's prayers, whether a groomed-trail skier or an off-the-path trailblazer. With more than 60 miles of trails, and an altitude high enough to practically guarantee great snow, Gallatin has something for every skill level. The Rendezvous Ski Trails serve up more than 14 miles of trails that are professionally groomed every day from December 1 to March 30. Or try Lone Mountain Ranch or Bohart Ranch. But don't feel restricted if you want to branch out. Countless miles of hiking and riding trail convert overnight into ski trails with the season's first big dump. Just be aware and heed avalanche dangers.
Walk a Petrified Forest
It's a walk back in time—way back. Between 35 and 55 million years old, the Gallatin Petrified Forest, near Rock and Porcupine Creeks in the Gallatin Range, is a strange place. Why? In most petrified forests, mud and lava flows carry away the trees and they're petrified in a horizontal position. But here, many of the trees have been petrified in an upright position. How? Find out: The Forest Service operates a half-mile interpretive trail so you can identify specimens, then set out on your own into this very special area of the forest.
Hike True Montana
The huge valleys and jagged, naked peaks that symbolize this area of the country make for great scenery of course, but also for a combination of environments all levels of hikers can enjoy. The seven-mile Hyalite Peak Trail, for instance, offers beauty and challenges for experienced hikers and novices alike. It begins in a deep glaciated valley at 7,000 feet, continues to 10,299 feet, and offers spectacular views of the glaciated valley, surrounding peaks, and area waterfalls. Snowfall here in the winter is heavy, of course, so expect snow through mid-July. For a quick-hit hike with a big-view payoff, try the Sacajawea Peak Trail, a two-mile trek that climbs about 2,000 feet and ends with a great view of Gallatin Valley. Still not satisfied? Continue another two miles on to Hardscrabble Peak.
Cast for Cutthroats
Mountain stream riffles, pocket water, wadeable channels, surging runs, and deep pools: The choices in the Gallatin River seem to be endless for pursuing Montana's specialty—trout. And with 4,000 miles of streams, 1,740 miles of fishable streams and rivers, and 18,800 acres of reservoir and lake habitat, you're likely to find your own private stretch for pursuing that other goal of fishing: solitude. While cutthroat and rainbow trout are the major draw, graylings and whitefish also navigate these waters. Prime season is late June.
Build a Log Cabin
If you've always wanted to build a log cabin, here's your chance. The OTO dude ranch teaches log-building restoration techniques in one-week sessions with historic preservation experts. You'll use hand tools like the adze, chisel, and axe during the day and sleep in luxury tents at night. The course isn't all about work: There's a raft trip down the Yellowstone River, a horseback ride along the trails the OTO dudes once used, and music around the campfire in the evenings. The 3,200-acre ranch is the oldest guest ranch in Montana and was once frequented by Teddy Roosevelt.
Raft a Wild River
If it's whitewater action you're after, this is the place. Early summer runoff makes for some insane rapids and cold water. How insane? Because the water runs so high in early June on the Gallatin, outfitters say the trip isn't suitable for kids and "the unathletic." The froth subsides as the season progresses, and rapids—even through a stretch called the Mad Mile—can be run by everyone. You also have the choice of running the tamer Madison and Yellowstone Rivers. No matter what you choose you'll get amazing scenery and will want to keep an eye out for the osprey and bald eagle, as well as the thermal hot springs that make this area unique.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication