The Misanthrope's Guide to Montana Waterfalls

Pine Creek Falls. Photo by Tom Rath.


Not by coincidence, some of the most talked-about waterfalls in Montana lie in the most populated areas. These falls are usually described as some of the “best” waterfalls you can visit.

But “best” is a subjective quality, and the attractive bits of a waterfall are not always enough to mitigate the unattractive bits—namely, people. Yes, people. Hordes of them. They make waterfalls deeply unappealing to people like me—namely, misanthropes.

Public access to public lands ought to take priority again in Montana, but this isn’t the point up for discussion. Anyone who has worked in the service industry will understand that the “public” has a reputation for many, many reasons. And all these reasons make it that much more difficult for outdoorsy misanthropes to recreate in peace.

So don’t expect peace when you go to these beautiful, inspiring waterfalls. They are stunning, and evoke the finest tranquility nature has to offer, but you’ll have to enjoy it cheek-to-jowl.

grotto falls

Grotto Falls

Sitting south of Bozeman in the popular Hyalite Reservoir area, Grotto Falls is the first in a series of waterfalls that punctuate Hyalite Creek Trail like so many pearls. The name “Grotto Falls” conveys a kind of coziness and intimacy that more stately monikers like “Monument Falls” and “Grand Falls” just cannot pull off. And in years gone by, this particular waterfall did feel like a somewhat well-kept secret for only being about a mile off the road. It’s short, for one thing, coming in at 30 feet tall. There are much more visually impressive cascades in the Hyalite area, including Palisade Falls back up the road.

The walk into Grotto Falls is relatively mild, too, a quality that apparently makes the falls itself less appealing to those recreationists who self-identify as waterfall chasers. Entire websites dedicated to the sport of waterfall chasing provide detailed specs on the waterfalls’ appearance (height, water volume, number of tiers), along with access directions (sometimes painstakingly descriptive and detailed, other times left intentionally vague).

Based on the rhetoric of these websites, waterfall chasers come off more like adrenaline junkies than they do seekers of calm, contemplative spaces. The more isolated the waterfall, and the more precarious and death-defying the approach, the better. Off-trail waterfalls seem to carry more clout than those with well-developed trails and vista points.

The trail to Grotto Falls is wheelchair-accessible, pretty short, and not too steep. The pool at the waterfall’s base makes for a great swimming hole, which everyone and their grandma seems to know by now. You could easily make the walk itself in sandals, if you felt like you had a point to prove. Finding a parking spot is by far the most challenging part of this hike. Watch out for the crazed mountain bikers and don’t step on the broken selfie sticks abandoned trailside.

To get here, drive south from Bozeman on South 19th Avenue and turn left on Hyalite Canyon Road, which takes you up to the reservoir. When you come to a fork in the road, hang a right and follow the signs for Hyalite Creek Trailhead.

Pine Creek Falls. Photo by Tom Rath


Pine Creek Falls 

Situated south of Livingston in the Paradise Valley, Pine Creek Falls is anything but paradisiacal. Go ahead and try to find a parking spot. Then prepare yourself for something akin to a pilgrimage, but with more people. You’re all going to the same place, which is regrettable but also kind of the point.

The climb to Pine Creek Falls is only about 400 feet, but it feels like a lot more when you have to step off the trail every thirty seconds to accommodate other hikers barreling downhill toward you or breathing down your neck from behind. It was bad ten years ago, so one can only imagine what it’s like now. Trail courtesy seems to fall right off the table once a critical mass is reached.

There’s a fun little bridge to cross, and the waterfalls themselves are gorgeous. At 80 feet, Pine Creek Falls holds its own in terms of picturesqueness. If you’re a glutton for punishment, but also determined to seek out something closer to solitude, you can keep walking up to Jewel Lake Falls and Pine Creek Lake Falls.

To get here, drive south on US-89 from Livingston for a few miles and turn left onto East River Road. Drive for about 8 miles, turn left on Luccock Park Road, and continue past the campground to the end of the road.

Holland Lake, photo by Lindsay Tran


Holland Falls

Holland Lake is a great place to take in the beauty of the Seeley-Swan Valley. This three-mile round-trip jaunt takes you around the north side of the lake to its easternmost point, where you can gaze at the back of the Missions from the base of the 50-foot Holland Falls.

Towering Ponderosa pine shelter you from the sun for the first mile or so, and the understory bristles with wildflowers. But after that, the narrow trail leads you along an exposed rocky precipice, where you will blister in the sun like a hot dog on a grill while waiting for 200 people to pass from the other direction.

To get here from Seeley Lake, drive north on the highway for 20 or so miles until the turn-off to the Holland Lake area. Hang a right, drive past the campground and resort area, and try to find parking at the trailhead.


Morrell Falls, photo by Lindsay Tran


Morrell Falls

Writer interjection here—I loved Morrell Falls until I got married. In a misguided effort to follow social conventions, my partner and I looked into getting professional photos for our engagement announcement. A local photographer quoted us at $3,000 for a “starter” package. I imagine that this price is reasonable for some, but it certainly was not for us.

The photographer’s portfolio included photos of a couple who carried collapsible changing rooms on their backs into the woods and got married at the base of a “secret waterfall in northwest Montana.” If $3,000 is the going rate for engagement photos, I can only imagine that actual wedding photos are even more. And we weren’t even asking for a secret waterfall in the frame. When I clicked on the link, lo and behold, the so-called secret waterfall was Morrell Falls, only one of the most popular hikes in the Seeley-Swan Valley.

If secrecy of location factored into the price tag for those photos, that couple got fleeced big time. Not anyone’s problem but their own, but still. Hawking the illusion of privacy at Morrell Falls is a dubious business practice, at best. I suppose that’s what the changing rooms were for.

If you can accept that you won’t experience anything resembling privacy on this five-mile round-tripper, you’ll at least be able to appreciate the shock-pink fireweed growing along the trail and the bear-friendly huckleberry bushes that line Morrell Creek as you get closer to the 90-foot falls.

To get here, take a right onto Cottonwood Lakes Road from the highway at the north end of Seeley Lake. Take a left onto Forest Road 4352 at the sign for Morrell Falls, and just keep going. At about 6.5 miles, you’ll run into a ton of cars, where you can try to find parking. 

So go ahead—check out the waterfalls on this list. They are real waterfalls. You will get the sound, you will get the smell. You will also, with some level of physical contortion, get a photo that conveys the impression of your being alone in the wilderness, taking in this miracle of geology on your own terms.

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