Do you pack up your hiking boots as soon as the first snowflake drops? If so, pull them back out. Winter in Montana is a great time to hit the trails for more reasons than one. Not only are the crowds and mosquitoes gone, but you can experience the beauty of Montana’s landscape from a whole new perspective once everything is dusted in snow. Winter hiking in Montana offers silence, solitude, and serenity that can’t be described, only experienced. Here are seven trails worth exploring when the temperatures drops and the snow descends. So zip up your jacket, strap on your Yaktrax, and head for the trailhead for a quick remedy to your cabin fever.
1906 TRAIL ON MOUNT HELENA
Distance: 2.9 miles (out and back)
Elevation Gain: 1,023 feet
At 5,468 feet, Mount Helena City Park looms prominently over Montana’s state capitol and features numerous trails of various levels of difficulty across its 620 plus acres. Starting on the 1906 trail is your best bet for a direct and scenic route to the summit. The trail has a gradual climb as it wraps around the north side of the mountain. You’ll journey through a ponderosa forest, along the base of limestone cliffs, and past the Devil’s Kitchen, a distinct cave in the cliff side. Upon the reaching the top, you’ll have a breathtaking view of the entire Helena valley. Make the hike a 3.2 loop by taking Hogback Trail then Prospect Shafts trail on the way back down.
How to get there: From Downtown Helena, head south on Park Avenue, then take a right on Carriage Lane at the Reeder’s Village Subdivision entrance. Follow the signs to the Mount Helena City Park Trailhead at the end of Reeder’s Village Drive.
LAVA LAKE TRAIL
Location: Between Bozeman & Big Sky
Distance: 5.5 miles (out and back)
Elevation Gain: 1,620 feet
Lava Lake is a challenging hike that climbs to a beautiful mountain lake in the Spanish Peaks section of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. The trail is located in the Gallatin Canyon between Bozeman and Big Sky and is one of the most popular trails in the area. The majority of the hike follows Cascade Creek up and through a dense evergreen forest. The hike is a steady uphill climb on a well-trodden, rocky single-track. At the end of the hike you will emerge from the trees to a stunning view of the 47-acre Lava Lake, nestled among its snow-dusted mountain surroundings.
How to get there: Take Hwy. 191 south into Gallatin Canyon. Drive 20 miles to the Lava Lake trailhead parking area on the right, just north of the Gallatin River Bridge.
FOUR DANCES TRAIL
Distance: 2.6 miles (round trip)
Elevation Gain: 590 feet
Four Dances Trail is located in the Four Dances Natural Area, a special recreation management area comprised of 765 acres of undeveloped open space two miles east of downtown Billings. Located on a plateau high above the Yellowstone River, the area affords spectacular views of the valley and the city itself. At just over 2.5 miles, Four Dances is a great challenge for intermediate hikers. If you head left at the beginning, you’ll walk along the rim of the plateau that is edged with cliffs that drop 200-500 feet down to the Yellowstone River. Be sure to bring a camera to capture the panoramic views of Billings, the Yellowstone River, and Pryor Mountains.
How to get there: From Old Hardin Road (U.S. Highway 87), turn south onto Coburn Road just east of the Interstate 90 exit. Signs for the Pictograph Caves State Park mark the spot to turn onto Coburn Road. Drive 1.5 miles on Coburn Rd. to the Four Dances parking lot.
OUSEL FALLS TRAIL
Location: Big Sky
Distance: 1.6 miles (out and back)
Elevation Gain: 400 feet
Ousel Falls Trail is a short but stunning hike in the heart of Big Sky along a well-maintained trail system with beautifully crafted timber frame bridges. This 1.6 mile hike crosses a ravine over the South Fork of the Gallatin River and meanders through the woods before ending at the 100-foot Ousel Falls. The waterfall itself is very broad and forms a large, ever-changing wall of ice during the winter. There are multiple locations to observe the falls once you reach it and the chance of seeing ice climbers.
How to get there: From Four Corners, head south on Hwy. 191 toward Big Sky. Drive about 30 miles, then turn right onto Big Sky Spur Road. Continue 3 miles and turn left onto Ousel Falls Road. Look for the Ousel Falls Park sign on the left.
MILWAUKEE RAILROAD TRAIL
Distance: 4.5 miles (out and back)
Elevation Gain: 400 feet
Just a few miles south of Butte, the Milwaukee Railroad Trail through Thompson Park offers a scenic and historic journey along a section of the former Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad. This gently sloping trail extends from the forest boundary south to Pipestone Pass and the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. This section of railroad was one of the first in the country to be electrified; Thomas Edison even came out to Butte to ride the Milwaukee Road. The relics of the past are highlights of this trail and include two tunnels and a breathtaking 600-foot trestle that rises 130 feet above the valley floor. The trail ends just 100 yards from the 2,300-foot-long Pipestone Pass tunnel, which is closed to the public. Not only is the Milwaukee Railroad Trail a fairly easy hike, it also gives hikers an unforgettable glimpse into Montana’s history.
How to get there: Take State Route 2 south of Butte for about nine miles and follow the signs.
BEEHIVE BASIN TRAIL
Location: Big Sky
Distance: 6.6 miles (out and back)
Elevation Gain: 1,500 feet
The hike to Beehive Basin offers every hallmark of Big Sky Country: glacier-cut mountains, alpine lakes, and top-of-the-world views. It was even ranked in the top ten greatest hikes in the world by Austin-Lehman Adventures for Fox News. This 6.6 mile hike slopes up moderately giving stunning views of Lone Peak along the way. After 3.3 miles, the trail enters Beehive Basin, a u-shaped glacial cirque with an unnamed crystal clear lake that overlooks Lone Peak. Scramble another half mile up to 10,742-foot Beehive Peak to enjoy even more views.
How to get there: From downtown Bozeman, head west on Huffine Lane toward Four Corners. Take a left onto Hwy. 191 toward Big Sky and drive 34 miles. Turn right onto Big Sky Spur Road and continue 10 miles to Beehive Basin Road on your right. Turn right and drive 2 miles to the posted trailhead on your left.
BLODGETT CANYON TRAIL
Distance: 7 miles (out and back)
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Elevation Gain: 600 Feet
It’s been called by some the Bitterroot Valley’s version of Yosemite. Blodgett Canyon was carved out by ice age glaciers, which left behind sheer granite cliffs that rise more than 2,000 feet above the waters of Blodgett Creek. The trail is surprisingly gentle as it slowly meanders along and above the creek. The Nez Perce Buttress, Blackfoot Dome, and Shoshone Spire pass by on the right as you make your way to the three-mile mark, where a bridge crosses the creek from south to north. A good lunch spot and turnaround point for winter hikers falls around the 3.5 mile mark, which is also where you’ll be met by the charming Blodgett Falls.
How to get there: Take Highway 93 south and turn right onto Bowman Road. Take the first left onto W. River Road, turn left onto Ricketts Road and continue onto Blodgett Camp Road. Turn right to stay on Blodgett Camp Road and continue to the trailhead.