Gallatin Gateway, Montana

Backpack the Gallatin Crest Trail

42 Miles Total - 6000 ft gain - Point-to-Point Trail

Originally added by Angela Hessenius

This is an incredible ~40 mile route that let's you hike along the ridge of the Gallatin mountain range, taking in spectacular views of the other mountain ranges that surround, including an epic 360 view from Hyalite Peak (10,299'). (Also referred to as Gallatin Divide Trail or sometimes the Devil's Backbone).

There are some different options for starting and ending this hike, but the route I did started at Buffalo Horn Trailhead and ends at the Hyalite Creek Trailhead, and is approximately 42 miles total. I did the trail over the course of three and a half days, spending three nights in the backcountry. 

No permits were needed (the trail is within the Custer-Gallatin National forest. I did call and ask about trail conditions--I did this trip the fourth of July weekend, and there were still quite a few spots where the trail was covered in snow. I think after mid-July the trail would have much less snow. There were also parts of the trail that were not well-defined--as in the trail kind of disappeared and reappeared again having been grown over by grass or just covered by a lot of snow, so I would only recommend doing this route if you are confident in navigation and have good maps with you.  I made copies of the sections of the USGS topo quad maps that I need (the trail crosses 5: Sunshine Point, Lone Indian, Ramshorn Peak, The Sentinel and Fridley Peak). For reference I uploaded jpegs of the maps I used here, though you'd probably want to order the real ones or get a better quality image:

Day 1: I don't have a car so I couldn't arrange a shuttle, so I took the Sky Link bus from Bozeman to the furthest South stop at Corral/Rainbow Ranch, and walked with my backpack down the road (US-191) for about an hour until someone gave me a lift the rest of the way to the trailhead. Starting at Buffalo Horn, you hike on horse packing trails following Buffalo Horn Creek, gaining some elevation until you reach Ramshorn Lake, which is stunning and has several clearly popular camping spots. I kept hiking for about another mile to another unnamed lake and camped on a flat spot on a hill right above it, covering about 9 miles from the trailhead in total that day and going from ~6650' to ~8900' (~2250' difference) in elevation. 

Day 2: Starting from the unnamed lake, this day was when I found the trail was most fickle and I did a lot of walking around snowbanks, but you start to get to the ridges and every turn shows you a different incredible view. I purposefully wanted to do the most mileage this day so I would have more flexibility the next two days, and made it about the 15 miles I wanted to go, finding a relatively flat spot under two pine trees to make a shelter by while camping on this ridge. By this point on the trail you pretty much keep oscillating in elevation with the ridges. On this day, you continue going up from the lake (~8900) until you get to Eaglehead Mountain (~9800'), go back down to ~9300' through Windy Pass, and start climbing again as you approach the Sentinel (~9800'), go back down to ~9600' and then up again to an unnamed 10,059' peak on the map and turn a corner traversing the ridgeline the rest of the way, going back down to ~9600', giving my approximate calculation for total elevation gain and loss for the day as 1800' and 1100'. 

Day 3: Continuing along the ridge, you start to climb again and pass this huge open, flat dome-shaped plateau that is at about 10,000' and has is totally beautiful. After a while you get to a really steep descent back down to 9300'. Parts of the trail this day are over fields of loose rocks the slope sides, but I found I could more easily see the trail from this point on. Then you climb again to 9800', back down again to 9600', and eventually pass Crater Lake at about 9300'. I got a little bit unsure of where I was at this point because I thought I should've passed Crater Lake before I started ascending again, but I soon found the lake and kept hiking, staying at around 9700-9800' all the way until you begin to ascend towards Hyalite Peak. The Gallatin Crest Trail joins with the Hyalite Peak right for the last steep ascent, and getting to the top of Hyalite at 10,299' was so rewarding with a 360 degree view, including the whole ridge you just hiked to get there and the Hyalite Creek canyon on the other side that is totally incredible. The trail down off of the peak towards Hyalite Lake was also quite steep and still covered in snow, so I had to slide down it on my butt with my backpack on, which was probably the most thrilling sledding I've ever done.  Because of all the snowmelt there were streams all over the meadowy area below the peak I camped that night at a small unnamed lake right below the peak that night, back down to ~9200'. Total mileage and elevation gain and loss approximations for that day are 11-12 miles, 1900' and 2300'.

Day 4: After a bit of wandering to find the trail again by finally reaching Hyalite Lake, it's a straightforward shot gradually losing all your elevation on switchbacks that have a bunch of stream crossing and waterfalls everywhere, until you get to the bottom of the canyon through the trees and out to the parking lot at the Hyalite Creek Trailhead at about 6800'. Total mileage and elevation loss: about 7-8 miles (I think it's about 6 miles between Hyalite Lake and the trailhead) and 2,400'. I hitched a ride with a couple back to Bozeman.  

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