Hike to Cataract Falls

Rate this Adventure Montana Elk Creek Trailhead, Lewis and Clark National Forest

Added by Jen Weir

Take a quick 0.5 mile roundtrip hike to a tranquil waterfall and enjoy expansive mountain vistas. 

Located in the Lewis and Clark National Forest on the Rocky Mountain Front, this hike will give the best bang for your buck -- it's about as easy as they come but still boasts outstanding views. The falls are roaring in the spring with snow melt, tranquil in the summer and fall, and permit some decent ice climbing in the winter months.

It takes a reasonable amount of time to get to the trailhead, especially when you consider the hike is only about a half mile roundtrip (about seven minutes one way and that’s 2-year-old speed). But the drive is well worth it – the gradual approach of the Rocky Mountain Front is pretty epic.

The hike starts at Elk Creek Trailhead where there is ample parking, a hitching post, outhouse and signage regarding the area. Elk Creek, which you'll have to cross several times, runs parallel to the parking area.

As you look up from the trailhead, you'll see Steamboat Mountain towering in front of you at 8,297 feet. The trail is easy to spot -- just look for the clearing towards the mountain. Here you'll come upon your first creek crossing; there is a sturdy rock path across so you should stay dry, unless the water is high from run-off.

The trail itself is very hiker friendly – you’ll find a bit of gravel but mostly soft dirt. There are three creek crossings to get to the falls, but they are maintained and even if you go in, the creek is only a few inches deep. The trail is littered with wildflowers and wildlife can be observed on a good day -- including bears, so stay alert.

A couple hundred feet into the trail you’ll find a sign directing you to the left (going the other direction will take you on a two-hour excursion to the top of Steamboat Mountain). The trail is mainly soft dirt and moss with the occasional rock and stump sticking up, so make sure you watch your footing. There’s no question of when you reach the falls; the water cascades off a steep granite face a hundred or so feet up. You’ll find smaller falls over logs and rocks as the water works its way down the mountain and flows into Elk Creek.

There is a partial trail (possibly a full trail for the experienced hiker) across the granite, giving you a bird’s eye view of the falls as well. The pool the falls flow into is shallow – great to soak the footsies in if you’re up for some chilly mountain water. Take a seat and enjoy your peaceful surroundings on one of the large rocks that litter the area.

Tips: 

  • At the trailhead you’re about an hour away from the nearest town (Augusta), so you’ll want to pack food and water with you. 
  • Keep your pooch on a leash to prevent any unnecessary animal encounters or other problems that can occur. 
  • Because the trail is so remote, it’s never overcrowded – most the time you’ll be lucky to encounter even one other hiker. 
  • If you venture out in the winter, you’ll need to, at least, have four-wheel drive if not chains. The snow can get pretty deep up there and it’s easy to get stuck – the chance that someone will stumble upon you way up there to help you out is pretty low. Make sure someone knows where you’re going and when you plan to be back.

Pack List

  • Camera
  • Bear spray
  • Food and water
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Activities:

Chillin, Hiking, Photography, Running, Snowshoeing

Skill Level:

Beginner

Season:

Year Round

Trail Type:

Out-and-Back

Distance:

0.5 Miles

Features:

Bathrooms
Dog Friendly
Easy Parking
Family Friendly
Forest
Scenic
Waterfall
Wildflowers
Wildlife

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How to Get There

about 1 year ago

Beautiful views and about as family friendly as it gets -- we had a 2, 3 & 4 year old that hiked it with no problems (except for a mishap with a toe and a rock). If you have free time on a weekend and want to get out to enjoy some awesome Montana scenery, head to Cataract Falls.

about 1 year ago

Added by Jen Weir

Montana native, writer, CSCS, military wife, mom and Wonder Woman protégé. I love books, beer, bacon, mountains, muscles, sunshine and getting outside with my family every chance I get.

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