Changing Times – Day hikes around southwest Montana

The summer of 2007 was a time of change for our family. My parents split up, so a family road trip wasn’t high on our priority list. Also, I was getting ready to head off to college so instead of a big two-week excursion, our summer was dotted with shorter trips – day hikes with my mom, a drive to Yakima, WA for a cousin’s wedding, and my college orientation.

Our first hike was to Mystic Lake in the Gallatin National Forest. There are actually two trails to Mystic Lake – one winds up New World Gulch to the northern shore of the lake while the other follows Sourdough Creek from just south of Bozeman, MT up to the southern tip of the lake. New World Gulch trail is shorter, I believe, but we took the Sourdough Creek trail. The trail is wide and not very steep, which means it’s also a popular place for bikes and horses. It’s 16 miles round trip – but it’s also one of the easiest hikes I’ve ever done. I remember my mom and I came up on the lake, turned to look at each other, and said “really, we’re there already?”

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Mystic Lake, Gallatin National Forest, MT
Another fairly easy hike is Pioneer Falls, located in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. The trailhead leaves from Spanish Creek Campground off US Highway 191 in Gallatin Canyon. The trail to the falls is 3.3 miles one-way, with only about 1,000 feet elevation gain. If memory serves, the trail continues on to Jerome Rock Lakes (though it gets much steeper), a popular backpacking and fishing destination high in the Spanish Peaks.

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Pioneer Falls, Gallatin National Forest, MT
Either my mom and I lacked ambition this particular summer, or we were in better shape than we thought (probably the former), because most of the hikes we picked turned out to be somewhat easier than we were expecting. Next on that list – Garnet Mountain. It’s located in the Gallatin Mountains; the trail itself is on MT Route 132, off US Highway 191 in Gallatin Canyon. The turnoff isn’t well marked but there’s a ranger station there and the road immediately crosses a creek and turns to parallel it. Eventually we passed a church camp and came to a parking area on the left. From there, the trail to Castle Rock took off to the north while the Garnet Mountain trail was across the road to the south. It’s a little over 3 miles each way, and not all that steep until the end, where we turned left onto a wide dirt trail leading up to the fire tower on the summit.

The one thing I don’t like about Montana is the propensity for forest fires in late summer. I realize it’s part of a natural cycle and all that, but the areas that burn will never again look the same in my lifetime. Not to mention that the smoke makes the air quality pretty subpar. On a clear day, visibility from the top would have been much better. Ah well, what can you do? Even with the smoke, it was a pretty good view!

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