The rail-thin Seattle hiker was solo when he appeared out of nowhere behind me atop a 9,400-foot-high portion of the Gallatin Crest Trail.
He had hiked from Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyoming, in Yellowstone National Park, north to Interstate 90 between Bozeman and Livingston — a distance he estimated at about 60 miles — all of it along the Gallatin Crest. Now he was hiking back to Mammoth, taking eight days to complete the entire trek. Along the way, he admitted encountering a lot more ascents and descents than he had anticipated.
“It’s cool country and a lot of it doesn’t get a ton of use,” said Wendi Urie, recreation program manager for the Custer Gallatin National Forest.
“It gets a lot of use at Hyalite Peak, Windy Pass, Eaglehead and a fair amount out of Tom Miner to Ramshorn,” she added.
Elsewhere, you may have the trail to yourself.
The Gallatin Crest is the ridgeline of the Gallatin Mountain Range in southwestern Montana. The range runs a roughly 80-mile squiggly finger south from I-90 to its terminus near 10,336-foot Mount Holmes in Yellowstone. Mount Holmes is just west of the famed Obsidian Cliff known for its black glass-sharp stone so favored by prehistoric native people for weapons and tools.
Along its route, the mountain range climbs to 10,969-foot Electric Peak, the highest of the crags, as well as to the more well-known high points of Hyalite (10,298) and Mount Blackmore (10,154) near Bozeman. Outside the park, the land is contained within the expansive Custer Gallatin National Forest, which holds five other mountain ranges.
According to Thomas Turiano’s well-researched book “Select Peaks of Greater Yellowstone,” the Gallatin Mountains may have extended even farther south before the Yellowstone supervolcano blew about 2 million years ago. The blast was just one of many. Beginning about 50 million years ago, an estimated 27 volcanic eruptions have at times buried tropical and temperate forests creating layers of fossilized wood more than 2,000 feet thick near the Crest, according to a Forest Service pamphlet.
As a result, a portion of the area is named the Gallatin Petrified Forest. An interpretive trail at the end of the Tom Miner Basin Road accesses the sights for those seeking to learn more about the unique geology of the locale.
For hikers looking to get a glimpse from the tall Gallatin ridge line, which rises between and parallels the Gallatin and Yellowstone rivers, there are numerous access points.
The most popular route is via Hyalite Canyon south of Bozeman. A well-trod trail takes visitors up Hyalite Creek and on to Hyalite Peak, an eight-mile trek. Continuing on all the way to the park border would cover 38 miles, with large expanses lacking any water source.
“It’s challenging from a water perspective,” Urie said.
To avoid the crowds — although the Custer Gallatin is one of the most-visited national forests in the region — approach it from the Gallatin Canyon or Paradise Valley sides. Gallatin trails that wind to the Crest, starting from the north and traveling south, include: Squaw Creek, Swan Creek, Moose Creek, Portal Creek, Porcupine Creek, Twin Cabin Creek, Buffalo Horn Creek, Wilson Draw and Teepee Creek. In essence, pretty much every creek drainage has a path along it, off of it, or near the end of the road.
Take note, Gallatin hikers may be sharing 16 miles of trail with motorcyclists on trails 199 and 34 between Buffalo Horn and Porcupine creeks, which is kind of a surprise considering the wilderness-like setting.
“It’s old school, single-track trails,” Urie said. “The upper end of Porcupine is more technical.”
From Teepee Creek south, the Gallatin Crest enters Yellowstone National Park where permits are required to camp overnight. Creek drainages in the park that climb to the Crest include Dailey, Black Butte and Specimen, and then Fawn Pass and Bighorn Pass trails.
From the north traveling south on the Paradise Valley side, main access points to the Crest can be found at the Chestnut Mountain trail system, Trail Creek, Big Creek, Rock Creek and Tom Miner Basin before reaching Yellowstone National Park.
In the park, trails take off on the east side of the Gallatins from Mammoth Hot Springs, Indian Creek and Straight Creek.
It’s tough to beat the views from the Gallatin Crest. Looking west the Madison Range, with the tops of solitary peaks like Sphinx (10,876) and Lone Mountain (11,166), scrapes the bottom of the clouds. To the north, the Tobacco Root Mountains appear hazy in the gap between Lone Mountain and the Spanish Peaks. Scan eastward and the tall spires of the Absaroka and Beartooth mountains soar.
Large parks are spread across the Gallatin Mountains’ flanks, filled with violet sticky geranium, dark purple larkspur, thick patches of bluebells in wetter areas along with iridescent Indian paintbrush. Daintier flowers included small patches of brilliant white ground-hugging phlox and pale blue wood forget-me-nots.
Scattered everywhere are shards of fossilized wood along with massive boulders of welded together gravel and larger rocks from those ancient volcanic eruptions and the mudflows they triggered. The one downside is the large dead patches of whitebark pine, which dominate many of the higher elevations, producing ghostly forests.
Although it was a warm, blue-sky day, a howling wind out of the west quickly dried any sweat on the Seattle long hiker, as well as kept the flocks of biting deer flies at bay. I commented on his backpack, the same brand that I was carrying, and he noted that a seamstress had to take in the waist belt to fit his skinny hips.
I pointed out how well-worn the pack was, based on the taped portions of the shoulder straps which I called duct tape. He corrected me, saying it was tech tape, which must be a more socially acceptable tape in the backpacking world. Duct tape, which I’ve used to hold together my backpack, hiking shoes and trekking poles, is obviously a more hillbilly Montana adornment.
Standing corrected, I waved the hiker on. He disappeared in no time down the rocky route, but not before noting he had seen few other people on the trail, a statement that seemed odd given the popularity of this range in outdoor-oriented Bozeman’s backyard.