Gallatin Crest to Cliff Creek Trail
(13 miles, +1,700/-5,200 feet).
Today was a tale of two trails. It was the best of trails, it was the worst of trails….
Last night we did not get as much rain as I expected. It was enough to make it cozy sleeping in the tent but not so much that everything was soaked this morning. It wasn’t raining when we awoke, so we took our time with some breakfast before packing up and hitting the trail.
Soon we were descending into an adjacent valley, apparently to circumnavigate a difficult section of the ridge.
Once we were back up on the ridge it was absolutely breathtaking. Some of the most wonderful hiking I have done anywhere.
The trail is quite rocky and steep in some parts. And yet we found, right on trail, a broken headlamp from a dirtbike! I hesitated to pack it out, but picking it up it seemed quite light (maybe half a pound?) so I tied it to my pack.
After that we continued to make progress along the Crest.
Unfortunately, storm clouds started gathering again, and this time we were facing an 8 mile stretch of exposure. We still had plenty of daylight, but I was very worried about getting caught out where there was no way to get off the ridge. So we made a fateful choice to descend into the Cliff Creek basin to take a national forest trail down to Big Creek.
Although the national forest trail shows prominently on both USGS and recent National Forest maps, it was nowhere to be found. I kept using my GPS to try and find it, when suddenly in the middle of a meadow we found this:
The next six hours were some of the most frustrating hiking I have ever done. There was absolutely no trail through the meadows. We occasionally found trails in the woods but most of the time they were animal trails. When we did find human trails (as evidenced by ancient wood cuts near the trail) they disappeared when they hit the next meadow and we almost never found them again on the other side.
As we got lower the trail sometimes got more distinct, but there were so many blowdowns that we sometimes only traveled at half a mile an hour. And as we got lower the vegetation was so thick and tall that it was impossible to see the trail. We could only feel for it beneath a sea of green.
This tough travel took a toll: RainbowT injured his foot about 3 miles before we would hit the end of Cliff Creek and (hopefully) find a maintained trail. He toughed it out, but I think it was very painful for him to keep climbing blowdowns and descending through such rough terrain.
And did I mention the grizzlies? We didn’t see any, but the Gallatins are known to be prime grizzly country. Every 2-3 minutes I yelled out “Yo, Bear!” hoping that I would not surprise a mom and her cub in the dense Montana underbrush next to a roaring creek.
I did have time to snap some photos of the beautiful fungi along the way. But otherwise I felt very unmotivated to appreciate the hike.
The trail got a little bit more defined when we neared the trail junction.
And then we made it!
We had to call it — there was no place to camp nearby and we were only one mile from a trailhead, so we decided to retreat to Bozeman where RainbowT could get off his injured foot. Fortunately, I had my satellite communicator and Ultrashuffle’s other son was available to come get us (thanks again Clifford!).
I will definitely have to come back when the weather is good and try the Gallatin Crest again….