Before we begin, a quick word about the incredible micro-season we’re experiencing here in Gardiner. Though it has its own unique beauty, early spring around these parts certainly keeps you on your toes! We’re talking dramatic clouds racing across unruly skies, casting animated shadows on dry fields and faded fence posts. A hopeful buttercup peeking its head above frosted ground. One day you might have brilliant bluebird skies and the breezy smell of summer in the air. The next, you’ll find the valleys covered in a fresh blanket of snow - only to see it melt by 3 p.m.
And did we mention the Yellowstone crowds are almost non-existent?
But we digress. It’s that time of year when visitors to the area might be faced with a “choose your own adventure” dilemma...to ski or to hike? (Yep, talk about a good problem to have!) And while we’re all about embracing spring ski conditions, this time we’re bringing you five lower elevation, generally drier hikes that are ideal for the entire family - and some for Toto too.
Without further ado...
Where: Across the road from the Lava Creek Picnic Area on the Grand Loop Road in Yellowstone National Park.
Distance: Four miles one-way (consider a shuttle) or eight miles out and back. It’s ok to turn around whenever you please, though, as the views and opportunities for exploration make this well worth the trip regardless of distance.
Restrooms: Pit toilets at Lava Creek Picnic Area.
Bear Spray: Yes
Highlights: Abundant wildlife including elk, bison, pronghorn, and mule deer, as well as pleasant views of Lava Creek and Mount Everts. Early spring wildflowers also decorate the trail this time of year (look but don’t pick!) and a short detour will give you a beautiful view of Undine Falls.
Other Considerations: The Yellowstone National Park entrance fee applies when traveling to this trailhead from outside the park.
Where: Highway 89 approximately 10 miles north of Gardiner, Montana. Turn onto Cedar Creek Road and follow the narrow dirt road to the end to reach the trailhead.
Distance: 2.6 miles round-trip.
Restrooms: No. The closest facilities can be found in Gardiner, Montana, or along the various fishing accesses lining Highway 89 (pit toilets only).
Bear Spray: Yes. (Notice a pattern yet??)
Highlights: This gem of a hike heads into Custer Gallatin National Forest land to the first and oldest dude ranch in Montana. Thanks to the efforts of primarily volunteers, you can explore the restored buildings of the ranch, or picnic in the adjacent meadows (or right on the porch of the old lodge - our favorite spot). Return the way you came for gorgeous views of Electric Peak and the Gallatin Mountains.
3. Wraith Falls
Where: Eight miles east of Mammoth Hot Springs and 0.5 miles east of Lava Creek Picnic Area on Yellowstone National Park’s Grand Loop Road. Park at the trailhead on the right.
Distance: One mile round trip.
Restrooms: The closest facilities are pit toilets located at the Lava Creek Picnic Area just west of the trailhead.
Bear Spray: Yes
Highlights: Easy-going Yellowstone National Park hike with a big payoff. Local toddlers have been known to tackle this one. Early spring wildflowers, abundant wildlife, and stunning views of Wraith Falls make this a fun and rewarding Northern Range pick.
Other Considerations: The Yellowstone National Park entrance fee applies when traveling to this trailhead from outside the park
4. Eagle Creek via NF - 3243
Where: Two miles northeast of Gardiner, Montana off of Jardine Road. Park at the gate on the left hand side of the road just past Eagle Creek Campground (Forest Service Road 3243, Custer Gallatin NF)
Distance: Four miles round-trip (or shorter or longer depending on your turnaround point).
Bear spray: Yes
Restrooms: The closest facilities are pit toilets located at Eagle Creek Campground.
Highlights: This mellow walk (barring a few switchbacks) along dirt Forest Service Road comes with incredible views of Electric Peak, Yellowstone’s Northern Range, and Mammoth Hot Springs, as well as a bird's eye view of charming Gardiner, Montana. Bison, elk, mule deer, and bighorn sheep are frequently sighted. It’s also a great place to catch a southwestern Montana sunset (or sunrise!)
Where: The trailhead begins at Pine Creek Campground, 17 miles south of Livingston, Montana.
Distance: 2.5 miles roundtrip
Restrooms: Pit toilets
Bear spray: Yes
Highlights: Located in the foothills of the Abasaroka Mountains in Paradise Valley, this well-maintained trail might be described as a remote and incredibly scenic dog park (and don’t worry, most of the hikers are extremely courteous when it comes to their pets!) Think mature forest, a babbling brook perfect for streamside exploration, and of course Pine Creek Falls as your reward when you reach the end.
Other Considerations: When summer rolls around, more adventurous hikers can continue on the same trail past the falls for four more miles. Though steep and fairly strenuous, the views of Pine Creek Lake at end of the trail are worth the effort.
What did we miss? Do you have a favorite spring hike around Gardiner this time of year? Be sure to tag your favorites and other spring adventures with #VisitGardinerMT!
Wraith Falls photo: Courtesy of Yellowstone NPS. All other photos: Neala Fugere/Gardiner Chamber of Commerce.