elevation country seems to hold a special attraction for most hikers. Youre above it
all, so to speak, the scenery is great, and you have the feeling that youve left the
more mundane lower elevation civilization behind. Of course, this feeling of adventure and
solitude comes at a price; usually sweat and calories expended in a climb of many thousand
vertical feet. There are a few spots where you can drive to
fairly high elevation to start with, though, cutting a few thousand feet off your climb.
The most noteworthy example of this is the Beartooth Highway south of Red Lodge where you
can drive to around 10,000, but that is an unusual case in that you are then on a
relatively flat plateau, without opportunity to hike appreciably higher than you can drive
to. In looking for a hiking destination of this type I have used some admittedly somewhat
arbitrary criteria, but they work for me as Im sure they will for others. I want to
be able to drive to a spot (without destroying my vehicle in the process) where I can
reach scenic high country within reasonable day-hiking distance, say not over four or five
miles with a climb of less than three thousand vertical feet. That narrows the list
considerably, especially the part about not abusing your vehicle. There are some otherwise
excellent spots in the Tobacco Root mountains, but the roads into them are an absolute
fright; steep and rough jeep trails that have the potential to age you and your vehicle
First, perhaps we should define what I consider "high altitude".
Montanas mountains are generally lower elevation than some western states, although
it is relief that makes for scenic grandeur, and Montana peaks hold their own nicely in
that regard. Granite Peak at 12799 is the highest point in the state, but in most
Montana mountain ranges if you get up to 10,000 or so you will be getting right up
One excellent spot that fits these criteria to a T is the Windy Pass area of the
Gallatin Range, reached via the Portal Creek road in the Gallatin Canyon south of Bozeman. Portal Creek departs the east side of US 191 five
miles north of Big Sky and the road ascends the drainage for a little over six miles to
its end and the Windy Pass Trailhead at 8000. There is a possible point of confusion
at the intersection for road to the Hidden Lake trailhead, but if you miss the signs stay
to the left (actually more straight ahead) and youll be on the right road. Another
possibly confusing spot is right at the trailhead; you want to take the trail departing to
the east, not the old logging road with a trail sign pointing toward it. Portal Creek has
been heavily logged in the past and is not the most scenic drainage in the Gallatin
Canyon, but rest assured the view improves tremendously after you leave the road behind.
As always, you should have maps along, and while you could get by with the Gallatin
National Forest travel plan map, I think you will be happier and have a better fix on your
location using the 7.5 minute (1:24,000) USGS topographical maps: Hidden Lake MT, (covers
mostly the route in through Portal Creek and just catches the trailhead, not absolutely
essential), The Sentinel MT, and Lone Indian Peak MT (only necessary if you want to hike
more than a mile south of Windy Pass).
From the trailhead the Windy Pass trail climbs gradually through the timber for 2.5
miles to the pass, gaining about 1100 in the process. This is a quite easy hike,
suitable for anyone in at least reasonable condition. While mostly in the timber, the
trail does have a couple of open spots that afford good views of the Spanish Peaks to the
west as well as the Hilgards south of Big Sky.
Shortly before the pass the trail breaks out into the open, and the views become
tremendous. The Windy Pass ranger station lies a quarter mile to the north, and in another
quarter mile you reach the Gallatin Crest trail and will feel on top of the world. To the
east the Big Creek drainage leads to the Yellowstone River, with the peaks of the Absaroka
Range beyond. The northern end of Yellowstone Park is visible to the south, the Madison
range rises to the west, and the Gallatin crest disappears off to the north. This view
encompasses much of the most spectacular country in southwest Montana, which is to say
some of the most spectacular country anywhere.
Those wishing to continue further have some excellent options from this point.
Following the Gallatin Crest trail 2.75 miles south leads to 9976 Eaglehead
Mountain. The first part of this trail is relatively level, with most of the elevation
gain in the last half mile. In addition to even better views of the previously mentioned
vistas, you have a birds eye view of the upper Gallatin canyon.
An equal distance to the north lies The Sentinel at 9945. The Gallatin Crest
trail ascends steadily to this point, but I would still consider it easy hiking. Further
attempts at describing the stupendous view would only be redundant at this point.
As mentioned, the hiking to the points described is quite easy, although you will
definitely notice the effects of the altitude. I live at 4700 and regularly hike in
the 7000 to 8000 range, am in reasonable condition, and am obviously at least
fairly well acclimated. Still, I was surprised at the feeling of not being able to get
quite enough oxygen when close to 10,000. Visitors coming from lower elevation
should spend at least a day or two at more moderate elevation before hiking into the high
country, consume plenty of liquids, and not over-exert or they could find the experience
less than enjoyable.
The routes described are suitable for very enjoyable day hikes, but theres no
reason you couldnt extent your trip if you desire. Although camping is prohibited in the immediate vicinity of the Windy Pass ranger station, there
are several good camping sites not too far away with springs available to replenish your
water supplies. Water availability is likely to be the largest problem encountered if you
decide to hike further on the Gallatin Crest trail. You are going to have to drop off into
one of the side drainages if you need to get water, although at least through late July
you should be able to find some high elevation snowbanks where you could melt snow for
South of Windy Pass the Gallatin Crest Trail ends at the intersection with the Rock
Creek trail about four miles south of Eaglehead Mountain. Hikers could follow Rock Creek
east toward the Yellowstone or drop into Buffalo Horn Creek. One popular attraction in
this area is Ramshorn Lake. If one is enamored with staying on the crest there are more
extensive possibilities north of Windy Pass. The truly adventurous could continue for
fifteen rugged miles to the north end of the Gallatin Crest Trail at 10,299 Hyalite
Peak, before descending another four miles to the Hyalite Creek trailhead. I have only
been about halfway on this route, which is the easy half according to the maps. Obviously,
only experienced backpackers should attempt this trip.
Experienced or otherwise, though, the Windy Pass area provides a relatively easy way to
experience the high country of southwest Montana. Instead of a lung and thigh-busting
4000 climb, you are looking at a relatively casual 1000 to 2000 climb,
spread over from 2.5 to 5 miles, after which you will be amply rewarded with panoramic
views of peaks in every direction, whose summits you are nearly level with. Youll
feel like you are on top of the world, and thats a sensation everybody can stand
See you on the trail.