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 in what has since become a long-standing tradition of weekend hikes 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 up to the southern tip of the lake. 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 (25.5 km) 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 each other, and said, “really, we’re there already?”

Mystic Lake, Gallatin National Forest, MT
Pioneer Falls, MT

Next was 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 (5.3 km) one-way, with only about 1,000 feet  (305 m) elevation gain.

Next on the list – Garnet Mountain, located in the Gallatin Mountains off US Highway 191. 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 (4.8 km) 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, 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 of Garnet Mountain would have been much better. But even with the smoke, it was a pretty good view!

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