“You can lead a horse to water…” – Drinking Horse Mountain, Montana

“…but you can’t make it drink.”

Or something like that. I’ve never led a horse anywhere, nor have I tried to force one to drink water, so I can’t really vouch for the accuracy of that saying. I really only bring it up because there’s a mountain in the Bridger Range east of Bozeman, MT called Drinking Horse Mountain, so somehow it seemed applicable. I also have no clue why it’s called Drinking Horse Mountain. Maybe from a certain angle it looks like a drinking horse? Who knows?

This is a fairly new hike, as the trail was just completed in 2009. It’s also rapidly become a very popular hike due to its proximity to Bozeman (the trailhead is located off Bridger Canyon road just east of town) and relatively short distance. It’s only a 2.2 mile loop in the shape of a figure eight, though it’s a rather steep hike, climbing about 700 feet in the 1.1 miles it takes to reach the summit. Though not a tall mountain by Montana standards (elevation at the top is 5,539 feet), views from the summit extend down Bridger Canyon to the east and across the entire Gallatin Valley to the west. As for the trail itself, since it’s a figure eight, it’s nice to be able go up by one route and down by another. The left route is substantially steeper than the right; I prefer to go up the right and down the left.

Looking west over the Gallatin Valley from the summit of Drinking Horse Mountain
Looking south from the summit of Drinking Horse Mountain
Looking east down Bridger Canyon from the summit of Drinking Horse Mountain

Near the beginning of the trail is a bridge over Bridger Creek, notable because it was built locally using local lumber, and was erected in honor of a Bozeman resident who passed away in the mid 2000s at a fairly young age. Memorial benches are also placed at various locations along the trail.

Not much else to say about this hike. Overall, it’s a very accessible and convenient hike that can be accomplished in not much more than an hour…a great destination for an evening hike or an early morning bout of exercise.

Just across the street from the Drinking Horse Mountain trailhead is the other very popular local trail – the College M. The M was built in 1915 by students at Montana State University, and ever since, the southwest face of Mount Baldy as been adorned with a giant M made entirely of painted white rocks. It’s big from a distance, but up close, it’s enormous!

Much like Drinking Horse Mountain, the hike to the M can be achieved in two ways – the slightly longer but more moderate route (turn left at the trailhead), or the shorter but steeper route (turn right at the trailhead). The longer route (about 1.5 miles each direction) offers better views as it switchbacks up through meadows and forests. The shorter route (about 1 mile each direction) has fewer views along the way and really is substantially steeper. I don’t think I’ve ever gone up it, though I did try to go down it once and spent the entire time trying not to slip and fall. The trail is mostly dirt and small rocks, so it can be very slippery even when dry. Local sports teams train by running up to the M and back. I don’t know how they do it. I can’t even walk up without being out of breath, and there’s no way I’d make it down without falling.

Gallatin Valley from the College M – Bridger Mountains, MT
Looking down from the top of the College M – Bridger Mountains, MT (Photo credit: Pat)
Looking southeast from the College M – Bridger Mountains, MT (Photo credit: Pat)

The elevation at the M is about 5,800 feet, so it’s fairly comparable to Drinking Horse Mountain. The views are similar as well, since the two mountains are so close to each other. Make sure to go all the way up to the top of the M; the main trail stops at the bottom of the giant letter. It’s a really steep climb, but worth it – the top has fewer people and better views.

Paragliding from the top of the M is a popular activity (sadly that is not me, but maybe someday) – Bridger Mountains, MT

Personally, I prefer Drinking Horse Mountain to the M, but that’s probably because I always seem to pick the hottest days to climb the M and there’s almost no shade. I always end up sunburned and completely worn out. But hiking to the M really is a must-do in Bozeman. Just bring lots of sunscreen and water and prepare to be exhausted by the end!

The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: head north from Bozeman, MT on Bridger Canyon Road; the two trailheads are essentially right across the street from each other
  • Fees & passes: parking is free
  • Hiking: Drinking Horse Mountain is a 2.2-mile figure-eight loop with an elevation gain of 700 feet; the M is a 2-mile RT strenuous hike or 3-mile moderate hike depending on which trail you take – elevation gain 800 feet
  • Other: both trails lack shade and you’re at elevation – bring lots of water and wear sunscreen!

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