Trail Running near Bozeman, Montana

Destination Dirt logoIn Bozeman, the home of Montana State University and an outpost of civilization within some of our nation’s biggest, baddest wilderness, hardcore outdoorsies and nerdy academics interbreed. This town is populated by uber-fit, ridiculously smart human beings who spend the weekend working ice climbing problems after a week with some mathematical equation found only in most folks’ nightmares. Consider it a compliment if you get all-out flattened on a trail by some guy or gal who’s also twice as smart as you.

Bozeman sits at the east end of an expansive valley over 50 miles wide and flanked on all four sides by mountain ranges each worthy of a lifetime’s exploration. To whittle down trail running opportunities in and around Bozeman is, thus, akin to shaving a redwood tree into a toothpick. The two closest ranges are the Bridger Mountains to the north and the Gallatin Mountains to the south and southeast, so we’ll focus this article on running in those ranges.

Gallatin Mountains

The high country of the Gallatin Mountains is wild.

Trail running in and around Bozeman places you in the middle of grizzly bear habitat. Here are a few tips for coming back from your runs happy and un-mauled by these very large predators:

  • Don’t run alone, as grizzly bears will attempt to avoid close encounters with groups of humans.
  • Make lots of noise as you travel, especially in places where the view is obscured. Do this so that bears know you’re there. When surprised at close range, a grizzly bear’s natural instinct is to fight until the threat has abated.
  • Carry bear spray; understand how to use it; and, visualize yourself in an encounter that would mandate it. Bear spray is an awesome deterrent if a bear charges you, but its success is entirely dependent upon you having the ability and wherewithal to dispense it.

Don’t let all this dissuade you. Just use these tips for safe travel to some superb wild places.

Below, we’ll provide you with examples of trail runs that are easy, moderate, and advanced. After giving you these example runs, we’ll share a few tips on where to get gear and good eats in Bozeman. Finally, we provide an extra resources list, links to more information that will help you plan your outings. Please shout out via the comments section if you have a good story, a sweet piece of information, or a question.

We should mention that we’ve already written about trail running in nearby Yellowstone National Park. Since Bozeman sometimes serves as a big-city outpost for Yellowstone visitors, consider using this article hand-in-hand with our Yellowstone trail running resource to put together a trail runner’s vacation you won’t soon forget.

Easy Trail Run – Peet’s Hill/Burke Park
Pete’s Hill/Burke Park is one of Bozeman’s in-town trail systems where you can get a great hour plus run on almost exclusively urban singletrack. (Just in case you’re wondering, you won’t need your bear spray here.) The easiest way to access these trails is to park at the Bozeman Public Library. To the immediate west of the library, a paved, rails-to-trails path called the Gallagator Trail heads southwest. Travel roughly a half-mile along this trail until you encounter a parking area on the left and signs indicating you’ve arrived at Peet’s Hill/Burke Park.

Turn into the singletrack there, and you have two options to head up to the same destination: the small ridge looming a hundred feet above you. Once you arrive at the ridge-top, the majority of the running is to be done to the right, or south, on a small network of interlacing trails. Feel free to try out the different trails and return back to the public library whenever you’re done.

Insider’s Scoop: These trails are dog central! You will fast realize that Bozemanites love their pooches and bring them up on the hill to play. No matter the time of day, there will be multiple dogs running around up there off-leash. I’ve never encountered an unfriendly dog there, but folks who are wary of strange dogs might find this park unappealing.

Moderate Trail Run – Hyalite Lake Trail
Make your way to the Hyalite Peak Trail parking area, at the head of the Hyalite Reservoir and about 30 minutes south of Bozeman. Once you’re on trail, contour and switchback 5 miles and almost 2,000 feet up the north flanks of the Gallatin Mountains. In spring and, in some years, even summer, you’ll climb past boisterous waterfalls and thick snow patches. Arriving to a signed junction, look and run a short distance to the left across this basin to Hyalite Lake. Once you’ve had enough high-country splendor, descend the way you came for this 10-mile round-trip run.

Hyalite Peak Trail

Junebug the Border Collie cools off in the creeks along the Hyalite Peak Trail.

Insider’s Scoop: Got more energy for going farther, higher? If so, go back to the trail junction and follow the trail toward Hyalite Peak, another 2 miles and 1,600 vertical feet to its 10,298-foot summit. The trail criss-crosses the northern side of the peak, so snow can persist all summer. If snow is present, travel with care and within your abilities. Note that you may be able to avoid the snowfields by scampering off-trail.

Advanced Trail Run – Bridger Ridge Trail
The Bridger Mountains are a narrow band of cracked-up, fossil-bearing limestone and shale tilted almost vertical into a prickly spine. The Bridger Ridge Trail, about 20 miles in length, clings to that spine along the north-south length of the small range. Most people take at least 5-8 hours to leisurely run this trail, with its 8,000-plus feet of ascent.

The trail is best run point-to-point from north to south via a car shuttle to the Fairy Lake Campground and trailhead area. From the campground, it’s a 2000-foot grinding climb over about 2 miles to Sacagawea Peak at just over 9,600 feet, the day’s first high point.

From there, the route splays south and you will probably freak out at the insanity of both the views and the trail. When the going gets too hairy on the ridgeline, the trail drops off to one side or the other for a below-ridge contour until the ridgeline’s wrinkles once again iron out. Mostly, though, you’re running on a knife’s edge.

Once you reach Mount Baldy, about mile 15 of your 20 mile journey, the trail falls off the face of the earth, making a 4,000 foot plunge over the last 5 miles to the “M” Trail parking area, in the northern outskirts of Bozeman. Plan your car shuttling well so that you’ve got wheels, food, and drink awaiting you there.

Bridger Mountains goat

The author and a mountain goat in the Bridger Mountains.

Insider’s Scoop: A popular and freaking fast trail race called the Bridger Ridge Run takes place each year along this trail. Every early August, about 300 crazy runners come out for a staggered, seeded start. The fastest runner to the finish wins and he does it in about 3 hours!

Get Your Gear:
Bozeman is an outdoor enthusiast’s haven, so there is no shortage of gear and food purveyors here. The following is just a brief sample to give you an idea of the diversity of outdoor retailers and food fixers that are at your fingertips.

Get Your Eat On:

  • Good food and local brews can be had at Montana Ale Works. This is also a good spot to witness the Bozeman demographic in action with their super-sized athletic and academic prowess.
  • Organic Cajun food in Montana? You bet! Lunch is good at Café Zydeco.
  • The Cateye Café, famous in Bozeman for its breakfasts, can have long waits for a table. But once you’re in, the service is quirky-fantastic and the food even better.
  • Many people come to this part of the world for the steak. There are more cows in Montana than people, after all. So, here it is, brought to you by a vegetarian, the Bozeman area’s best place to get your steak on: Sir Scott’s Oasis Steak House. This is in Manhattan, about 20 miles west of Bozeman, but the beef and family atmosphere, they say, is well worth the drive.

Additional Resources/Need to Know:

  • The Gallatin National Forest is the public land that encompasses the Bridger and Gallatin Mountains. The Gallatin National Forest has made its own maps that are great for planning trail runs.
  • Climate knowledge is key to planning your backcountry adventures in Montana.
  • Married couple Tom Hayes and Liz McGoff-Hayes, long-standing members of the ultrarunning community, direct a slough of local ultra races. Tom also upkeeps a low-key Bozeman trail resources website.
  • Trail shoe company Oboz is headquartered in Bozeman, while the trails outside of Bozeman are an inspiration. The company even includes a topo map of the Bridger Range in the outsole of the forthcoming Oboz Lightning.
  • Bozeman has a backpacker’s hostel located near the prime real estate of downtown that makes Bozeman both cheap and easy to experience.
  • The Gallatin Valley Land Trust is a local conservation non-profit. One of their big objectives is to create a city trail system that links to the wilderness trails in Bozeman’s surrounding mountain ranges and they are doing a fantastic job of it.

Call for Comments
As noted above, please leave a comment if you have any questions or know of other valuable trail running resources in and around Bozeman. If you live in or have visited the area, let us know where you’ve trail run and what you thought.

Meghan Hicks

is iRunFar.com’s Senior Editor, the author of ‘Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running,’ and a Contributing Editor at Trail Runner magazine. The converted road runner finished her first ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world’s wildest places. For more information on Meghan and her adventures, please visit her personal website.

There are 21 comments

  1. Craig R

    The Devil's Backbone 50M in the Gallatin Mountain Range was quite an undertaking for this flatlander back in 2007. The sad thing is that I didn't see any bears along the course. Maybe that was a good thing!!!

  2. kevin

    Pine Creek Lake (in Paradise Valley, less than an hour from Bozeman) is a fantastic 10 miler with over 3,000ft of elevation gain. I did this run/hike with my brother in late June of '07 and most of the lake was still frozen. We didn't have a thermometer, but it must have been a 40 degree temperature change from the trailhead to the lake.

    Another great run is the Old Gabe 50K/25K. We did the 25K in '07 and it was 6,000ft of elevation gain in a 25K. Coming from sea level – the 25K was definitely tough enough. Old Gabe takes place in the Bridger Mountains just outside of Bozeman.

  3. Martin

    Good overview of the Bozeman area and trail running opportunities. Along with the previous mention of the Bridger Ridge Run, Old Gabe, Devil's Backbone and Pine Creek Lake, I'd like to put in the good word for the Crazy Mountains and the Spanish Peaks.

    The Crazies are the mountains to the east of the Bridgers. There's a great traverse from east-west (or reverse). It's about 20 miles with 5500 ft ascent in two epic climbs. Start at Cottonwood-Trespass Creek and finish at Half Moon Campground in Big Timber Canyon. Great scenery. I've run it a few times to provide a car shuttle for backpacker friends who want to savor it in 3-4 days. Highly recommended!

    The Spanish Peaks are at the norther end of the Madison Range, on the west side of the Gallatin River. I ran the Indian Ridge loop this summer, a 20 mile loop that starts at the Spanish Creek trailhead.

    Both of these runs open up about mid-July. It wouldn't be unusual to find (manageable) snow on the trails in late July. Fun times!

    1. Meghan

      Martin, your mention of the Crazy Mountains, east/northeast of Bozeman, makes me crazy. I did a ton of exploration in my 4 years of living in this area, and NEVER made it into the Crazies. These mountains, too, are worthy!

      The Spanish Peaks area, within the Madison Mountains, is agreeably awesome. I did the route you mentioned alone one summer (I wouldn't necessarily recommend this as it's thick with bears out there.), and felt like I was like Lewis and Clark out exploring.

      Thanks for your additions, Martin!

  4. Meghan

    Craig, the medium-length trail run described above to Hylalite Lake travels the first several miles of the Devil's Backbone race route. I'm sure you fondly remember it. In the end, it's probably not a bad thing to have missed the bears while you were out and about. :) Thanks for your comment!

  5. Meghan

    Kevin, you've made a couple of great recommendations, thanks! I second both of them.

    The Pine Creek Lake Trail is a wonderful run/powerhike, with searing elevation gain on the way out. The reward at the lake is ridiculous, though, as you stand in an amphitheater of the Absaroka Mountains, another of Montana's great ranges. True grizzly bear country is at the end of this trail, so careful travel should be practiced.

    The Old Gabe Races, put on by Tom Hayes and Lisa McGoff-Hayes (mentioned above), are wonderful, albeit with some silly elevation gain in the Bridger Mountains. I've also done the 25K, and felt that it was enough! :)

    Thanks again for your additions!

  6. Meghan

    Hi Sarah, Bozeman is a super-progressive town in the middle of beef-industry central, and you'll have no trouble finding quality veggie stuff there. I lived in Montana for 4 years as a vegetarian, and never struggled. :)

    Mentioned above, Cafe Zydeco and the Cateye Cafe have good veggie options. In my opinion, the best veggie and vegan stuff can be obtained at the Bozeman Community Coop ( http://www.bozo.coop/ ). It's a grocery with a deli that you can get to-go and for-here food. There's lovely coffee-shop seating and an outdoor sitting area for the good weather seasons. The deli's food is super excellent!

  7. Meghan

    Kovas, yep, Bozeman is a great town. Don't forget, though, that it turns unforgettably cold there in the winter. If you're a skier or a snowshoe-er with good cold tolerance, it's still paradise!

  8. Kim

    I am new to the Bozeman area, and would like to explore more trail running in the area, but prefer to have company, or a group when running out side the Bozeman area. Do you recommend any resources for finding this? or know of any similar groups?

    1. Meghan

      Kim,

      Perhaps another Bozeman-ite will pop out of the woodwork here and introduce themselves!

      I hope you enjoy the Bozeman area. It's wonderful, for so many reasons. There's one established trail and road running club, the Big Sky Wind Drinkers ( http://www.winddrinkers.org/ ). They do races and fun runs maybe 25 times per year. Also, you can try Team WinS ( http://www.teamwins.org/ ) as a bunch of trail running women conglomerate in this group. Try going to one of the events put on by these groups, and you'll likely meet an abundance of friendly faces.

      Enjoy every minute in Big Sky country and thanks for your comment!

  9. mountainmond

    Is it safe to run w/ my dog off leash on trails in Bozeman or Missoula, or is he going to be an attractive snack for bears and mountain lions..

  10. Gene

    Nice writeup. A directional error on the Easy run: The Gallagator Trail is on the east side of the library, it’s about 1/4 mile from its parking lot south end to the Peet’s Hill TH, and the parking lot there is on the right side coming from the library, not the left. To anyone that comes across this, a good town run is to go up and south on the hill (Burke Park) to the end, drop down the hill to the road (Church St), continue south to Kagy, go up the hill (left) on Kagy past Highland, and just past the last house on the left take the trail down (left). That winds around the outside of the Highland residential area, eventually heading west and crossing Highland. Bear left maybe 30 yards and turn right onto the trail west. It soon arrives back where the trail dropped down the hill to Church. Do the loop agai, the same way or reverse, or turn right and head north back to the library.

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