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 the Managing Editor of iRunFar and the author of 'Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running.' The converted road runner finished her first trail ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world's wildest places.