The hiking opportunities are limitless. Primitive, as well as groomed hiking trails abound just outside our front door. From the Madison Valley to the Gravelly Range and the Madison Range, hikes vary from leisurely strolls to challenging outings for the most experienced hikers.
Here are some favorite local trails and information about them:
Summary: A short hike, with connections for longer hikes or horse trips.
Length: 3 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 140 feet
Recommended Season: Summer – Fall
USGS Maps: Freezeout Mountain
Trail Begins - Ends: Above Miller Flats – The junction with the Little Elk River Trail
Directions to the Trailhead: From The Old Kirby Place, cross the Madison River on Lyon Bridge. Proceed up the West Fork Road for approximately nine miles to Miller Flat. Turn right off Road #209 at a fork near a stock loading ramp, and follow this primitive road four miles to the trailhead. It is recommended that low clearance vehicles do not travel the last four miles of this route, since it is a low standard (wheel track) road.
Attractions: The trail winds up along the Elk River, a fishery for cutthroat as well as some brown and rainbow trout. Motorized use is prohibited in this area. Wildlife abounds, elk, mule, deer, bear, moose, and others wander through the open meadows along the river where Indian paintbrush, lupines, yellow bells, and shooting stars bloom almost all summer long.
The Trail: The trail wanders through fairly heavy timber for a mile and a half before it intersects the Little Elk River Trail. The trail terminates at its junction with the Lobo Mesa Trail #29, but hikers may proceed farther, either north or south on trail #29.
Special Consideration: Those unsure about their vehicle's clearance could hike the road for four miles from the Elk River Trailhead for an eleven mile round trip. Additionally, the possibility of two long loop trips stem from this trail. Following the Lobo Mesa Trail to the left, up the Little Elk River, you climb for two and a half miles to Lobo Mesa itself and then follow Trail #405 down to your left and back six and a half miles to the trail head (this trail is described in depth elsewhere on this website as the Lobo Mesa/Little Elk River Trail #405/29).
Turning right at the Little Elk River junction takes you up to Indian Spring Creek towards Wolverine Basin for four miles where you join the Freezeout Mountain Trail #409. A right on the Freezeout Mountain Trail brings you nine miles back down to the wheel track road that leads to the Elk River trailhead and Miller Flats.
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Gold Butte Trail
Summary: A short trail, with excellent views in the popular West Fork area.
Length: 3.5 miles one way
Elevation Gain: 1,140 feet
Recommended Season: Summer – Fall
USGS Maps: Squaw Creek, Granite Mountain
Trail Begins - Ends: The West Fork Road off US 287 – Gold Butte on Road 237
Directions to the Trailhead: From The Old Kirby Place, cross the Madison River on Lyon Bridge. The trailhead starts a half-mile up the road, just past the West Fork Cow Camp, on the right. There is parking just past the trailhead and across the road, or down by Lyon Bridge, or down the road near the Standard Creek Auto Tour sign.
Attractions: Just 25 miles northeast of Yellowstone National Park and running out of the popular West Fork Recreation Area, this trail climbs up into the quiet beauty of the Gravelly Range. The Madison River and the West Fork boast world famous fishing. For those particularly interested in expeditions down the river, float trips can be arranged out of both Ennis and West Yellowstone. The West Fork Valley teams with aspen that burst into brilliant reds and oranges in the fall. The views out to the Madison and the wildlife make this spot a photographer's haven. This is also an ideal single track mountain bike ride.
The Trail: The Gold Butte Trail leaves Forest Road #209 and begins a steady climb through a partially logged area shaded by many large Douglas-firs. The cutting has opened up spectacular views out across the Madison Valley and into the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. Exiting the logged area, the trail maintains a gradual grade for a half-mile where it starts to side-hill above Gazelle Creek.
The trail remains high above the creek, turning upstream to the north and entering another logged area. This timber stand was clear cut in 1987, but past this spot the trail crosses into an area harvested in the mid 1960's where new growth six to eight feet tall now sprouts up everywhere. For the next mile, the trail contours around the south side of Gold Butte, joining Standard Creek Road as it ends.
Special Consideration: The trail could be hiked as a round trip, or a vehicle could be left at the terminus on Standard Creek Road. As an alternative, hikers could depart from Standard Creek Road, leaving a vehicle at the lower trailhead. This variation might be nice for those who aren't crazy about uphill climbs.
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Lobo Mesa / Little Elk River Trail
A good, long horseback or backpack with options for extended trips.
Difficulty: Difficult (due to length)
Length: 15 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 2,600 feet
Recommended Season: mid July – mid September
USGS Maps: Freezeout Mountain, Cliff Lake
Trail Begins - Ends: The road closure at partridge Cow Camp – same
Directions to the Trailhead: From The Old Kirby Place, cross the Madison River on Lyon Bridge. Proceed up the West Fork Road for approximately nine miles to Miller Flat and the Elk River Trailhead. This is the end of the public road. The trail begins just past the road closure, across Elk River.
Attractions: High in the Gravelly Range, Little Elk River flows down off the 9,000 foot plateau of Lobo Mesa into the timber and meadows of the non-motorized, Elk River Natural Area. From on top of the mesa, you can stare out across the Gravellies to Black Butte and Lion Mountain to the northwest, over to the Madisons to the east, and off to the Centennials to the south. On a clear day you might even be able to make out the Tetons, far to the south.
On Lobo Mesa, elk often roam across the open reaches as goshawks and Swainson's hawks soar above. Moose browse down in the heavier timber along Little Elk River, and cutthroat trout thrive in the cool pools of Elk River. Excellent camping lies along Little Elk River and up on Lobo Mesa near Tepee Creek (which usually runs full) for those who want to spend a night or two on the trail, or you could camp at the trailhead, starting early in the morning for a day ride or hike.
The Trail: Departing from the Elk River Trailhead, the trail crosses Elk River on a small bridge, then forks. Bear right onto Trail #405, beginning the steady climb up Lobo Mesa. The trail winds through varied meadows of grasses and sage, aspen groves, and copses of whitebark pine, following a system of large snowmobile trail markers. After approximately seven miles, at the junction for Little Elk River, turn right onto Trail #29, diving into heavy timber and a steep but well maintained series of switchbacks.
The junction at Elk River is well marked. Make a right here onto Trail #79, following the river two miles through forest and then another four miles along a primitive road, across open fields, and back to the Elk River Trail head. (The Elk River Trail #79 is described in detail elsewhere in the website). You will emerge on the West Fork Road, just below the road closure where you began.
Special Consideration: Camping on the trail allows you to spend a day or two just exploring around or traveling on some of the intersecting trails (#406 to Divide Mountain, left on #29 at Elk River to Wolverine Basin or Freezeout Mountain, or an extended loop of your own planning). Consult the Madison Ranger District in Ennis and the Interagency Visitor Map of Southwest Montana to plan more complex trips.
There is light to moderate motorized use on the trail from the trailhead to Lobo Mesa, and light to very light use on the lower section of Elk River back to your vehicle. Most motorized use will be on weekends, becoming heavy during hunting season. Motorized use is not allowed on the Little Elk River Trail or on the upper section of Elk River.
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