Bozeman, somehow the epitome of a thriving and successful western city, college town, and mini-metropolis, actually started out as nothing but a stop between the gold rush cities of old and was used as a grazing ground until only recently. Farms still sit on the outskirts with lush fields stretching for miles around, and a short drive to the surrounding valleys will take you right back to thirty years ago. The growth rate here though in the last 7 years, as of 2019, has not only doubled but grown by roughly 60%. With an annual increase of 3.6%, The Bozone is considered the fastest growing city in the United States.
With everyone flooding in for a more “outdoorsy” lifestyle, the city has wasted no time in keeping up with popular demand for trails, river accesses, fishing getaways, parks, breweries, and general things to do. In fact, a look into the trail systems around Bozeman brought up almost 70 differently mapped locations to go on a hike around the Bozeman area. Long, short, close, far, the routes range from “meant for hiking” to "paid and well-groomed cross country skiing routes." While Montana is certainly recognized not only for its trail networks but also the ability to make your own way, these are only the well-known ones, adventure seekers can go wherever they want to blaze a new course.
We’ve gone through the entire list of trails, from uncommon to popular, and decided there were too many to make into one long list and broke them down. These are the top trails you will find within a twenty-mile radius of downtown, in no particular order, that are mostly perfect for a day outing near home.
The Top Trails Best for a Day Hike Close to Downtown Bozeman
A short and sweet hike for most all levels of hikers of the popular Hyalite Canyon, History Rock is a fun 2.8-mile hike climbing only 698 feet before coming upon what is known as the trail's namesake, History Rock. A large outcropping of limestone in the middle of the woods, we’ll never know the rocks' complete history, but the many engraved signatures here, dating back to the 1800s, may give us hints as to the number of visitors the trail has seen. Trekking just a little further onwards will enable guests a lone hike with few others but bears and deer before branching off and connecting with the South Cottonwood Trail.
SOUTH COTTONWOOD TRAIL
A roughly four-mile hike takes traversers through forests, fields, and along a shaded stream, making this a cooler hike than most during the warmer months. Though there are flat portions, there are also some steep climbs ascending up to 488 feet. Mountain biking and hiking are popular here being so close to town, but the adventure and silence seekers can continue onwards to hike Mount Blackmore and further into the Storm Castle Trail.
MIDDLE COTTONWOOD CREEK
Though gaining about 1,600 feet in elevation, the easy ascent is rated as moderate and travels up a sloping mountainside to the top of an open summit covered in wildflowers and featuring fabulous views. Not to be confused with the South Cottonwood Trail, the path length ranges depending on where hikers start, end, or detour to, but can range from five to ten miles. There are a couple of stream crossings depending on the time of year, as well as the option to head off onto other trails such as The College M, Truman Gulch, and Sypes Canyon.
LICK CREEK TRAIL
Another trail in the Hyalite area, the Lick Creek Trail isn’t as popular and has been known to be a little difficult to follow at times. The length is 7.1 miles and goes in and out through the forests with a moderate number of elevation gains and bunches of wildflowers. It is recommended to go in the summertime for the shade and a less muddy hike.
The best part of Montana? The right of everyone to enjoy this beautiful place! The Story Hills is located in Bozeman’s northeast corner and is mainly private property. Thanks to the generosity of these private landowners, 3 miles of trails through the Story Hills are available for the public to use during the day, and the effort of many was indeed worth it. Perfect for all skill levels, the looping trails offer multiple routes through fields and pasture land with spectacular mountain views. There may be ruts from water in the wetter months, but that’s a small complaint in comparison to the close proximity to downtown.
COLLEGE M TRAIL
Why it’s a tradition, no one really knows, but a hike around any major Montana town will most likely involve an “M” or another similarly made white letter. Easy to get to from the downtown area, and only a short loop of a little over a mile and a half, this path is steeper than most. One side of the hike is more moderate than the other though, allowing visitors to go up one side or the other depending on their abilities. This trail is pretty popular and most will encounter other hikers and runners along the way. The views of the valley are worth the little extra effort of attempting this iconic hike though.
Located just north of Bozeman, the Sypes Canyon follows the seasonal creek through the forest until opening up to an outlook of the Gallatin Valley. Able to be done in a shorter (4-mile round trip) or longer (~6-mile round trip) stint, the route is open year-round for those who like hiking in winter, snowshoeing, or cross country skiing. Not completely flat, and with an elevation gain of 1,627 feet, the route is considered moderate/advanced, though we’d recommended experience before attempting to ski here. This route is also popular as a beginner trail that leads onward to the popular Mt. Baldy, though be warned this way isn’t easy.
TRUMAN GULCH TRAIL
A perfect trail for an afternoon or daytime outing, the path follows the Truman Creek for either two and a half miles before turning around, or onto the next Foothills Trail. The first portion follows the creek that flows year-round and gains approximately 1,000 feet in elevation. Hikers can go as far as they like before turning around or get more adventurous and move onwards to connect with multiple other routes such as the Sypes Canyon, College M, Corbly, and Middle Cottonwood.
Highland Glen isn’t only a trail, but a well thought out nature preserve in the heart of Bozeman. Originally a series of popular cut-throughs for walkers, the Gallatin Valley Land Trust recognized the potential of the meadows, fields, and pastures and worked with the city to turn it into what it is today. A network of six miles, this is a favorite amongst the local deer, elk, and sandhill cranes. The trails are well kept and popular for biking and walking, but the real draw is in winter where the trails are perfectly groomed for cross country skiing.
TRIPLE TREE TRAIL
Crossing mostly state land, the Triple Tree Trail is easy, mostly flat, and open to views of Bozeman and the valley. While there are shaded portions, it's best not to take this trail during the heat of the day in summer months unless you plan on bringing a lot of water. All forms of recreation are popular here, especially because of the close proximity to the south side of town. A roundtrip totals about 4.5 miles on a normal day, though have caution after rain or melt as the trails may get muddy.
Instead of heading all the way up to Hyalite Reservoir, a shorter and slightly less crowded spot to visit is Blackmore Lake. A short thirty-minute drive from Bozeman, the trail to the lake is 4-miles roundtrip, straight up and straight down. The elevation climbs nearly 650 feet to the picturesque Blackmore Lake. Surrounded by thick pine forest with rugged peaks as the backdrop, most come here for the views, not the fishing. Not for the inexperienced hiker, the trail can also provide a scenic stopping point before heading onwards to hit the top of Mount Blackmore, an old volcanic mountain. Though accessible year-round, the mountain is mainly kept as a summertime venture.
An easy and open trail not far from the city, Stone Creek passes mostly through fields of wildflowers. With views of the valley regularly presenting themselves, many came here to enjoy the peaceful walk and to observe the birds and butterflies. The total length is 4.4 miles but can be done in a shorter stint. The route is surrounded by private property, so it is asked that walkers and bikers stay on the trail.
MOUNT ELLIS TRAIL
A favorite due to its proximity to downtown, Mount Ellis is a popular spot to come to hike. Beginning with easy paths up rolling hills covered in open fields, the wildflowers in the summertime are abundant. Eventually leading up to the treeline, the route takes a logging road through the forest to eventually come out of an overlook at about three miles in. This is considered the Lower Mt. Ellis Trail. The ascent of over 1,500 feet slowly heads onwards up around the mountain and, if feeling adventurous, continues onto the summit. To top the peak is a ten-mile round trip hike with little water. Go prepared for a day stretch and a climb whether hiking or biking.
WHEELER GULCH TRAIL
For those looking to get out on a nice long hike and to get their exercise in, Wheeler Gulch is the spot. Heading mostly through thick woods with moderate ups and downs, the length varies depending on where you start and ranges anywhere from 3.6 to 14 miles roundtrip. This route is popular for the runners, pups, and bikers due to the length.
Not the usual “hiking” spot, this area is notable for those not wanting to leave the city but get out and about with little kids and dogs. An easy walking path around the park, the spot features small lakes and a large dog park.
DRINKING HORSE MOUNTAIN TRAIL
Newer to the extensive trail system of Bozeman, Drinking Horse is extremely popular. Located across from the College M Trail, this route features different routes up and down. For the less experienced hiker, the right fork is a much more moderate path. Though many consider this a family route, the steeper side of the trail is extremely icy during the early spring and not ideal for small children or less experienced hikers. Dogs are to be found along this trail regularly too. Totaling about two miles in length, the proximity to downtown makes this a heavily trafficked route, but with the beautiful views from the top, worth the hike.
Another of Bozeman's gently rolling hill trails through wildflowers and with valley views, the Painted Hills connect to other trails in the surrounding network and get moderate traffic. Mountain biking is popular on the 2.9-mile path.
KIRK HILL TRAIL
The majority of this route heads through forests of aspen and old growth douglas fir as it traverses over its namesake, though the paths actually start in wetland areas before headly uphill. There are numerous ways visitors can go here ranging from a mile and a half to over six miles. Hiking, biking, and birdwatching are all popular along the trails with openings in the woods making for excellent photo opportunities.
BALDY PEAK SUMMIT
Interestingly, Montana has over twenty mountains throughout the state with the name “Baldy” somewhere in them. This one in particular is a popular hike in the Bridgers, just outside of Bozeman. Not at all an easy stretch, the 9.6-mile trek is surprisingly popular for its 4,225 feet elevation gain. The trail here is an out and back hike, popular for catching glimpses of mountain goats and with sweeping views at the top. While summer is the best time to visit this spot, be prepared for an all-day hike at any time of year.
BEAR CANYON TRAIL
Southeast of Bozeman, the Bear Canyon is a favorite hike because of its lush greenery and easy walking trail, for the majority of the hike. The first portion where most turnaround at five miles follows the canyon floor and creek. For those wanting a longer and more challenging hike, continuing on for another four miles brings guests up a steep incline to the majestic Bear Lakes. Elevation ranges from 400 to 1,700 feet with a lot of opportunities for stream and lake fishing. The trail is only open after April 1st, pending weather conditions, and hikers should be prepared to possibly run into wildlife.
Any ski enthusiasts will know of the popular Bridger Bowl and the cross country skiing area right next door, Bohart Ranch. A multitude of trails run through the area with the majority focused on cross country skiing and snowshoeing, approximately 18 miles of trails run through the Bridgers here that are known for being particularly well-groomed and wide enough for a party, the park does charge a fee though.
Heading out from Hood Creek campground, the Hood Creek Trail has less traffic than the rest of Hyalite, possibly because of its location off the main drag. A 4.6-mile trail that loops, the trek rises moderately at about 900 feet through forests of Lodgepole Pine and Engelmann Spruce. Eventually, the path opens up for overlooks of the reservoir, the hike back also has some better openings for birders to go spotting.
SOURDOUGH CANYON/BOZEMAN CREEK TRAIL
A moderately easy hike, in and out, the Sourdough, sometimes referred to as Bozeman Creek Trail, is a nice getaway. With open and shaded areas following an easily marked old logging road, the spot is unique in that the waters of Sourdough Creek supply 40% of Bozeman’s drinking water. Because of this, everyone is asked to tread carefully to prevent contamination of the crystal clear stream. Dogs are allowed, but it is asked that owners ensure they pick up after them and pack out anything they bring in. Those looking for a longer day hike can continue on to Mystic Lake.
GLEN LAKE ROTARY PARK LOOP
A nice small pond in the middle of town where locals come to relax, play around in the sand, paddleboard, or go for an evening stroll. The flat and easy path here is 1.7 miles and great for a family outing or a picnic.
CHESTNUT MOUNTAIN TRAIL (TO FROG ROCK)
As the first easement protected by the Gallatin Valley Land Trust back in 1991, this hike holds a special place in the hearts of many. Mostly used by hikers and bikers, the trail switches back and forth through shaded and open areas all the way to the top of the ridge of Chestnut Mountain. The elevation rises to 2,400 feet and provides for spectacular views of the valley below. Not for the beginning hikers at nearly 10 miles round trip, the trail also features the well known Frog Rock, an outcropping of the majestic limestone ridge.
NEW WORLD GULCH (TO MYSTIC LAKE)
The New World Gulch Trail is connected to many other popular trails in the area, such as Bear Canyon, Sourdough, and Mount Ellis, and is another offshoot for hikers to adventure on or take all the way to Mystic Lake. The total of the original trail is 4 miles roundtrip, with Mystic Lake adding another 7 miles. The beginning is fields and meadows of wildflowers before heading into the forest to hike up the mountainside for a total of anywhere from 3 to 7 hours. The canyons and lake are the main features, and there is also a large cave to be spotted along the way.
LEVERICH CANYON TRAIL
Creating an approximate four-mile loop, the Leverich Canyon is between the Hyalite and Sourdough drainages and follows the ridge on a trail well known by mountain bikers. Rated as moderate, the route is at an elevation of 1,200 feet and offers a couple of views of the valley and canyons below.
HYALITE RESERVOIR LOOP TRAIL
Not open until the snow melts in the spring, the Hyalite Reservoir is picturesque at any time of year and is especially popular in the summer months. The loop trail follows the water's edge for a nice and easy 3.3 miles and offers stunning views from all angles. The paths can be somewhat slippery when there is still ice, and may not be ideal for some walkers. There are also many other dirt trails leading off the main route taking hikers to Crescent lake and other sites.
Situated along the edge of Langhor Park right in town, this is a popular and easy walking path of a little over a mile from campus to downtown. The path was once an old railway line referred to as the “Gallagtor” due to its slow speed. Now out of commission, it's a popular walking route and connects to other favorite spots in the area like Peet’s Hill, Highland Glen Nature Preserve, and Lindley Park.
Hiking in Montana? Don't Skimp on Good Hiking Shoes
If you're an avid hiker and planning a trip to Montana, don't forget to invest in a good pair of hiking shoes. Montana offers some of the most breathtaking hiking trails in the country, but the terrain can be challenging, with rocky paths, steep inclines, and uneven surfaces.
Good hiking shoes are essential for any hiking trip, as they provide stability, support, and protection for your feet. The right pair of shoes can prevent blisters, reduce fatigue, and help you avoid injuries.
When shopping for hiking shoes, look for ones that offer good arch support, cushioning, and a sturdy outsole. Waterproofing is also crucial, as Montana's weather can be unpredictable, and you don't want wet feet to ruin your hike.
It's worth investing in a high-quality pair of shoes that will last for several treks. Cheaper shoes may seem like a good deal, but they may not offer the support and durability needed for the rocky and uneven terrain.
Also, the most important part, remember to break in your shoes before your hike! Wear them around the house or for short walks to get your feet accustomed to the shoes.