Gallatin National Forest
cow moose and her calf walk across wide trout river with pine and cottonwoods in the Gallatin National Forest


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You could take the entire Gallatin National Forest, move it east of the Mississippi river and it would easily become the most popular national park in the United States. The fact that the Gallatin National Forest borders Yellowstone National Park means it is often ignored. But the truth is in many instances, the forest is more scenic than the big park it borders. The rugged mountains that comprise the forest offer deep refuge for numerous wildlife that migrates in and out of northern Yellowstone. A chief example of this would be wolves and grizzly bears.

The Gallatin National Forest spreads out over 2.1 million acres, making it one of the largest in the United States. It also contains one of the largest wilderness areas in the U.S., the 920,343 acre Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Not to be outdone, the Lee Metcalf Wilderness(254,288 acres) is contained in the forest as well as unprotected roadless country numbering in the hundreds of thousands of acres - a rarity in the lower 48.

The Gallatin National Forest is named after Albert Gallatin, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and a scholar of the local cultures. The forest itself was established in 1899 by proclamation from President McKinley when he set aside 45,000 acres south of Bozeman. This was interspersed with railroad grant lands. The forest is located between Big Timber and Norris on the north, and from West Yellowstone to the Cooke City area on the south. Two separate smaller blocks to the forest appear north of Big Timber(Crazy Mountains) and north of Bozeman(Bridger Mountains).

The scenery on the Gallatin is out of this world, ranging from sagebrush flats in the lower areas to spruce, aspen, lodgepole pine, whitebark pine, limber pine, and douglas fir at higher elevations. Cottonwoods are often found along the lower elevation streams of the forest. The most dramatic peaks in the forest are contained in the two wilderness areas. The area is home to the greatest inland trout fishing in the lower 48, long serving as an important destination for fly fishers across the world. The Madison, Gallatin and Yellowstone rivers provide the action, with thousands of miles of smaller streams and numerous lakes.

moose and calf cross river
A moose and calf cross a blue ribbon trout stream.

Another thing that makes the Gallatin special is the numerous wildlife, of which there are 300 species! There are also over 2,290 miles of hiking trails for the hiking fan which in some cases hook up with trails in bordering national forests and parks. Other activities include horseback riding, rafting, mountain climbing, fishing, hunting, wildlife watching, picnicking, boating and numerous other outdoor related pursuits. Families interested in exploring a remote corner of the U.S. for quiet drive-in campgrounds in a true mountain setting with lots of wildlife and forested areas will find the Gallatin National Forest at the top of the list.

Gallatin National Forest Facts:

Total acreage: 2,100,000 acres
Square Miles: 3,280
76 air miles north to south
94 air miles east to west
Highest point: 12,805 feet (Granite Peak)
Lowest Point: 4,651 feet (Bear Trap Canyon)
8 species and subspecies of trout in the forest
Flora: 1300 native species
Wildlife species: 300
Wolves: yes
Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness: 920,343 acres
Lee Metcalf Wilderness complex: 254,288
Bear Trap Canyon Wilderness: 6,00 acres
Grizzly bear country: yes
Waterfalls: over 300 throughout forest
One of world's largest petrified forests
Picnic areas: 18
Boat access points: 6
Drive-in campgrounds: 44
Marina: 2
Trails: 2,290 miles
Visitation in 2006: Unknown

Gallatin National Forest
P.O. Box 130
Bozeman, MT 59771 (406) 587-6701

Gallatin National Forest FAQ:

Do I need reservations to visit the Gallatin? No you do not. However, if you wish to rent one of the cabins, you need to. 1-877-444-6777

Why should I choose the Gallatin National Forest over Yellowstone which is a short drive away? Not everyone chooses the national forest over Yellowstone. However, those that do usually do so because you are "in the mountains" more and there are less people.

When is the best time to go to the Gallatin? The Gallatin is open all season. If you like snowshoeing, winter camping and snowmobiling, winter is the obvious choice. Hikers tend to prefer mid July through September due to less snow. Those interested in stream fishing should plan no earlier than early July due to snowmelt.

Can I take my dog into the Gallatin National Forest? Yes. Pet rules in the national forests are more lenient than national parks. That said, your pet must be on a leach in picnic areas, day use areas, developed campgrounds and wilderness areas.

How long should I stay in the Gallatin? Whatever time you have allotted for your trip. Those interested in outdoor activities will have a lifetime of things to do in the forest. Just make sure you do not say in one campground for more than 16 days.

How long does the snow last in the backcountry? Deep into the warm season. Higher elevations can retain snow all year. If you are hiking at these elevations plan no earlier than July. This part of Montana is of a higher elevation than the rest of the state, so expect snow to last longer.

What is the best part of the Gallatin National Forest? My personal favorite is the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, the Crazy Mountains and some of the campgrounds along the Gallatin River. However, all of the forest is scenic and beautiful. You can't go wrong with any of it. Make sure you order both the western and eastern maps which will help you explore the forest to your heart's content.

tent at campsite in forest with clear stream behind it
A patched tent at a great campsite on the Gallatin National Forest.

What are the campgrounds like and can I make reservations? See for yourself! Our Gallatin National Forest camping section is the most modern and in-depth on the internet.

How are the crowds? Generally not there. The exception will be U.S. Highway 191 between Bozeman and West Yellowstone during peak times as well as Hebgen Lake and Hyalite Lake. Other than that area, the forest is largely peaceful.

I only have one day in the Gallatin National Forest. What should I see?
It depends on what you want to do. For the wade fishermen, either the Madison or the Gallatin rivers. For the hiker, I would suggest the Spanish Peaks area due to its close proximity to Bozeman and the majestic scenery. This would give the hiker more time in the woods and less time driving as most "one day" cases would most likely be coming from Bozeman. For those with one day coming from Billings, you are probably better off exploring the canyons of the Custer National Forest and the Beartooth Front. The Hyalite Canyon area is also a good spot for "one dayers" and is located southwest of Bozeman via an easy drive.

What are the "must see" places in the Gallatin National Forest? All of the forest is sensational. The things that stand out to me would be the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, the Gallatin River, the Yellowstone River, the Crazy Mountains, the Paradise Valley and the Cooke City areas.

What are the best campgrounds? Since the forest is home to 44 drive-in campgrounds, you have a ton of choices. I can honestly tell you that I have not come across a "bad" campground in the forest. Of the campgrounds we cover on this site, I would pick Spire Rock campground and Half Moon campground as my favorites. Your needs and tastes may be different.

Is any of the wildlife in the Gallatin National Forest dangerous? Yes. The Gallatin is home to grizzly bears, black bears, rattlesnakes (at lower elevations) and mountain lions. I would most definitely recommend that you carry bear spray when hiking in the forest. Although wildlife attacks are incredibly rare, they can and do happen on the forest. A couple years back a man was attacked inside his tent by a grizzly bear near Cooke City. Remember that one of the things which makes the Gallatin so special is the vitality the forest retains by having such wild animals still living in it. The grizzly bear only adds to the greatness of the forest.

Should I move around in the forest for overnights, or stay in one place?
I tend to follow a rule of three nights per one move. If I find that I like a campground, I will stay there the entire time. The thing is, you won't know what your favorite spot is unless you move around and experience them. Two campgrounds for a one week trip is not unreasonable.

How is the Gallatin National Forest for young children and teens? Fantastic. The hiking, scenery, fishing and overall atmosphere of the forest will keep kids interested. It's important to remember that some of the campgrounds
are far away from stores and gas. Quick trips for that snack or treat for the kids may be difficult, so try to get everything you need before heading out to the campgrounds.

What are the rental cabins? There are twenty-three log cabins on the Gallatin National Forest available for rent. Most of these were built in the 1920's and 1930's for forest rangers. Some have electricity, some do not. Others have easy road access and some require a hike, ski or snowmobile trip. Most of the rental cabins are on the western half of the forest, with many clustered south of Bozeman. Call 1-877-444-6777 for reservations.

Our kids like to fish. Is this a good place? The Gallatin National Forest is one of the best fishing locations in the world. The focus is on trout. Any kid who likes to fish will be enthralled with the choices and atmosphere. The quantity of trout, the amount of trout and the quality of the environment make this one of the best possible fishing locations in the world.

How can I get to the Gallatin National Forest? You can fly into full service airports at Billings Montana, Bozeman Montana, Jackson Hole Wyoming and Cody, Wyoming. The forest is located in southwestern Montana due west of Billings.

View Larger Map

Those coming from Chicago or Minnesota will want to take U.S. Interstate 94 west to Billings and the Interstate 90 west towards Big Timber, Livingston and Bozeman. The other way of accessing the forest from the east is via highway 296 from Cody, Wyoming to the Cooke City area, or from Billings to Red Lodge and the Beartooth Pass to Cooke City on highway 212.. I have found this drive to be shorter and of better road quality than the Interstate 90 route through South Dakota. Also, the trip through northwest South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming is longer than what it seems like from looking at the map. I do however recommend driving that route back from your trip for a quick stop in Badlands or Wind Cave National parks

Those coming from California will want to take Interstate 80 east to Interstate 15, then north on I-15 until highway 20 in Idaho. Traveling on highway 20 will take you to West Yellowstone. Those coming from the southern Rockies may want to take Interstate 25 north to Interstate 80, then west on I-80 to highway 287 north. This would take you through Grand Teton and Yellowstone to either West Yellowstone, Montana or Gardiner, Montana and the Gallatin National Forest. Those of you traveling by car from the northwest will want to take Interstate 90 all the way east to Bozeman, Montana. From Portland, a combination of Interstate 84 east to U.S. highway 12 to U.S. 93 in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, then to Missoula and 90 east to Bozeman would work as well. There are many interesting sites to see along the way. This is a beautiful part of the country.

Ranger Districts:

Big Timber
P.O.B. 1130
Big Timber, Montana 59011

3710 Fallon St.
Suite C
Bozeman, Montana 59718

P.O.B. 5
Gardiner, Montana 59030

Hebgen Lake
P.O.B. 520
West Yellowstone, Montana 59758

5242 Hwy. 895
Livingston, Montana 59047

Image notes: The main picture on this page was taken a couple seasons ago on a secret river in the Gallatin National Forest. This cow moose and calf quietly walked across the wide trout river as dusk arrived to the rocky mountains. When I put the camera down, a bald eagle flew upstream, just overhead. All of the pictures you see on are taken in their respective pages. Therefore, a picture in the Gallatin National Forest section of this site was taken in the Gallatin National Forest. We want to present a real look at these places, and many of the images we take are documentary in nature rather than for any artistic merit.



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