The Madison Range constitutes part of the Rocky Mountains in a stretch of Western Montana. The range runs for 80 miles from West Yellowstone to Bozeman and is flanked by both the Madison River and the Gallatin River. This Montana mountain range is the furthest point west of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and Big Sky—home to the largest ski resort in the state–is located right in the middle of it.
The Madison Range was discovered and named by the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805, ‘Madison’ being the American State Secretary James Madison, who later became the 4th U.S. President.
The Madison Range contains some wild and rugged landscape most of which also belongs to the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and the Gallatin National Forest. On top of that, as many as 250,000 acres are protected regions of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, which itself is comprised of four separate wilderness units.
These units include Bear Trap Canyon, which is the place to head for blue-ribbon trout streams as well as some exciting rapids. The Spanish Peaks and the Taylor Hilgard Unit are rife with high mountain lakes, and the latter unit is also home to the highest peak and the majority of technical rock climbing throughout the range. Hilgard Peak. Monument Mountains is the last unit, and this area is home to the largest grizzly bear population throughout the region.
The terrain of Madison Range reaches elevations over 11,000 feet and thus the region is renowned for its wealth of hiking and mountaineering activities. The whole area is accessible year-round and contains some of the most popular terrains in the state in terms of hiking, camping, biking, and fishing, not to mention some unbeatable backcountry skiing in the winter.
The northern end of the range is south of the I-90 west of Bozeman. If you are coming from the direction of Ennis, you will head north on Highway 287 up and over Norris Hill, past the small community of Norris, turning right on MT-84 which will take you toward Bozeman where some of the best views are.
You will follow the Madison River for a few miles and take in the scenic Spanish Peaks and the Bridger Mountains as you get closer to Bozeman. Driving along U.S. 191 north of West Yellowstone pass will also take you along the base of the range, although the peaks are easier to see and more scenic from the Bozeman area.
Madison Range Stats
- Approximately 180,000 acres
- Highest Peak—11,316 feet (Hilgard Peak)
- Accessible year-round
Recreation in the Madison Range
The entire Madison Mountain Range is popular for all types of outdoor recreation, such as hiking, backpacking, climbing, fishing, camping, and more. There really is a multitude of wonderful trails to explore and many adventurers come for the peaks, valleys, and trails.
Hebgen Lake and Quake Lake
At the southern edge of the mountain range, Hebgen Lake and the famous Quake Lake sit nestled up against steep mountains. You can enjoy a spot of boating or some other leisurely water-based activities on Hebgen Lake, or wander up to the visitor center at Quake Lake to find out all about the famous earthquake in the region that was responsible for the lake’s formation.
In the heart of the Madison Mountains is the primary peak of Big Sky Resort, Lone Peak, which stands apart from any other formations as its name suggests. Lone Peak, or Lone Mountain as it is also known, is considered one of, if not the most striking mountains in the range.
Its shape and long ridges are largely a product of erosion by streams and erstwhile glaciers and make it the top destination for snow climbs, and ski snowboarding descents.
The mountain is a major ski area with lifts, trams, trails, and roads on the mountain along with expansive commercial and residential development in the community of Big Sky. It is a prominent feature of the landscape that can be seen by anyone driving up to Big Sky Resort from US 191. Big Sky Resort is open for skiing, snowboarding and other winter adventures from Thanksgiving weekend through mid-April, and the summer season kicks off in June.
In terms of skiing, here you will find the biggest vertical drop in the entire country, along with some of the most expansive expert terrain there is. Big Sky Resort features 5,750 skiable acres, and once the Lone Peak Tram was established in 1995, the resort was able to reach elevations of 11,150 feet.
The tram opened up the gateway to some of the most challenging double-black diamond terrains to be found anywhere, as well as a range of steep chutes and some highly-enjoyable bowl skiing.
You can also hike to the top if the mood takes you. Many adventurers take the lift followed by the somewhat treacherous 2.8-mile Summit Trail which goes up to 11,166 feet and, needless to say, comes with some spectacular views.
The Madison Range offers some unbeatable backcountry mountain bike rides through some amazing scenery. It also offers solitude to those seeking it, and this is the place to go to find some of the longest, most rugged, and most challenging rides in Montana.
The Second Yellow Mule is one of the most popular and well-known trails in the range. It can be accessed from either the Big Sky meadow village or the Ousel Falls Trailhead. It’s a 6.8-mile trail that is slightly less challenging than the First Yellow Mule circuit, but it is a bit more vertical. You’ll get some decent fast downhill stretches with a few short climbs here and there, and don’t forget that this is grizzly bear country.
You may feel somewhat spoiled for choice when trying to decide whether to fish the renowned blue-ribbon trout streams along the foothills of the range’s Spanish Peaks or some other stretches of the Madison River.
Certainly, you’ll find some exceptional fishing in a beautiful setting wherever you look around this vicinity. The Madison River provides access to some of the best fishing in the state when it comes to wild rainbow trout and large brown trout.
The Madison River runs twenty-three miles through Yellowstone National Park before it runs into Hebgen Lake, the fourteen-mile body of water created from the construction of the Hebgen Dam. Less than three miles below Hebgen Dam, the river also runs into the naturally-made dam at Quake Lake. Wading is considered the best approach to fishing the lakes, and the Campfire Lodge sits on the banks if you fancy a stop-over.
Beaver Creek is just ahead of Quake Lake, and the stretch near the highway is where you are likely to see lots of anglers. If you would rather avoid the crowds, turn towards Campfire Lodge and head right on the forest service road which leads to a path with more solitary river access.
Camping opportunities are widespread throughout the region of the Madison Range. Here are a couple of examples of what you can expect to find in the region campground-wise.
Riverview Campground is about 30 miles from Ennis just above the Madison River, and it is a suitable site for RVs. You’ll get some decent vistas of the range from here, and water and toilets are available seasonally through spring and summer. The sites are non-reservable and there is a 16-day limit on stays as well as a $15.00 fee per night.
Palisades Campground has 10 sites and is located along the Madison River at an elevation of 5500 feet. A day area is available, as are toilets, water, tables, fire rings, and a boat ramp. Fees are applicable and a 14-day limit is in effect, although you’ll get some scenic mountain views of the Madison Range.
Spanish Creek Campground is an undeveloped camping area with 4-5 sites, situated at the northern entrance of the trailhead to the Spanish Creek Trail. As the trail is a popular one, the area has developed parking areas and several amenities. The campground is usually open by early May to late September and there are no reservations. This is also a no-fee area, although there is access to vault toilets, fire rings, picnic tables, and drinking water.
Hiking Trails in the Madison Range
The Madison Range offers some of Montana’s finest hiking with its extensive network of trails and abundance of lakes. The routes loop through lakes, streams, canyons, and open valleys, and hiking is undoubtedly one of the best ways to explore the area.
Ouzel Falls Trail
This is a simple, 2-mile round trip with an easily-accessible trail. Ouzel Falls offers the opportunity to view a scenic waterfall less than a mile from the trailhead and serves as a nice stop-off for those on the way to Yellowstone. The trail is easy with a low grade and in winter the trail to the falls is at its most scenic.
To get here take Highway 191 South from Four Corners for about 30 miles. Turn right onto Lone Mountain Trail (Highway 64) at the Big Sky sign, then after another 3 miles, turn left onto Ouzel Falls Road, where you’ll find the trailhead after another 2 miles.
Falls Creek is where you’ll find another scenic cascade known as Pioneer Falls. The flow from here finds its way towards the southern fork of Spanish Creek, in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. The relatively easy hike to the falls is about 3 miles, making the round trip length 6 miles
Once you’ve seen Pioneer Falls, you can either continue up the trail to various other lakes above or head back down to the trailhead. To get there take HWY 191 south from Four Corners for 20 miles. Then take a right onto Spanish Creek Road, continuing for 9 miles to the trailhead parking lot.
Lava Lake Trail
Lava Lake is a 6-mile round trip rated as easy. This is a scenic wilderness destination within easy distance of Bozeman. The trail is well-trafficked, although it has been well-maintained by the forest service. The large nearby parking lot will give you some idea of how busy the trail gets once you arrive, depending on the time of year.
The trail is fairly straightforward although it is uphill the whole time, gaining 1600 feet in 3 miles. The trail is somewhere between easy and moderate, with the steep grade making the short stretch strenuous in parts. There are plenty of scenic spots where you can take a breather if necessary.
Take Highway 191 heading south from Four Corners for 20 miles. You’ll see the trailhead parking sign on the right, and once on the road, you’ll notice it soon turns to gravel for the remaining 2 miles to the trailhead.