Over three million acres total, nearly a third of the Custer-Gallatin National Forest is completely undeveloped, a benefit of simultaneously being included in the Absaroka-Beartooth and Lee Metcalf Wilderness Areas. Though most of it lies in Montana, parts of this non-contiguous forest lies as far away as North Dakota.
As its proximity might lead you to believe, the Custer-Gallatin National Forest shares many geological and ecological features with Yellowstone National Park. Much of the plant life, animals, and even those signature thermal waters are found in both.
For example, the forest’s small population of Grey Wolves are natural transplants from Yellowstone, having migrated into the Custer-Gallatin after the wolf repopulation program spearheaded by the National Parks Department.
With towering mountains surrounded by vast grasslands, there’s a huge variety of topographies within the forest’s borders. Visitors will find there’s a lot to see and do, particularly for those interested in adventure tourism or extreme sports.
Custer-Gallatin National Forest Stats
- Size: 3 million+ acres
- Season: Year-Round
- Major Feature: Beartooth Mountains
- Campgrounds: 50+
Main Attractions in Custer-Gallatin National Forest
One of the most ecologically diverse regions of Montana, the Custer-Gallatin National Forest is in Yellowstone Country, bordering the national park. Within it, you’ll find similar geology and a number of unique ways to engage with the natural landscape.
Three Entrances to Yellowstone National Park
The first National Park in the United States, Yellowstone National Park can only be accessed via one of five guarded entrances. Three of them are in the Custer-Gallatin National Forest: the West Entrance at West Yellowstone, the North Entrance at Gardiner, and the Northeast Entrance at Cooke City.
Dubbed one of the United States’ All American Byways, Beartooth Highway connects Cooke City, home to the Northeast Entrance to Yellowstone, with Red Lodge. It passes through the Beartooth Mountains at elevations high enough to force it to close in the winter, so don’t plan on traveling along this byway between October and May.
In 1959, a massive earthquake triggered a landslide that sent 80 million tons of material into the Madison river, blocking it. The resultant natural reservoir became known as Earthquake Lake. Today it is a popular recreation area with a visitors center.
Stay Overnight in the Custer-Gallatin National Forest
The Forest Service maintains several cabins within the Custer-Gallatin National Forest that can be reserved by contacting the ranger station. They generally take reservations over a week in advance, though you can sometimes arrange last-minute stays by phone. Fees range from $40 to $100 dollars a night.
Diamond Butte Lookout • $45/night
Perched atop a 30-foot masonry tower is the Diamond Butte Lookout Cabin, known for it’s incredible views of the surrounding landscape. It’s not available in the summer – the Forest Service still uses it as a wildfire watch tower – but it can be reserved anytime between September and June.
West Bridger Station • $75/night
There’s a corral and a grazing pasture on site if you’ve brought horses. There’s no running water available, so you’ll have to filter or treat water sourced from the nearby West Bridger Creek if you haven’t brought enough supply for your stay. There is electricity and an electric cookstove, as well as a wood-burning stove for heat.
Mystic Lake Cabin • $65/night
While you can’t drive directly to the property, you can access Mystic Lake Cabin via a 5-mile trail that’s rated for intermediate hikers. There’s an additional route made for cross-country skiers that’s 10 miles if you’re visiting in the winter. Both can also be traveled by horse, and there’s a corral designed for two horses onsite.
Meyers Creek Cabin • $90/night
Eight miles east of Nye, the Meyers Creek Cabin was formerly a ranger station. It’s a great choice if you’re bringing the whole family as it sleeps six and has a bunch of amenities like electricity, heat, water, an indoor toilet and shower, and even a refrigerator and basic cookware in the kitchen. The Forest Service still uses this cabin several months of the year so you can only reserve it in the summer.
Beaver Creek Cabin • $65/night
Just outside of West Yellowstone near Lake Hebgen is the Beaver Creek Cabin. It’s a very simple one-room log cabin, and you’ll have to provide your own bedding though firewood is provided. It’s open all year, though winter access may require you to ski in or use a snowmobile. There’s a hitch rail for horses onsite.
There are over 50 campgrounds within the Custer-Gallatin National Forest that are managed by the Forest Service, as well as nearby private facilities and those that operate with a permit from the USDA. They range in size and availability of facilities, though there are enough that you can likely find one to suit your needs within the particular region you’d like to visit.
Below you’ll find a sampling of campgrounds within the Custer-Gallatin National Forest, but you can also check out the complete list of campgrounds managed by the Forest Service.
Snowbank Campground – $20/night • Reservations Required
Located in the West Absaroka Mountains, Snowbank Campground makes a great base camp to hike the myriad of Wicked Creek and Wicked Ridge trails. Campsites here have fire rings, and firewood is available onsite for $6 a bundle.
Tom Miner Campground – $12/night • No Reservations
Set in the Gardiner Mountains, Tom Miner Campground is a popular jumping-off point for several summit hikes. If you’ve brought horses, there’s a corral on site next to the trailhead.
Spire Rock Campground – $16/night • Reservations Required
A medium-sized facility in the Gallatin Canyon, Spire Rock Campground has fire rings available and firewood for sale for $6 a bundle. A few of their sites can accommodate self-contained RVs, be sure to mention the length of your vehicle when you make your reservation.
Emerald Lake Campground – $15/night • No Reservations
A 32 site facility, Emerald Lake Campground can host both tents and RVs up to 30 ft. This campground is very popular during the summer, so be prepared with a backup campground in case it’s full when you arrive. It is fully maintained by the Forest Service between Memorial Day and Labor Day, but if your visit falls outside these dates you’ll need to bring your own water and pack out all of your garbage. As a trade-off, it’s free in the winter.
Rainbow Point Campground – $20/night • Reservations Suggested
A huge recreation facility five miles north of Yellowstone, Rainbow Point Campground has amenities like running water, flushable toilets, bear-proof food storage lockers and over half of their 83 campsites have electricity. There’s a dock and boat launch on-site for both overnight and day-use visitors which makes it an extremely popular place for fishing.
Falls Creek Campground – Free • No Reservations
A small, tents only campsite just outside of Livingston, Falls Creek Campground is a great place to stay if you plan on visiting Yellowstone National Park as well. They have running water seasonally, though there are no toilets on site.
Activities in Custer-Gallatin National Forest
Its position in Yellowstone Country means there is no shortage of excellent tour operators in the Custer-Gallatin National Forest. Most of them specialize in some sort of adventure activity, like whitewater rafting, snowmobiling, or zip-lining.
Rendezvous XC Ski Trails
A favorite cross-country skiing course among Montanans, Rendezvous XC Ski Trails has 5km of groomed tracks as well as a few concession stands for guests. If you need to rent equipment, Freeheel and Wheel is a local gear rental shop that is within walking distance.
Based in Bozeman, Montana Whitewater offers several different types of adventure tours, including ziplining, fly fishing, horseback riding, and of course, whitewater rafting.
Yellowstone Dogsled Adventures
With a variety of packages geared to teach you how to “mush,” Yellowstone Dogsled Adventures’ is based out of a campus located between Big Sky and Bozeman.
With two locations – one in Gardiner and one on the Gallatin River – Yellowstone Zipline offers guided canopy tours and white-water rafting trips.
Lone Mountain Ranch
A guest Lodge and adventure tourism company in one, the Lone Mountain Ranch operates with a permit from the Custer-Gallatin National Forest. They offer horseback riding, year-round fly fishing, and have over 80 miles of cross-country skiing trails that earned it the title of the best XC skiing destination in North America by Cross Country Skiing Magazine. Their guest houses range from one-room log cabins to a six-bedroom lodge villa.
Red Lodge Mountain
Montana’s favorite ski area, Red Lodge Mountain is known for having great snow, affordable prices, and a family-friendly atmosphere that keeps locals returning every year. Lift tickets can cost as little as $53 if purchased in advance, and kids five and under ski for free.
Trail Routes in Custer-Gallatin National Forest
Trails in the Custer-Gallatin are mostly designed for hiking, though there are many that are open to bicycles, motorcycles, horses, and even snowmobiles. If you’re looking to travel one of its trails on something other than foot, check in advance to ensure that it’s allowed by the Forest Service.
In total, there are over a hundred designated hiking trails throughout the forest, but below is a selection of some of its most popular paths.
College M Trail
One of the most popular hiking trails in all of Montana, the hike up to the “M” perched over the city of Bozeman is practically a must when you’re in town. It’s only a mile and a half long, so even though it’s a pretty steep climb, most visitors can make it to the top.
Fairy Lakeshore Trail
This easy, mile-long loop trail circumnavigates Fairy Lake. There is a parking lot at the trailhead, but the access road is closed much of the year due to snow and is best traversed with a 4×4 even in the summer. The best time to visit is in July when the wildflowers will be blooming.
A 4.5-mile trail beneath Silver Run Peak, the Timberline Trail passes two mountain lakes: Timberline and Gertrude. Both lakes are notorious for their trout populations, so the trail is particularly popular with anglers.