Ousel Falls is located within Ousel Falls Park near Big Sky, in Montana’s scenic Gallatin County. This is a popular and easily-accessible Montana waterfall within walking distance of the Big Sky community.
The 100-foot waterfall and its surrounding trails offer visitors a retreat into the dense conifer forest characteristic of the Madison Range. The trail meanders through an alpine gorge to the incredibly picturesque waterfall on the South Fork of the West Fork of the Gallatin River.
The falls tip dramatically over sedimentary cliffs and impress something close to 20,000 visitors per year, year-round.
With its rushing spring waters and gentler summer pools not to mention dramatic winter ice features, the falls remain one of the most popular and famous stop-off points in the entire state.
Apparently, the waterfall got its name from the ouzel bird also known as the American dipper), which commonly frequents the park. American dippers are small black birds that inhabit fast-flowing mountain streams.
You are likely to see the birds bobbing their whole body up and down before they dip and dive beneath the surface of the water hunting for aquatic insects if you visit the park and falls.
Getting to Ousel Falls
The Ousel Falls Trail is around 2 miles south of the Big Sky town center. This is a very easy-going, 1.6-mile round trip through some fairly stunning scenery in the heart of Big Sky.
The trail meanders alongside the South and West Forks of the Gallatin River, and there are three bridges to cross before reaching the waterfall. Most walkers will complete the entire route in less than an hour. Interpretive brochures are available at the trailhead, the beginning of which is marked by a fork.
The route bears right through some dense forest past the Yellow Mules Trail. After about 1 mile there is another right at a Y-junction which continues along the Yellow Mules.
Eventually, hikers will come to a split in the trail near the falls. This is the point along the route where you are presented with four different routes to get closer to the falls.
The various options mean that you can see the falls from an overlook, or from right in front of its base where you are likely to see a few more cascades further downstream. You can also climb right up to the brink of the waterfall.
The fork to the far right fork leads to the South Fork Overlook and is the higher vantage point looking down over the falls, the left path leads to the rocky Ousel Falls Overlook; the inner-right fork leads to the top of the falls along a naturally-carved track, and the straight path leads right to the base of the waterfall where hikers will be delighted to find a picnic area and pool.
The area around the falls is a great place to relax and take in the atmosphere of the falls. Families will enjoy picnicking here, taking care not to let young kids wander too low to the falls’ vantage points.
Some people do try to climb down to the banks of the river to see the falls from below, but the rocks are a little wet and slippery.
Depending on how much time you plan to spend viewing the falls and the surrounding area you can pick whichever route seems most suitable. Or you can check them all out if you are a real waterfall enthusiast!
To get to the trailhead head south along Highway 191 from the direction of Four Corners towards Big Sky.
After around 30 miles you should turn onto Big Sky Spur Road for 3 miles before bearing left onto Ousel Falls Road. You should see the signpost for the falls on the left which indicates that you have reached the trailhead.
A Longer Hike
If you want to make the hike longer and more challenging, you can extend it by an extra 4 miles (making a 5.6-mile round trip in all). You do this by starting out from Big Sky, where some trails begin right in the town center.
If you set out from the town center and follow the Ousel Falls Road Trail, you basically add another 2 miles each way. Thus it is not surprising why this trail is so popular Big Sky has many local landmarks, but Ousel Falls is a truly iconic one.
Wildlife Along the Trail
As you wander down the Ousel Falls Trail it may pay to keep your eyes peeled for various species of wildlife.
Aside from the water ouzel the dipping bird which is commonly seen in the park, hence the name you may also encounter moose, elk, and grizzly bears.
This well-marked trail connects to other trails that lead deep into the Custer-Gallatin National Forest and beyond. This is where plenty more trails and natural exploration is possible for anyone wanting to escape civilization for a while.
The Bottom Line
The Ousel Falls and their surrounding environment are located in an area with the kind of iconic landmarks and scenery typical of the Big Sky Country.
The falls are incredibly scenic natural landmarks that keep visitors coming back again and again, especially throughout the different seasons when they offer entirely different scenarios.
If you are a lover of waterfalls and other stunning, natural geographic features, these falls are probably somewhere close to the top of your bucket list if you haven’t seen them already.
If you are an outdoor type you’ll undoubtedly want to spend more time in the surrounding region of the falls to get closer to some of the state’s most impressive terrain that is well worth further investigation.