There’s nothing quite like a Big Sky Montana summer — and in particular, Big Sky hiking trails in the summer. It’s stunningly beautiful and (with a few exceptions) largely uncrowded, one of the few remaining places where you might actually have a trail or stream all to yourself. Might.
If you’re even remotely outdoorsy, summer in Big Sky is paradise. Waterfalls are flowing, wildflowers are in bloom, the weather is perfect, and every outdoor pursuit imaginable is at your fingertips. Fishing, mountain biking, paddling, horseback riding, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, golf, and of course, hiking in Big Sky Montana. Gang’s all here!
Maybe you’re looking for a short and sweet hike, or perhaps you want to get your adrenaline pumping on one of the more strenuous Big Sky hiking trails. Either way, hiking is one of the absolute best things to do in Big Sky Montana — and certainly one of the most rewarding.
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Things to know about hiking in Big Sky Montana
So you’re ready to start exploring all the best Big Sky hiking trails. Awesome! But before you do, there are some important things you should know.
Be bear aware
Montana is very literally bear country, and Big Sky in particular has large populations of both black and grizzly bears. Hiking in Big Sky Montana is perfectly safe, but you need to exercise extreme caution and be respectful of wildlife.
Make lots of noise when you’re out on Big Sky hiking trails, carry bear spray (and just as important, know how to use it!), and do not run if you do happen to encounter a bear. Keep in mind that you cannot bring bear spray on a plane since it’s an aerosol. That means if you’re flying, you’ll need to either rent or buy bear spray in Big Sky once you arrive. Fortunately, many Big Sky retailers have bear spray available.
For more detailed information on bear safety, check out the comprehensive resources at BearSmart.com.
Realize that Montana is truly wild
Aside from needing to be bear aware, hiking in Big Sky Montana also means you’re venturing into remote wilderness. And, you may have to contend with altitude sickness.
There’s an excellent chance you won’t have strong (or any) cell phone reception when you’re out on Big Sky hiking trails. Before heading out, tell someone else where you plan to hike. Also, do not rely on Google Maps or anything similar. It’s a good idea to download your route before hitting the trail. Even better, get a Big Sky Montana trail map at the visitor center or Big Sky Resort.
About that altitude sickness. Most of the hiking trails are anywhere from 7,500 to 9,500 feet in elevation, which means the air is thin and you get less oxygen. Get plenty of rest, pack extra water and food in your hiking pack, and watch for symptoms including extreme fatigue, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, and a pounding headache.
Share the trail
Even bigger than hiking in Big Sky Montana is mountain biking in the Big Sky Montana summer. People come from all over the globe to bike Big Sky’s world-class trails, including over 20 miles of lift-accessed trails at Big Sky Resort.
A few Big Sky hiking trails are designated for foot traffic only, but many are multi-use. Check your Big Sky Montana trail map for designations, and be mindful of cyclists, ATV riders, and people on horseback. Hikers should always yield to them, so be sure to step aside and make plenty of room.
The best Big Sky hiking trails
Perhaps you simply want to get a quick workout in on one of the stunning Big Sky hiking trails. Or maybe you’re looking for a classic Montana waterfall hike or a full-day backcountry adventure. Whatever you’re up for, check out one of the best hikes in Big Sky Montana.
Beehive Basin Trail
Distance: 6.6 miles
Elevation gain: 1,335 feet
Beehive Basin Trail is consistently named in “Best Hikes in the World” lists, and it’s easy to see why. The trail offers some of the best Lone Peak and valley views in all of Big Sky. It ends at the eponymously-named Beehive Basin, a small but impressive alpine lake.
During the Big Sky Montana summer, the expansive meadows surrounding the trail are blanketed in colorful wildflowers. Beehive Basin is also well-groomed and easy to follow, making it doable for just about anyone. There are a few spots with slightly steeper climbs, but nothing especially difficult. At Beehive Basin itself, bypass the lake just slightly and climb up the rocks for even better views. Simply sitting here with a snack or beverage is one of my favorite things to do in Big Sky Montana.
Big Sky is typically very sunny during the summer months, and Beehive Basin Trail has almost no shade. Even if temperatures are in the low 70s, it quickly becomes hot with the sun beating down on you. Dress in layers and consider wearing a hat that offers good sun protection.
Finding Beehive Basin Trail is simple, as it’s just a few minutes from Big Sky Resort and the trailhead is well-marked. Parking, however, is another story. There are only spaces for maybe 20 cars, and this is easily one of the most popular Big Sky hiking trails. Time your hike for very early morning or mid-afternoon, when the morning hikers have left. Finally, note that there are no bathrooms at the Beehive Basin Trailhead.
Cinnamon Mountain Fire Lookout
Distance: 8.5 miles
Elevation gain: 2,670 feet
Not that there’s a bad view anywhere in Big Sky, but the views from Cinnamon Mountain are truly breathtaking. The Cinnamon Mountain fire lookout sits at the 9,235-foot summit, with spectacular 360-degree views. Look in any direction over valleys and ridges, and out to the Spanish Peaks, the Taylor Hilgards, and the south Madisons.
The first section of the well-graded trail follows Cinnamon Creek through beautiful, dense forest. It climbs very gradually, so this one isn’t a leg burner like some other Big Sky hiking trails. 2.5 miles in, you’ll come to a four-way intersection on the trail. You want to follow the “Cinnamon L.O. Trail No. 73.”
Once you’re on the Cinnamon Lookout trail, dense forest becomes open meadows as you hike above the treeline. Hiking here is one of the best things to do in Big Sky Montana summer and fall, when the forest is dressed in various shades of green and gold.
You’ll spot the Cinnamon Mountain fire lookout just over four miles in. The most difficult part of the hike is this final climb up the ridge. Once you’re there, enjoy the stunningly beautiful scenery with a snack or summit beer. Pull out your Big Sky Montana trail map or PeakFinder app to identify the astonishing number of mountain peaks within view. You can often see all the way to Yellowstone National Park!
As enchanting as the views are, don’t overlook the lookout tower itself. It was built in 1957 and listed on the National Historic Lookout Register in 2008. While it’s structurally in great shape, the tower hasn’t been staffed in many years and may or may not be open to the public during your visit. It should go without saying, but if it’s locked or otherwise closed off, do not attempt to enter. When you’re done at the Cinnamon Mountain fire lookout, head back the way you came.
Note: Of all the hiking in Big Sky Montana, Cinnamon Mountain in particular is very well-known as grizzly bear habitat. You don’t necessarily have to be afraid, but bring bear spray and be extra cautious.
The turnoff to get to the Cinnamon Creek trailhead is 10.5 miles south of Big Sky, in what’s considered Gallatin Gateway. Look for the turn just across from the Cinnamon Lodge off Highway 191, then follow the dirt road for about a half-mile to the trailhead.
Insider tip: If you’re hiking Cinnamon Mountain in the afternoon or evening, stop by Riverhouse BBQ afterward. It’s some of the best BBQ anywhere, and they have a legendary outdoor area with games and live music, plus killer views right on the Gallatin River. Just hanging out at Riverhouse is one of the best things to do in Big Sky Montana! Get the $7 chicken dinner and thank me later.
Where to stay in Big Sky
Lava Lake Trail
Distance: 6 miles
Elevation gain: 1,600 feet
Also frequently called Cascade Creek Trail, the Lava Lake Trail offers up some of the best hiking in Big Sky Montana, especially in the summer.
As you might expect based on its alternate name, the trail runs parallel to Cascade Creek. It begins at the Gallatin River and much of it runs through dense forest. Hikers also pass several small waterfalls before reaching Lava Lake.
While most of the trail’s climb is slow and steady, the last quarter of it has a few challenging switchbacks. It’s not especially difficult, but you’ll get a good workout in. When you reach the summit, perfectly-still Lava Lake, any huffing and puffing you did will be long forgotten.
This alpine lake is stunning, crystal clear, and perfectly framed by mountains. There’s enough shoreline that you can walk completely around Lava Lake, and you’ll likely see some anglers fly fishing. The lake is notorious for producing foot-long rainbow trout!
Hiking Lava Lake Trail is one of the best things to do in Big Sky Montana summer, primarily because you can jump in the lake at the end. You can certainly hike the trail in other seasons, but be prepared for mud, ice, and snow. Because Lava Lake Trail is so well-shaded, there’s often ice and snow on the ground until late June. Note that the trail is rather rocky, making it particularly challenging in wet conditions.
Accessing the Lava Lake Trail is simple. The trailhead is just off Highway 191, about halfway between Big Sky and Bozeman in the Gallatin Canyon area. Find the Lava Lake parking lot near the Cascade Creek bridge and large pull-out. Like many other Big Sky hiking trails, parking here is fairly limited. Fortunately, there’s overflow parking on the other side of the 191.
Lone Peak / Lone Mountain
Distance: 9 miles
Elevation gain: 3,675 feet
Lone Peak, also known as Lone Mountain, is the king of Big Sky hiking trails. The iconic 11,166-foot-tall peak towers over the entire Big Sky area, begging to be explored. You can technically summit Lone Mountain by taking the Lone Peak Expedition tram (which, by the way, is another one of the best things to do in Big Sky Montana summer), but why do that when you can hike or climb this beast?
There are several hiking trails at the base of Lone Mountain, so simply choose your favorite for the first stretch. As long as you’re going up, you’re headed in the right direction. Moose Tracks is one of the more popular Big Sky hiking trails, particularly because it’s for hikers only. On almost all other trails, remember to be extremely mindful of mountain bikers in the summer and fall. Mountain biking is one of the best things to do in Big Sky Montana summer, and people travel from every corner of the world to do it.
Once you reach the top of the Swift Current chair lift at 9,150 feet elevation, you’ll take the Bone Crusher Trail (I know, I know…). The trail is appropriately named because there are razor-sharp knife-edge ridges and fields of loose rock to contend with. Note that Bone Crusher may be called the Southeast Ridge or the Summit Climb on your Big Sky trail map. A sign at the entrance to Bone Crusher warns hikers that you climb 2,015 feet in elevation in just 1.4 miles. Gulp.
While the Bone Crusher stretch of Lone Mountain features numerous well-beaten paths, the ground is truly rocky. You don’t need any special equipment to make the ascent, but you do need to be prepared for the trail conditions and the altitude. I highly recommend wearing hiking boots as opposed to hiking shoes and using trekking poles for additional support.
At the top of the Bone Crusher trail, you’ll get a (very) brief break. The ridge flattens out for a short distance before getting far steeper and narrower. While this leg isn’t especially technical and certainly isn’t as bad as Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, it won’t be a walk in the park if you’re afraid of heights.
Fortunately, the steep knife-edge section of Lone Mountain is rather short. The final ascent to the Lone Peak summit is actually relatively easy, as the trail gets wide and flat. Once you’re at the top, pop open your celebratory summit beverage and enjoy the breathtaking 360-degree views. Check out the maps on the summit to identify the peaks you’re looking at (on a clear day, you can see all the way to the Grand Tetons!), and don’t forget to sign the visitor logbook!
Distance: 1.6 miles
Elevation gain: 500 feet
Ousel Falls is one of the prettiest and most accessible Big Sky hiking trails. In fact, aside from Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, Ousel Falls has one of the best effort-to-payoff ratios I’ve ever experienced hiking.
Located just a few minutes from Big Sky Town Center, this family-friendly hike is short, sweet, and stunning — a perfect recipe for things to do in Big Sky Montana. When you park in the lot, you’re already at the trailhead. The heavily-forested trail meanders alongside the mighty Gallatin River most of the way before delivering you to Ousel Falls.
Once you reach the falls, there are multiple paths to different overlooks up top and a natural pool at the base. Feel free to have lunch here or swim carefully — the water’s cold and the current is fast. Nothing says Big Sky Montana summer like a dip in a freezing cold waterfall!
Note that Ousel Falls is accessible year-round, but the waterfall does freeze over and the trail gets icy in winter. It’s spectacularly beautiful blanketed in snow, but exercise extreme caution. Snowshoes, excellent snow-appropriate hiking boots, or crampons are highly recommended.
What to wear for hiking in Big Sky Montana
Distance: 15.7 miles
Elevation gain: 3,250 feet
Summit Lake is unique among the best hikes in Big Sky Montana for numerous reasons. At nearly 16 miles, it’s by far the longest of all the Big Sky hiking trails. It’s also extremely remote, nestled smack in the middle of the Spanish Peaks at an elevation of 9,560 feet. Despite the distance and remoteness, however, Summit Lake is not a particularly difficult hike.
Hikers have their choice of several trails to access Summit Lake. One of the most popular routes is the North Fork Trail (#16), which crosses through the ominously-named Bear Basin.
The first large stretch of the North Fork Trail is really easygoing. At 2.8 miles in, you’ll reach the first fork. To continue on to Summit Lake, go right toward Bear Basin. Going left takes you to Beehive Basin. Once you take that right, the trail begins to climb gradually but noticeably through dense forest.
You’ll know you’re getting close to Bear Basin when you see the sign marking the boundary of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness area. The wide-open meadows of Bear Basin are just beyond that sign. Note: the wilderness area is restricted to travel on foot, horseback, or skis; no motorized vehicles or even bicycles are permitted.
As the name implies, bear sightings are extremely common in Bear Basin, especially in the Big Sky Montana summer. Several other wildlife species call the area home as well, including moose, elk, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and deer. Be very cautious and make plenty of noise to warn animals of your presence (even — and maybe especially — if you’re hiking alone).
Once you reach the top or “head” of Bear Basin, the trail splits once more. You want to go left toward Summit Lake; right takes you to Gallatin Peak and Hellroaring Basin. From here, hike the switchbacks up to the obvious “saddle” between Bear Basin and Mirror Basin. Take a moment to enjoy the expansive views here before continuing down Mirror Basin toward Summit Lake.
The trail drops a few hundred feet before splitting one final time. Here, you want to take trail #444 for the North Fork of Hellroaring Canyon and Summit Lake (the other trail, #407, takes you down into Mirror Basin). From the trail split, it’s just a short climb to Summit Lake. Finally!
You can (and should!) walk around the whole lake, taking your time before you head back the way you came. Summit Lake isn’t large, but it is deep and unbelievably clear. The giant mountain at the northeast end is 11,015-foot-tall Gallatin Peak, the tallest in the Spanish Peaks. You can also camp at Summit Lake, so unsurprisingly, it’s one of the most popular Big Sky hiking trails with backpackers.
Distance: 2.2 miles
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Elevation gain: 460 feet
Uplands Trail is perfect for those days when you want to get in a quick workout on one of the Big Sky hiking trails. The relatively easy two-mile loop hike is right near Big Sky Town Center and you can actually see the trail itself from the buildings. Don’t let that fool you though — the views from Uplands Trail are phenomenal.
The trail is a wide, easy-to-follow dirt path that passes under canopies of aspen trees and across expansive meadows. Hiking here is one of the best things to do in Big Sky Montana summer, when the fields are covered in wildflowers.
While two miles is manageable for virtually everyone, Uplands Trail does have a steady incline for the first mile. At the top of that climb, however, exactly halfway through the trail, hikers are rewarded in a big way. The trail opens up to head-on views of snow-capped Lone Peak and Cedar Mountain.
Insider tip: If you’re looking for longer, more strenuous hiking in Big Sky Montana, continue onto Hummocks Trail, a three-mile loop trail that starts at the same trailhead as Uplands Trail.
Mountain biking and horseback riding on Uplands Trail are popular Big Sky Montana summer activities, so be mindful of sharing the trail. And remember, although you’re right in town, this is still Montana. Wildlife sightings, particularly moose and bears, are very common.
There they are — seven of the best Big Sky hiking trails! Have you done any of these hikes in Big Sky Montana? Which is your favorite? Let me know in the comments below, and Pin this post for later!