The gem of Southwest Montana for cross-country skiers, Hyalite Canyon and the forested trails surrounding Hyalite Reservoir are now accessible thanks to a consortium of local clubs, volunteers, local government and the U.S. Forest Service. Snowplows now scour snow from the 12-mile road, 15 miles south of Bozeman—something that has not occurred for 15 years other than during a trial period last winter.
Hyalite is named for the local opalesque rock, the hyalite, a clear and glassy, amorphous form of silica that radiates bright green if held under a blacklight.
Truly a jewel for skiers, Hyalite offers several trails for a total of nearly 30 km of groomed trails. Some groomed routes are maintained on an as-needed basis by the local ski club, Bridger Ski Foundation-Nordic. Other trails, skier tracked, climb narrow, sub-alpine realms of the Hyalite Peaks, 10,000-foot sentinels of the backcountry.
The winter routes result from a combination of hand-hewn trails, old logging roads and volunteer labor says Frieda Johnson, longtime Bozeman skier who helped with trail creation alongside her husband, Terry.
“We started the ski trails with the Hyalite Loop Lope ski race in 1979 or 80,” says Johnson. “Logging roads were in existence then, so we, my husband, kids and numerous volunteers made trail connections between existing logging roads to have the ski trails. Since then, volunteers have done a lot of work to make the trails easier to ski.”
During that time, the Hyalite Road remained plowed thanks to logging operations, which have since ceased in winter. Snowmobiling is not permitted on Hyalite Road nor on the designated ski trails except for the snowmobile-grooming equipment that maintains the ski tracks.
While the Hyalite Loop Lope no longer occurs, the touring has increased with popularity of xc skiing both locally and nationally. Nationwide, some 2.6 million Nordic skiers spent an average of 8 days on skis during the 2006-07 season according to the Snowsports Industries of America’s latest national figures. Locally, skier-trail use numbers are being collected this winter by the U.S.F.S.
On a January Saturday, 200 or more skiers toured from the Mt. Blackmore Trailhead at the base of Hyalite Reservoir at about 6,700 feet elevation. From there, 25 kilometers of groomed trail opportunities included the 4 kilometer/2.5 mile West Shore Loop Trail and the very popular 22 kilometer/14 mile Hyalite Loop Trail to Maxey Cabin and beyond to the frozen and elegant Grotto Falls.
The West Shore Loop begins just south of the pit toilet, wends in and out of the pine forest with little overall elevation gain/loss. Views include the reservoir, built as Bozeman’s water supply in the 1940s, and now a popular ice-fishermen’s cove. The loop connects with Crescent Trail where skiers may take either route to create the loop.
An added ski at the southern-most portion of the trail is the .75-mile spur that continues on to the cozy Window Rock Cabin and Hyalite Road’s unplowed section. Window Rock Cabin can be rented from the Forest Service for $30 per night, and sleeps four among the rustic conditions.
Most popular is the trail to Maxey Cabin and beyond to waterfalls, about a 12-kilometer loop. From the Blackmore parking area, recreationalists ski (or walk if there are rocks on the roadway) across the Hyalite Dam, heading east. The trail departs to the left/north after the dam and follows the groomed route uphill and back around southbound to parallel the reservoir shore. Part of Wildhorse Trail system, a 25-kilometer set of trails, the route offers spectacular glimpses of Mt. Blackmore and Elephant Mountain among the rugged peaks.
On the route to Maxey, one unmarked junction at about 1.5 k or 1 mile in, can mystify skiers who should stick to the south route to find the cabin. Views include the frozen reservoir and glimpses of jagged peaks among the 34,000-acre Hyalite Drainage.
Ski touring Hyalite is not without fantastic rewards. A dozen or more waterfalls punctuate the reddish rock walls surrounding the ice-bound lake, waterfalls, which attract their own recreation: ice climbing.
Upon reaching the historic Maxey Cabin, which is available for rent from the Forest Service at $40 per night, the trail continues south to a parking area (there is a pit toilet here—BYO T.P.), and the short climb to Palisade Falls. The final hundred meters or so may be icy; some ski touring folks choose to walk through the tightly wooded route here.
While wide-open meadows punctuate the trails inviting telemark turns, skiers should know that avalanches do occur in this backcountry. The Avalanche Hotline, (406) 587-6981 offers daily updates on conditions. In general, avalanches can be triggered by travelers or simply because unstable conditions exist on slopes steeper than about 30 degrees. More information is available at www.mtavalanche.com.
Once travelers leave Bozeman, no ski shops or eateries exist at Hyalite. The local Forest Service office sells a “Snow Trails” map of the Gallatin National Forest for the Bozeman area; however the map is a bit dated. A new map is reportedly in the works.
Bozeman area ski shops such as Bangtail Bike and Ski and Northern Lights sell Melynda Harrison’s $17 guidebook, “Ski Trails of Southwest Montana,” which features 30 ski and snowshoe trails in the area. Ski rentals, wax and backcountry gear are also available at Bangtail and Northern Lights.
In the neighborhood are nearly 100 kilometers of xc ski trails including the in-town tracks of Bozeman’s Lindley Park where about 7 kilometers roll through wheat fields between the hospital and the cemetery. It’s here that skiers will find the donation box, a metal sculpture of a set of crossed skis and donation box to help support the grooming costs.
Just on the southeast edge of town, 5 miles from downtown is the popular Bozeman Creek Trailhead where dogs, walkers and skiers share the trail. It’s a five-mile mostly uphill route to “The Bridge,” a popular turn-around for this out-and-back ski. However, intrepid skiers may continue up the trail further, and connect with the Hyalite Trails at Moser Creek. Some people then ski back down or meet a vehicle parked in the Hyalite drainage for a one-way ski.
The Bozeman Creek Trail is also popular with backcountry campers who depart from the groomed route at The Bridge, heading east to Mystic Lake—a challenging ski but a possible loop through New World Gulch and Bear Canyon, where a shuttle vehicle would have to be parked.
“Bozemanites love winter recreation,” says Stuart Jennings, a Bozeman skier and who maintains the ski trails at Bridger Creek Golf Course. “I cite yesterday as evidence. I skied up Bozeman Creek early in the day and upon departing there were 75 cars in the parking lot and strung out along the road. It was beautiful classic skiing. On the way home I drove by Peet’s Hill and saw a swarm of sledders. I took a detour past Snowfill and found a similar concentration of sledders and parking lot overflow onto McIlhattan Road. Bridger Creek saw untold skiers yesterday, maybe a couple of hundred over the day. We are fortunate to have so much great snow in town so early in the season.”
The Bridger Creek Golf Course on Bozeman’s northeast edge provides relaxed terrain perfect for perfecting ski strides. Nearby is Hedvig’s Trail, formerly known as Snowfill, and is a fenced favorite for canine-loving skiers. The small area is hilly and challenging yet open for dogs, snowshoers, sledders and skiers.
North of town in Bridger Canyon is Bohart Ranch Cross-Country Ski Center, www.bohartranchxcski.com/ , which offers 29 kilometers of groomed tracks, rentals and lessons at just north of the alpine ski area, Bridger Bowl.
West and south of Bozeman is the luxury Nordic ski resort, Lone Mountain Ranch www.lmranch.com and its 85 kilometers of skiing near Big Sky Ski Resort. Lodging and dining, sleighride dinners and ski rentals and lessons are available at Lone Mountain Ranch.
For local trail conditions see www.bsfnordic.com and find the grooming report, or ask locally at the ski shops.
Local lodging information is available at www.skimt.com or (800) 847-4868. Forest Service cabin rental information can be found at www.fs.fed.us/r1/gallatin/ , or reservations: (877) 444-6777. Gallatin National Forest, Bozeman office (406) 522-2520.
Bozeman is 330 miles east of Spokane on I-90. From Bozeman’s West Main Street, take South 19th for 7.5 miles to the Hyalite Canyon Road. Turn south and follow Hyalite Canyon Road 10.5 miles to the Hyalite Reservoir and the large parking area.
Critical information for driving Hyalite Road from the local clubs:
* If someone else is stuck or otherwise in trouble, help your neighbor.
* Always carry a shovel or two in your vehicle when driving the Hyalite Road. It is not uncommon to get one or two tires stuck. A shovel solves this quickly and turns an all day epic into a few minutes of digging.
* AWD/4WD and or snow tires are recommended. Difficult winter driving conditions exist beyond the Reservoir so please do not attempt to drive beyond Blackmore without a shovel, the proper vehicle and driving skills.
* Below the Reservoir please drive slowly (25 mph max) and be super careful going around the many blind corners. Some are solid ice.
* Stay on your side of the road.
* Above the Reservoir please drive even slower (20 mph max) and watch closely for oncoming traffic. Slow down, if not stop, to allow cars passing opposite directions.
* Beyond Blackmore, no parking is allowed on the main road except at the Grotto Falls Parking Lot.