For the average outdoor enthusiast, winter can be a difficult time to squeeze in a fun-filled overnight or multiday adventure without freezing your buns off or breaking the family budget. Sure, a few days and nights in a swanky slopeside condo is nice, but once you factor in lift tickets, food, and a host of other wallet-thinning expenses, these types of getaways are out of reach for most folks. However, in this corner of Montana we’re very fortunate to have access to forest service cabins, which are fantastic and economical alternatives to a resort-based winter vacation.
In the Gallatin National Forest, the Bozeman ranger district alone oversees nine cabins. These little wonders were originally temporary housing for area rangers, trail crews, and others doing various jobs for the Forest Service. Today, these cabins are available to rent nightly. While very rustic (no running water or electricity), they’re an ideal way to experience winter in the woods and mountains while keeping warm and dry.
Three popular cabins in the Bozeman Ranger District are Battle Ridge Cabin, Garnet Mountain Lookout, and Window Rock Cabin.
- Battle Ridge Cabin is 19 miles up Bridger Canyon, four miles past Bridger Bowl, and one mile past the Brackett Creek Road turnoff. This cabin is great for groups of three or more; access requires skis or snowshoes.
- For the more athletic, Garnet Mountain Lookout is a great choice. Reach the trailhead, which is 18 miles south of Bozeman on 191, via Storm Castle Creek Road. A long ski or snowshoe trek (up to ten miles, depending on road conditions) will get you to the site, but the view is worth all the work.
- Window Rock Cabin, just 13 miles south of Bozeman in the Hyalite recreation area, requires a 12-mile ski or snowshoe trek if the road conditions aren’t cooperating. Don’t forget the ice fishing gear—Window Rock is just a mile from Hyalite Reservoir.
How to Reserve a Cabin
Go to recreation.gov to select dates and create an account. Gate and cabin lock combinations are emailed to you. You can also call the Gallatin National Forest office at 587-6701. Be sure to consult fwp.mt.gov for season dates and regulations if you’re thinking about hunting while you’re up there.
Winter access to these cabins is limited, and many are in nonmotorized-use areas, which means you’ll need backcountry or cross-country skis or snowshoes to get there. Skis or snowshoes are a must for enjoying your time at these cabins anyway; you can also partake in photography, wildlife watching, sledding, hunting small critters, and snowball fights. Most cabins have good, old-fashioned wood stoves which, when tended to, keep the inside toasty warm through the day and night. Interiors tend to be dark, but with the help of a headlamp or lantern they’re great places to read, play cards, or simply relax.
What to Bring
Renting a cabin isn’t as hardcore as winter tent camping, but it’s still a good idea to be prepared for the worst. Be sure to bring a large gear sled for hauling everything to the cabin, as well as good sleeping bags, cold-weather gear, food-prep items, food, camp kitchen items, and utensils as well. Most cabins have a random assortment of cooking items, but there is no definitive list, so bring everything you might need such as extra clothing and emergency supplies. Other valuable items may include dish soap, disinfectant, camp shoes, pack boots, and a large water jug or metal bucket for melting snow.
Always be respectful of the next user—clean up, replenish the firewood and kindling supply, and follow the posted cabin rules. Make sure your car is winter-ready and can handle rough snow-covered roads and unpredictable conditions. Most important, relax, have fun, and enjoy this amazing and unique type of winter recreation.