Hiking the Windy Pass trail.
Windy Pass is a vast alpine meadow that straddles the Gallatin Crest between the Sentinel and Eaglehead Mountain. At an elevation of 9,250 feet, the open, windswept plateau feels like the top of the world. It’s covered in wildflowers for a few short months. Atop the Gallatin Divide, the Windy Pass Trail, also known as Portal Creek Trail, intersects the Gallatin Crest Trail, which heads north along the ridge to the Sentinel and Hyalite Peak and south through the Gallatin Petrified Forest. Past the divide, the East Windy Pass Trail continues east into the next drainage, descending to Big Creek in Paradise Valley.
En route up to Windy Pass, this trail crosses Portal Creek, meanders through a few meadows with vistas of the Madison Range, and climbs to the broad expanse by the Windy Pass Cabin, a Forest Service rental cabin.
Hiking distance: 5-6.5 miles, round-trip
Hiking time: 3-4 hours
Elevation gain: 1,250 feet
Maps: U.S.G.S. Hidden Lake and the Sentinel; Beartooth Publishing: Bozeman, Big Sky, West Yellowstone
From Four Corners, take Hwy. 191 south into Gallatin Canyon. After about 28 miles, between mile markers 54 and 53, hang a left on Portal Creek Rd. Wind up the drainage almost four miles to a clearly marked Y-fork. Veer to the left and continue three bumpy miles to the Upper Portal Trailhead parking area at the end of the public road.
The Windy Pass Trail begins by the kiosk for the Upper Portal Trailhead on the east side of the road. Pass the trail sign and enter the pine forest. Descend to Portal Creek and cross deadfall logs or wade across the creek. Slowly gain elevation and cross a tributary stream by a beautiful cascade. Cross a second tributary stream, which forms on Windy Pass, and pass through a few small meadows. Climb up a short, steep stretch to an overlook of the Madison Range. Steadily weave up the mountain through a mixed forest of Engelmann spruce, lodgepole pine, and subalpine fir. Pass a waterfall on the left. At 2.5 miles, emerge from the forest onto Windy Pass, a large open expanse dotted with pines. At a posted junction, detour left across the plateau toward the Forest Service cabin a quarter-mile ahead. Cross the stream and head up the slope to the cabin.
Return to the junction and now take the other fork to Windy Pass. Follow the tree-lined meadow uphill for a half mile, topping out at the 9,270-foot Gallatin Divide and a signed junction with the Gallatin Crest Trail #96. This is the turn-around. After exploring the divide and the endless vistas, return along the same route.
This trail description was adapted from Day Hikes Around Bozeman, Montana by Robert Stone.