Hiking North Cottonwood.
At 8,700 feet directly below Hardscrabble Peak, the headwaters of North Cottonwood Creek cascade down the Bridgers’ western slope and eventually drain into the Gallatin Valley. For a luscious springtime saunter, wander up North Cottonwood Creek past small waterfalls and pools to a huge meadow filled with wildflowers. If you’re feeling ambitious, continue up to the Bridger Divide.
Hiking distance: 8 miles round-trip
Hiking time: 4 hours
Elevation gain: 2,000 feet
Maps: USGS: Flathead Pass and Sacagawea Peak; Beartooth Publishing: Bozeman Area
Head up Springhill about 15 miles to the posted trailhead and parking area on the right. (At 11.3 miles, the pavement ends and becomes Rocky Mountain Rd.)
Walk through the trailhead gate, and cross the open grassland toward the Bridgers. The rock-embedded path parallels the ranch fenceline. At .7 miles, rock-hop or wade across North Cottonwood Creek and merge with an old two-track road. Pass through a gate and follow the creek into the mouth of the forested canyon and the gated Forest Service boundary. Pass through the gate and follow the tumbling whitewater along a series of cascades, small waterfalls, and pools. (Note: the access granted through Half Circle Ranch is private property. Please stay on the trail and leave all gates as you find them.)
At 2.3 miles, wade across the creek and follow the north bank. Cross two tributary streams from the north canyon slope, and cross back to the south side of the creek at 3.5 miles. Climb high above the creek on the north-facing wall to a large forested flat with a trickling stream. Cross the stream a couple of times and follow its northern edge through a sloping meadow beneath Hardscrabble Peak. Curve right around Peak 8558, and follow cairns through the meadow. This is the turnaround spot.
To extend the hike, climb two more miles and 1,000 ft. to the Bridger Foothills National Recreation Trail at the divide between Sacajawea and Hardscrabble.
This is excerpted from Robert Stone’s Day Hikes around Bozeman, which won Best Guidebook awards from the Northwest Outdoor Writers Association and Rocky Mountain Outdoor Writers & Photographers.