Day Trip: Local State Parks

The one-day weekend.

No season feels shorter than summer. Especially this year. In a mere two and half months, it'll be September: short days, chilly evenings, and the countdown to the first snowfall. You've got 10 weeks to get 'er done, friend, which means packing in as much recreation as possible, amid all your other obligations and commitments. 

Where to begin? If you're thinking multi-sport—combining several different activities into a single day—that's a great idea. But there's another way to concentrate your outdoor intensity, one that involves less gear, less rushing, and no shuttling: the multi-park.

That's right, not one but three state parks sit within a 45-minute drive of Bozeman, and you can visit them all in a single day. Which gives you another day off for yardwork, chores, errands, all the other niggling demands of life.

You'll need a few things: an early start, a hearty picnic lunch, trail shoes, mountain bikes. Better throw in a rain shell, too, just in case. But a day both leisurely and glorious awaits: a 10-hour tour of our local state parks, that'll loosen the limbs, lift the spirits, and ease the pressure on your bursting summer schedule. Behold your intrepid itinerary.

Missouri Headwaters
After topping off the tank and loading up on snacks, your first stop is a few miles northeast of Three Forks, where the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin rivers come together to form the Mighty Mo. Park at any of the several pull-outs along the road, then set out on two wheels or two feet. On the west side is a long swath of open grassland and cottonwood forest along the banks of the Madison. Follow the trails, gaze out from the overlook at the confluence with the Jefferson, or bushwack through the brush in search of wild critters. Look for hawks, bald eagles,  kingfishers, pelicans, and other bird life in the air and along the banks.

Missouri Headwaters State Park Outside Bozeman

Across the road you'll find more meandering trails, this time along the Gallatin. You'll also find a rocky hilltop with benches for taking in the views. On the north side of the hill, at the park's main pull-out, is an outdoor interpretive center with enough naturalist and historical material to pique your interest for an hour. A sprawling lawn nearby has green grass, picnic tables, and shade trees; plop down for a mid-morning snack or throw a frisbee around before putting your first notch in the belt and heading back to the car.

Missouri Headwaters State Park Outside Bozeman

A word of warning: currents can be dangerously swift, even in big, seemingly placid rivers like the Jefferson. Exercise caution and keep kids and dogs away from whirpools and snags.

Lewis & Clark Caverns
Across I-90 you go, south along Hwy. 287 toward Harrison. At the Y, bear right—a few miles down the road is a subterranean tourist attraction and RV-friendly campground that should be less packed this year. Not that it matters—your destination is the trail system, which winds its way through juniper-flecked hills, high above the Jefferson. Up, down, and around they go, amid rock outcroppings, across deep ravines, and through cool, moist hollows. Bikers, runners, and hikers alike can all shake off the rust from a long winter. Choose your own adventure here: take a short loop, stitch a bunch of small routes together like a puzzle, or strike out for one big, long tour across the entire trail network.

Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park Outside Bozeman

As you tool through the sagebrush and juniper, keep an eye out for rattlesnakes. Also watch for ospreys and other raptors patrolling the river for unsuspecting prey. With any luck, snakes are on the menu, too.

Outside Bozeman Lewis & Clark Caverns Montana State Park

Back at the bottom, break out lunch and relax awhile. Remember, this state-park tour is all about leisure. Go slow and smell the roses—or at least the sticky geraniums, their lavendar petals a welcome splash of color amid the ubiquitous earth-tones. When you're ready to roll, pile back into the car and make for Three Forks and I-90 east.

Buffalo Jump
At the Logan exit, head south and climb up a broad plateau overlooking the lower Madison Valley. Wind your way down and bear left, hugging the hillside until you reach the park's unassuming entrance. Lace up your kicks and speed-walk to the pavilion, where you'll learn everything you always wanted to know about the Native American practice of stampeding bison over cliffs. It's a fascinating hunting method, given its scale and precise coordination of multiple roles: flaggers, funnelers, runners, jumpers—the latter of which clearly drew the short straws, as they had to don bison robes, lead the animals to the edge at a full sprint, then hurl themselves off and land on a small ledge, while the massive brown beasts lurched overhead.

Buffalo Jump State Park Outside Bozeman

Once you've imbibed enough indigenous info, set out straight up the mesa, clambering the last precarious pitch with four points of contact. On top, take a seat and gaze out over the broad valley below, the Madison River off in the distance, ashen bluffs rising above, the landscape unbroken in all directions. To the northwest, on a clear day, you can just make out the hills above Headwaters State Park.

This is a great time to break out those beers you stashed in your pack. Sip slow... this is your last stop of the day, and if you've done it right, your legs and lungs are in that merry median between exertion and exhaustion—the sign of a day well-spent.

Outside Bozeman Madison Buffalo Jump State Park Montana

When you're ready, maunder uphill and tie into the trail on the north side. Let your eyes roam the hillside, for mule deer grazing among the junipers and hawks soaring high overhead. Like Lewis & Clark Caverns, Buffalo Jump is prime rattlesnake habitat, so keep the dog close and watch your step. 

Back at the car, pick your path home: head back up to I-90, or toodle over to Norris Road and come back to Bozeman that way. If you're famished from a long day outside, biking and booting through three state parks in a single day, hit the drive-thru at Best Burger in Four Corners for a double cheese and large milkshake—you've earned it. 

Outside Bozeman Montana State Parks