Length: 8 miles round-trip to the meadow below Hardscrabble Peak, or 8 miles through-hike (shuttle required) to Fairy Lake
Duration: 4 Hours
Elevation Gain: 2,000 feet
Activities: Hiking, trail-running, backpacking, skiing
Crowds: Moderate to heavy
North Cottonwood Creek flows west out of the Bridgers before connecting with two other tributaries and ultimately joining the Gallatin River north of Belgrade. The North Cottonwood Trail follows its namesake creek toward its headwaters near Hardscrabble Peak. Start the hike through flat, grassy meadows until the first creek crossing, where you are presented with a choice. Here, you can either go left through a gate, following a two-track road through the Half Circle Ranch to the forest boundary, or stay straight and take on the switchbacks that march straight up the foothills. The two trails reconnect on the south side of the creek about a mile up the drainage. (Note: the access granted through the ranch is a privilege not to be taken advantage of. Please stay on the trail and leave all gates as you find them.) From the junction, the path meanders along the stream and climbs into the alpine, ultimately connecting to the Bridger Foothills National Recreation Trail at Bridger Divide.
Prime time is May-October, unless you are skiing. As soon as the snow starts to fly in the fall it can hold through the winter. In early spring expect muddy conditions increasing as you climb higher.
From Bozeman, head north on Springhill Rd for 11 miles where the road turns into Rocky Mountain road. Continue for 3.5 more miles and look for an obvious trailhead on the east side of the road.
Map courtesy of Robert Stone's Day Hikes Around Bozeman, Montana.