M Trail Bozeman – The Hike You Can’t Miss
One of the most iconic hikes near Bozeman is indisputably the path to the “M”. This trail, made by the Montana State University’s class of 1918 in commemoration of the school, is still one of the most beloved in the region.
Upon first laying eyes on the exposed mountain slopes from afar, one may be filled with misgivings about the hike. However, the path is actually quite diverse in terms of scenery, with chokecherry shrubs, large boulders, hillsides covered in blossoms, pine woodlands, and stunning views of the Gallatin Valley and the nearby mountain ranges.
The attraction of this area is that it is simply accessible; it is located four miles away from Bozeman on Bridger Creek Road, and the large white “M” on top of the path on Mount Baldy makes it hard to miss. People from the neighborhood can be seen roaming around in the daytime and nighttime, taking in the wonderful sights and sounds of the Gallatin Valley, like the Spanish Peaks and Tobacco Root Mountains.
One of the reasons the M Trail is so well-liked is due to its 3-mile loop being the perfect length – not too long to take up too much time, but enough to make one feel like they accomplished something. It is also conveniently located near the town, so it is a common spot for people to go to get in a bit of exercise. The pathway is available throughout the year, though it can be a bit mucky occasionally, and having something like Yak Trax on can make the journey more comfortable in the winter.
Hiking the M during the winter season can be a challenge due to the cold temperatures and snow. When the spring comes, this is one of the first trails to be navigable again, but until then it can be slippery and wet, so it’s essential to wear the right footwear and have trekking poles handy. The most popular time to go for a hike on the M is from early summer to autumn, and it’s a good idea to bring water, a hat, and strong shoes, and to be mindful of the possibility of falling rocks.
There are three main ways to access the M Trail Bozeman
If you would prefer to take your time and appreciate the scenery, bear left when you reach the bottom of the trail and continue this direction at every branch you come across (other than the Bridger Foothills trail, which does not lead to the M). Even with this “easiest” route, it is relatively steep at first; however, it gets more gentle after the initial quarter mile or so. People frequently inquire “Am I halfway yet?” Normally, they are not! But, there are benches with stunning views along the way, so there is no need to hurry. If you don’t want to complete the entire loop for whatever reason, simply seeing the valley from the primary bench is worth the journey.
If you take the simple route, you will start with some winding paths through wooded hills and when you reach an open slope, you will see a sign that offers a shortcut. Nevertheless, for the most effortless trek, do not take the detour. When you reach the midpoint, you’ll notice the signage for Bridger Foothills Trail: you have to AVOID the Bridger Foothills Trail. It does not lead to the M.
As you make your way across the mountain towards the M, you will observe some enormous, jagged rocks beneath you on the right. After the rocks, you will enter the forest again. Concentrate on this part of the forest trail and you will find an option to take a bend to the left. (There is no trail sign here, just a fork with a bend to the left – the bend is a bona fide trail, wide enough to walk two people side by side. Do not take any slim little side trails, as they are likely deer trails.) Take the left bend for an easier hike. This route may not appear as direct, but it is much less steep.
As you make your way up the mountain towards the M, you will spot a few large, rocky outcrops to your right. Following that, you will be in the forest again. On this stretch of the forest path, take note of an opportunity to turn left onto a switchback. This is an actual trail, wide enough to fit two people walking side-by-side. Do not take any narrow trails, as they are likely to be paths created by deer. Taking the left switchback is a smoother hike, even if it appears like a longer route. If you do not take this left fork, you will still be on an easy path, although it will not be the least strenuous.
If you are not pressed for time, it generally takes about ninety minutes to ascend and then come back down. However, some individuals jog both ways, making the whole excursion take less than sixty minutes.
Hardest / Fastest
If you’re in a hurry and have a good level of fitness, the right fork at the start of the trail is the fastest route up the mountain. There is no shade or foliage on this route and it is quite rough so make sure you’re wearing shoes with good grip. People can get up and down in less than an hour, but this isn’t the case for me! I’m more partial to the more picturesque, less challenging routes.
My favorite route
When I’m taking my favorite scenic route, I choose the easy route by veering left at the start of the path. Then I take the shortcut, which is labeled as such, and turn right. This route passes through some large and impressive stones that are situated on the incline. There is one area of rock that is a bit challenging to traverse, so I wouldn’t suggest it for kids or those who don’t have the best balance, and it’s best to wear shoes that have a good grip. If you continue to the right, you’ll come across a little alcove in the rocks. Afterwards, you can turn back for a stunning view of Bozeman that is surrounded by conifers and rocks. The last few switchbacks through the woods are quite steep, so it is fairly difficult, unless you are in good physical condition.
When navigating the rocky terrain, veer to the right and you’ll come across a small cove surrounded by rocks. Once you make it through, take a moment to admire the stunning view of Bozeman, with the pine trees and rocks creating a beautiful backdrop. The last few twists and turns through the forest are steep, so you need to be in decent physical shape to make it through the shortcut.
When you reach the M, there are benches where you can take in the scenery and discuss with fellow hikers. The only restroom is located in the car park. At the car park there is no access to drinking water, so you would want to bring a water bottle, a light jacket, sunscreen, suitable footwear and of course, insect repellent. Don’t forget to take some water for your pet as well. At specific times of the year, there are patches of water, however, it is usually murky. I prefer to head back the easy way so I don’t miss the wildflowers and the enjoyable walk down the exposed hillside.
I prefer to take the less complicated path for my return so I can take in the beauty of the blossoms and amble down the hillside.
Other hikes in the Bozeman region
Storm Castle Peak
Bozeman is encircled by Custer Gallatin National Forest which is full of trails to explore. One of the beloved routes in the forest, which is accessible from Highway 191 heading south to Big Sky, is Storm Castle Peak Trail. This short trail is not lacking in elevation gain and ascends almost 2,000 feet in just over two miles.
However, after the climb, the reward at the top of the 7,170-foot Storm Castle Peak, also known as Castle Rock, is worth it. Here, visitors can admire the Gallatin River Canyon and nearby mountains, as well as a distinct archway that is a famous spot for taking photographs. From the summit, you can see a wide expanse of the Gallatin River Canyon and the surrounding mountain ranges. Additionally, an interesting archway formation is situated at the peak, making it a popular spot for taking pictures.
Drinking Horse Mountain
Located just opposite Highway 86 from the renowned College “M” Trail, Drinking Horse Mountain is a National Recreation Trail that is 2.2 miles long and arranged in a figure-eight loop. It offers several sightseeing areas and benches, making it a great choice for those who are new to hiking or those who are simply looking to spend time outdoors with their family. The trail is not particularly long in length, but it does have a 700-foot elevation gain that leads to rugged alpine terrain and wildflowers, as well as a spectacular view of the Gallatin Valley and Bridger Mountains. When on the trail, people can decide which route they wish to take as they climb to the summit–one more winding and the other steeper. It is advisable to set aside enough time to take in the views at the top.
The trail is laid out in a figure-eight shape, offering hikers the opportunity to pick their own path based on the grade of difficulty. At the start, you’ll be crossing a picturesque bridge over Bridger Creek, and then you can choose to follow the more arduous route or the one with more curves to the peak. Be sure to allow some extra time to take in the scenery from the summit.
Beehive Basin Trail
The Beehive Basin Trail is a great example of the impressive mountaineering opportunities that are available within the national forest near Bozeman. Not only is it one of the top hiking paths in Montana, but it is also a highly sought after path for hikers from all over the United States due to its captivating postcard-like landscape.
From Bozeman, hikers can take the 50-mile drive on Highway 191 towards Big Sky to get to the trailhead. This picturesque highway runs through the Custer Gallatin National Forest, and the route itself offers amazing views of Lone Peak, where the Big Sky Resort is located, as well as a shimmering glacier cirque and an alpine lake.
Beehive Basin is a 6.5-mile round-trip hike with 1500 feet of elevation rise. It is classified as a moderate hike and takes around 4-5 hours to complete. Due to its location at an altitude of over 9,600 feet, the hike can be a bit strenuous. Snowfall lingers in the basin until late spring and early summer. Bear Trap Canyon trail is a fantastic hike that leads to the Lee Metcalf Wilderness and is 25 miles away from Bozeman. The last 3 miles of the journey are on a gravel road that can be navigated by low-clearance vehicles.
Bear Trap Canyon National Recreation Trail
An amazing walk through the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, located outside of Bozeman, is available at Bear Trap Canyon. To get to the start of the trail, you need to drive 25 miles on Highway 84, beginning from the west side of town. The last three miles of the journey will be on a gravel road, which can be navigated by cars with a low ground clearance.
The Bear Trap Canyon National Recreation Trail travels along the Madison River, which is counted among the top fly fishing Rivers of Montana. Therefore, you are very likely to come across anglers casting their lines along the trail. The hike is 8 miles long and stretches to the Ennis Lake; further, it is quite flat and offers some amazing scenery. The trail has a flat terrain and is amazing to look at, thus it is adored by trail runners and leisurely walkers alike. Bikes are not allowed on the trail as it is a part of a Wilderness zone. Most visitors do an out-and-back course of the length that suits them the best. A popular spot to take a break and turn around is Bear Trap Creek, which is around 3.5 miles into the trail, resulting in a round trip of 7 miles.
The majority of hikers will complete the trail with an out-and-back route of whatever length they wish. Bear Trap Creek, which is located roughly 3.5 miles in, is a popular place to turn around and make the seven-mile journey back to the starting point.
South Cottonwood Trail
Located to the south of the city’s downtown area, South Cottonwood Trail is one of the numerous superb trails in the national forest close to the city. What makes this walk especially famous is the lavish landscape and simple access to Cottonwood Creek. The path is also fairly level, providing a family-friendly course for exploring the woods.
Most people who take the South Cottonwood Trail usually go up to Third Bridge, which is around two miles away from the trailhead, making it a four-mile round-trip. However, the trail can be followed even further, extending up to six miles to link with Hyalite Canyon and eight miles to get to the Mount Blackmore trail.
Every step of the full route is accompanied by a shaded forest and a running water source. This cover and water make the trail pleasant to walk on in the hot summer days. The trailhead is approximately a 20-minute drive from the city center. Within the first half-mile of the hike, it feels like the city is much farther away.