Gallatin Crest Trail Day 4: Friday, July 16

7 miles – Ramshorn Lake to Buffalo Horn Trailhead

The last day on trail is always the worst day on trail.

Although I was ready to take a shower, wash my hands, and be done with rolling around in the dirt, I wasn’t ready to leave the woods. I love waking up as the light grows steadily brighter and going to sleep when the sun goes down. I love the smell of the pines and the views from the ridge.

But I can’t keep hiking forever, and tonight, Corey’s wedding festivities in Big Sky begin. So, ready or not, it’s time for this hike to end.

There were so many meadows full of wildflowers today!

I woke up leisurely today, since I knew that I didn’t have too far to go and, in contrast to every other part of this hike, it was mostly downhill. I also remembered as I woke up that last night, I went to charge my phone with my external battery, but realized that I didn’t have enough juice left to take it past 2%. Considering that this was my main navigation on this route, I was a little concerned.

Luckily, I asked Anna if she had an external battery I could use, and it turns out she had a little solar lantern that also charges devices, so I was able to get my battery up to 60% before I left. Yet another lesson in “ask and ye shall receive” and “the trail provides.” 

I enjoyed a chill breakfast with Molly and Anna. We chatted about our outdoor experiences, and I told them about the Camino. I had my now-usual two cups of coffee and peanut-butter-raisin-bran-honey tortillas. So gross. But so good.

Eventually, I decided it was getting a bit late and I had better get a move on. I bade farewell to them, Flya, and the horses, and headed down the Ramshorn Lake Trail to Buffalo Horn Trail.

Savoring the last morning on trail

Today was by far the easiest day on the trail. It slowly meandered downwards through lush conifer forest, alternating with sweeping hillside meadows full of wildflowers. In one of these meadows, I came upon three fishermen heading up to Ramshorn Lake. We stopped and talked for a few moments. They said that they’d seen a moose grazing in a meadow.

Up until this point, I’d been hiking with my now-customary mix of yelling “HEY BEAR,” randomly talking loudly at the trees, and blasting the Grateful Dead to ward off grizzlies. But after talking with these three, I realized that the trade-off of my not having run into any bears is that I have also not seen much other wildlife, apart from the mountain goats on Hyalite on day one. I resolved to be quieter for the rest of the hike, on the chance that I would witness this same moose.

Alas, it was not meant to be, for, though I traversed many more picturesque meadows, I did not see any wildlife at all. Part of me is grateful that I never ran into a grizzly, and the other part is a bit disappointed. 

Making the last turn onto Buffalo Horn Trail

Periodically, I turned back and caught last glimpses of Fortress Mountain and Ramshorn Peak. They really are beautiful mountains, and I’m happy I camped where I did last night so that I could savor them. I lost sight of them eventually, as I wound my way further and further down the slope, eventually winding up in a flat valley that followed the course of Buffalo Horn Creek. 

This creek and its valley are textbook Montana. Flanked by pines, with scraggly rock walls on either side, this frigid, perfectly clear creek works its way down from the higher elevations towards the Gallatin River. Knowing that the end was nearing, I slowed down, listened to the babble of the water over the rocks, and said a prayer of thanks for this place, the opportunity to walk it, and the fact that I made it out safely.

A rare sight on this trail: A beautiful, clear, gushing stream of water

Soon, too soon, I was walking into the parking lot at Buffalo Horn Trailhead. This was the terminus of my route–the first trail I’d ever hiked southbound. I took a few selfies with the sign, made use of the Forest Service privy, and kept walking down the gravel road to 320 Guest Ranch.

It was here that I had agreed to meet my friend Lauren, her mom Kim, and their friend Mare. Lauren and I are in Montana in the first place because our friend Corey is getting married in Big Sky this weekend. Kim and Mare decided to tag along and have a sort of tandem vacation. The timing worked out perfectly with their flight so that they could meet me here and take me to our rental. 

At the southern terminus of this hike: The Buffalo Horn Trailhead

There was honestly a part of me that was not expecting to come out at the other end of this hike. I think I had heard so many horror stories and watched so many bear safety videos that I sunk into a whirlpool of catastrophic thinking. I imagined hordes of bears, all waiting to maul me and steal my food. I was incredibly paranoid at night, especially the first two nights.

Now, on the other side, I realize how unrealistic this attitude was.

While my making a lot of noise in all likelihood helped my chances of not seeing a bear, I also think that people over-exaggerate and fear-monger about the actual probability of encounters. Yes, store your food properly. Yes, cook very far away from where you camp, and don’t sleep in the clothes you camped in. Yes, carry bear spray and be aware at all times, and yes, make noise.

But do not be afraid, or at least, do not be so afraid that you don’t even try to go on an adventure. Be smart out there, but be out there. Do your research, know your stuff, and be prepared. The mountains are always worth it, and it is very possible to enjoy them safely, as long as you take the right steps.

Walking over Buffalo Horn Creek about a mile from the end of the trail

It was so good to take a shower, so good to wash four days of Montana dust out from between my toes. It was also so good to visit with Lauren and with Corey and Greg and their friends and family tonight at the welcome dinner. I had great conversations with people I’d met before and people I hadn’t. I ate good food and drank good beer.

It was all made much more vibrant, much more sacred, because of my hike. I am so happy to be alive, and so happy to be in the mountains, and so happy to celebrate this weekend with friends. I did the trail, I came out one one piece, and now it is time to party.

Is there anything as good as a cold wheat beer on a porch after a long hike?

The Gallatin Crest Trail was some of the hardest hiking I’ve ever done, but also some of the most beautiful. I think I’m going to do a single write-up of the route, the highlights, and some helpful tips for anyone who may be interested in hiking this remote and rewarding 40-ish mile romp through the mountains, especially southbounders. The theme of this report will be: trust the cairns.

Thank you for reading and following along with my adventure! Stay tuned for the forthcoming trip report.

And maybe, in the meantime, go outside!

A classic Montana meadow

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