Bozeman offers outstanding options for trail runners

Bridger Foothills Trail

Difficulty: Moderately strenuous

Trail quality: 3/5

Scenery: 4/5

Distance: 3.8 miles to Sypes Canyon Trail and 6.2 to Middle Cottonwood Trail

Directions to trailhead: From downtown Bozeman, head north on Rouse — which turns into Bridger Canyon Road — and follow it to the “M” trailhead, about 4.2 miles from downtown.

Starting at the chronically busy “M” trailhead, the Bridger Foothills trail is a wild and wonderful yet challenging path that winds its way along the precipitous east face of the Bridger Range for 20 miles before reaching magical Fairy Lake. After leaving the route to the “M”, the trail ascends steeply through open forest and among charming rocky outcroppings, eventually dropping into a lush canyon before climbing again to a gorgeous sub-alpine ridge, where it meets the Sypes Canyon Trail. The trail can be a bit unstable and precarious, so take care. Beyond the intersection, the trail continues northward, offering sweeping views of the Gallatin Valley far, far below, before descending into the Middle Cottonwood drainage.

South Cottonwood Trail

Difficulty: Easy-to-moderate

Trail quality: 5/5

Scenery: 3/5

Distance: As far as you want (it’s 6.2 miles to the cabin)

Directions to trailhead: Head south of town on 19th Ave, past Hyalite Canyon Road, and take a left upon reaching Cottonwood Road. After 2.1 miles, take a left on Cottonwood Canyon Road, which brings you right to the trailhead.

The South Cottonwood Trail may not offer the dramatic scenery of other local trails, but its perfect condition and pleasant grade makes for a run that won’t have your legs writhing in agony. The steepest climb occurs right at the beginning, before the trail descends again and meanders along the blissful banks of South Cottonwood Creek. After about five miles, you will emerge from the dense forest into a beautiful mountain meadow, which makes an excellent spot for a picnic of Clif Bars and Hammer Gel. Go another mile to reach the spooky Fox Creek Cabin.

Storm Castle Trail

Difficulty: Moderate

Trail quality: 4/5

Scenery: 4/5

Distance: 2.4 miles to summit

Directions to trailhead: From Four Corners, head south on the Highway 191 for 16.7 miles. Take a left on Storm Castle Road, a quick right after crossing the Gallatin River and drive another two miles to the trailhead.

The Storm Castle is a high fortress of rock that watches over the Gallatin Canyon, though many passers-by are probably unaware of the trail that allows for a relatively quick and easy jaunt to the summit.

From the parking area along Storm Castle Creek, the trail immediately begins its ascent by picking its way through grassy mountain slopes and limestone faces. The trail is in great condition, with the exception of a brief, steep and rocky stretch just below the summit. Upon reaching the top, take some time to frolic with the chipmunks; explore the boulders, crevasses and a beautiful stone arch along the ridge; and admire the stunning panorama of the Gallatin Canyon, with the rugged Spanish Peaks looming beyond.

If you’re still itching for more castle-storming, head back to Bozeman and conquer a hefty breakfast or lunch at the Storm Castle Café, then cuddle up with your satisfied stomach and watch “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

Bangtail Divide Trail

Difficulty: Moderately strenuous

Trail quality: 4/5

Scenery: 5/5

Distance: 15.6 miles to Olson Creek Road; 22.4 miles to Brackett Creek Trailhead (park a second car at one of these points)

Directions to trailhead: Take Bridger Canyon Road to Stone Creek Road — which is 7.6 miles past the “M” parking area — and follow it to the trailhead, about a mile up the road.

Though perhaps only the East Coast-ers among us would consider the Bangtails to be a “real” mountain range, the Bangtail Divide does offer sensational vistas of Southwest Montana’s grander ranges, including the Bridgers, Absarokas, Gallatins and Crazies. Starting from the Stone Creek trailhead, the trail ascends a logged mountainside along an endless stretch of switchbacks, before finally reaching the wide-open crest of the Bangtail Divide. The divide offers a quintessential Montana mountain scene, where wildflowers and sagebrush abound, and fierce winds threaten to blow away the skinniest of trail runners.

After following the divide for about seven-and-a-half miles, the trail begins descending to an intersection with the Olson Creek Road, where you may want to park a second car. Otherwise, continue for another lovely 6.8 miles to the Brackett Creek trailhead.

To make this run an even more rewarding experience, plan to sign up for Bozeman Running Company’s Bangtail Divide 38k, which takes place in early July — just 10 months away!