Gallatin Peak is a big, beautiful mountain between Bozeman and Big Sky, Montana. It's visible from downtown Bozeman looking southeast - the furthest left in the jumble of jagged Spanish Peaks, and at 11,015', highest of the lot.
I'd set my sights on Gallatin as a one-day push on Saturday, August 19th. At that point I was about a month and a half into regular training and my long day mileage and vertical had increased to the point where I felt ready to attempt the peak. From the North Fork trailhead just outside of the Meadow in Big Sky, Gallatin is a 22-ish-mile out-and-back with 6,000' of vertical gain. There are a number of ways to access the peak - a gorgeous, wild hunk of scree, talus, and granite, flanked by steep slopes and only the boldest, most sky-hungry grass and moss - but in summer, most people feel the best approach is via Bear Basin and Summit Lake and that's the route I opted to take. Many folks choose to climb Gallatin as an overnight, but as a recent convert to the light-and-fast joys and extra mileage potential of trail running, I was stoked and optimistic at my single-push chances.
I was driving through the Big Sky stoplight on 191 at grey light, and started north from the trailhead - 7,250' and 45°17'31.7"N 111°20'12.7"W - by 7am at a slow, steady jog. The first mile or so is a steady, gradual downhill grade on a logging road, passing adjacent to private land until just before the trail crosses a log forest service bridge and cuts up and to the left.
The trail flanks a beautiful meandering creek until intersecting with the trail from Beehive Basin 3 miles in. Stay right! I continued up the drainage as the first rays of dawn peeked over the ridgeline - GORGEOUS - and the trail switchbacked up into the Bear Basin valley proper. The Bats Ears couloirs were looking mighty dramatic in the low-angle morning light.
From the Bear Basin drainage, the trail heads towards an obvious saddle. A couple of switchbacks gave me some incredible views and I'd gained the saddle about two and a half hours into my morning, plus 2200 vertical and around 7 miles.
The trail from the saddle had epic views in all directions. It drops down a well-defined route laid out in the talus and wraps back up around the ridge to the right before, FINALLY, Gallatin Peak itself comes into view. I stopped at Summit Lake - a rare sight, a lake at the top of two drainages, perched on a mountain saddle - to refill my water and stare at the peak. I'd had hours to get nervous and now that I could finally see the peak, how steep and massive it was, let alone how deep in the wilderness, I was shaking in my Hokas. One step at a time. Keep breathing, Lauren.
I'd read that the best way up Gallatin is to come from a gully which heads straight up the western aspect of the mountain, so I jogged down the last few jumpy switchbacks of rock and onto solid dirt before heading off trail and up into the gully. Once you leave the trail towards the gully, there's no trail, and the terrain is marshy. Pick your path carefully to avoid wet feet.
The general direction was relatively clear, but the route itself felt open to interpretation. There are two rocky shoulders which I tried to stay in between, but it was still easy to get into a spot requiring unplanned downclimbing - which I did. The way is steep and scrambly, but green, grass, go, all the way to a nice basin halfway up Gallatin itself. Fantastic place to stop for a snack and a drink and stare upwards at the next thousand-ish feet of steeps.
There's no trail through the talus, loose scree, slick grass, and small cliffs above the basin. I went left-ish making a couple switchbacks and grasping the grass with my fingers until hitting the steeper rocks which require some full-on scrambling. Slow and steady, watch your line as going too far back to the northwest over the lines of rocky shoulders can bring you to some pretty cliffy exposure.
The peak is a class 3 and while the exposure of the ridgeline appears dramatic in silhouette, I recommend gaining the ridge as fast as possible - traveling on the ridge feels much easier and more secure than any part of the gully.
Five hours, eleven miles, and nearly 5,000' after my start, I was finally on top of the peak! There had been one party of 3 I'd heard above me as I traveled uphill from the midpoint basin, and I joined them on the summit, snapping their photo before they took off. They had opted for an overnight trip, camping in Beehive before summiting Gallatin peak.
Even with heavy smoke from Montana's wildfires, the views were INCREDIBLE. I spotted Lone Peak, the Sphinx, Wilson Peak, and many others.
I texted my husband that I'd made it, snapped a few photos, and sat down to eat lunch - my favorite trail food, REAL food: a little curried chicken, beets, yams, and chickpeas in spinach. Easy on the stomach and super tasty. It was windy but relatively warm up there and my only lunchtime companions were a whole lot of teeny black beetle-like bugs - anyone know what those guys might be? Tough cookies, living up there.
The way back down was mentally a lot easier than the way up - and I may have unceremoniously incorporated the occasional butt-scoot on the steeps. Whatever works, right? After an hour of descent, I'd finally made it back down to solid, flat ground. For the first time in my life I felt tempted to stop and kiss the earth - but I settled for a verbal "thank you!" I refilled my nalgene from a beautiful stream flowing down the rock from the peak. While it looked perfectly clear, I did use my SteriPEN for peace of mind.
I set out back uphill towards Summit Lake and the Bear Basin ridge, jogging at a slow, steady pace and helped along by the Cliffbar goo + caffeine I'd saved for this moment. I hate consuming caffeine-supplemented energy gels during heady moments of exposure, but love 'em for the slog out. And what a beautiful place to slog! But at the base of Gallatin Peak, I still had around 9 miles to go - so caffeine = gooood.
The weather held beautifully and I made a few more pitstops for extra water and snacks. After 9.5 hours, 22 miles, and 6,000 vertical feet gained, I made it back to the car. Hooray!! What a day!
This is a beautiful day hike or trail run for the adventurous. So close to Bozeman yet so wild and free-feeling. Bring your bear spray and headlamp and be prepared for rotten weather / those Montana mid-afternoon thunderstorms. And if you can hit the summit in that weather sweetspot between snow and fire season, this would be a dreamy adventure. Definitely a bucket-list-must!