Our last two rides featured trails out of the northwest region of Yellowstone Park. We mentioned that these were just two loop trails among an infinate amount of trails within that region. We thought it might be helpful for you all, to include a map that we found necessary in planning these routes. Not only will this map cover all of Yellowstone National Park, but it will also cover areas in Bozeman/Big Sky/Gallatin Range/Madison Range and West Yellowstone.
Choosing our second favorite ride of the 2015 season seemed easy because it was another one of our favorites from our explorations of the northwest region of Yellowstone National Park. Specimen Creek was a beautiful ride in Montana. This ride seemed to have everything that you could possible ask for in a trail ride. This is a 22 mile loop that had lush green forests, along with huge burnt sections of forest, from the 2007 Owl Fire that burned more than 2000 acres in the northwest corner of the park. You will also ride through pretty meadows with the creek running through it. You will climb up to 9600 feet to a spectacular view of mountains and cliffs in all directions. There are numerous lakes along the way and beautiful canyon views. This was one amazing ride for the books!
Finding the Specimen Creek Trailhead
From West Yellowstone: From the center of town drive north on U.S. 191 towards the town of Bozeman for approximately 26.6 miles. The trailhead will be on the right just past the bridge that crosses Specimen Creek. This is a nice sized parking lot with a loop around parking system just off the highway.
Specimen Creek Trail Description
You will find a map at the bottom of this post that we created using the Suunto Ambit 2 watch app. This was a rough outline of the trail we took and it has us going up to Shelf Lake, but we cut that out due to time constraints.
This will be the first trail sign you will come across as you begin your adventure. If you will take notice, on this sign there is access to Bighorn Peak which is where we took you to in our last trail ride, the Black Butte. During all the research we did for these two trails, we found that there is almost an infinate trail system in this area. All the trails seem to connect in some way or another making for a lot of different loop options or even in and outs. As for this trail, you will be visiting Cresent Lake and High Lake.
For the first two miles of this trail you will be meandering though a forest that borders Specimen Creek. At the 2 mile mark you will come to a junction with the option of either continuing on to the left, making for a clockwise loop, or going onto the Sportsman Lake Trail and making a counterclockwise loop. It really can be done in any way you choose, however we decided to take a right here and go onto the Sportsman Lake Trail.
As you continue onto the Sportsman Lake trail there is a drastic change in the scenery as you start to see the affects of the Owl Fire. This section of the trail is about 4.5 miles long and takes you through a few foot bridges that cross over the North Fork of Specimen Creek.
You will also start to gain some elevation during this section as the trail starts a semi steep, switchback climb, through burnt trees. There is some slight side hill here and as you gain elevation you will be able to look down on the North Fork of Specimen Creek. We did this ride in late August when the fall colors were just starting to take effect. You will see some of these pretty colors in our pictures during this section of the trail.
As you come to the end of the Sportsman Lake trail, you will come to a junction head left towards High lake you will have about 2.9 miles before you reach your next sign. If you continue straight at this sign the trail will take you to Mill Creek. We took a left here which took us to High Lake. This was our first of three lake visits during the trip. We decided to tie up the horses and make this our stop for lunch.
As you get ready to leave High Lake, you will notice a few trails going in a couple different directions. That is because there are a few campsites located at the lake. We took the trail that went around the right side of the lake.
This next section of the trail has got to be one of the prettiest parts of the ride. It is a longer section that goes about 6.5 miles and you start to do some serious climbing once you leave High Lake. After going through a lush meadow that leads you around the lake, you go back into a forest for a climb that brings you to a rugged scenic overlook that is about 9600 feet in elevation. However as you are climbing through the forest you will begin to catch a glimps of the view that is waiting for you at the top. As you begin to get to know us, you will find that we become very excited when we can feel a view coming on. So once again, we parked our horses and took a short hike through the trees to the ridge of Yellowstone’s rugged northwestern border. We enjoyed this view for a moment before we climbed back on our horses and continued up to along the ridge where the trail opened up and we really got an amazing view of the Gallatin Range. Be sure to stop here and get those pefect shots as we did 🙂 It is always amazing to come across these spectacular views while out on the trail and we never take them for granted and always soak up the view as much as we can.
As you continue on down the trail be careful, as the trail becomes a bit harder to follow as the elevation gives way to rockier terrain. Be on the look out for the orange blazes and the other obvious marks that will lead you in the correct direction.
The trail will then decend and you will start to lose elevation. The trail will lead you through some water crossings, rocky terrain, a small lake and forest. Before long you will see another small lake to your right. This lake is called Sedge Lake.
Continue on the trail a little further and you will come to one of the most beautiful high mountain lakes we have ever seen called Crescent Lake. It is surrounded by thick forests and tall jagged peaks. The water had that cool almost greenish color to it. Unfortunately we weren’t the only ones here at this time. It was actually a kind of populated spot as there are numerous camp spots located right on the lake. We still took this time to enjoy the tranquility of the lake and all its beauty. It really was a sight and it just added to the perfection of this ride.
Reluctantly, we had to leave Crescent Lake. There wasn’t much left to this section of the trail after leaving the lake. The trail takes you down into some switchbacks through the forest until you come to another junction in the trail.
When you get to this junction you will have the option to either take a right and head up towards Shelf Lake or take a left and head back on Specimen Creek. Originally we were going to go up to Shelf Lake and then turn around and come back. However, with Shelf Lake being another 2 miles there and two miles back, we decided not to put that extra mileage on our poor horses that had already done so much work. So unfortunately, we headed back on Specimen Creek trail. Even when the trail is long, it is always a sad time when we realize that we are headed back to the the truck. Even though we still had roughly six miles to go, we knew that would go by in an instant and another perfect ride would come to an end.
The last six miles is relatively easy terrain and takes you through many stream crossings where your horses can get plenty to drink after a hard days work. You will also be going through another section of burnt trees. After traveling about 4 miles you will merge back into the trail you started on at the beginning of your journey. Remember to always be prepared with rain slickers and coats. In the last few miles of this trail the weather turned and we got slightly downpoured on. However we were on such a high from the views we experienced that day that the rain was almost refreshing.
Where to Camp?
A lot of people ask us where to camp on our rides. We live about 2 1/2 hours from this trailhead. We just get up early and head for the hills and drive back the same night. There is a camp sight located at the end of the Sportsmans Lake Trail that is for stock parties only. It is located 0.2 miles from the main trail and you have to cross the East Fork of Specimen Creek to reach the campsite. Reminder anyone interested in spending a night with your horses in Yellowstone Park must contact the West Yellowstone Visitor Center at (307) 344-2876 to obtain any necessary back country permits.
We have so many fabulous rides that we have enjoyed over the years, that it is difficult to decide which ones we want to share with you first. Those of you that follow us on Facebook will attest to that 🙂 So we decided let’s choose just our top five rides of our 2015 summer. While that still proves to be difficult, we are going to give it a shot anyway. So the ride that we decided ranks #1 is the Black Butte to Daly Creek ride.
Last summer we decided we wanted to explore new trails. We love the Tetons and for us that will always be a place we call home. However, we became curious about some trails in the northwest region of Yellowstone National Park. We did some research, found some descriptions and pictures of trails that we thought sounded interesting, and created a map that we could download to our Suunto Ambit2 watch.
Finding the Black Butte Trailhead
From West Yellowstone: From the center of town drive north on route 191 towards Bozeman for approximately 28.8 miles. After entering the Park you’ll pass the following trailheads: Bighorn Pass, Fawn Pass and Specimen Creek. The Black Butte trailhead parking lot is on the left a few miles past the Specimen Creek trailhead.
Black Butte Trailhead Description
Although Google Maps calculated this to be about a 14 mile loop, it is definitely closer to an 18 mile loop. This is a tough trail that leaves you riding on a ridge at 10,000 feet elevation for roughly five miles. The views however are spectacular and you have a 360 degrees of pure bliss at the top.
The parking lot for the Black Butte Trailhead is actually located across Hwy 191, so be prepared to do a little sprint across the highway with your horses. Good news is the highway isn’t too heavily populated so it really isn’t that big of a deal. As you are tacking your horse remember to be ready for any kind of weather, it can change awefully quick. The day we did this trail we went from being hot and wearing tank tops, to putting on a long sleeve shirt, to adding our rain slickers because it got cold and windy when we hit 10,000 feet. Once you are ready to hit the trail you will see a little trailhead marker across the highway labled Black Butte, aim for that and you will be on your way to an incredible ride before you know it.
The trail starts out with a steady, yet easy climb through a small meadow and sections of pine forest. You will hear the Black Butte Creek trickling to the right of the trail and periodically you will catch a glimpse of it. At approximately 1.9 miles into your trek you will come to a junction with the Daly Creek cutoff sign. With any luck this is the spot you will loop back into at the end of your journey.
Continue on towards Bighorn Peak. You will be traveling about 3 miles before you hit your next junction. During this section you will be gaining almost 2,000 feet in elevation. Most of this section will be spent meandering through the forest. Make sure you stop and let your horses drink often because once you are out of this section there won’t be any water up on the ridge and your horses will be doing lots of climbing. As you start gaining your elevation in the forest you will be seeing some pretty awesome views of the Taylor Hilgards/Madison Range to the west and Lone Peak and Big Sky further to the north and west. The massive summit of Sphinx Mountain in the Madison Range will first appear as you reach this section of the trail.
The trail will start to open up and that is where we picked for our lunch spot. The view was extrodinarily breathtaking and it literally did take our breath away. We thought man it can’t get any better than this. We spent a lot of time at this lunch spot taking in the views and of course taking our fair share of pictures. It was hard to leave it and was a place that felt almost sacred. However, we knew we still had a long ways to go.
As we left our lunch spot the trail did an immediate climb up a hill. The trail disappears here for a moment, so head in a straight line towards the ridge. You will notice the rock cairns that will guide you up the remaining incline to Sky Rim Junction. Here you will nearly be at 10,000 feet. Once at the top it will be a flat wide overlook with signs welcoming you to Yellowstone National park and another sign that tells you which directions to head. If you want to continue on, follow the Sky Rim Trail that goes in the opposite direction of Bighorn Peak.
However, we parked the horses and hiked a little ways up the Bighorn Peak trail. The Bighorn Peak trail is not the best trail to ride a horse on, because this trail gives the true meaning to sidehill. It is rocky and a sheer drop off on a narrow trail with a lot of loose rock.
After we finished exploring the Bighorn Peak trail, we got back on our horses and continued on toward the Sky Rim Trail. The trail headed down a very steep hill. It was a wide open field with trail markers, but a very deceivingly steep trail. We got off our horses at this point and walked down in a zig-zag pattern. From here the trail continued on for about five miles on an up and down rollercoaster type terrain. It makes you feel like you are literally in the sky, so for it to be called Sky Rim trail is very fitting. The views here are 360 degrees of beauty. No matter what direction you look it is absolutely stunning. However the weather did start to get iffy, with thunder and lightening and high winds. This was a little intimidating when you are up in the sky at 10,000 feet.
Eventually you will come to a sign that says you can either continue on with the Sky Rim trail or take a left and start switchbacking down into Daly Creek Trail. You want to head towards Daly Creek. The trail for this section is about 3 miles. The trail here starts off with narrow switchbacks down the hillside into a forest with pretty rock walls. Once out of the switchbacks you continue through forests and meadows before you come to the cutoff trail that joins you back in with the Black Butte Trail.
The cutoff trail is about 2.2 miles and it takes you past a patrol cabin before you connect back in with the Black Butte trail that you started on. There are lots of streams for the horses to drink at this point. We hit this section of the trail just as the sun was starting to go down. Riding during this time of night is so tranquil and the sunset was absolutely beautiful. It was a perfect ending to an amazing ride.
At the end of the cutoff trail you will see a sign that will point you back to the Black Butte trailhead. Congratulations! You didn’t get lost and made it back to that sign that you saw at the beginning of your trek. Take a right and you will be on the final stretch to your truck and trailer.
Where to Camp?
If you are looking for a campsite to pack in to. There is a campsite located within the first 2 miles of the Black Butte Trail and livestock is permitted. You can contact the West Yellowstone Visitor Center to obtain more information on this site as well as what permits you will be needing to camp in the backcountry of the park. You may contact them at (307) 344-2876.
While there are lots of campsites around the area, most of them don’t allow livestock. However you might want to check out Taylor Fork Road. It is open all year and located approximately 5 miles north of the Bighorn Peak Trailhead on US 191. Campsites are free. There are no facilities. The first few sites are located about a mile from US 191. Forest service road (FSR 134) follows Taylor Creek west and extends deep into the Madison Range/Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area. Because this campsite is located on a service road it may allow livestock, but you would have to do some further checking to be certain.
Be patient with us and check back often as we are working on getting some of our rides posted on here. Complete with descrition, pictures, and maps. If you have any requests or know of any rides that we do that are your favorite let us know. We will try and prioritize those rides so you can get ready for riding season.
People are constantly asking us what kind of camera we use in all of our adventures. Maggie is kind of a photographer fanatic and through the years has owned more cameras than she can count. Some of them have been high dollar cameras. When riding our horses, Maggie has always had a camera with her and has probably broken a dozen or more of them. Even a speck of sand destroyed a really nice brand new camera because it got in the lense. Then there was the dropped camera! So we searched for a TOUGHER camera that happens to be appropriately named, “Tough”. When we ride, Maggie has the camera in her hand no matter what kind of scary, tough trail we are on. The camera never leaves her hand, even when her horse fell on her pinning Maggie beneath. We know a lot of people might not think this is the safe way to ride, but Maggie never misses that perfect shot. This camera has been on every journey with us, whether it is hiking, skiing, or riding. However, because of where we live and ride and the high altitude, mountain riding we experience drastic changes in weather. You can go from 90 degrees to a snow storm before you know it. You name it, we have been hit with it. This includes torrential downpours, hail, high wind, and snow. This camera is still kicking and still taking all of the fabulous pictures you have seen of Facebook.
That is why we have decided to share this with you all. We have already had people buy this exact camera due to our recommendation and they love it too. Believe us, this camera gets USED. In a short ride we are taking about 500 pictures believe it or not and it isn’t uncommon to take around 900 on our big rides. This camera is like half the price these days Highly recommend!
Before we had a high tech watch to help us find our way out on a trail we used a trusty good old fashioned trail book. And what do you do when you are lost while in the saddle? Well you pull it out and read it on the back of your horse!
Even though we have this fancy watch now. We still use this guide book of the Tetons to help us find trails that we have not yet explored. It is a hiking book, but most of the trails that are listed in this book are trails we have done and are horse approved.
This book gives great description and details. It is divided by regions and there are also some maps included. It has details for over 80 hikes and excursions on Caribou-Targhee National Forest, including the spectacular Jedediah Smith Wilderness on the west slope of the Teton Range. Forest regulations, safety precautions, camping and visitor services are outlined in this informative guidebook.
This book has definitely served us well and if it is something that interests you, click the link below to purchase it on Amazon.
If any of you have followed us on Facebook, which we are sure a lot of you do :), you will notice we don’t do a lot of flat land riding. However, we can’t just throw our horses into high altitude riding without getting them in shape first. Just as us humans can’t go climb Mt. Borah (the tallest peak in Idaho) without doing some easier hikes first.
So this brings us to the question… how do Amy and Maggie get their horses in shape? Well as soon as most of the snow melts, and the weather turns nicer, we are out on the trails. However, since it is early season there is far too much snow in the high country and that doesn’t start to melt until late June or later. Since we live in Idaho we have a lot of desert riding we can do and we are also fortunate enough to have the foothills of Idaho. These are at a much lower elevation so the snow melts sooner and it offers the hills that will help us build up the muscle in our horses. There is also a local ski hill that is at a lower elevation. It has several trails that are open to us as well as hikers, bikers, and motor bikes. The ski hill is a constant climb to the top, perfect for getting those muscles warmed up.
We also have some Wild Life Managment areas that are great for riding. To find local WMA near you, do a search. We searched WMA in Idaho and came up with this comprehensive list from the Fish and Game website. It divides all the WMA by regions in Idaho and gives you directions on how to get their along with a guide to the activities that are permitted at each site.
If you have difficulty finding areas to ride that are outdoors or you want a place to ride during the winter, there are also indoor riding arenas. We used to ride in these a lot during the winter months, until we discovered skiing. The only drawback to these is that most arenas charge a fee to ride in them and it can get crowded. You have to work around their scheduled events too, but if you’re lucky enougth to find an arena to ride in, it’s a start.
Now, we usually start riding in late March ( sometimes Feburary ) or April depending on the weather. It is very unpredictable here in Idaho. We try to get our horses out at least twice a week but that is sometimes tricky since we still have those adult responsiblities of a job and don’t get out of school until June.
While riding in these areas are a good start to getting our horses in shape for the kind of riding we like to do. It doesn’t fix all problems that we have at the start of the year, such as the change in elevation or the long 15-20 miles or more, rides we like to do. So because of the love we have for our horses we make sure we take an easy on them the first few times out. We let them rest often after a long haul up the mountain and we find trails that maybe aren’t as long when we are first getting started. We do ride with our saddlebags most the time to get them conditioned to carrying the extra weight also. We pack them light to start and increase the weight over time.
Let us know where you bring your horses to get them in shape for the kind of riding you like to do!
One of the questions it seems like we often get is how do two girls go to all these amazing places, most of them places we have never been before, and keep from getting lost??? Well let us tell you it isn’t easy. We have definitely had our fair share of times where we have ridden out in the dark, gotten home at 2:00 in the morning and then have to go to work and educate those cute little six year olds 🙂
One of the most memorable times we got lost was at a place called Kilgore. We were riding with a group of people who decided to turn back because the weather was starting to get nasty. However being the SUPER brave and FEARLESS riders that we are… we decided to continue on and make a loop that seemed all too easy. Well turns out it wasn’t. We got all sorts of turned around and ended up back tracking and finding our way out many hours later.
We vowed never to do this trail again… but we didn’t listen to ourselves, it’s hard to keep us off the trail. We also vowed never to get lost again…but of course that happened again on other trails.
So we got smart and found this amazing invention called a GPS. But we couldn’t just get any ordinary GPS, we had to get something special. So we introduce to you the Suunto Ambit2 watch.
It is a pretty amazing little invention and it has definately kept us from getting lost. We just plug the watch into our computer, and it links to its own app called Moveslink. Moveslink links with Google maps. So we just type in the trail that we want to go to and find it on the map. However the best part is, we can plan our route. We mark the parking spot, mark all of our turns and stops along the trail, and then load it onto the watch. While we are out on the trail, we just pull up our map on the watch and it highlights our route. We just follow the little arrow on the watch as it tells us where to go. This watch has a million other features too, however this is our primary function and it has definately saved us a time or two when the trail becomes lost or there aren’t any signs.
Sometimes the trails are branded into our heads because we have been on them so many times, but we still bring the watch. The watch will also track where we are going and then when we get home we can pull up the map on the Moveslink account and save it for later or share it with others. At the end of each ride we also get a stats update. It tells us how many miles we rode, our elevation, and our top speeds.
So there is our trick, a tiny little watch that takes us on some crazy adventures and brings us home at the end of them.
My name is Maggie Morgan. I have two wonderful sons and two wonderful daughters-in-law. I am now a proud grandmother of a beautiful baby girl! I am hoping one day that she will join us on our adventures! My father grew up in Teton Valley and that is where my heart is. I am proud to say that there are mountains named after my family ( Beard ) in Teton Valley. We spend a lot of time with the Spectacular Tetons in our view!
I have been an extreme horse lover my WHOLE life and have had a passion for riding for as long as I can remember. I was very young when I started riding. I trained my first colt when I was 10 years old. I can spend every day, ALL day long in the saddle. I am in love with all animals and nature. Riding in the mountains is such a pleasure for me. I appreciate the view each and every time! Where most people would love to go on exotic vacations across the world, I am happiest on my horse on top of a mountain!
My passion for the GREAT outdoors has taken me many spectacular places. I have two wonderful horses- Joey ( an American Paint Horse ) and Gracie -( A Quarter Horse) plus I have three other horses that I ride from time to time. I am proud to say I am a posse member on the top trail source on Facebook, HTCAA. Horse Trails and Camping Across America has over 50,000 members now and our pictures of our rides have become well known. I have made many connections in the horse world from this site.
I met my bestfriend Amy at the school we both work at in 2008. We have been the best of friends since then and I couldn’t ask for a better riding partner. Amy had never really ridden a horse but started hanging out around the barn with me. It didn’t take her long to learn about horses and she started riding with me. Amy became an advanced rider rather quickly and can ride anywhere on her wonderful horse, so to have her as my riding buddy has been a real blessing. Amy rides a fabulous American Paint horse named Tux and they have become an unstoppable pair! OH the places we have seen! OH the places we have yet to see!!!!! The view never gets old and it is exciting every single time. I am so grateful for the miles and miles we have spent together in this beautiful country. The best way to view the world……is between the ears of a horse!!!
I grew up in Wisconsin… the land of cheese and lots of flat land. After I graduated college, I decided I needed a change of scenery so I packed up my bags moved out West and landed in Idaho. I have been here for 8 years now and couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else. I luckily landed a job at an elementary school, the same school that Maggie just happened to work at. We became instant friends and it didn’t take me long to learn that she had a love for horses and well, animals in general. Maggie started inviting me out to a barn where she borded her horses. I grew up a small town city girl so the only time I had really been around horses was at a fair. This horse world was completely new to me. One day while I was hanging out with Maggie at the barn she asked me if I would want to ride one of her friend’s horses. I thought sure why not. So we saddled up the horses, Maggie teaching me every step of the way… how to saddle, the parts of a saddle, etc. She was very knowledgeable and I was soaking up every bit of information she was throwing my way. Maggie brought me out to the outdoor arena. It was my first time up on a horse so naturally I was a little apprehensive, but Maggie was there guiding me every step of the way, especially when the horse got away from me and we took off galloping through the arena, me screaming and Maggie laughing so hard that she, well you know 🙂
I had no idea that when I sat in that saddle for the first time that it would be the start of one awesome adventure with my best friend. After spending some time riding various people’s horses, I quickly became addicted. I also learned that riding in an arena was nothing compaired to the freedom and serenity I felt in riding in the mountains. I started searching for my own horse and with the help of Maggie, found the perfect little horse named Tux. She is my perfect little black and white Paint horse. I have learned a lot from her and Tux and I have been on some amazing adventures. Life is an adventure and I can’t wait to see what this summer has in store for us!