The Buffalo Horn trail was supposed to be an easy ride into Ramshorn Lake. We planned to eat lunch at the lake, then explore a bit beyond there, and then turn around and take the same trail back out. Sounds easy right? This was one of our first attempts at exploring a brand new trail in an area we weren’t completely familiar with and the first trail we tried using the Suunto Watch. Let’s just say things didn’t go as according to plan on this journey. It all started with finding the trailhead. This was probably our first clue that we were in for an adventure. The Buffalo Horn Trailhead is located within the Montana 320 Guest Ranch. When looking at the map and planning this ride, we didn’t realize we had to drive all the way through the guest ranch before accessing the trail. As we were traveling down the Gallatin Gateway, we saw a sign pointing to Buffalo Horn trail and it was pointing into the guest ranch. We argued for a moment, one of us certain that the trailhead couldn’t be within the ranch. We pulled in, looked around, and there were no signs pointing to the trailhead. We turned around, went back to the main highway and searched around a little more. After aimlessly driving around we decided to give the guest ranch one more shot before giving up all together and picking some other trailhead along the highway. This time we pulled into the Guest Ranch and parked. We went to the front desk for help in locating the Buffalo Horn Trail. The kind lady at the front desk pulled out a map and circled the trailhead. Apparently they get many people coming through getting lost and asking the same question. You’d think they would put up a sign poining you in the right direction.
Once we finally found the trailhead and tacked up, we were off to a late start. This ride does offer some amazing views as you meander through meadows and forests. Once you reach Ramshorn Lake, the view is stunning and a great spot for lunch. Remember to always stick to your plan 🙂 After lunch we explored a bit but heard from some people we met on the trail that there was a loop option. Don’t deviate from your plan! We did and we didn’t end up getting off this trail until midnight. This was also a 2 1/2 hour drive from home, so we didn’t get home until around 3 o’clock in the morning. Yikes! It was a beautiful ride though and after getting home we realized our mistake and would do this trail again.
Finding the Buffalo Horn Trailhead
From West Yellowstone: Take Hwy 191/87 north out of West Yellowstone. Stay on 191 as it winds through the corner of Yellowstone Park. You will be on this road for about 36 miles before you see signs for the 320 Ranch on your right and the Buffalo Horn Trailhead. Turn into the 320 Guest Ranch, drive left past the dining facilities and continue left and up the drainage. You will pass several guest cabins and eventually park at a loop in the road at the Upper Buffalo Horn Trailhead at about 6650 feet. If you click the park map above it will take you to the 320 Guest Ranch page. You will see that the Buffalo Horn Trailhead is all the way at the top of the map.
Buffalo Horn Trailhead Description
The Buffalo Horn Trail to Ramshorn Lake and a little beyond is about an 18 mile in and out trail. From the start, the trail has several splits, some are signed and some are not. Make sure you use some sort of GPS on this trail or download the map we provided at the bottom of this post. The trail that takes you in to the lake is a relatively easy trail that meanders through the forest and meadows with the Buffalo Horn Creek to your right. As you go along on your ride you will see Ramshorn Peak in the distance. There are some bridges that bring you across the creek and also some big mud holes that we went though. The elevation gain is steady all the way to the lake. Make sure you look back as you climb up higher, you will get a good view of the Gallatin Range.
Keep a look out for signs on this trail. There were two posted to the trees pointing you to Ramshorn Lake. When we hit the sign that said we were about 4 1/2 miles from the lake that is when we ran into these dirt bikers that mentioned there was a possible loop in the trail that would lead you back out to Buffalo Horn. Of course they weren’t all that detailed, just said follow the trail to Porcupine Creek after you hit Ramshorn Lake. We gave this some thought because doing a loop is so much more fun than going out the same way we came in.
After chatting with the bikers, we made the final trek to the lake where we ran into some other horseback riders. They asked if we had been here before and when we answered no, they told us that we were in for a special treat, because the view at the lake is amazing. They were right! Ramshorn Lake is pretty. The lake is that greenish turquoise color surrounded by a rugged, jagged mountain. The lake was jumping with fish, and there was a couple large camping spots at the lake. At the time we talked about how it would be neat to pack in and stay at the lake in a future visit, little did we know that we were almost going to spend the night here. Later as you follow the trail to the left you will see large corrals for horses.
When we were finished with lunch we jumped back on our horses and continued on the trail to the left that heads up the mountain. The trail follows along Fortress Mountain. It is a neat jagged mountain and there were lots of loose rock and boulders lying on the ground that we posed by. After this section the trail starts to gain some elevation and does some steap climbs up the mountain. However the views are amazing as you get a complete overlook of the range. We stopped when we came to a view and explored a bit before deciding that we better turn around before it gets dark, as we still have about 9 miles until we return to the trailhead.
We were about a mile from Ramshorn Lake when we noticed a sign lying in the grass that poined to a trail to the right that said Porcupine Creek. This is the trail the dirtbike guys said we should take to make a loop. So we decided why not, let’s give it try. Afterall how lost can we get right?
As we turned onto the Porcupine trail, it went into a forest where we lost some elevation with switchbacks. It was also quite muddy through the forest and we went through quite a few deep mudholes. The trail was easy to follow, however there weren’t many signs. I think we came across one that pointed to Eagle Mountain which we knew was in the opposite direction we wanted to head. We started keeping track on the Suunto Watch with how many miles we were traveling while on this section of trail. We also marked the trailhead as our starting point, so the watch did have an arrow that told us which direction we were parked at and how many miles we were from the truck. The sun started to set and the watch kept telling us we were getting further and further from the truck. We understood that in a loop you must first get farther away from your starting point before the trail starts to turn back and go in the right direction. However we were basically traveling this trail blind. At about 5 miles into Porcupine trail, we still hadn’t seen a sign that told us we were on the right track. So we made the decision to turn around and retrace our steps. At the time this was the better decision for us, however when we got home and looked on the map we realized that had we continued on this trail it would have looped back into our starting trail in just a few more miles.
Taking this diversion caused us to put an extra 10 miles on our poor horses. We contemplated spending the night at the lake even though we weren’t competely prepared for that. However, we do carry fire starter in our packs as well as a thin emergency blanket and we always have extra layers so we probably would have made it just fine. Instead we decided to gear up with our headlamps and hoof it back to the truck. We turned an 18 mile ride into a 30 mile plus ride and returned to the truck at midnight. With the drive, we got home at around three in the morning. None the less, it was a wilderness adventure and the trail did offer some amazing views.
We now have the loop properly mapped out and would love to go back and do it again some day. Maybe this time in reverse so that we are traveling the part of the trail we didn’t finish during the early hours.
Where to Camp?
There is camping available at the trailhead. We also found a helpful article through Trail Rider Magazine. It describes a few other horse camping locations along the Gallatin Gateway. There is also the option of staying at the 320 Guest Ranch if you are coming from a distance and don’t want to haul your own horses. They offer trailrides and other activities.
The map you see below includes the loop option that we did not get to finish.