Pets allowed
Elevation Gain
640.00 ft (195.07 m)
Trail type
5.40 mi (8.69 km)
Please respect the outdoors by practicing Leave No Trace. Learn more about how to apply the principles of Leave No Trace on your next outdoor adventure here.

The lush valleys sweeping below the Gallatin Mountains are everything you imagine in a dramatic Montana setting. Out of one of these gorgeous meadows, spills South Cottonwood Creek. Tucked back in one of the more accessible ravines, South Cottonwood Creek Trail gives you a deep mountain feel without the backcountry climb. This mostly shady trail crosses South Cottonwood Creek at a number of junctions, the first being so well-suited for wading and splashing around that many families use it as an enjoyable family hike with their little ones. 

The hike begins with a single track incline through a forest filled with cottonwoods, aspen and pine. During autumn, you feel fully immersed, almost dwarfed, in the generous display of gold leaves filling the pine understory. The trail eventually eases back down and after about a mile you come to the first creek crossing. By early October, there are generous sand bars and places to hang out and enjoy the creek sounds or even splash around on a hot day. You can keep your feet dry at all the crossings with a sturdy one-log-wide bridge built at each.

After crossing the creek, the trail climbs gently back up through meadows with diverse grasses, shrubs and dotted with pine trees. Along this portion the trail hugs the mountainside contours, narrowing down to a tight singletrack with a rather steep drop on one side. The open hillside receives the full sun; a welcome change after the shaded creek bottom. After about three-quarters mile, the trail eases back to the creek and winds alongside it. Cross the creek in two more places (much more narrow than the first). The third creek makes a nice turnaround point for a five-mile there-and-back trek. If you enjoy tall mountain views from river valley meadows, continue up another few hundred yards and take in the view. 

For more miles and spectacular views, continue on the Wheeler Gulch trail, which can extend the hike to 12 miles. Plan to share the trail with mountain bikers and dogs. You are in Montana, so be smart. Carry bear spray and some knowledge on how to use it.  



Logistics + Planning

Preferable season(s)




Parking Pass


Open Year-round



Easy to access. Scenic. Relatively flat


Can get crowded. Narrow trail. Steep drops in spots.

Trailhead Elevation

5,720.00 ft (1,743.46 m)

Highest point

5,920.00 ft (1,804.42 m)


Family friendly
Backcountry camping
Horseback riding
Geologically significant
Bird watching

Typically multi-day


Suitable for


Permit required



Nearby Adventures

Big Sky + Gallatin River Valley, Montana
Big Sky + Gallatin River Valley, Montana
Big Sky + Gallatin River Valley, Montana


Have updates, photos, alerts, or just want to leave a comment?
Sign In and share them.