By Amy Wiezalis EBS Contributor
BIG SKY – As summer in southwest Montana ensues, my mind turns to the incredible mountain terrain easily accessible from Big Sky. One of the most versatile trails in Big Sky is the North Fork Loop, which is located between the Mountain and Meadow villages and affords a variety of recreational opportunities.
The North Fork Trail (FS 16) is a great alternative to the popular Beehive Basin Trail (FS 40) for exploring the Spanish Peaks from the south. The North Fork Trail is 6.7 miles one way to the saddle of Bear Basin, but can also be incorporated into a loop using the Ridge Trail (FS 403) and Connector Trail (FS 402). From scenic family walks in rolling meadows, to heady mountain bike descents down steep rocky slopes, this trail provides something for everyone.
The trailhead is accessed via the North Fork Road on the north side of Lone Mountain Trail, just west of Lone Mountain Ranch’s entrance, and approximately 4.7 miles from U.S. Highway 191. Turn left onto Ridge Road after .3 miles and continue around a couple of bends.
Keep your eyes peeled for elk in lush grassland beneath towering pines. The trailhead is on the left, where Ridge Road continues up the hill and the North Fork Trail drops into the woods to the right.
The first portion of the trail is ideal for hikers of all abilities, and especially attractive for aspiring trail runners. It’s also a great warm up for a longer run into Bear or Beehive basins.
The trail descends gently on a Forest Service road surrounded by a verdant forest, before crossing a private road, and ascending gradually. Bearing to the right, it drops down to the North Fork of the West Fork of the Gallatin River, and crosses a rustic Forest Service log footbridge.
Here the trail transitions into singletrack that skirts the river, crossing clearings where Indian paintbrush, glacier lilies, arrowleaf balsamroot, and myriad other wildflowers color the ground. Three miles from the trailhead, the North Fork/Beehive Connector Trail (FS 402) peels off to the left.
The North Fork Loop is a popular trail for local mountain bikers when ridden in the opposite direction. From the trailhead, continue up Ridge Road to the Ridge Trail. A singletrack, switchback grunt elevates you to incredible views of Lone Mountain and the Spanish Peaks. The Ridge Trail drops you out on the private Upper Beehive Loop Road where you turn right and ride the road until you pick up the Connector Trail on your right.
Be prepared for a short section of expert, rocky drops and technical switchbacks winding through the flower-packed meadows. The trail then mellows and joins the North Fork Trail for 3 miles of rolling delight back to the trailhead.
If you continue from the North Fork Trail into Bear Basin, it’s another 3.7 miles to the saddle into the Spanish Peaks drainage. After a mile or so you’ll reach the boundary of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness where bike travel is prohibited. The trail switchbacks through the pines and opens up into the Bear Basin cirque, where you’ll find high-alpine terrain similar to Beehive Basin, but far less traveled.
The North Fork Trail is a gem, and a staple for outdoor recreationalists in Big Sky. As always, weather can be unpredictable and wildlife is abundant – bring proper clothing, food, water, first-aid supplies, and bear spray. Be prepared, be aware, and soak up the majesty around you.
Amy Wiezalis is the accountant and marketing director for Grizzly Outfitters Ski and Backcountry Sports. She has been an avid Big Sky mountain biker and trail runner for 14 years.