Ousel Falls Trail endures heavy use as beloved area attraction

By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

BIG SKY – Last year, nearly 66,000 people set foot on Ousel Falls Trail, one of Big Sky’s most popular destinations. The wide gravel path traverses 1.6 miles roundtrip and leads to the acclaimed Ousel Falls, which is named for the ouzel bird, commonly known as the American dipper.

The well-used trail boasts a TrafX device secured on a Douglas fir growing near the trailhead. This black box with infrared technology logs the number of hikers who pass, and indicates that Ousel Falls is probably the most-visited trail in Big Sky.

JaNelle Johnson is a volunteer with the Big Sky Community Organization Trail Ambassador program, and she hikes Ousel Falls several times a week in order to promote positive trail behavior and answer questions. She said she suspects the trail is particularly popular for visitors because it showcases the beauty of the area, without presenting too much of a physical challenge.

“[Ousel Falls] is always a nice introduction to Big Sky,” she said. “It’s easy, it’s wide, it’s got beautiful scenery.”

However, Johnson added that it can be difficult finding a spot in the parking lot. Referring to last summer, she said, “I’d never seen so many cars in that parking lot. It was just amazing.”

Beyond crowded parking lots and congested trails that can deter from the peaceful reprieve of nature, high visitation wreaks havoc on trail infrastructure.

While Ousel Falls Trail is located on a National Forest easement, the trailhead property is owned by BSCO. As such, BSCO provides all of the maintenance, which includes trail clearing and repair, as well as the upkeep for bathrooms and trailhead improvements.

According to BSCO Executive Director Ciara Wolfe, the reality of a popular trail includes lines at the outhouse and the need for BSCO to empty garbage cans every day.

After receiving their full ask of $693,986 in resort tax appropriations on June 18, BSCO is moving forward with plans to upgrade the Ousel Falls trailhead. This summer, they will design a parking lot expansion, as well as plan for the installation of additional garbage cans and an educational kiosk. Construction is slated for late this fall or early spring 2019, depending on weather.

In addition to these new upgrades, the organization has planted vegetation and installed barriers to encourage people to stay on the trail.

“No matter what the numbers are, it’s much more impactful when [hikers] go off the trail,” Wolfe said, adding that off-trail use can cause erosion and also damage fragile mountain vegetation.

“We get complaints about behavior sometimes, people leaving beer cans at inappropriate places … but not on the trail itself or at the falls,” Wolfe said. “I think our community loves it so much that they are willing to volunteer and take care of it. We feel like, for the most part, people are pretty good to it, it’s just the heavy use.”

To minimize the effect that so much human use has on Ousel Falls, BSCO encourages people at Ousel Falls to use provided garbage cans at the trailhead. Bikers connecting from Ralph’s Pass and Yellow Mule trails are asked to walk their bikes during the busy season, and dog owners should always clean up their animals’ waste and keep them on-leash.

“The dogs are often just as guilty at running off trail,” Wolfe said. “Dogs create or add to user-made trails, and they can kill vegetation too.”

The BSCO Trail Ambassadors will offer friendly reminders to those who don’t follow the trail guidelines, and Johnson said she’s never had a problem speaking to hikers on the trail.

“I’ve never had a bad encounter,” she said. “I think people love our trails and want to follow the rules, they just may not be aware of them.”

As of EBS press time on June 20, Ousel Falls Trail remained relatively wet but is clear of snow. Due to high water, a portion of the trail is experiencing erosion. There is a slight detour around this damaged area and BSCO asks hikers to stay away from the edge of the eroding bank so as to avoid contributing to the problem.