Big Sky’s favorite trail seeing record visitors, signs of misuse

By Katie Alvin Explore Big Sky Contributor

BIG SKY – Ousel Falls Trail, a favorite for locals and visitors alike, is one of Big Sky’s main attractions. But easy, year-round access to spectacular scenery means this busy trail is impacted like no other natural area in the region.

Hikers are increasingly reporting signs of misuse, and even vandalism, along the trail to the Big Sky Community Corp., the nonprofit organization that manages this and many other local trails.

Trees along the trail have been damaged, a picnic table was thrown into the river, and illegal campfires have been built.

Big Sky has many local landmarks, but Ousel Falls is an icon. This 100-foot waterfall pours over dramatically fractured sedimentary cliffs and impresses visitors year round, with raging waters in spring, gentler pools in summer, and dramatic winter ice features.

An infrared-laser trail monitor, installed in late summer 2013, indicates 25,000-30,000 people hike the trail annually, with more than 200 users daily during peak summer months. In 2014, Fourth of July weekend saw 879 visitors alone. The popularity of the trail is clear, but the impacts may not be so obvious.

The Ousel Falls area boasts dramatic geology. Exposed cliffs of sandstone, mudstone and siltstone make for idyllic scenery, but also pose great challenges for trail maintenance.

“Much like a roadbed, this trail was built using trucked-in material made specifically for sustaining the impact of hundreds of hikers per day,” said BSCC Trail Committee chair Herb Davis, who helped build these trails. These types of rock layers are highly erodible, he added.

Retaining walls help support the trail against fragile cliff walls. Logs and rocks line the path to keep hikers on the trail, and are critical to minimizing the risk of landslides.

The rocky, fragile soils create a challenge for plants as well. Jessie Wiese, BSCC’s Executive Director, who has a master’s degree in environmental biology, says it’s important for visitors to know that the Ousel Falls area is home to sensitive and rare species, including the Fairy Orchid.

“When walkers wander off the path, they damage vegetation and without much effort, create new pathways,” Wiese said. These new shortcuts trick other hikers into taking them too, creating new unsanctioned routes and widening the swath of damaged vegetation.

Switchbacks are built to prevent pathways that follow the shortest, straightest route down the hillside. They keep rainwater and snowmelt from pouring down the hillside, carrying with it precious soil and ground cover.

The Ousel Falls area’s fragile cliffs and soils make erosion a serious issue – cutting off trails restores the path of least resistance and accelerates erosion, which not only damages delicate vegetation but could also create conditions for a much larger landslide.

Humans aren’t the only travelers going off trail. Leashes aren’t required in Gallatin County, but in sensitive terrain or busy public areas they’re a wise choice. While humans can be conscientious about staying on designated trails, dogs tend to roam and run well beyond the boundaries, disturbing native vegetation and fragile soils. Keeping your dog close at hand is better for the park and its people.

Like many area trails, animal waste left behind by neglectful dog owners continues to be a problem, even though dog waste bags are offered at the trailhead. Picking up your pet’s waste will encourage others to do so as well.

Public use throughout the day is welcome and encouraged by BSCC, but its trails and public areas are closed after 10 p.m., aside from special events. Late-night use of the Ousel Falls area often includes illegal campfires, which threaten forests and neighboring residents. Inappropriate after-hours behavior can also lead to thoughtless vandalism, which damages the park for other users.

Bullet holes in an old growth Douglas fir tree along the Ousel Falls Trail. OUTLAW PARTNERS PHOTO

Bullet holes in an old growth Douglas fir tree along the Ousel Falls Trail. OUTLAW PARTNERS PHOTO

Despite BSCC regulations that prohibit firearms on their property, people have fired shotguns at old growth trees. Axes have also damaged trees, and logs placed to delineate trail boundaries have been thrown into the South Fork – in one instance last year, a picnic table wound up in the river.

Every community member can help educate other users about proper trail etiquette. Be positive. Try something like, “You probably don’t know that we have a rare orchid here. We stay on the hiking paths so we don’t accidentally damage it.” Or maybe pick up a piece of fallen rock and say, “Check out this cool rock. See how easily it crumbles? That’s why we all try to stay on the trail.”

Grab an extra dog-waste bag before you start your hike. If you see someone leaving something behind, hand the bag over and say, “BSCC gives out free dog bags at the top of the trail. I have an extra for you.” It’s embarrassing to have your ignorance pointed out, so the trick is to be kind and helpful, not to shame people into better stewardship.

BSCC has only two paid staff members and manages 83 acres of land, 16 miles of trails, and runs eight community programs, including Camp Big Sky and the Big Sky Softball League. An active team of volunteers is critical and BSCC has launched a trail ambassador program this year, which seeks volunteers to hike the local trails, pick up trash, look for maintenance issues and educate users.

Contact BSCC Project Coordinator Emily O’Connor at (406) 993-2112 if you’re interested in volunteering for the trail ambassador program.

Katie Alvin is co-chair of Education and Outreach for the BSCC trails committee. Visit bsccmt.org to learn more about Big Sky’s parks and trails, and the other programs it offers.