By Ciara Wolfe BSCO Executive Director
First Yellow Mule is Big Sky’s off-the-beaten-path river walk. If you enjoy the Ousel Falls scenery but are looking for a more secluded hike with a little more difficulty, this is the trail for you. First Yellow Mule is one of the closest access points into the Custer Gallatin National Forest from Big Sky and leads to Buck’s Ridge Trail and Second Yellow Mule, both of which are longer and more difficult. Starting from the Ousel Falls trailhead, this 4-mile out-and-back trail travels through rolling terrain along the South Fork of the West Fork of the Gallatin River.
From the Ousel Falls trailhead, you’ll walk 0.5 miles on a wide gravel trail until you hit the well-marked turnoff to First Yellow Mule. Stay to the left and you’ll climb a couple of short switchbacks and then meander along the west side of the river for over a mile.
Along the way, you’ll pass the top of Ousel Falls and travel past beautiful swimming holes. You’ll also pass under the impressive Big EZ vehicle bridge, and cross three smaller bridges. As you start to meander away from the river, you’ll begin a short climb ending at a road crossing.
Once you’ve crossed the road, the remaining 0.75 miles climbs steadily through switchbacks and straightaways and passes a large boulder field. At the intersection with Bucks Ridge trail, you can return the same way you came for the shortest and least technical trail. Alternatively, you can continue up the Bucks Ridge trail for an additional 5 miles to the top of the ridge, or turn your hike into a loop by descending Second Yellow Mule Trail.
Please note that spring trail conditions can be extremely variable. On my early May hike, I encountered muddy trail and slick compacted ice and snow deep enough to post-hole up to my knees. This is a common trail for grizzly sightings, so be bear aware when recreating on the trail.
First Yellow Mule is one of the only trails in the area that allows horses and it’s also a popular mountain biking trail. Please respect trail etiquette and other users by practicing proper right-of-way. Bikers yield to hikers and both bikers and hikers yield to horseback riders.
Keep your eye out for the Ralph’s Pass trail extension coming this summer. It will connect First Yellow Mule to Ralph’s Pass, Big Sky’s newest trail. This will allow bikers and runners to stay off the popular and heavily-used Ousel Falls Trail and continue directly onto an additional 3 miles of trail that ultimately tie into Uplands Trail near Town Center.
For more information about Big Sky’s parks, trails and recreation programs, visit bscomt.org. The Big Sky Community Organization is a local nonprofit that connects people to recreational opportunities by acquiring, promoting and preserving sustainable places and programs for all.
Distance: 4 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 575 ft
Uses: hike, run, bike and horse
Directions: From Highway 191, head west to Town Center and turn left onto Ousel Falls Road. Continue south for approximately 2 miles and turn left into the Ousel Falls trailhead parking lot.
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