Camping with Uncle Sam
By Jessianne Castle EBS ENVIRONMENTAL & OUTDOORS EDITOR
BOZEMAN – It’s the little things that foster the fondest camping memories: a warm shelter, a view, the peaceful serenity of mountain air. Yet few things conjure more comfortable camping than a cabin in the forest.
The U.S. Forest Service has nearly 14,000 cabins for rent to the public throughout the country and within the Custer Gallatin National Forest there are a total of 23. These structures vary in amenities but are sure to treat guests to a rustic Montana experience.
The Gallatin Canyon and surrounding area has six different Forest Service cabins available for rent through an online reservation system. While Windy Cabin up Portal Creek is only open from June to October, the remaining five are open year-round. Here’s a brief overview:
Little Bear Cabin
As is the case with many of the Forest Service cabins, Little Bear was built in the first half of the 1900s. Surrounded by hiking or skiing trails, the small structure remains frozen in time and continues to be a great mountain getaway on the north end of the Gallatin Range. Visitors can look out on Gallatin Valley and catch glimpses of the Bridger Mountains. Complete with a bunkbed and upstairs loft, Little Bear also has a traditional wood cook stove.
Throughout the fall visitors can access this cabin by wheeled vehicles, but once snow accumulates, access becomes limited to snowmobiles or a 10-mile ski. To reach Little Bear Cabin from Big Sky, travel north on Highway 191 for approximately 25 miles. As you approach Gallatin Gateway, turn east onto Little Bear Road and continue for about 10 miles to the cabin.
Spanish Creek Cabin
The Spanish Creek Cabin is adjacent to the popular Spanish Creek Trailhead north of Big Sky. The 1934 cabin is two stories and rests in a large meadow at the base of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. The South Fork Spanish Creek burbles nearby and mountain peaks from the Madison range stretch tall around the area.
Prior to December, cabin-goers can travel north from Big Sky on Highway 191 for 20 miles to Spanish Creek Road. Turn west onto Spanish Creek Road and travel about 9 miles. Prior to reaching the trailhead, you’ll see a jack-leg fence and gated drive on the east side of the road that leads to the cabin. After Dec. 2, renters must ski, snowshoe, hike or bike the last 3.5 miles to the cabin.
Garnet Mountain Fire Lookout
The Garnet Mountain Fire Lookout sits at an elevation of 8,245 feet and provides panoramic views of the Gallatin Valley to the north, the Little Bear area to the northeast, the eastern Hyalite Ridge, Gallatin Peak and Table Mountain to the west, and the Gallatin Range to the south.
As a fire lookout, Garnet Mountain offers a unique kind of cabin stay. Its large glass windows and presence on the treeless mountaintop lend a feeling of exposure—especially during a storm—but the morning sunrise and commanding views are a valuable reward.
To get to the lookout, travel north from Big Sky on Highway 191 for 17 miles. Turn east onto Storm Castle Road and either continue to the lookout by hiking or biking 6 miles on the Garnet Mountain Trail. You may also utilize an ATV or motorbike 12-miles via the Rat Lake Trailhead, or travel by snowmobile or ski in winter.
Yellow Mule Cabin
Yellow Mule is a backcountry cabin that was originally built in 1920 and used as a ranger station. Unlike many Forest Service cabins that were built following a standard design, Yellow Mule was constructed to the builder’s preferences. A 12-foot-by-14-foot single-room structure, Yellow Mule is currently closed for maintenance and repairs and is slated to reopen sometime next year.
The Yellow Mule Cabin offers a particularly rustic experience as it is remote and can’t be accessed by a car. To get to the cabin, renters can either travel by way of Buck Creek Ridge Trailhead or Lower Buck Creek Trailhead, south of Big Sky, or via the Ousel Falls Trailhead southwest of Big Sky Town Center.
A small, one-room cabin, Wapiti Creek Cabin is described by the Forest Service as “primitive.” A wood stove provides heat and four cots are available for sleeping. This cabin, tucked between the Madison and Gallatin ranges at about 7,000 feet, is nestled within rich grizzly and black bear habitat in an area known as Taylor Fork.
The Taylor Fork drainage offers an array of activities, from hiking, fishing and horseback rides in the summer to snowmobiles, skiing and snowshoeing in the winter. There is a corral available for visitors to bring stock and the Big Sky Snowmobile Trail passes nearby.
From Big Sky head south on Highway 191 for 14 miles. Turn west onto Taylor Fork Road and continue for 3.5 miles. In the winter, snowmobiles can park at the Sage Creek Trailhead as well.
If You Go
A stay in any Forest Service cabin will be a rustic experience. There usually isn’t cell phone service and you should be prepared for a chilly walk to the outhouse.
These cabins are rented through an online reservation system and it’s not uncommon for the most popular ones to book six months in advance.
Visit recreation.gov to check reservations or find out more on a specific cabin.