By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor
Time spent outdoors is made all the more intimate when snow is falling and temperatures dip well past freezing. Certainly, there’s something humbling about seeing a moose furry with winter’s coat, knee deep in new snow and sending frosty breaths into the air as you shiver in your down coat. The sound of a coyote carries well through crisp, frozen air. And glimmering snow gives easily to the waxed edge of a ski.
Opportunities to enjoy and explore the wonders of our natural world are plentiful throughout the winter. A personal favorite, which has rapidly become a winter tradition, is seeking out our local U.S. Forest Service cabins.
There are 24 Forest Service cabins available to rent in the wintertime throughout the Custer Gallatin National Forest, and four are found within the Gallatin Canyon. Many of these cabins are a link to the past, having served as shelter for Forest Rangers on patrol in the 1920s and ‘30s. Today, these cabins still offer shelter for those seeking a kind of wildness and adventure.
Spanish Creek Cabin
The Spanish Creek Cabin is about 4 miles from the end of the plowed portion of Spanish Creek Road, and is accessible by ski, snowshoe or bike, depending on snow conditions. This area is near the Lee Metcalf Wilderness and is closed to snowmobiles, but the 1930s cabin itself serves as a great base camp to adventure. There’s a nearby network of trails heading right into wilderness, and remote backcountry skiing abounds. A set of bunk beds and a loft with two twin beds sleep four people.
Garnet Mountain Fire Lookout
Sitting atop the apex of Garnet Mountain (elevation 8,245 feet), the huge glass windows of the Garnet Mountain Fire Lookout reveal a panorama of the Gallatin Range. The structure was built in 1962, over the top of the former fire lookout established in 1930. This lookout sleeps four and visitors should plan on a cold night of winter camping, as the large windows do little to retain heat. To get there, travel to Storm Castle Road and ski, snowmobile or snowshoe up to 10 miles, gaining over 2,000 feet in elevation along the way. The paths to this cabin cross potential avalanche areas, so be sure to check the avalanche advisory.
Yellow Mule Cabin
Tucked away in the rugged backcountry, the Yellow Mule Cabin was constructed based upon the builder’s preference rather than standard Forest Service design. The 1920 structure is comprised of a 12-by-14-foot room that accommodates three. It’s close to McAtee Basin and Buck Creek Ridge Trail, the latter of which is a popular snowmobile route that offers a 1,000-foot elevation gain. To access the cabin via snowmobile, park off the highway east of Buck Creek Ridge Road or at the Lower Buck Creek Trailhead near the Corral Bar and Steakhouse and ride approximately 18 miles. For those wishing to travel by fat bike, park at the Ousel Falls Trailhead. Note that this is a remote cabin, and cooking facilities and firewood are not provided.
The rustic Wapiti Cabin is the picture of a traditional Forest Service cabin, with forest green windows, doors, tables and chairs. The cabin sits within the Taylor Fork drainage, offering good terrain for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, and the Big Sky Snowmobile Trail passes nearby. There are cots to sleep four. Parking is available at Sage Creek Trailhead south of Big Sky, and visitors can travel by snowmobile 6 miles on the Big Sky/Carrot Basin Trail. Depending on road conditions, visitors may also drive up the intermittently plowed Taylor Fork Road to Wapiti Creek Road and continue the remaining 2 miles by ski, foot or snowmobile.
Know before you go
While each cabin is rustic, amenities vary. All cabins come with a wood-burning stove for heat, and usually there is split wood available. Expect not to have cell phone service and remember you’ll be using an outhouse during your stay. You’ll need to melt snow or bring your own source of water, and you should be prepared with your own bedding, flashlight, cookware, dish soap, matches, toilet paper and first aid kit.
Just like any trip to the mountains, be aware of what could go wrong and prepare for it. Bring a copy of the combination to unlock the door and bring extra propane for the lantern. If you are staying in one of the more remote cabins, bring emergency items in case you have to spend the night outdoors.
Forest Service cabins are rented through an online reservation system and it’s not uncommon for the most popular ones to book six months in advance. However, there may still be a hidden gem out there that hasn’t yet been reserved this winter.