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Loved to death: Ousel Falls Trail experiences growing pains

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The iconic Ousel Falls waterfall awaits hikers at the end of Ousel Falls Trail featuring rushing waters in the spring and gorgeous ice features in the winter. PHOTO BY TUCKER HARRIS

Big Sky’s favorite trail sees record visitors

By Katie Alvin EBS Contributor

Editor’s note: A version of this story originally ran in a 2015 edition of EBS. As the community grows, we’ve revisited the article with updated information so we can continue to care for our local trail.

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 reporting signs of misuse, and even vandalism in increasing numbers along the trail to the Big Sky Community Organization, 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 tracks the number of users on Ousel Falls Trail and in July of 2021 alone, 19,836 people walked the trail. Though 2021 isn’t over yet, the projected number of annual users for this year is almost 90,000. In the past, according to BSCO Asset Manager Jeff MacPherson, the highest number of annual users was 65,000.

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.

“The actual trail was built really well when it was first built, so that’s sustaining right now,” MacPherson said. “A couple of years ago we had a whole section wash out, we’ve had some bigger projects that we’ve had to fix on the trail.”

Otherwise, MacPherson said maintenance of the trail is largely focused on the trailhead bathrooms and parking lot area. Now, parking has become a big issue with spillover parking stretching down the side of the main road after the lot fills up. One solution in the works is to add a Skyline bus stop at the Ousel Falls trailhead, according to MacPherson.

Though usage is up, MacPherson emphasized that water is the main force that damages the trail.

“In the near future we want to resurface the trail and correct our drainages out there,” he said.

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.

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 BSCO, 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, and are especially dangerous with the current burn ban in place. Inappropriate after-hours behavior can also lead to thoughtless vandalism, which damages the park for other users.

Despite BSCO 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 in 2014, 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, “BSCO 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.

BSCO manages 100 acres of land, 23.25 miles of trails, and runs several community programs, including Camp Big Sky and the Big Sky Softball League. An active team of volunteers is critical and BSCO launched a trail ambassador program in 2015, which seeks volunteers to hike the local trails, pick up trash, look for maintenance issues and educate users.

Contact Program Director Mackenzie Johnson at mackenzie@bscomt.org if you’re interested in volunteering for the trail ambassador program. Visit bscomt.org to learn more about Big Sky’s parks and trails, and the other programs it offers.

Katie Alvin has worked with several nonprofit organizations during her 28 years living in Big Sky. She is a past co-chair of Education and Outreach for the BSCC trails committee and she currently serves as the development director of the Arts Council of Big Sky. 

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