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On the Trail: South Fork Spanish Creek Trail

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By Ciara Wolfe BSCO Executive Director

When the weather turns cold and trails in Big Sky often become wet or snowy, I head north through Gallatin Canyon to one of my favorite fall hikes, the South Fork Spanish Creek Trail. Thirty miles from Big Sky, this trailhead is a little off the beaten path but well worth the extra time it takes to get there. The beautiful scenic drive through the Flying D Ranch affords sights of fall foliage and wildlife.

At the large, developed trailhead, there is access to three different trails: Little Hellroaring (#400), Cherry Creek (#401) and South Fork Spanish Creek (#407). South Fork Spanish Creek Trail is a narrow, moderate, dirt and rock trail that can be extended to whatever length you desire, as it makes several connections that lead deep into the Lee Metcalf Wilderness among the Spanish Peaks.

This trail is unique because it truly offers something for everyone, from small children and parents who want an easy, scenic out-and-back hike along Spanish Creek, to the most extreme backpackers, ski mountaineers, and climbers and hikers who can access several of the Spanish Peaks, the highest of which is Gallatin Peak at 11,000 feet.

Ciara Wolfe’s hiking partners, Junebug and Drifter, before setting out on the South Fork Spanish Creek Trail, a great option for a fall hike that can be customized for every skill level. PHOTO BY CIARA WOLFE

The trailhead has ample parking for cars and trailers, an outhouse, picnic areas and equestrian areas, as well as an old U.S. Forest Service guard station that can still be rented for overnight stays through the Custer Gallatin National Forest.

From the parking area, take a small path approximately 15 yards to the trailhead sign. From there, cross Spanish Creek on a small wooden bridge and take a left onto South Fork Spanish Creek Trail. Turning right will take you on the Cherry Creek Trail. The first 2 miles of South Fork Spanish Creek trail are flat as the trail meanders along the creek. Between 2 and 3 miles, you reach a fork in the trail. Going right will take you up Falls Creek Trail and up to the Spanish Lakes.

Remaining straight on the South Fork Spanish Creek Trail culminates at Mirror Lake after 7.5 miles with the majority of the climb in the last 2 miles. From Mirror Lake you can continue into Bear Basin or to Summit Lake. The picturesque destination options are endless, and for those looking for a casual hike into the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, the first 2 miles of this trail make for an excellent choice.

The trail sees heavy equestrian usage and is not open to bikers or motorized vehicles. Hikers, please yield to horse traffic as dictated by proper trail etiquette. The trail is also heavily used by hunters in the fall, so be sure to wear your blaze orange apparel. The Spanish Peaks are also a common bear habitat so please be bear aware and prepared when on this trail.

For more information about Big Sky’s parks, trails and recreation programs, visit 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.

Trail stats

Distance to Mirror Lake: 7.5 miles one way
Difficulty: moderate
Elevation: 6,114 feet at trailhead
Elevation gain: 2,256 feet
Surface: dirt
Uses: horses and hikers
Directions: From Big Sky drive 20 miles north on Highway 191 and turn left onto Spanish Creek Road shortly after crossing over Spanish Creek. Follow Spanish Creek Road 9 miles through the Flying D Ranch to the Spanish Creek Trailhead.

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