By Joseph T. O’Connor Big Sky Weekly Editor
BIG SKY – A TrailMaster TM1550 hugs a Douglas-fir near the beginning of the Ousel Falls Trail. The black rectangle looks like an outdated pedometer, hanging on as if the tree might take off down the meandering path. But the device doesn’t measure distance; instead, it logs the number of hikers who stroll from the Ousel Falls parking lot to the waterfall. And it logs them in droves.
Installed by local nonprofit Big Sky Community Corp. in mid-June, the TrailMaster has since counted more than 15,000 hikers on this trail, which is two miles south of the Big Sky Town Center. These numbers reflect the trail’s acclaim – anyone can handle the walk; and, it seems everyone does.
There are plenty of hikes in and around Big Sky, but few have the universal appeal the Ousel Falls Trail has. Its gentle pitch and well-maintained path draw visitors and locals alike to the stunning 40-foot falls. Parents bring kids, and everyone brings dogs; at 0.8 miles from the trailhead to the waterfall, some hike it on their lunch breaks.
“The parking lot is packed from sun-up to sundown,” said Jessie Wiese, executive director of BSCC, which led efforts to re-build the trail in 2003. Wiese feels it’s important for the community to know just how popular the hike is.
“That’s our showcase trail, so we want people to understand the usage. It’s the first question everyone gets when they move to Big Sky: ‘Have you hiked Ousel Falls yet?’”
The Ousel Falls story
The Ousel Falls hike began as a social trail through U.S. Forest Service land. People walked from the Yellow Mules Trailhead, along the ridge above the south fork of the Gallatin River’s west fork, and then had to negotiate a steep, treacherous path down to the falls. As foot traffic increased, everyone began to notice a problem. In addition to the dangerous section of trail, residents were building new homes in the Club at Spanish Peaks, along that same ridge.
As more houses were constructed, private landowners voiced concerns about the trail winding through their backyards. BSCC, along with representatives of the Club at Spanish Peaks and the Yellowstone Club, teamed up with the Forest Service to move the trail. But a question remained: How would they get people to the falls and then connect to the Yellow Mules Trail?
Enter Bill Olson, then-chairman of BSCC’s Trails Committee. After negotiating the donation of land for Ousel Falls Park beneath the ridge, Olson, working closely with Forest Service engineer Jonathan Kempff, devised a plan for the trail.
“I said, ‘Let’s route it through the park and along the river,’” said Olson, who’s often hailed as the grandfather of Big Sky area trails. “Rather than up high where you’re going to be in development and in conflict with roads.”
The group liked the idea and began pitching in, with Gallatin National Forest in the lead.
“The Forest Service basically paid for all of the trail up to that [Yellow Mules] junction,” Olson said. The Club at Spanish Peaks provided additional funds to build the new trail, according to minutes from a June 20, 2003 meeting between the Big Sky Owners Association and BSCC.
On Aug. 11, 2003, the new Ousel Falls Trail opened to the public. It “was a huge success,” Olson reported in a September meeting between BSOA and BSCC.
“I was working 70 hours a week, but it was fun for me,” he said later. Olson was a guiding force in the planning and construction of the new trail; indeed, he contributed much to outdoor recreation in Big Sky.
“He was the guy who got things done up here,” Wiese said. “He really believed in the [trails program].”
Since taking over management of Ousel Falls Park, BSCC has shouldered other responsibilities, adding to the recreational enjoyment of Big Sky residents and visitors.
“We’re a many-legged organization,” said Wiese, who accepted the executive director position nearly a year ago.
In 2006, BSCC acquired 36 acres to build the Big Sky Community Park. The 44-acre park now has tennis courts and two softball fields, a disc golf course, a climbing boulder and a new skate park, which opened to the public on Sept. 29. Additionally, BSCC maintains more than 16 miles of trails in the area, including Ousel Falls.
But the vision doesn’t stop there, Wiese says.
“We’re working on creating access from Town Center to the Ophir School and out to Ousel via those ridge lines,” she said, pointing southeast from the Town Center, toward Michener drainage. “It would add close to 18 miles to our trail system.”
BSCC also hopes to build a Mountain-to-Meadow route linking the two villages in Big Sky. “We’re always hoping to build more trails,” Wiese said.
Trail work isn’t cheap. Ousel Falls Trail, for example, costs about $15,000 to $20,000 in maintenance each year, Wiese said. The funding comes from various sources.
In July, the Resort Tax Board allotted $15,000 for maintenance to the Ousel Falls Trail, Additionally, BSCC was awarded a Gallatin County Resource Advisory Council grant for $5,000. That funding went toward re-vegetation and erosion control, specifically earth-slumping, a major problem in the area, Wiese said.
Slumping occurs when a block of soil and rock breaks off from the main landmass and slides a short distance down a slope. It can happen due to slope loading and, in the case of Ousel Falls trail, to undercutting. To handle these issues, BSCC brought in some outside help.
Herb Davis, who owns a trail maintenance and design company called North Fork Trails, has been contracting for BSCC for two years. He contends slumping occurs on Ousel because of the type of soil and rock content.
“There’s a lot of shale and old volcanic mud,” he said. “It’s inherently unstable.”
To deal with the crumbling walls and weak layers, Davis and his crew have built rock armories and gabion baskets, wire boxes filled with rock that stabilize areas prone to slumping.
Between closing side paths where hikers cut corners, rebuilding retaining walls and adding gabion baskets, Davis says he uses every bit of the money BSCC gets to maintain the trail. He brings in miniature excavators to remove slumps from the trail and to provide for BSCC’s greatest concern.
“There’s a lot of traffic down there,” Davis said. “There are people on bikes, hikers, people with strollers. Our biggest concern is safety.”
That’s why we’re here
On a cool morning in early October, Jessie Wiese walked her dog, Hunter, down Ousel Falls Trail. Most mornings she runs the trail, but today she’s checking her work: This fall she planted wild rye and other stabilizing grasses on the slopes along the dirt and gravel path to further prevent soil erosion.
BSCC has put a lot of work into the acquisition and maintenance of parks, trails and recreational facilities in the area. But for Wiese, and many others, the Ousel Falls Trail has special significance.
“It’s incredibly beautiful,” she muses. “It’s a resource for everyone and showcases what Big Sky has to offer by getting people in the wilderness quickly. Being able to [access the wilderness] from town – that’s why we’re here, and that’s what keeps people coming back.”
While Ousel Falls has become a local landmark, something the community rallies to support, Wiese knows there’s work left to do.
“This is just the beginning for trails in Big Sky.”
For questions or information about how to volunteer or donate, visit bsccmt.org or call Big Sky Community Corp. at 406.993.2112