“Classic Yellowstone thru-trail with amazing mountain views, blinding wildflowers, & wildlife viewing”
— Tom Carter
Birding · River/Creek · Views · Wildflowers · Wildlife
This is serious grizzly country! The trail crosses the Gallatin Bear Management Area. From May 1 through November 10, travel is allowed only on designated trails (off-trail travel is prohibited). A minimum group size of four or more is recommended for hiking and camping. Snow at the pass may be a problem until late July-early August.
The Bighorn Pass Trail is a Yellowstone classic! This 20.1-mile trail across the Gallatin Range begins near Indian Creek Campground and ends on Highway 191, north of West Yellowstone. Views from 9075-foot Bighorn Pass are intoxicating. And there's excellent wildlife viewing chances, too!
Need to Know
The Bighorn Pass Trail is a 20.1, one-way, east-to-west traverse across the Gallatin Range to the western edge of the park. To avoid the long car shuttle, many do it as an out-and-back and return to Indian Creek Campground, a total of 17.6 miles.
This 20.1-mile, one-way trail across the Gallatin Range begins near Indian Creek Campground and ends on Highway 191, north of West Yellowstone. The trail follows Indian and Panther Creeks up the east side of the pass and the Gallatin River out to the west.
From the parking area near the entrance to Indian Creek Campground, the trail heads west into the trees. It quickly makes a dogleg right and passes behind the campgrounds until reaching the Gardner River, below its confluence with Indian Creek. It then turns left and follows the Gardner and then Indian Creek past campsite 1B1 (due to bear restrictions, the last campsite you’ll see for the next 12 miles) and crosses Indian Creek at the 2.5-mile mark.
The next 1.3 miles the trail (which is faint in spots) crosses a big dry meadow frequented by buffalo. Views of Antler Peak (on the left) and Bannock Peak & Quadrant Mountain (ahead) are good. At the 3.8-mile mark the trail crosses Panther Creek, then enters intermittent forest and begins gaining elevation more rapidly. Fishing is good for 6-7 inch brook trout in both Indian and Panther creeks.
By the 5-mile mark the trail rejoins Panther Creek and closely follows it almost to the pass. At the 6.7-mile mark the trail breaks out of the trees and enters beautiful open meadows that abound with wildflowers most of the summer. Stay alert, this high mountain meadow is excellent for viewing elk, big horn sheep (on the slopes of Bannock Peak, ahead on the right), and grizzly. The trail continues its steady, ever steeper, but never difficult climb, then makes its final push to the pass via short switchbacks, reaching it at the 8.8-mile mark. Views from 9075-foot Bighorn Pass are intoxicating, so plan plenty of time here.
From the west side of the pass, visitors get a commanding view down the Gallatin River drainage as it flows north, then sweeps to the west. To the south, imposing Three Rivers Peak etches the skyline. Just below it, at about eye-level, is 19-acre Gallatin Lake, the headwaters of the Gallatin River. The Gallatin is one of three rivers that join near Three Forks, Montana to form the Missouri River. Lewis and Clark named these rivers in 1805 to honor three individuals who were important to the expedition – President Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State James Madison (who negotiated the Louisiana Purchase), and Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin (who paid for the trip).
From the pass, the trail turns right and angles steeply down the western slopes of Bannock Peak, affording more nice views. At the 10.5-mile mark the trail reaches Gallatin River level, having dropped 1000 feet in 1.7 miles. From there, the trail closely follows the river for the final 10 miles of the journey, first through trees, then through a chain of lush, green oxbow meadows. Along the way you'll pass 4 excellent campsites at 13.3, 14.3, 14.9, and 15.6 miles. There’s good fishing in these meadows for foot-long cutthroat, rainbow, and whitefish. Just past the last campsite the trail passes the Fawn Pass-Bighorn Pass Cutoff Trail
(on the right), which can be used to access the Fawn Pass Trail
less than a mile away (and up 400 feet). The trail continues to follow the Gallatin through beautiful open meadows the final 4.5 miles and makes a bridged crossing of the Gallatin just before reaching Highway 191.
Thanks to guidebook author, Tom Carter, for sharing this trail description. To learn more about visiting Yellowstone, check out his book, Day Hiking Yellowstone
Flora & Fauna
Look for moose in the willows along Indian Creek, buffalo in the Panther Creek meadows, Bighorn Sheep on the high slopes of Bannock Peak, and elk in the Panther Creek & Gallatin River drainages. Wildflowers abound in the meadows on both sides of the pass.
History & Background
Bannock Peak and Indian Creek are named in honor of Native Americans who annually followed the historic Bannock Trail across the Gallatin Mountains south of Bighorn Pass. From 1840 to 1878 this 200-mile trail was used by the Bannock, Shoshone and Nez Perce to traverse Yellowstone and reach rich buffalo hunting grounds to the east.