Montana Forest Service Cabins and Other Places to Spend a Winter’s Night

Overnighting at Forest Service cabins provides the feeling of being out in the backcountry while providing many of the comforts of home. Plus, with a lighter backpack—no need to carry a stove, sleeping pad or other camping necessities—it’s easy to go light and cover more miles, or to bring in gourmet food and libations to fill those long winter nights.

All cabins have wood stoves and wood, and many have propane lanterns; some have electricity, but none have water in the winter.

Unlike the Tenth Mountain Division Hut System in Colorado, local cabins were not set up to ski from one to another, but with a little ingenuity it can be done. The obvious choice for a cabin-to-cabin tour is linking the Mystic Lake Cabin with the Trail Creek Cabin.

From the junction of Trail Creek Rd. and Newman Creek Rd. ski in 3.1 miles to the Trail Creek Cabin. With a short ski en route to the cabin there should be plenty of time for touring nearby meadows or carving turns on the slopes.

The next day, get out the GPS or a map and compass and find your way to Mystic Lake. The route starts on the logging road, but soon switches to a trail past the Old Cougar Reservoir and Bear Lakes (6-8 miles depending on the route). Because this area gets used by snowmobilers, there may be tracks all over the place—make sure you know where you are going.

The Mystic Lake Cabin is nestled in the trees along the shore of—you guessed it—Mystic Lake. Tour around the lake or explore the south fork of Bozeman Creek. From the cabin it’s a shorter (5.3 miles), but steeper ski out New World Gulch Trail—with the possibility of sneaking in some turns on Mt. Ellis—or a mellow tour (10 miles) on the logging road following Bozeman Creek.

For a loop trip with an overnight stay, try the Fox Creek Cabin. With a capacity of only two people, this tiny cabin makes for a romantic getaway. From the History Rock trailhead, ski up and over the ridge into the South Cottonwood Creek Drainage. Bring your firewood as the Forest Service doesn’t supply any.

The following day ski out seven miles following the gently meandering South Cottonwood Creek or stay two nights and skin up and schuss down Wheeler Mountain on the non-traveling day.

For folks who want to carve more than tour, the Garnett Mountain Lookout is a good option. It’s a ten mile ski in via Rat Lake and an elevation gain of 1300 feet. The lookout sits on top of Garnett Mountain and affords views into the Gallatin Range and across the Gallatin River into the Madison Range.

Skiing off Garnett Mountain can be a little sketchy avalanche-wise, but with the right conditions and know-how, it can be a fun adventure. At the top and bottom there are low angle meadows which are joined together by some openish tree skiing.

For a more low-key or family trip try one of the cabins reached with a short ski or snowshoe. The Battle Ridge Cabin in the Bridger Mountains is a quick .25 mile ski in. It’s an easy ski to tour the North or Middle Forks of Brackett Creek. Or skin up towards the Bridger Ridge and have a half hour head start on folks driving in from Bozeman.

West Boulder Cabin at the north end of the Absarokas also takes just a short ski to reach. The area around the cabin is breathtaking and skiing into the West Boulder Meadows or up to Lost Lakes will provide even more unbelievable scenery.

The Gallatin National Forest rents 22 cabins and 1 fire lookout—most built in the 1920s and 1930s by Forest Service Rangers. Get a group together and rent one by logging on or calling 1-877-444-6777. Photos and descriptions of cabins can be viewed here, though reservations must be made through the new reservation service up to 180 days in advance. Cabins are also available on a last-minute walk-in basis up to three nights in advance at the district managing the particular cabin.

A Few Other Optiions…
If a Forest Service cabin isn’t posh enough for you, check out these huts and yurts.

Nemesis Mountain Hut can be rented from Hellroaring Ski Adventures. The Hut is actually two huts—a six person bunk tent and a kitchen tent which sleeps two. Located in the Centennial Mountains, twenty-five miles from West Yellowstone, this hut provides awesome access to great backcountry skiing. Take the snowmobile shuttle in and bring all the comforts of home.

Yurtski is located at 6800 feet in the Swan Mountains. Like the Nemesis Hut, Yurtski offers a snowmobile shuttle. Or have the sled carry your gear while you ski in the eight miles, mostly on Forest Service roads. From the yurt, a skin track leads to three alpine bowls and a variety of skiing and touring terrain. Both Hellroaring Ski Adventures and Yurtski offer catered, guided or self-service trips.

While not strictly a backcountry experience, Elkhorn Hot Springs in the Pioneer Mountains has several rustic cabins and lodge rooms for skiers who like to soak. Maverick Ski Area is a mere three miles down the road and twenty miles of groomed cross-country ski trails start right outside the door. There’s also a restaurant serving dinner on the weekends and complimentary hot breakfast buffet. And don’t forget the hot springs.

With thirty-five kilometers of groomed cross-country ski tracks, access to plenty of skiing slopes in the Gravelly Mountains, wildlife viewing, and a spectacular setting, Wade Lake Resort has it all. Rent one of the five cabins and you get use of the ski trails and a gear shuttle in and out.

If you don’t mind a little work with your vacation, the Gordon Reece cabin at Chief Joseph Pass will fit the bill. It’s a half mile walk to the “ski mansion” whose first floor serves as a warming hut while the upper floor loft area is set up for sleeping. The cabin can be reserved at no charge by those interested in being hosts. Hosts shovel snow, tend fires and make sure there is plenty of hot water for skiers using the groomed trails.

This story first appeared in Outside Bozeman magazine.

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