Nearly every hike I complete on our Public Lands becomes a favorite. From coastal treks past stunning sea stacks, to rainforest runs, canyon crusades and mountain top meanderings, every mile hiked is a memory I want to relive over and over again. These trails nourish my struggling soul, bringing back meaning and calmness to my normal anxious and worried state. With each step, I find balance and happiness, remembering why I walked away from my old life and started over in nature. No trail is a favorite for long, but some remain classics that I return to again and again. One of those is found out in Big Sky Country, where mountain summits await.
Located at the end of a sometimes treacherous dirt road, one hike outside of Bozeman, Montana has captured my heart over and over again. Rising above the prairie below to form the northern stretches of the Bridger Mountain Range, the dual peaks of Hardscrabble and Sacajawea Peak make for a classic trek. Together, the two peaks showcase the rugged beauty of the region perfectly, making for a perfect summer and fall alpine adventure. I fell in love with this popular trail a few years ago and each time I hike it, it gets more spectacular. If you ever find yourself in Bozeman, or just driving through, consider taking an extra day and heading to this trail. You deserve to be rewarded with its mountainous beauty.
The trail starts slowly, rising from the idillic Fairy Lake at 7,738ft. The elevation gain is a welcome way to shake out your body after the pothole-filled road that leads to the trailhead. The first quarter to half mile has limited views, but that ends quickly when you reach the glacial cirque. Climbing up from here, the trail hits a series of switchbacks before reaching Bridger Divide at 1.5 miles. This is where you have the option to go either to Sacagawea or Hardscrabble Peak. Personally, I alway turn right to Hardscrabble first, rewarding myself with the summit of Sacajawea Peak at the end of my day on the ridgeline of the Bridger Range.
Climbing steeply, yet again, the larger flora fades away and you find yourself walking on scree and talus, working your way north, 9,000ft above sea level. In the summer months, when the snows have melted, wildflowers pop up, making this already gorgeous landscape somehow more mesmerizing. Hardscrabble is the third peak from the saddle and barely has a trail visible, but following the route is simple. At Hardscrabble, the view is a geological wonderland, as the jagged rocks drop off below you, exposing a huge bowl and a steep cliff. With views looking out to the Crazy Mountains in the east, sitting here for a minute or forty will leave you in awe at Montana’s beauty.
Once the views have been taken in as best you can, the return route to the saddle is a fun, albeit often windy, hike. Every time I hike back, I see a new view or another way to appreciate this stretch of trail. Seriously, the views never end. The ridge expanding to the south continues for roughly 20 miles, all the way to Bozeman. Some run this ridge each year for a race, while others like me are still trying to arrange a car swap so I can do it. Some day…
At the saddle, the pull of dropping back down to Fairy Lake is quite real. “You’ve already summited a peak, why not call it a day?” your brain asks. Ignore the call to return to the car and make the final climb up to Sacajawea Peak. You’ll climb. You’ll want to me done. You’ll wonder why you have made this decision and then you reach the summit.
As panoramic views expand in all directions, tiredness and fatigue fade away, replaced by the inexplicable nourishing power of a mountain summit. As if the views aren’t enough, mountain goats are common here, making this somehow even better. Sac Peak is a classic, and usually the first taste of mountain summits for those in the Bozeman area. Yes, there are more remote peaks and more technical scrambles, but you will be hard pressed to find a trail that gives you more reward for the effort and accessibility in the summer months.
After enjoy the summit, returning to the saddle passes quickly, as does the decent down to Fairy Lake. If you have the energy, walk around the lake and enjoy the views. If you don’t have the energy, take a rest and then walk around the lake to enjoy the views. If you want, take a dip in the lake. It’ll be cold, and wonderful. You’ve earned every inch of this trail and deserve to bask in the splendor.
I’ll be honest here. This trail to Sacajawea Peak is not difficult for those of us who are used to hiking up to mountain tops. A summit of “Sac,” as it is known locally, only gains 1,866ft in two miles, making it a quick leg burner for some awesome views. The first time I did the hike, I was wishing it was longer, which is why I started to add a second summit to the day’s adventure. By adding Hardscrabble Peak, the entire hike is roughly nine miles and have a total of 3,300 feet of elevation gain. I know this may sound masochistic, but adding the double peak element makes this a perfect day in the mountains of Montana.
This post was written in one hour for my #NatureWritingChallenge, where this week’s topic was “A Favorite Trail on Public Lands?”
Want to join in on the fun? Read more about this challenge here.
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