Natural Bridge Falls

Big Timber / Absaroka Mountains / Gallatin National Forest, Montana, USA

About Natural Bridge Falls

Hiking Distance: 1 mile round trip (to all main viewpoints)
Suggested Time: 1 hour

Date first visited: 2017-08-09
Date last visited: 2017-08-09

Waterfall Latitude: 45.54885
Waterfall Longitude: -110.20837

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Natural Bridge Falls was probably the most impressive of the natural bridge features that we’ve seen so far, especially since it was also a legitimate waterfall attraction as you can see in the photograph above. Indeed, we’ve seen several natural bridge formations and features before, but in this instance, the Boulder River would appear, then disappear, then re-emerge towards the bottom of a precipitous cliff after dropping about 100ft or so before disappearing again further downstream. The disappearing act was due to the Boulder River flowing through tunnels. It was hard to believe that there was even another natural bridge spanning the “dry” part of the Boulder River before it collapsed back in 1988. In fact, it was said that this place got its name as a result of the existence of that bridge! This was also one of the more family friendly excursions so we got to fully experience this place in such a way that our six-year-old daughter was all into it.

Our visit happened to occur at a time when the Boulder River was in its typical low Summer flow. I’ve seen signage here with photographs showing the Boulder River in a more swollen state, where the overflow of the river would rush over the normally dry parts of the watercourse before plunging over the lip of the cliff and rejoin the rest of the Boulder River that was emerging from the bottom of the cliff. It would essentially be a much larger version of what we saw at Running Eagle Falls in Glacier National Park, where a waterfall would fall on top of a waterfall! Yet even without that surely awesome display of raw power and unusual natural beauty, this place was still quite a beautiful spot and well worth the detour.

Our walk began from a well-signed and fairly spacious (and busy) parking lot (see directions below), where we went onto a paved path that went by a restroom facility, then encountered a fork. To the left, the paved path continued towards a series of lookouts and looked to be wheelchair accessible. To the right, the paved path descended towards a bridge spanning the Boulder River. Beyond the river, there was a more primitive trail that followed the Boulder River downstream eventually ending up at the overlook you see pictured at the top of this page. That hike was about a quarter-mile beyond the footbridge (or a half-mile round trip) and it involved a short descent along the way. We noticed some people actually hike beyond the overlook, and apparently there was a steep scrambling path that descended a gully and ultimately reached the bottom, where one would be more face-to-face with the Natural Bridge Falls and the Boulder River itself.

Back on the more developed paths to the left of the fork, there were initially interpretive lookouts with signage explaining how this area was once under the sea. There were also social trails that descended from the overlooks and onto the dry portions of the riverbed, where it was possible to peer right at some upper waterfalls before the Boulder River disappeared into the tunnel underfoot (note that standing here was inherently dangerous as the tunnel could collapse without warning at any time). Further along the paved path, there were yet more overlooks before there were a couple more overlooking the deep canyon below as well as the disappearance of the Boulder River again further downstream. It turned out all this infrastructure on this side of the Boulder River was probably done in order to get a closer look at that natural bridge that had since collapsed in 1988. I suspected that the bridge was near where the Boulder River started to disappear at the head of the tunnel as I had seen evidence of large rock pieces strewn about there.

Overall, we spent a good 90 minutes away from the car, but it was mostly because we really took our time, and we probably explored as much as we could of this special place with the exception of making the steep scramble down to the bottom of the canyon and waterfall. There were also some berries along the trail to the distant overlook (including huckleberries) so that got Julie and Tahia to spend even more time looking for them and picking them. It was also a reminder that this was grizzly country as they tend to fatten up on such berries while preparing for the long winter.

Natural_Bridge_Falls_001_08092017 - At the large parking lot for the Natural Bridge Falls
Natural_Bridge_Falls_010_08092017 - Tahia keeping right at the fork near the restrooms and descended towards the bridge over the Boulder River
Natural_Bridge_Falls_012_08092017 - This was the view upstream from the bridge
Natural_Bridge_Falls_011_08092017 - This was the view looking downstream from the bridge. Note how the Boulder River started to disappear into that tunnel towards the center right of this photo
Natural_Bridge_Falls_014_08092017 - Beyond the footbridge I kept left and followed this primitive trail downstream along the Boulder River
Natural_Bridge_Falls_053_08092017 - As the trail continued further downstream, it provided some teasing glimpses of the steep canyon below, where I suspected at one point there was a cave that collapsed here
Natural_Bridge_Falls_058_08092017 - Julie couldn't help herself and started looking for huckleberries along the trail
Natural_Bridge_Falls_063_08092017 - Julie and Tahia checking out the Natural Bridge Falls from the distant overlook
Natural_Bridge_Falls_021_08092017 - Zoomed in look at the main drop of the Natural Bridge Falls. Imagine what an awesome sight it would have been had there been more water on the Boulder River such that there would be a waterfall spilling over the now-dry section to have a waterfall falling into another waterfall!
Natural_Bridge_Falls_039_08092017 - If you look closely, you can see one guy scrambling alongside the right side of the Natural Bridge Falls, which gives you an idea of how big this waterfall was
Natural_Bridge_Falls_075_08092017 - Julie and Tahia hiking back up towards the footbridge and then the main part of the Natural Bridge Site
Natural_Bridge_Falls_080_08092017 - Julie and Tahia approaching the footbridge
Natural_Bridge_Falls_083_08092017 - Now that we were on the more developed side of the Boulder River, the first lookout was of the footbridge looking towards some peculiar cliff formation in the distance, which was said to be an example of the uplift of a layer of rock that was once part of an ancient sea floor
Natural_Bridge_Falls_089_08092017 - Tahia continuing to act as a 'tour guide' for us as she led the way to the next developed lookouts
Natural_Bridge_Falls_094_08092017 - At the next official lookouts, there were social trails leading down closer to where the Boulder River would disappear beneath the dry creek bed that Tahia was descending towards
Natural_Bridge_Falls_098_08092017 - Looking right at an upper waterfall just before the Boulder River disappeared beneath our feet
Natural_Bridge_Falls_107_08092017 - Looking further downstream as Tahia was leading us to the next lookouts
Natural_Bridge_Falls_109_08092017 - These were the two most distant lookouts on the developed side of the Boulder River
Natural_Bridge_Falls_119_08092017 - Looking further downstream from the most distant viewpoint, I saw that the Boulder River disappeared yet again
Natural_Bridge_Falls_129_08092017 - Looking back towards the mountains in the distance that were affected by fire but they also revealed some layers that could have signaled a significant shift in the area's geology millions of years ago


Natural Bridge Falls was a bit of a ways southwest of the town of Big Timber. Since we were based in Bozeman, we’ll describe the driving directions from there, even though we recognize that there were many closer towns.

From Bozeman, we’d take the I-90 going east for about 60 miles to the exit 367 for US 191 towards Big Timber and Harlowton. Once we got off the off-ramp, we’d then turn left onto the US191 and veer right to continue on the highway (which was actually a surface road called the I-90 Frontage Rd). Next, we’d follow this road into the town of Big Timber before turning right onto McLeod St (about a mile after getting onto Frontage Rd). Then, we followed the low-speed-limit surface street through town before curving beneath the I-90 then continuing on for the next 25 miles or so as the road became Route 298 and passing through the town of McLeod en route. This drive took us a little over 90 minutes covering about 87 miles.

Finally, for some geographic context, Bozeman was about 44 miles (about an hour drive) north of Big Sky, 89 miles (under 2 hours drive) north of West Yellowstone, 26 miles (30 minutes drive) west of Livingston, 78 miles (under 90 minutes drive) northwest of Gardiner, 98 miles (over 90 minutes drive) southeast of Helena, 203 miles (about 3 hours drive) east of Missoula, and 324 miles (over 5 hours drive) southeast of Whitefish.

Back and forth sweep revealing the falls through a natural tunnel, people swimming in the plunge pool, and people around the base of the falls

Sweep showing the front of the upper drop disappearing into an underground river

Profile view looking down at the waterfall spilling out of Natural Bridge, then walked towards most distant overlook

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Tagged with: big timber, sweet grass county, montana, natural bridge, boulder river, custer gallatin, waterfall

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