About Natural Bridge Falls
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 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.
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