Ousel Falls

Big Sky / Gallatin Gateway, Montana, USA

About Ousel Falls


Hiking Distance: 1.6 miles round trip
Suggested Time: 60-75 minutes

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

Waterfall Latitude: 45.23993
Waterfall Longitude: -111.34002

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Ousel Falls was a pretty popular yet surprisingly naturesque waterfalling excursion within walking distance from the suburban community of Big Sky.

For that reason, I’d bet the falls was the most popular hike in Big Sky.

Ousel_Falls_050_08082017 - Ousel Falls
Ousel Falls

The big payoff was a reportedly 100ft tall waterfall (I suspect it was more like 50ft tall), but in higher flows, I could easily envision the falls being wider than it was tall.

Experiencing Ousel Falls

The trail allowed me to experience Ousel Falls in a variety of ways.

Indeed, I saw it from an overlook, I stood right in front of its base (where I saw a few more cascades further downstream), and I also climbed to the waterfall’s brink.

With picnic tables nearby and lots of effort put into the trail maintenance, it was clear to me that this place was set up to make it easy to access for people of all ages.

Ousel_Falls_037_08082017 - Intermediate cascades and cliffs hinting at the geology responsible for the formation of Ousel Falls
Intermediate cascades and cliffs hinting at the geology responsible for the formation of Ousel Falls

In addition to the falls, the trail meandered through a forested area with a few intermediate cascades as well as some intriguing cliffs hinting that the geologic forces that gave rise to the canyon.

The waterfall was named after the ouzel bird or water ouzel (also known as the American dipper), which were small birds resident throughout the Western, Northern, and Central Americas from Panama to Alaska.

These birds would hunt for water insects and small fish by doing dives into the water.

Although I managed to do this hike from the spacious parking lot at the Yellow Mule Trailhead, the well-maintained trails actually stretched back as far as the Big Sky community itself.

Ousel_Falls_016_08082017 - The well-developed Ousel Falls Park Trail, which was suitable for hikers, people in wheelchair, and people wishing to ride a bike
The well-developed Ousel Falls Park Trail, which was suitable for hikers, people in wheelchair, and people wishing to ride a bike

The trail pretty much meandered along the canyon carved out by the South Fork of the West Fork of the Gallatin River.

The shorter trail that I did was a mere 1.6 miles round trip.

That said, if I wanted to, I could have extended the hike another 4 miles round trip (5.6 miles round trip total) by doing the hike from Big Sky and ditching the car if I happened to be visiting or staying there.

The trail also continued further into the Custer Gallatin National Forest, where more trails and naturesque experiences could be had to escape civilization.

Ousel_Falls_093_08082017 - Context of Ousel Falls and a couple of other people also enjoying the waterfall near its base
Context of Ousel Falls and a couple of other people also enjoying the waterfall near its base

Nevertheless, grizzly bears had been spotted in the canyon despite its proximity to Big Sky so it would be wise to carry bear spray in the event of a close encounter that resulted in a bear attack.

Ousel Falls Trail Description – from Yellow Mule Trailhead to the falls

From the Ousel Falls Park and Yellow Mule Trailhead (see directions below), I followed a pretty obvious path that skirted along the rim of the canyon right behind the restrooms.

The trail from Big Sky continued from my left as I faced the canyon so I went right to continue west in the upstream direction towards the waterfall.

The well-used and well-maintained trail (which seemed suitable for runners, folks on bicycle, horseback riders, in addition to hikers) gently descended lower along the canyon rim.

Ousel_Falls_030_08082017 - The well-signed and gentle Ousel Falls Park Trail making the hike to the waterfall every bit as pleasurable as the waterfall itself
The well-signed and gentle Ousel Falls Park Trail making the hike to the waterfall every bit as pleasurable as the waterfall itself

Eventually, it reached a couple of switchbacks descending to a sturdy footbridge across the South Fork of the West Fork of the Gallatin River at the 0.3-mile point.

The bridge was full of little plaques containing the names of people who apparently donated to the project that gave rise to the trail I was on.

On the other side of the bridge, the trail climbed up past a junction with the Ralph’s Pass Trail as well as the more primitive Yellow Mule Trail before reaching the next plateau.

Along the way, the trail narrowed a little more as it descended to the next pair of footbridges over the river in the next quarter-mile.

Ousel_Falls_039_08082017 - One of the footbridges spanning the South Fork of the West Fork of the Gallatin River en route to the Ousel Falls
One of the footbridges spanning the South Fork of the West Fork of the Gallatin River en route to the Ousel Falls

Down at the footbridges, there was an intermediate waterfall as well as a close-up look at the cliffs that hinted at the hard layers of rock that must have given rise to the Ousel Falls.

Beyond the footbridges, the trail climbed up to the main waterfall area where there was an overlook right across from the waterfall.

A short stepped spur trail led me down to a few picnic tables as well as the base of the waterfall.

Also nearby, there was a more primitive trail skirting by the brink of the falls.

Ousel_Falls_106_08082017 - Looking down across the brink of the Ousel Falls
Looking down across the brink of the Ousel Falls

More trails continued further upstream beyond the Ousel Falls to go deeper into the Custer Gallatin National Forest.

In any case, the waterfall was my turnaround point, and I wound up spending a leisurely 90 minutes away from the car to really soak it all in.

That said, I could easily imagine this up-and-down trail could also take less time if one were in more of a hurry.

Authorities

Ousel Falls resides in Ousel Falls Park near Big Sky in Gallatin County, Montana. It is administered by the Big Sky Community Organization. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website.

Ousel_Falls_007_08082017 - Getting started on the nearest trailhead (i.e. the Yellow Mule Trailhead) to reach Ousel Falls
Ousel_Falls_012_08082017 - The well-maintained and wide Ousel Falls Trail initially skirted along the canyon rim
Ousel_Falls_014_08082017 - The Ousel Falls Trail skirting around this overlook as it continued to descend into the canyon
Ousel_Falls_021_08082017 - Looking downstream from the first bridge I encountered over the South Fork of the West Fork of the Gallatin River on the Ousel Falls Trail
Ousel_Falls_127_08082017 - The footbridge contained a lot of plaques from donors who have helped to fund the Big Sky Community Organization for the trail maintenance giving rise to the gentle conditions that I've seen along the Ousel Falls hike
Ousel_Falls_024_08082017 - Beyond the footbridge with the BSCO plaques, the Ousel Falls Trail climbed past this junction with the Ralphs Pass Trail
Ousel_Falls_026_08082017 - When the Ousel Falls Trail flattened out after the climb, I was able to look down at the lower Yellow Mule Trail, which was still under construction during my visit in August 2017
Ousel_Falls_027_08082017 - Continuing along the gentle Ousel Falls Trail between the first and second bridge crossings over the South Fork of the West Fork of the Gallatin River
Ousel_Falls_031_08082017 - Descending down the next set of minor switchbacks to the next crossing over the South Fork of the West Fork of the Gallatin River via a pair of footbridges
Ousel_Falls_122_08082017 - Looking downstream from the second crossing of the South Fork of the West Fork of the Gallatin River, where these interesting cliffs were revealed
Ousel_Falls_055_08082017 - My first look from the overlook of Ousel Falls
Ousel_Falls_059_08082017 - A trail descending from the Ousel Falls Overlook towards a picnic area close by the base of the waterfall
Ousel_Falls_060_08082017 - Descending some steps towards a set of picnic tables as well as the base of Ousel Falls
Ousel_Falls_063_08082017 - Looking downstream from the Ousel Falls after having made it down to its base
Ousel_Falls_071_08082017 - Looking right at Ousel Falls from its base
Ousel_Falls_073_08082017 - Another look at the main drop of Ousel Falls as seen from its base
Ousel_Falls_083_08082017 - Further downstream, I got this look up past some small cascades up towards the base of Ousel Falls
Ousel_Falls_112_08082017 - Looking down over the brink of Ousel Falls
Ousel_Falls_120_08082017 - I had briefly pursued one of the false trails that led to this obstructed view of Ousel Falls from a little further downstream during my return hike
Ousel_Falls_126_08082017 - About to return to the first footbridge, where I saw those BSCO plaques on it
Ousel_Falls_128_08082017 - While making my way back to the Yellow Mule Trailhead, I couldn't help but notice how much work went into the maintenance and accessibility of the Ousel Falls Trail
Ousel_Falls_130_08082017 - I noticed these berries along the Ousel Falls Trail, which was probably a reason why grizzly bears could be foraging the area looking to fatten up for the Winter
Ousel_Falls_133_08082017 - Finally making it back to the Yellow Mule Trailhead and the end of my Ousel Falls hike

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Although Ousel Falls was practically within the community of Big Sky, we were based in Bozeman.

So we’ll describe the driving route from there as well as the driving route from West Yellowstone.

From Bozeman, the most straightforward route would be to head west on Main Street, which would become Hwy 191 as the route left the main part of town and approached the Four Corners suburb in about 6 miles.

Ousel_Falls_003_08082017 - Context of some trail signage for Ousel Falls right from the Yellow Mule Trailhead
Context of some trail signage for Ousel Falls right from the Yellow Mule Trailhead

Alternately, it was also possible to take East Center Valley Rd or the I-90 west to the Route 85 before heading south towards the US191 at Four Corners.

Anyways, at the intersection with Gallatin Rd (where the 85, 84, and 191 met), I headed south to continue on Hwy 191 and followed this surprisingly high-speed surface road for 34 miles.

Eventually, I turned right onto Lone Mountain Trail (Route 64) in the Big Sky Community.

In about 3 miles, I then turned left onto Ousel Falls Road, where I then drove the remaining 1.8 miles to the Ousel Falls Yellow Mule Trailhead Parking Lot on the left.

Ousel_Falls_008_08082017 - Looking back at the parking lot for the Yellow Mule Trailhead, which was where I began my hike to Ousel Falls
Looking back at the parking lot for the Yellow Mule Trailhead, which was where I began my hike to Ousel Falls

Overall, this drive took me about about an hour.

Coming from West Yellowstone, I’d drive north on the US191 for about 47 miles to the community of Big Sky.

Then, I’d turn left onto Lone Mountain Trail (Route 64) and follow the driving directions as above to the Ousel Falls Park.

This drive would also take about an hour.

Lastly, 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.

Long video starting with the overlook of Ousel Falls then hiking all the way down to its base.

Trip Planning Resources


Tagged with: gallatin, big sky, montana, gallatin county, gallatin gateway, bozeman, west yellowstone, waterfall



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Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
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