West Boulder Meadows offers a relatively easy yet enjoyable hiking experience through the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area south of Big Timber, Montana. The trail follows the West Boulder River past meadows filled with wildflowers in the spring and through dense stands of forest, much of which burned in the Jungle Fire during the summer of 2006. Although many people try to avoid burnt areas, hiking the West Boulder Trail provides a wonderful opportunity to see how rapidly life recovers and flourishes following a wildfire. To take advantage of the spring flower display, visit West Boulder Meadows in April or May. Snowpack often prevents access to the trailhead during winter and early spring.
To reach the trailhead, take one of the two Big Timber exits off Interstate 90 and turn south on US Highway 298. Drive about 16 miles south of Big Timber and, just after passing McLeod, turn right on West Boulder Road. Follow this bumpy, gravel road through private land and open cattle range for about 14 miles following the national forest access signs to the West Boulder Campground. The trail parking area is located just past the campground.
Cross over the cattle guard and walk a short distance down the road looking for the obvious trail marking and gate to your left. Be sure to stay to the left as the road leads to private land and you will be trespassing by continuing along it. Pass through the gate onto Gallatin National Forest Trail 41. The first mile of this well-maintained trail leads through dense forest along the eastern side of the West Boulder River. About a half mile up the trail, you enter a severely burnt section of the forest. For those who have never seen the effects of a forest fire, the blackened trees and stumps leave a dramatic impression. A sturdy bridge carries hikers over the river about a mile into the trip. From here, the trail climbs a few switchbacks and continues up the West Boulder valley through meadows along the sloping hillside. Although it remains evident that wildfire burnt through this area, the meadows have recovered rapidly and wildflowers flourish during spring. The trail soon drops down to West Boulder Meadows, a large, open meadow along a wide, slow moving section of the river approximately three miles from the trailhead. Rainbow, cutthroat, and brown trout attract anglers to the West Boulder River. Enjoy viewing wildlife including Sandhill Cranes, geese, ducks, mule deer, and, if you’re lucky, moose. After relaxing along the riverbank, follow the same route back.
For a longer day hike, continue past West Boulder Meadows for five additional miles to the junction with Falls Creek Trail 18. Backpackers could even hike up to Mill Creek Pass and beyond to a vast network of forest service trails. The possibilities seem endless considering that the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness contains more than 700 hundred miles of hiking trails!