Pioneer Falls- Madison Range
Tumbling 40 feet into a narrow gorge, Falls Creek creates the dramatic display that is known as Pioneer Falls. Pioneer Falls is mesmerizing to watch, as gallon upon gallon of pristine water tumbles its way towards the southern fork of Spanish Creek. Standing here, you have to appreciate the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, and the need for wilderness areas in this country. To be humbled by nature’s creation, you only have to hike a few miles from civilization. Many trail guides list this hike as a 7.5 mile hike, but that is not correct- the hike to the falls is only 3 miles, making the total trip length 6 miles.
The drive to the trailhead is pleasant, to say the least. Heading from Bozeman, you will drive along the Gallatin Gateway- a scenic drive that follows the Gallatin River as it flows from Yellowstone National Park. This landscape is as beautiful, with plenty of opportunities to stop and watch the local wildlife, fish, or hunt for interesting rocks. When you finally do reach Spanish Creek Road, you will be driving into the Spanish Peaks section of the Madison Range. Scenic peaks rise from the south, and you might see a buffalo or two on Ted Turner’s ranch, before arriving at the Spanish Creek Campground.
The trailhead is located on the west side of the recreational site, so be careful to make sure you’re at the correct trailhead. Three trails lead away from this trailhead, and only one leads to Pioneer Falls. As soon as you start down the trail, you will cross a sturdy wood bridge, where you immediately turn left. This stretch of the trail is prime moose habitat- I startled a moose just a few yards from the trailhead in late October, so be careful not to surprise any of the many moose that browse this area. Dangers from wildlife aside, this section of the trail is beautiful, with views of the Spanish Creek valley, and of Blaze Mountain, throughout the hike.
After a total of 2 ½ miles of easy hiking, a fork appears on the trail. Turn right here, onto Falls Creek Trail #410, where the trail starts gaining elevation quickly. The USGS maps make this part of the hike seem harder than it really is; the switchbacks along this section of the trail are fairly easy. The trail winds up the hill with generous turns, and a gradual incline. As you hike up these easy switchbacks, you get an even better view of the valley below, and you will soon hear the thundering Pioneer Falls.
The trail leads directly to the middle of the falls, allowing you to climb down to the base of the falls, or climb up to the top. Pioneer Falls is impressive in the spring or fall, making it an excellent early or late season hike. Once you’ve taken in Pioneer Falls, you can either continue up the trail to the many lakes above, or head back down to the trailhead. Regardless of which option you choose on this hike, be sure to leave no trace of your presence behind- the Lee Metcalf Wilderness depends on hikers making every effort to ensure that this pristine environment remains intact.
Directions to the Trailhead
From Four Corners, take Highway 191 South for 19.5 miles. Turn right onto Spanish Creek Road, and continue down Spanish Creek Road for 9 miles, arriving at the trailhead parking lot. Approximately 5 miles down Spanish Creek Road (4 miles from the trailhead), the road will bear left, but it is an obvious turn.