CDT 2021: Day 126, Ramshorn Lake to Big Sky

And after all, we're only ordinary men

Top O' walks across a meadow on the Ramshorn Lake Trail

Sometimes a day on the trail is a make-it-up-as-you-go day, and today was one of those. Before we started hiking, we didn't have expectations of how the day would go. Top O' and I only knew we would be going to Big Sky, and Polecat wasn't walking with us. Somewhere along the way, we would reconnect with him.

The rest of the day was open for whatever best suited the circumstances. And to be sure, those circumstances included showers, laundry, and resupply. Top O' and I hadn't slept in real beds or taken showers in eight days. We hadn't been in a real town in 19 days.

DateMonday, August 16, 2021
WeatherPartly cloudy and smokey, with an afternoon thunderstorm; temperatures from the upper-40s to mid-80s
Trail ConditionsA long and easy descent, followed by a long road walk
Today's Miles14.6
Trip Miles1833.2

Some improvisation was necessary to accomplish these things. Big Sky is a ski resort in the winter and a golf community in the summer. The hotel rooms are priced for wealthy vacationers, not hikers.

Even though I said just two days ago we were now platinum-blazing, there are limits to that for us. A $300 per night hotel room is too pricey, even when the cost is split three ways.

Top O' walks on the Ramshorn Lake Trail

Polecat wasn't hiking with us today because he needed to walk back to the trailhead where he parked his truck yesterday. We left camp together, but Top O' and I headed in the opposite direction.

Though we knew we would meet Polecat later today, there was no way to be sure when or where that would happen. We knew we would eventually be walking on a road and didn't expect it would be difficult for him to find us.

Before we set out, we made a plan for how to signal Polecat so he would know if we had already walked past the next trailhead.

Craggy peaks on Fortress Mountain

Top O' and I started by hiking on the Ramshorn Lake Trail, which extended from the lake across a large, hilly meadow. A craggy ridge stood to our right, which included Fortress Mountain. It was a 9,771-foot-tall neighbor of Ramshorn Peak.

Top O' stops to look at a large glacial erratic boulder

The meadow was filled with grass and wildflowers. When we came upon an unusual rock in the middle of the field, I wished Polecat was there to see it. He has a degree in geology, and I thought he would have been intrigued by the giant boulder.

I guessed it was a glacial erratic and figured he would know for sure it was that or had been expelled in a volcanic eruption. Maybe it was both.

The trail splits at a junction

After walking about a mile, we made a left turn at a junction to stay on the Ramshorn Lake Trail. As sometimes happens, I had to turn one way but wished I could see what was down the other trail. That trail was the Gallatin Divide Trail, which went deeper into Gallatin Petrified Forest.

As petrified forests go, this one was unusual. Most are formed when tree fragments are buried by stream sediment and eventually become fossilized. The trees in Gallatin Petrified Forest turned to stone after being buried by volcanic material.

The volcanic eruptions that created this petrified forest happened about 50 million years ago.

A petrified log

Although our trail was at the outer edge of the petrified forest, we were able to see a couple of petrified logs. One looked like it had been a large, centuries-old tree before it was turned to stone by the volcanic eruption.

A section of the trail is rutted by dirt bikes

The terrain was gently rolling in a mostly-downhill direction. The trail was easy to follow but was sometimes deeply rutted by dirt bikes.

This area, which includes some of the trail we walked yesterday when we approached Ramshorn Lake, is part of Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area. It is one of nine wilderness study areas that were designated by Congress in 1977. The land was protected so that studies could be made before possibly including them in the Wilderness Preservation System.

Some studies monitor and report on the status of nine animals, 19 plants, and three aquatic species that are listed as threatened, endangered, sensitive, or species of concern and known to live in the area. This is an important wintering ground for the northern Yellowstone elk herd.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 mandates the wilderness character in designated areas is preserved. As it stands now, this area would have difficulty meeting that standard. Dirt bikes and snowmobiles are permitted here, and their use is affecting the land. Motorized vehicles are not allowed in a wilderness area, so they would have to be banned if the study area's status was upgraded.

Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area covers more than 150,000 acres. There have been several legal fights over this land. One involved Burlington Northern Railroad, which owned scattered plots of land and wanted to construct a road across federal land to extract lumber. This dispute ended when the Forest Service acquired much of the land from the railroad.

Decades after creating the study areas, Congress has yet to take action to change the designation of the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area, and that is contrary to the intention of the authorization.

The trail cuts through the middle of a long meadow

Top O' and I continued to walk over rolling hills. We turned at another junction to follow the Porcupine Creek Trail, which went in the general direction of the creek.

When we reached a gravel road, we left a message for Polecat. We placed two sticks on the ground in an "x" to let him know we had already been there. This was as we had planned before we started hiking because we didn't want him to wait for us after we had already left.

The sticks were the only way we could think of to tell him that. We didn't want to trust that cell service would be available. We could have sent a message from my Garmin InReach to his, but those messages are sometimes delayed in being sent.

A view of Gallatin River with a smokey sky

After crossing Gallatin River, the road led us to U.S. Highway 191. They were the same river and highway we walked along the day before yesterday. We arrived there at noon.

Top O' walks on a bike path next to a highway

The highway took us in the direction of Big Sky. The road here was busier than when we walked it before, but a bike path alongside made the walk safe and easy.

Polecat caught up to us in his truck a short time later, and we decided to stop walking to look for someplace to eat lunch.

Polecat, Top O', and Gravity drink beer

Big Sky isn't a real town. It's unincorporated and is just a collection of businesses and homes in and around a ski resort and a golf course. It would not exist without tourism and recreation.

The restaurant we found for lunch was Lone Peak Brewery. It was in Big Sky's main shopping center, which also included a grocery store and a post office. While we ate our lunch, we worked out a plan for the rest of the day.

Top O' walks on another bike path

Polecat agreed to hang around while Top O' and I slackpacked the remaining miles to Big Sky we skipped when he drove us to the brewery. We only carried a minimum of items in our packs, while Polecat held onto the rest in his truck. This way, we needed less effort to complete the skipped miles.

This was already the third time we were slackpacking with Polecat's assistance, and I was sure it wouldn't be the last.

When we begin hiking again tomorrow, we will leave the same shopping center and go in the other direction. Once again, we will keep our footsteps connected.

Rain falls while Top O' walks on a bike path

We walked along another bike path to get back to Highway 191. On the way, a big thunderstorm quickly rolled in and dumped heavy rain on us. Thankfully, the rain didn't last more than 15 minutes.

Top O' talks to Stinger, Juice, X-Ray, and Bullet

Soon after it stopped, we met four thru-hikers heading toward Big Sky. They were Stinger, Juice, X-Ray, and Bullet. We ran into Hollywood a short time later.

Top O' has his umbrella open as he walks in the rain

A gas station was at the intersection of the highway, and we met Polecat again there. He agreed to drive us to where he picked us up before lunch so we could walk back to the gas station.

If it seems like we were doing a lot of shuttling back and forth and walking in different directions, that's because we were. We didn't do this just because we could, and we couldn't have done it without Polecat's help. We were trying to take advantage of the elevation changes to always walk downhill instead of up while still keeping our footsteps connected.

Butters and Beer Goddess showed up soon after we arrived back at the gas station. They were running short on time to get to the post office, so Polecat agreed to drive them there.

After that, we drove nearly an hour north to a Super 8 in Belgrade, a town just outside of Bozeman. The motel was more than $100 less expensive than if we had stayed in Big Sky.

We may be platinum-blazing, but there are limits to how much platinum we can afford.

And them
And after all, we're only ordinary men

And you
God only knows it's not what we would choose to do


"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.