Ecological Travel: Hikes and Hot Springs in Central Montana

April 07, 2009
by Sarah Amandolare
In Montana, the range of exquisite natural features is reason enough to plan a visit. This week, we'll focus on quiet hiking trails around Crystal Lake in the Lewis and Clark National Forest, and reveal two undeveloped hot springs outside of Bozeman to take the chill out of the early springtime air.

Where Quiet Trumps All

Situated in Central Montana's Lewis and Clark National Forest, the Big Snowy Mountains are far off the beaten path and slightly less spectacular than famed Glacier National Park, which means the hiking trails "don't see much traffic," according to SummitPost. The author reports having hiked 20 miles in the range's Eastern section without ever seeing another person. During the week, visitors to the Western side of the range are few, and the lower altitude supports an intriguing array of flora.
The place to be in the Big Snowy Mountains is the Crystal Lake National Recreational Trail, which makes an approximately 12-mile loop around the lake, beginning and ending at the main campground. The first few miles are the toughest, according to, and feature a 2,000-foot uphill climb. But once you've reached the summit, the trail floats easily "along the mountain tops." Just remember not to miss out on the ice cave, reachable via a brief hike down the side of the mountain. For beginning hikers, there's also an easier trail that measures just short of two miles long "and has very little elevation change" as it passes through forests and open terrain.

Learn more about the ecology and geography of Crystal Lake, which is quite shallow year-round and lined with porous limestone, at The site also offers simple driving directions from Lewistown, Mont.

You can also mountain bike around Crystal Lake, explains Destination Lewistown, a Web site maintained by the proprietor of High Plains Bike and Ski, a store that sells and repairs outdoor equipment and stocks maps of the area. Visit the Bike Central Montana page for information on single-track bike trails that allow for easy touring around Crystal Lake. Also read about the Grand View loop, a more advanced bike trail that leads cyclists to the 7,000-foot Grand View cliffs vista.

Montana's Secret Hot Springs

In Central Montana, there are a few undeveloped natural hot springs, meaning they have not been surrounded by a spa or hotel or visited by hoards of tourists (yet). The blog Oronaut, written by a Bozeman resident and avid adventure traveler, highlights Renova Hot Springs and Potosi Hot Springs.

For road-trippers heading from Montana to Portland, Ore., Renova Hot Springs makes a nice stopping point. Recharge in this "little stone pool" that sits just off of a road that runs along the Jefferson River, according to Oronaut. Although not overly secluded or particularly scenic, the hot spring is quiet and not as highly trafficked as the more commercialized spas that freckle the state.

Near Pony, Mont., visit Potosi, which offers a single "decently large and very clean and inviting" hot spring. Potosi is also a nice medium temperature, which is perhaps more suitable for warm spring days, and is located about two hours from Bozeman in the Tobacco Root Mountains.

Volunteering in Lewis and Clark National Forest

There are many volunteering opportunities with the U.S. Forest Service in the Lewis and Clark National Forest. Whether you're a retiree with an interest in forestry or a college student wanting field experience, or you're simply looking for a career change, there are a variety of positions available. You may even be given the opportunity to work with professional archaeologists and historians. Learn more by visiting the U.S. Forest Service Web site.

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