Well, it is that time of year. Not really winter, not really spring. Ice on the trails, lots of brown popping through the dirty-looking snow that’s left. The evergreens are not their beautiful greens, more like a yellow-green and pale. So to make up for this “it’s so much better any other time of year” feeling, we are going to Ousel Falls outside the town of Big Sky, Montana. A short walk down and up, switchbacks across, through a canyon, and then rewarded with a beautiful waterfall. With all this ice, though, be sure to put on your ice cleats. It is mostly overcast today, but the sun is peeking through a bit and it is supposed to reach 52°. That’s warm without wind, but we’ll see if the predicted wind changes things. Have those cleats on? Let’s go!
Here’s the first switchback taking us down to the creek. The trail takes long, sweeping switches back and forth to make going down steep hills easier.
The bridge over the South Fork of the West Fork of the Gallatin River. Are you making a funny face with that name? Everyone does first time they hear it. Why don’t they just call it something like Ousel Creek. Well, hold on to your hat, there is also a North Fork West Fork and a Middle Fork West Fork. They all run into the Gallatin River about 10 miles east. We then have the East Fork of the Gallatin River in Bozeman flowing west to join the Gallatin River. The Gallatin then becomes the third river at the headwaters (beginning) of the Missouri River, about a half hour drive west of Bozeman.
See? I’m not making this stuff up!
We are looking north, the direction the creek is flowing. It was a little strange to see creeks, streams, and rivers flowing from south to north being an East Coast girl, but it is all about the Continental Divide. Remember that from high school science? Where I live now the Continental Divide curves back and forth so we have waterways that run north to south and others south to north. From my home in this part of the world, the water that comes off our mountains heads both west and east, supplying water for more than half the country. I hope you’ll help protect our land and water from pollution and toxins (big oil, fracking, mining) because your water depends on it.
Looking on the other side of the bridge to the south. So relaxing to sit a minute and listen to the water racing over and around the rocks.
The trail now takes us uphill to walk a while in the forest. We hear Mountain Chickadees and White-breasted Nuthatches singing, but they live here all year so are not a sign of spring, but sweet nonetheless.
Here we go, into the woods. We are walking among Engelmann spruce, Douglas fir, perhaps a few Lodgepole pines all reaching to the sun.
We are starting down to the floor of the canyon. Why is there a bridge up ahead?
A small creek, but not sure it has a name. It must be rather warm water to promote the growth of the mosses.
We are getting a peek at the walls of the canyon through the trees. It always amazes me how the ice seems to cling to the top edges of the rock and sand. But what is it holding onto to support the weight of the ice? It almost looks like fingers holding on.
In the canyon floor, we walk on top of the creek on ice and snow a few feet deep. Always fun to walk on top of creeks and rivers in the winter. Whole different perspective than walking on the shoreline. This area is known as the South Fork Cascade with racing water and shallow waterfalls.
Looking north, there’s our friend getting a picture of us. The ice is amazing, but so are the walls of the canyon. Ancient rock crumbling down the walls. This is basically sedimentary rock, rock formed over millions of years by layers of mud, sand, and pebbles being compressed–becoming rock. I’m not a very good geologist, but we see here both limestone and sandstone among types of mudstone usually called argillite. The gold-colored rock we see along the way is argillite.
This is one of the prettiest small falls along the South Fork Cascades.
It is so interesting to see the water carving away the ice and snow this time of year. Unique ice sculptures are created all along the creek.
Our last footbridge as we head through the canyon to the falls.
Looking off the bridge from where we just came you can see the layers of rock creating the canyon’s wall.
Looking in the direction of the falls.
At the beginning of the steep climb to the falls we see trees growing out of the sheer walls carved by the creek. It always amazes me how trees are able to get a foothold within the rock and survive many years. They may not grow as tall as their relations on higher ground, but they survive.
One more switchback and we’ll be there. Wolf lichen (Letharia vulpina) is becoming more colorful as the days warm and lengthen. This lichen is somewhat toxic to mammals thanks to the yellow pigment vulpinic acid. It is how it got its name. Historically it was used to poison wolves and foxes. Native people, however, use the pigment as a source for dyes and paint.
We made it! A steep, icy climb down to Ousel Falls–beautiful. So why the name Ousel Falls? It is named after the Ousel, or American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus), a small bird that lives near swift-flowing streams and creeks. The dipper is North America’s only aquatic songbird. It literally jumps in the water, walks on the bottom and swims place to place to hunt for its food which consists of aquatic insects and their larvae. They live here year round and build their nests in the rocks behind the waterfall. They sometimes select dirt banks or areas under bridges for their nests, but they are always close to fast-moving water. Unfortunately there don’t seem to be any dippers here today.
At the base of the falls we walk on a large rock now covered with snow and ice. When the mountain snow melt begins next month, the water will be racing so fast and so deep through this canyon area that it will be impossible to walk down to this point. We’ll have to come back and see that intense water fury.
Looking the other direction, from which we came, you can tell there is another short waterfall right beyond that snow bridge across the creek. We won’t try to get that picture today.
The fella on the right is braver than me, but he didn’t get any closer to the edge than that. This waterfall is about 40 feet high. In the dead of winter it is completely iced over and used to practice ice climbing. Would be fun to come and watch next year.
I just can’t take my eyes off the icicles on the right and the amazing ice “sculptures” being carved by the rushing water.
Just beautiful, but not for much longer! Spring is fast approaching.
It is time to head back. Here’s a look at the trail heading back along the South Fork Cascades. It got quite warm out and I’m over dressed but the wind is supposed to pick up and that can change everything.
The wind did pick up–and it is bordering on hot! That was unexpected. Spring may be sooner than we think. What a lovely walk in the woods, through canyon beauty, and seeing ice sculptures along a waterfall. Could you ask for more in only 1.6 miles round trip? There’s the first bridge we crossed to the right.
We have those last switchbacks and a climb to the car, but let’s just enjoy a bit longer the sound of creek water heading home. We must come back in different seasons–maybe even have a picnic one of these times.
Until next time . . . remember . . . Not all who wander are lost