Looking for some free camping near Big Sky, Montana and the west entrance of Yellowstone National Park? Have I got the spot for you!
For those of you who aren’t familiar with dispersed camping, the US Forest Service defines it as, “camping anywhere in the National Forest OUTSIDE of a designated campground.” Because you aren’t in a campground, there are no services – for the most part, you’ll be camping without water and without a toilet. The Leave No Trace principles are EXTREMELY important while dispersed camping – no one is going to clean up after you when you leave! ALWAYS pack out your trash, camp in established campsites, and bury your waste at least 6 inches down!
Each national forest has their own rules for dispersed camping, but they tend to be pretty lax. I believe this spot was in the Custer Gallatin National Forest (please let me know if I’m wrong!), but the rules were all the same in the surrounding national forests. We quickly checked the national forest website to make sure that we knew the regulations regarding dispersed camping in this area (always check and see if there is anything special you should be aware of!). Like many national forests, the rules on dispersed camping were pretty lax – you can stay in your campsite for 16 days, but then must move at least 5 miles down the road, and you cannot come back to your original campsite for 7 days. If you wanted to have a fire, you had to use an existing fire ring, and you had to store your food properly from bears.
Now… on to the actual site! We found this spot at 5:30 p.m. on a summer Saturday night. We had just driven all the way down from Glacier National Park, and we were exhausted. A quick Google search had told me that there were “plenty” of campgrounds along the Gallatin River near Big Sky, but on account of it being a Saturday night in the summer, they were all completely full.
We started feeling pretty desperate, but felt like there was no other option but to continue on to Yellowstone. We kept passing trailheads with the “National Forest” logo on it, and dispersed camping was in the back of my mind, but I was having trouble with my service going in and out to do any proper research. About 4(ish?) miles south of Big Sky, we saw about 4 RVs on the side of the road, tucked away behind some trees and bushes. We flipped a quick U, and sure enough, they were all parked at the Sage Creek trailhead! (Kicking myself for not getting a picture of the trailhead sign…).
We turned onto the road to the trailhead and had to drive about a quarter of a mile down a dirt road before we actually reached the trailhead. There were 4 RVs and one tent already camped out. We quickly asked the lone tent camper if she knew the rules of the area, and she said it was fine to camp there. She had done so last night and had really enjoyed it!
The area was SUPER nice, and the trailhead even had a toilet! We were actually pretty spoiled for “dispersed” camping. Lots of established campsites, and lots of room to spread out. Be sure to check out the information board near the actual trail. If there are any notices for the area, they will be posted here! For my horse-loving readers out there, there were public horse stables, and when we left on Sunday morning, a horse trailer with three horses was pulling up! Perfect spot for a Sunday morning ride.
This was grizzly country, but we never felt unsafe. Coming from Southern California, we have ZERO experience with grizzlies, so the posted grizzly sign (below) made us a little nervous. Just be sure to educate yourself in grizzly safety before you arrive! Know the difference between grizzlies and black bears, the differences in encountering each of them, and storing your food safely. We did not have bear spray when we camped, but bought some the next day. We both agreed afterwards that we would have felt safer had we had the bear spray while camping.
The surrounding area was absolutely BEAUTIFUL. Plentiful forests and gorgeous rock formations! The trailhead was pretty close to the road, but it wasn’t a problem at all. Still felt very quiet and secluded.
Near our specific site, there was already a fire ring and a TON of free wood/kindling near the ring (Montana, I love you). We ended up having a fire that night, enjoyed getting to know our campmate over a few (hah) beers, and welcomed two more campers (AND THEIR PUPPY) from Bozeman! It was an awesome night! We both agreed that it was probably our favorite night camping during the entire trip!
One last thing – if you are going to camp here, please please PLEASE adhere to the Leave No Trace principles! Leave it better than you found it to ensure that we can all enjoy our public lands in the future.
The seven Leave No Trace principles, courtesy of a quick google search and Earth River SUP!
If you have any questions about camping at the Sage Creek trailhead, please comment here or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org! More than happy to help!