Trail Review: South Cottonwood & Wheeler Gulch Trails, Bozeman, MT

There's a great trailhead hidden just outside of Bozeman, Montana to the South.  It's the South Cottonwood Trailhead, (trail #422), at the end of Cottonwood Canyon Road.  When my family and I were staying in Bozeman earlier this summer this trailhead was just down the road from us and so it became my go to place to run.  What's more convenient than driving about 2 miles down the road and getting right onto a great trail with hills, water crossings, and people enjoying nature walking, hiking, trail running, mountain biking, and horseback riding?  

Two cautions in addition to watching your footfalls as normal for trailrunning: 1) watch out for horse dung; 2) be careful crossing the streams on the makeshift bridges if they are wet.  I came across a lady one day who had slipped, fallen, and possibly dislocated her shoulder and couldn't walk back the last mile due to the pain and nausea.  Her husband and son were with her and eventually they called the local rescue team to come out and get her.


Junction sign on the South Cottonwood Trail and a branch that takes you onwards towards the top of Wheeler Mountain in Bozeman, MT.
The trail starts going up right from the parking lot.  (BTW, the trailhead parking can fill up pretty quickly, especially during the summer and over weekends, but it's okay to just park alongside the road.)  You will switchback a little and then head up some more until the trail starts to level out a bit during the first half mile or so.  Then the trail will be rolling until it starts to go downhill to come out at a creek crossing at about the 1 mile mark.  You can cross the stream on the bridge or run through the water.  Then the trail goes abruptly uphill before starting to roll a bit before coming out as singletrack paralleling the South Cottonwood Stream on the side of a hill and probably 75-100 feet up above the streambed.  This is a nice stretch that makes you feel even higher than you already are at just around 6,000ft. of elevation.

As the trail continues to roll up and down, eventually you will come down to the level of the stream and cross it a couple more times, with the crossings in the first couple of miles having bridges.  Around 2-2.5 miles in, the trail will split with the left trail going onwards to meet up trails that come from Hyalite Canyon.  The South Cottonwood Trail continues straight and then branches again, this time the right trail becoming trail #169, the Wheeler Gulch Trail.  

As the South Cottonwood Trail continues onwards towards Blackmore Mountain, the Wheeler Gulch Trail crosses the stream, (this time with no bridge, but the water is maybe shin deep at worst), and starts to go up and become much less travelled and more foresty...if that's a word!  It felt like it was more wild than the rest of the trail, with green everywhere and on everything.  I went up this trail maybe 1/3-2/3 mile or so at my farthest run.  

I was mostly using these trails as my standard shorter weekly runs/hikes as I prepped for both the Wulfman's CDT 14K and the Bangtail Divide 38K trail races.  I found that as I told people where we were staying that several knew the area, and for some the South Cottonwood Trail was one of their favorite places to run in the Bozeman area.  I thought I had taken more pictures of the trail, but I cannot seem to find them on the computer today.  If I do find more, I will add them and update this post!


A flat stretch along the South Cottonwood Trail.  

These are great trails and I feel like I just got to know the first few miles well before we had to leave. Looking at the map I bought in town by Beartooth Publishing of the "Bozeman Area," there's a lot more hiking/running/exploring I have to do the next time I go back to this beautiful area!