Journey to Montana’s Horsetail Falls: What to Expect

Have you ever wondered what it’s truly like to embrace the frozen beauty of Horsetail Falls in Montana during winter or hear and witness its thunderous roar in spring?

As someone who has spent countless hours exploring the nooks and crannies of Montana’s wilderness, I can attest that this stunning natural wonder in the heart of the Gallatin National Forest offers an adventure like no other.

As a seasoned explorer of the great outdoors, I can guide you through the enchanting landscapes surrounding Horsetail Falls. From my own firsthand experiences camping near Emerald Lake to trekking alongside the serene East Fork Hyalite Creek, I’ll provide you with insights and tips to make the most of your journey.

Let’s explore the moderate hike to Horsetail Falls, discovering hidden treasures and essential advice for a safe journey. If camping under Montana’s starry sky interests you, I’ll also provide insights into the amenities at Emerald Lake Campground.

If you’re ready to immerse yourself in the awe-inspiring beauty of Horsetail Falls and its surrounding wilderness, grab a warm beverage, envision yourself traversing the Emerald Lake Trail, and let’s go on this journey together!

7 Key Takeaways on Horsetail Falls

  1. Horsetail Falls offers a stunning experience, from ice climbing in winter to gushing spring flow, making it a must-see for nature enthusiasts.
  2. Accessing the falls requires a 10+ mile hike along the moderately challenging Emerald Lake Trail, with several water crossings. Proper footwear and hydration are vital.
  3. The trail boasts diverse flora, and beautiful lakes, and is suitable for beginners. It is shared by hikers, mountain bikers, and dogs on leashes. Locals highly recommend it.
  4. While camping at Horsetail Falls is impossible, the nearby Emerald Lake Campground offers a comfortable alternative. Limited to 16-day stays, it’s open year-round with key amenities.
  5. Closed-toed hiking shoes, weather-appropriate clothing, water, snacks, sun protection, and a first-aid kit are some essential items to pack.
  6. The nearby campground is well-equipped and provides easy access to fishing on Emerald and West Rosebud Lakes.
  7. Check the local weather forecast and trail conditions before your adventure. Always prioritize safety and preparedness to make the most of your journey to Horsetail Falls and Gallatin National Forest.

About Horsetail Falls

Location CoordinatesElevationNearby FeaturesLocation
47.3366° N, 114.3708° W7, 976 feet (2,431 meters)Emerald LakeGallatin National Forest east of Flanders Mountain and south of Palisade Mountain, Park County, Montana

Located in Park County, Montana, Horsetail Falls promises a stunning waterfall experience that attracts visitors in both spring and winter. If you fancy it, the water freezes solid in winter, offering an exhilarating opportunity for ice climbing.

As the snow melts off nearby mountains, the falls gush with the heaviest flow during spring. Accessing the falls isn’t a mundane drive; you’re in for a 10+ mile one-way hike along the moderately challenging Emerald Lake Trail, boasting gorgeous views and diverse flora. The trail, popular among hikers, mountain bikers, and dirt bikers, even allows dogs on a leash.

The final reward at the end of your challenging hike is Heather Lake, found southeast of Emerald Lake. But remember, the journey includes crossing East Fork Hyalite Creek multiple times and an unnamed stream, so expect some wet surprises.

The falls are not accessible by car, so set your GPS coordinates to Flanders Mountain to start at the FS3163 trailhead. From there, you’ll traverse a trek festooned with lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, and Engelmann spruce trees.

Seasonal Characteristics:

  • Winter – The falls freeze, making them suitable for ice climbing.
  • Spring – Heavy snowmelt ensures the most dramatic flow.

Wrapped in white winter splendor or roaring with springtime energy, Horsetail Falls offers a waterfall experience worthy of any nature enthusiast. And the best part? You get to be up close and personal with the falls, every time

Horsetail Falls Trail Details

A hiker traverses the forested path of the Emerald Lake Trail on her way to Horsetail Falls.

You’re all set to start on an adventure to Horsetail Falls, but the journey to this splendid natural cascade isn’t a walk in the park — literally. To reach the falls, hikers like you will need to leisurely traverse the Emerald Lake Trail.

  • Trail Challenge – The hike is marked moderately challenging and would generally take you about 5.25 hours round trip.
  • What to Expect – This is a wooded trail and is commonly transported by a variety of outdoor lovers, including hikers, backpackers, fishermen, and campers.
  • Emerald Lake and Heather Lake – The trail is an out-and-back route leading to not just Emerald Lake but also Heather Lake, treating you to an extra dose of natural beauty.
  • Along East Fork Hyalite Creek – As you hike, you’ll be blissfully close to nature as the trail runs alongside the soothing East Fork Hyalite Creek.
  • Friendly Paws – Don’t worry if you’re a dog lover; most areas along the trail allow your furry friends on a leash, with specific off-leash zones marked by signage.
  • Who Else You Might See – Get ready to share the trail with hikers, mountain bikers, and even a few dirt bikers.

The trail’s considered a “must-hike” among regulars due to its gradual elevation — so even beginners can join in — and the stunning views of the wildlife and wildflowers that pepper your journey. During your adventurous walk, you will be delighted by the sight of lodgepole pines, subalpine firs, and Engelmann spruces.

Trail Facts 
Trailhead Distance10.5 miles (17 km) in total
Elevation GainPrepare for a moderate climb of 2,165 feet (660 meters)
Route StyleOut-and-back

Don’t forget to stash some snacks in your bag — there are ample spots along the trail to stop, relax, have a picnic, and refuel. If I could turn back time, I’d be setting off right now — this time, on a mountain bike — on the Emerald Lake Trail again, taking in the tranquil murmur of East Fork Hyalite Creek and eagerly anticipating the grand reveal of gorgeous Horsetail Falls.

Camping at Horsetail Falls

A pitched tent and camping gear are set up at the Emerald Lake campground.

Okay, here’s the lowdown, there isn’t any official camping at Horsetail Falls. But no need to get your tent in a twist, because you’ve got an amazing alternative — the Emerald Lake Campground. It’s nestled right between Emerald Lake and West Rosebud Lake, so you’re still in the thick of that raw, Montanan nature.

  • Fishing Access – As a bonus, there’s easy fishing access to both lakes via the West Rosebud drainage right from the campground. So whether you’re an angler or just keen to wet a line, you’re all set.
  • Site Details – At Emerald Lake Campground, you’re looking at 32 sites with bathroom facilities that’ll save you some serious hassle. The maximum trailer length is 30 feet, so make sure your rig fits the bill.
  • Camping Duration and Cost – The campsite has a 16-day cap per visit, at $15 per night. A quick word of advice – this place is hot property, especially in the summer.
  • Peak and Off-Season – While the campground is fully operational and has a buzzing atmosphere from Memorial Day to Labor Day, it doesn’t have any fees or staff on-site in the non-peak seasons (September to the end of May).
  • Off-Season Requirements – You’ll need to bring your water, and toilet paper, and make sure to pack out your trash. Think of it as a Down-to-Earth, self-sufficient experience.

Though you can’t pitch your tent and roast marshmallows right beside the falls, Emerald Lake Campground is a top-notch alternative. With stunning lakes on either side, ample fishing opportunities, and a homey campground vibe, you’re in for a solid Montana outdoor experience.

What to Prepare for Your Visit to Horsetail Falls

Hikers unload their camping gear and supplies as they prepare to hike the Emerald Lake Trail to Horsetail Falls.

Horsetail Falls is cozily nestling within the Gallatin National Forest, Park County. You’ll start your journey from the Emerald Lake Trail — a medium skill-grade hike, just enough to break a tiny sweat. Here’s a quick laundry list of what you need:

  1. Footwear – Closed-toed shoes, your favorite hiking detailed buddies.
  2. Montana Essential Wear – Weather-flexible clothing, hats and shades, sunscreen, and yes, extra layers with ’em pesky mosquitos in mind.
  3. Sun Protection – Ensure a cool pair of sunglasses. Also sunscreen and insect repellent, we care both for your skin and your peace of mind.
  4. Hydration and Sustenance – Energizing and thirst-quenching food and lots of water. In Montana’s unpredictable embrace, it’s always wise to carry more than you think you’ll need.
  5. Emergency Backpack – While we hope you don’t need it, a first-aid kit, flashlight, and blister necessities will let you prepare for surprises without spoiling the enchantment of the journey.

Knowing these goodies ensures that your venture is not just adventurous, but safe. Now gas up your car, and let’s get hiking!

Horsetail Falls Final Thoughts

An aerial view captures Horsetail Falls, its waters cascading into a plunging pool surrounded by verdant cliffs and lush greenery.

Exploring Horsetail Falls is an adventure that unveils unique experiences throughout the seasons. In spring, the falls offer a spectacle of heavy flows, fueled by the snowmelt, while winter transforms the landscape into a frozen wonderland, inviting climbers to conquer its icy facade.

Navigating the Emerald Lake Trail rewards hikers with moderate challenges and breathtaking vistas. Along the trail, encounters with East Fork Hyalite Creek and Heather Lake add to the allure of the journey, providing moments of serenity amid nature’s grandeur.

It’s no wonder that the trail is a favorite among outdoor enthusiasts, drawing them with its diverse flora and fauna, and the promise of unforgettable wilderness encounters.

For those seeking overnight adventures, the nearby Emerald Lake Campground provides convenient accommodations amid the pristine wilderness. With amenities and access to fishing spots along West Rosebud drainage, it serves as a perfect base for exploring the area’s natural wonders.

However, amid the allure of Horsetail Falls and the surrounding trails, it’s crucial to equip oneself with proper attire, supplies, and safety precautions. Adequate preparation ensures a safe and enjoyable experience amid the splendor of the Gallatin National Forest.

Horsetail Falls FAQs

1. What Is the Tallest Waterfall in Montana?

Woodbine Falls, located close to Nye within the rugged Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, stands as Montana’s tallest waterfall, reaching an impressive height of 280 feet.

2. Is the Horsetail Fall Accessible by Car?

No, Horsetail Falls is not accessible by car. Visitors must hike to the falls, starting from the trailhead with parking at FS3163.

3. Why is It Called Horsetail Falls?

Horsetail Falls likely derives its name from the resemblance of the waterfall’s cascading water to the long, slender tail of a horse, known as a “horsetail.” This naming convention is common for waterfalls with vertical or elongated features reminiscent of certain natural or man-made objects.

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Written by:

Ashley Smith
Hello there! I'm Ashley Smith, born on a chilly winter's day, Montana has been my playground since childhood. The first snowfall of the year always brings back memories of building snowmen and winter hikes. Co-founding was my way of sharing the magic of Montana's seasons with the world. While Chris dives deep into the landscapes, I'm obsessed with Montana's rich culture, from the local festivals to the tales passed down generations.

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