With more than three million acres spanning over 400 miles, the Custer-Gallatin National Forest includes many different ecosystems. You can find a huge stretch of Yellowstone acreage, the high country of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, and the vast and rugged Gallatin Crest, to name a few. Each with their own diverse landscape and beauty, these combined forests make up one of the largest intact ecologically diverse landscapes in the country. While Custer and Gallatin are two distinct areas, they are managed together as Custer-Gallatin National Forest.
Established in 1899, the Gallatin National Forest has four ranger districts, which include Yellowstone, Hebgen Lake, Gardiner, and Bozeman. Besides many fun activities here such as boating, fishing, swimming, hiking, and RV camping, you will also find several federally threatened species here. These include the Canada lynx, bald eagle, gray wolf, and the grizzly bear. You can have fun in the winter here with hundreds of miles of cross-country skiing trails, as well as ice fishing and snowmobiling. There are six separate mountain ranges in the forest, which include the Beartooth, Bridger, Madison, and Gallatin.
The Custer Forest includes the 12,799-foot Granite Peak, which is the tallest mountain in Montana and Grasshopper Glacier, which is a national wonder that holds millions of grasshoppers frozen in the ice. There are three ranger districts in Custer including Ashland, Sioux, and Beartooth. If you are looking for a scenic drive, the Beartooth Highway in Custer will take you from Red Lodge to Yellowstone Park in the Gallatin National Forest. For RV camping at its most rugged, you can choose from 12 different campgrounds. We chose our top three favorites and highlighted them below.
Just a short drive from Billings and five hours from Missoula, the Custer-Gallatin National Forest is an easy and gorgeous drive away from just about anywhere in the northwestern section of the United States. Coming from the north, east, or west, you can take Interstate 90 or 15 and Highway 212 from the south. The forest spills over into northwestern Wyoming, but the majority is in Montana.
The scenic Beartooth Highway is one of the most stunningly diverse and beautiful drives in the United States and connects the Yellowstone Park to the quaint mountain town of Red Lodge, Montana. With 68 miles of winding road, you can see buffalo, elk, and deer as well as eagles, foxes, and raccoons throughout the forest. During the winter, the road is closed to cars but is open to snowmobiles, which gives you another fantastic way to explore the forest.
As you get deeper into the woods, you will start noticing that the streets are narrower and curvier and can be dangerous for those driving a large campervan or pulling a trailer. There is not much room for error on these roads, so it is important to drive carefully no matter what you are driving. Once you get to the campground, it is best to park your rig and walk or ride a bike to wherever you want to go, if possible.
In the heavily wooded area of the forest, Rainbow Point Campground has 84 reservable campsites in four loops that can accommodate up to a 42-foot RV or camper. Although most sites are primitive, 26 have electric hookups. All sites have picnic tables and a fire ring with a grill. The campground provides vault toilets and 16 drinking water spigots throughout the park. In addition, there are ADA-accessible toilets in loops A and D.
Situated along the Grayling Arm of 13,000-acre Hebgen Lake, there is plenty of room to swim and enjoy other water sports like boating and waterskiing. There is a boat ramp where you can launch your boat in the lake, which is loaded with trout and Utah chubs. A food storage order is in effect from March until December and bear proof food storage boxes are available at each loop. Be sure to reserve your spot online in advance because they fill up fast, especially on weekends and holidays. Pets are welcome as long as they are restrained and supervised during your stay.
Right next to the Stillwater River at the bottom of Beartooth Mountain Range, Woodbine Campground in Nye, Montana has 44 reservable campsites. Ten of these are for tents only, while the rest have space for an RV or camper up to 33 feet long. Each campsite has its own picnic table and a fire pit with a grill for cooking. The campground offers drinking water and several vault toilets as well as a bear proof food storage locker at every loop. A food storage order is in effect from March until December.
There are several trails here including five for equestrian use as well as hiking. There is a corral and hitching rail at the trailhead. If you like to fish, the river is full of cutthroat, brown, and rainbow trout as well as other types of fish like bass and crappie. The Custer-Gallatin National Forest is known for its scenic valleys and mountain ranges as well as a wide variety of wild critters including elk, bear, and deer. Reserve your spot online way in advance because it fills up fast. Pets are welcome as long as they are supervised and restrained at all times during your visit.
Baker’s Hole Campground has 72 campsites in West Yellowstone. Thirty-three sites are electric and the rest are primitive. Most campsites are located along the Madison River and many have a nice view of the river. Each campsite has its own campfire ring with a grill for cooking, a picnic table. The maximum RV or trailer length is 40 feet. Since this is bear country, a food storage order is in effect from March until December, and bear-proof storage boxes are available at every loop. The campground also offers vault toilets and 12 drinking water spigots throughout the park.
The fishing here is unique with rainbow trout, German brown trout, and Utah chubs filling the river. The park also offers an ADA-accessible fishing platform, hiking trails through the woods, and if that is not enough, Yellowstone Park is only three miles away. These sites are not reservable, so you need to get here early, especially if you are planning to come on a holiday or weekend. Dogs and cats are allowed as long as they are supervised and restrained at all times during your stay.
Pack up your family and friends in the RV and head to the Custer-Gallatin National Forest for a picnic. There are so many picnic areas in the forest that you could go to a different one every day for a month and not visit them all. Each pavilion has picnic tables, BBQ grills, and many of them have electricity and water. Some of them are on the water and there is usually a restroom and playground nearby. If you don’t need a large pavilion, there are hundreds of individual picnic areas all throughout the forest with picnic tables and BBQ pits.
The Custer-Gallatin National Forest has thousands of miles of rivers and streams with tons of hungry fish so pack your fishing poles in the camper before coming. There are also hundreds of reservoirs and lakes where you can find three different species of trout, as well as Utah chubs, crappie, and bass. Whether you are fishing the lakes or rivers, both topwater and bottom fishing are recommended with artificial lures, jigs, and live bait. And don’t forget your fishing license.
Grab your climbing gear and put it in the RV. With all of the mountain ranges in the Custer-Gallatin National Forest, how can you resist doing some climbing? Not only can you enjoy climbing the boulders and rock faces, but you can also do some ice climbing on frozen waterfalls south of Bozeman in Hyalite Canyon. You can also hike to the bottom of Frog Rock from the 1.2-mile Chestnut Trail in Bozeman, Montana. Beartooth Mountain is a favorite climbing spot with crags of granite and metamorphic rocks.
The Custer-Gallatin National Forest has more than 125 named trails from the half-mile Island Lake Trail to the 26-mile Mile Creek-Continental Divide Trail. Woodbine Campground has six trails including Woodbine Falls, which is almost one mile long with a waterfall and five equestrian trails. The Beartooth Ranger District has more than 60 trails ranging from less than a mile to the 26-mile Stillwater Trail. The Crazy Mountains has over a dozen trails with points of interest such as Moose Lake and Crazy Peak.
Woodbine Campground has the Stillwater Trail, which provides access to the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and is open to horseback riding as well as hiking. After three miles, you will reach Sioux Charley Lake and you can continue on another 20 or more miles into the wilderness. You can also enjoy the 11-mile West Fork Trail, 16-mile Horseshoe Trail, and the 26-mile Lake Abundance Road. Whether you want to enjoy a leisurely stroll through the mountains or spend the night on the trail, you can find trails from less than a mile to 26 miles long.
Be sure to pack the skis in the camper before heading to Custer-Gallatin National Forest because there is plenty of fresh powder almost all the time in the higher elevations. The two-mile Lower Lake Fork Trail in the Ashland Ranger District meanders along the mountain waters for a gorgeous short and easy trek. The Lower Fairy Lake Trailhead off Bridger Canyon Road gives you access to several different trails. The Silver Run Trail has three loops at 2.4 miles, 4.5 miles, and 5.1 miles with an elevation of 6,900 feet.