PASSAGE FALLS: A pleasant day hike full of fireweed and furry critters

By Hunter D'Antuono
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Passage Falls is among the Absaroka Range’s classic day hikes. The jaunt falls into the category of required hiking for Livingston and Paradise Valley residents, but unlike the Absaroka’s famed Pine Creek Falls and Lake, Passage Falls is much less taxing due to its gentle elevation gain. 

Even the smallest member of our hiking party, Bandit the miniature Dachshund, trekked the whole way on his own four stubby legs, much to the bemusement of other hikers.

Some websites, and even the signs along the trail, list the hike to the falls as 4 to 5 miles round trip, but the pedometer on our smartphones showed the distance as a little over 6 miles. The trail maintains a modest 500 foot elevation gain, until a final stretch of slippery switchbacks which lead into the ravine hiding the imposing Passage Falls. The trailhead is accessible from May through October and is located up Mill Creek Road about 3 miles past the Snowbank Campground. 

Mount Wallace towers nearly 11,000 feet at the end of the drainage, framed by burned timbers, little slivers of snow still clinging to the crevices on its northern face.  

The Wicked Fire swept through much of the Mill Creek drainage in 2007. The pines along Passage Creek were also claimed by the flames, and with most of the returning trees still no taller than the average second-grader, sweeping patches of violet fireweed are able to reach for the open sky. Bees and hummingbirds buzzed through the colorful flora as Passage Creek babbled by on its way to join Mill Creek near the trail head. 

Critters of the furry variety also greeted us along the way. 

Sizable scree fields cover the slopes of the valley, from which pika’s darted from stone to stone, stopping occasionally to squeak at us and each other. Yellow-bellied marmots also clamored among the rocks, but proved less skittish than the pika, as they climbed on top of the taller rocks to get a better look at the humans tromping through their territory. 

The fallen timbers evidently provided great habitat for chipmunks, as they seemed to leap everywhere, from log to log in a ninja-like fashion.

The falls themselves come as a pleasant reward, suddenly appearing as white ribbons among the tree tops from the rim of the ravine. 

The trail splits two ways from this point. One leads to the top of the falls, to a lovely lunch spot with a couple of comfy stumps to serve as seats. The second way includes a set of slightly intimating switchbacks leading to the base of the falls, where we cooled down in the refreshing spray of the crashing water. 

The sun sank low as we made the return trip, casting beautiful light on the flowers, as the wind rushed down the draw through the charred timbers, creating a series of haunting whistling sounds.

As for Bandit, he barely stirred on the car ride home – dog tired from his Absaroka adventure.