50 Wild Places: Celebrating Montana's Outdoors

June 27, 2014 6:00 am

Celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act with 50 wild adventures in Montana's outdoors. Stories, photos and maps will appear over 50 days, between mid-June and mid-September.

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  • POLEBRIDGE — It doesn’t have to be an “official” wilderness for your destination to provide a wild Montana experience.

    Federally designated wild and scenic rivers run alongside many wilderness areas. The Flathead drainage provides three such waterways.

    The Flathead River’s branches include 219 miles of wild, scenic or recreational passage. The Middle and South forks originate in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. Hungry Horse Reservoir drowned almost half of the South Fork, but its upper reaches still qualify for wild and scenic designation. The Middle Fork has some of northwest Montana’s fiercest whitewater.

    The North Fork is generally considered the main stem of the Flathead, and originates in British Columbia. Its entire 58-mile length along Glacier National Park’s western border has wild and scenic designation. While Fool Hen Rapids just north of Columbia Falls flips plenty of inexperienced boaters, only two other Class II rapids complicate the waters farther north.

    The river’s west bank passes a mix of private and U.S. Forest Service land. Glacier Park manages the whole east bank, and requires backcountry permits to camp there. The passes cost $5 per person, and require users to bring a bear-resistant cooler, fire pan and personal waste removal system.

    The Forest Service has several popular stopping points, including the Ford Campground that features a rentable cabin, as well as tent sites. Campers must set up below the high-water line along private property, and must have bear-resistant containers for all food or risk a hefty fine.

    The U.S.-Canadian border to Ford makes a leisurely 14-mile day float. Polebridge sits another 11 miles downstream, with more campgrounds and hostels surrounding the popular Polebridge Mercantile. After that, Big Creek Campground waits just above Fool Hen Rapids, and anyone getting past that can float right into Columbia Falls.

    The float features views of Glacier’s infrequently seen and rarely visited northwest Livingston Range. The river also wanders through several sections of old forest-fire scars, with thickets of skeleton trees filling the view. And it holds lots of small but gullible cutthroat trout.

    The toughest part of a North Fork Flathead float may be the shuttle ride up the unpaved North Fork Road. Don’t plan on making up lost time on this road, or you’ll need an alignment-suspension repair job that will kill most of the joy this river valley offers.

  • SEELEY LAKE — Close enough to host a bachelor party, but far enough to experience the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Pyramid Lake serves many people their first taste of Montana’s backcountry.

    A steep but relatively short hike from a trailhead above Seeley Lake, Pyramid Lake has a couple different trails to its basin. One has been decommissioned, but tracks show continued stock use on that most-direct route. The more recent alternative packs some nasty switchbacks, but nothing as rugged as the incline they replace.

    There’s even an extra lake involved, although this can be a hazard if you’re hiking with younger packers. The unnamed water appears right at the point where it seems like a really good idea to quit carrying a heavy backpack. The fact that several nice campsites dot its shore and fish dimple its surface doesn’t help the argument that there’s more climbing to do.

    Nor does the fact that the spur trail to Pyramid Lake has often lost its sign. While almost everyone passes near the Seeley Lake Ranger Station en route to the trailhead, that’s in the Lolo National Forest. Pyramid Lake resides in the Flathead National Forest, but is so far down its southern extent that maintenance crews from Kalispell don’t get there too often.

    Keep an eye out for the spur shortly after cresting the ridge that guards the interior of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. It’s on the left, and delivers you to the lakeshore in a few minutes. Continuing down the main trail may deliver you to Choteau in a few days, if you brought enough food.

    Pyramid Lake has one big campsite along its southern shore, which often gets claimed by bigger groups. Keep working around to the northeastern corner to find some more good tent sites.

    Go all the way around through a boulder field, and you’ll eventually find the original route.

    So why go to the trouble? Aside from the fishing, huckleberry bushes, amazing wildflower slopes and opportunity to scramble up Pyramid Peak and gaze into the vastness of the 1 million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, there are several excellent providers of milk shakes in Seeley Lake, at the civilized end of the trailhead road.

  • NOXON — For an awe-inspiring wilderness experience that grandma and her grandchildren can enjoy, head for the Ross Creek Giant Cedars Natural Area.

    The intimidating Cabinet Mountains Wilderness rises to the east, while the Scotchman Peaks wilderness study area surrounds the trail itself. But a paved road leads to a gently graded walking trail through a forest that rivals California’s Sequoia National Park.

    Cedar forests like this used to dominate many wet canyon bottoms in Western Montana. Between early 20th century logging and the forest fires of 1910, nearly all have disappeared. Avalanche Creek in Glacier National Park and Cedar and Ward creeks near Superior are among the few remaining stands of really big trees. And they can’t top the 1,000-year-old giants standing sentinel along the Ross Creek Nature Trail.

    Although wildlife (other than birds) are a rare sight in the Ross cedars, the area gets shockingly heavy use by elk. Look carefully in some of the most impenetrable thickets of brush, and you’ll find enough elk sign on the ground to make you expect a stampede. Odd eyeball-height triangular holes in some of the trees testify to the area’s former popularity with trappers, who placed their sets in the trunks for weasels and fishers.

    Underfoot, the rainforest conditions foster between 5,000 and 6,000 species of moss and lichen. Only about 1,600 of them are named and classified in scientific literature.

    While most visitors come in summer, Ross Creek is also popular with cross-country skiers who glide up the 4-mile entrance road to the grove. Given the tremendous amounts of snow this area attracts, such winter excursions are possible until surprisingly late in spring some years.

    The parking area has picnic sites and vault toilets, but no camping is allowed. A .9-mile interpretive trail loops through the first part of the grove, with smaller trails heading deeper into the wilderness. Front-country campers can find a spot at the Bad Medicine Forest Service campground along Bull Lake, just north of the Ross Creek entrance road.

  • CONDON — Crystal Lake holds the unusual distinction of having three trails to choose from — all with different challenges, but all leading into the Mission Mountains Wilderness.

    Option No. 1 takes off from Beaver Creek Road, just after the Summit Lake overlook on Highway 83 north of Seeley Lake. It takes four miles of hiking to reach your destination.

    Option No. 2 starts off Lindbergh Lake Road, up the Meadow-Bunyon road spur. This trail travels just two miles, but it does so at a considerably steeper grade. By the way, both routes have the further oddity of being a descent to a mountain lake. You do your climbing on the way home.

    The third option requires a boat to travel the four miles of Lindbergh Lake, before taking a gentle creek-grade trail two miles to the upper lake. This route allows the heaviest packs and least damage to aging knees, assuming you have access to a boat.

    However you arrive, Crystal Lake offers a beautiful basin with a sheeting waterfall covering much of the glacially carved cliff face at its far western end. Its foot has a line of island trees that drain its overflow like a leaky dam. This makes it very wet to get to the opposite shore, should you decide you chose the wrong entry route.

    Old social trails lead up both long sides to the head of the lake, but don’t expect them to be in any passable condition.

    Adventure-seekers hoping to get a closer look at the waterfall or to penetrate on to Lost and High Park lakes farther up the basin will find a troublesome swamp around most of the base of that cliff. It’s better,

    although totally unmarked, to bushwhack along the glacial moraine ridges above either shore to reach the upper basin. Hardy anglers report the struggle is worth the effort.

  • POLEBRIDGE — One of the largest lakes in the nation where the motors have to stop at the shoreline hides in the northwest corner of Glacier National Park.

    You can drive all the way to Kintla Lake on the Inside North Fork Road. But you must paddle to see the fantastic spire of Kinnerly Peak at its far end. In addition to its end-of-the-road status as Glacier’s most remote front-country campground, Kintla’s non-motorized status makes this a uniquely peaceful spot.

    The National Park Service doesn’t give Glacier federal wilderness status, although it manages most of it the same way. That means no wheeled or motorized contrivances in its backcountry (although national parks have considerably more leeway to bend this rule than the U.S. Forest Service does). In Kintla’s case, it just means incredible solitude and silence and scenery.

    Well-maintained trails also mark the shoreline of this 6-mile-long lake, and lead deep into Glacier’s northern Livingston Range. But boating up the water is by far the more pleasant way to see the area.

    A good campground awaits at the eastern end (backcountry camping permit required). And the fishing at the mouth of Kintla Creek can be amazing. Just remember to be gentle with the bull trout and return them to the water. They’re on the Endangered Species Act’s threatened list.

    From the campground at Kintla’s eastern end, it’s a 2-mile hike to Upper Kintla Lake, with its own incredible mountain scenery. Many boaters looking at the map ponder the possibility of portaging a boat between the two. Upper Kintla has some fascinating bays and nooks that would be fun to paddle.

    If you’re hiking with a crew of University of Montana Grizzlies linebackers, it’s perfectly doable. (Let them carry the boats.) Otherwise, leave the boats on the lower lake’s shore and backpack the 4 miles to another excellent campground at the far end of Upper Kintla.

  • DARBY — The giant stair-step nature of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness gets a great display on the way to Chaffin Lake.

    This 6.5-mile hike advances through a series of hanging valleys, including one with a lovely waterfall tumbling over the lip. At the end, a series of six lakes occupy individual benches. Most visitors camp at the first two, Hart and Tamarack lakes, while the more adventurous struggle up the farther steps to the “string of sapphires” 1,000 vertical feet above Chaffin Lake.

    Many of the peaks in the southern Bitterroot Range look like they’ve been blasted in a furnace, with harsh ridges and burnt-iron color. But the surrounding foliage and the brilliant blue lakes keep the color balance intact.

    Bring sandals, because you’ll have to cross Chaffin Creek a few times on the way up. One involves that waterfall bench, which can be a bit intimidating in early summer when the water’s still flowing strong. Later in the season, 10-year-olds with backpacks can handle it.

    Don’t forget fishing poles either. The trout in Hart and Tamarack lakes will strike on polished toenails, and one former Missoulian reporter nearly scored with a piece of bagel stuck on a hand-carved wooden hook (he forgot to pack tackle).

    Glaciers carved the gaps that penetrate the Bitterroot Range. That left huge, U-shaped valleys with some sheer walls higher than Yosemite National Park’s famous faces. Unlike Yosemite, finding one other party at the end of Chaffin Creek qualifies as crowded here.

    Imagine pushing your boot through sand, and the rim of material raised around your footprint. As they carved their way down, those glaciers left mounds of earth called moraines that form the contours and ledges hikers now climb over. As they retreated in stages, they left terminal moraines (like around the toe of your bootprint) that impound the lakes at the upper end of the valley.


    Location: From the West Fork Road 4.4 miles south of Darby, take the Tin Cup-Chaffin Road 4 miles to the trailhead.

    Distance/Duration:  6.5 miles and a 2,400-foot elevation gain for long day hike or potential 2- to 3-day fishing and rock-climbing adventure.

    Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous, depending on how big a load you haul and how high Chaffin Creek is running. Late summer and fall are ideal times.

  • ABSAROKEE — It’s a long way up to Froze-To-Death Plateau, like 26 switchbacks rising 3,000 feet in roughly two miles. But as the saying goes, there’s only one way up, and that’s to take it one step at a time, elevation be damned.

    Often described as the roof of Montana, the plateau is a place of legend, death and frustration. It’s also a place of serenity, beauty and wild wonder. While it’s not for the novice hiker, mounting the plateau is worth the effort for those in condition – and prepared for unpredictable and potentially dangerous weather.

    The plateau sits atop the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, and it’s a world unto itself. It’s ripe with flowers at the right time of year, pristine snowfields, glacial ponds and endless views of Montana.

    To get there, most hikers start at West Rosebud Lake where Trail 19 picks up. After an easy four-mile hike to Mystic Lake, the trail diverges and it’s easily missed. To the left, hikers will find Trail 17, which climbs several thousand feet over two miles to the base of the plateau.

    Once on the plateau, getting from point to point takes time and there’s no clearly defined trail guiding the way. It’s a boulder field brushing the sky, requiring hikers to hop from one rock to the next while following a network of cairns across five rugged miles.

    From the plateau, hikers have a number of options. One includes an easy scramble up Tempest Mountain. It marks the plateau’s high point and lends a full view of Granite Peak – Montana’s highest point at 12,799 feet – which sits just across the ravine.

    Granite, a mountain shaped something like a razor blade, appears so close and yet, even from the plateau, it stands so far away. It’s also more than a scramble to the top. It requires climbing skills to navigate a few tricky pitches with extreme exposure to the valley bottoms.

    But bagging Granite Peak isn’t essential for a high-alpine experience or gaining views of Montana that few ever see. The plateau and Tempest Mountain are good enough for many, offering views of the 943,000-acre Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness spreading beyond.

    Within the wilderness, hikers can explore more than 20 peaks thrusting above 12,000 feet. The expansive country boasts 950 alpine lakes and nearly 200 miles of maintained trails.

    At nearly every turn, this wilderness area offers good fishing, good camping and good hiking. For a brazen few, it also offers unparalleled opportunities to bag Montana’s highest peaks.


    Location: About 25 miles south of Absarokee in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness on the Custer National Forest.

    Distance/duration: From the trailhead to the top of Tempest Mountain and back requires a 22-mile trip best accomplished over two days, given the elevation gain and difficult terrain.

    Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous, with potentially dangerous weather and limited water supplies once on the plateau.

  • The Rattlesnake Wilderness embodies the idea – and the reality — of compromise.

    Start with the fact that it’s the only federally designated wilderness area where you can ride a city bus to the trailhead. Missoula’s northern boundary abuts the 22,000-acre Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, which buffers the actual 32,000-acre wilderness 2 miles farther in.

    Then there’s the “cherry stem,” a 14-mile road grade that allows wheeled (and mostly non-motorized) traffic deep into the wilderness core. Bikes aren’t allowed off the corridor. But trucks servicing the reservoirs that store water for Missoula occasionally rumble up the road.

    And still farther north, the Flathead Indian Reservation has a primitive area restricted to tribal members. But in between, there’s plenty to do and see in the Rattlesnake Wilderness.

    Except rattlesnakes. The origin of the name remains in dispute, with some storytellers saying dens of snakes used to be prevalent in the valley. Others recall a tombstone near the creek memorializing someone nicknamed for or killed by a rattler. In any case, the “Rattlesnake” Creek name was on maps in 1853, before the name “Missoula” showed up.

    Elk, mountain goats, cougars, occasional grizzly bears and bighorn sheep do live there. You can also find traces of old homesteads along the creek meadows. Several lovely waterfalls decorate Rattlesnake Creek at various points along the corridor. About 25 lakes (depending on your definition of ponds/lakes) hide in the cirques above the creek bottom, but they require lots of stamina to reach.

    There are no designated camping areas in the wilderness, although it’s not too hard to find the more popular spots. Poe Meadows, just across the national recreation area border, is a favorite for first-time overnight campers thanks to its easy accessibility. Bicyclists often shoot for Franklin Bridge, 8 miles up the cherry stem. The route gets significantly steeper after the bridge, topping out at 6,920 feet in elevation near the border of the Flathead Reservation, about 19 miles in.


    Location: Several trailheads at the north end of the Missoula city limits.

    Distance/Duration: The main “cherry-stem” trail follows Rattlesnake Creek for 14.5 miles. Dozens of other mechanized and non-mechanized trails lace the mountainsides for 73 miles. Use ranges from daily joggers to weeklong backpack experiences.

    Difficulty: The lower 2 miles of the cherry stem are suitable for baby strollers. The challenge increases by choice of route.

    “A River Runs Through It” author Norman Maclean allegedly hiked the Rattlesnake from Missoula to Seeley Lake as an overnight homecoming, and his fans are developing a memorial trail commemorating the feat.

  • CONDON — The biggest challenge of getting to Heart Lake is deciding which Heart to seek.

    The Heart Lake in the Mission Mountains Wilderness sits in a chain of mountain lakes bookended by the easy-to-reach Glacier Lake and the easy-to-overcrowd Turquoise Lake.

    Just don’t confuse it with the Heart Lake in the proposed Great Burn Wilderness west of Superior or the Hart Lake in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness or the … you get the picture.

    Turquoise Lake has suffered in the past several years from too much attention along its tightly constrained shorelines. While its mountain walls make it dramatically scenic, better fishing awaits at the adjacent little-sisters Lace and Lagoon lakes.

    But take a spur trail heading north after a series of switchbacks above Glacier Lake, and backpackers have their choice of three more lovely destinations. Crescent Lake is the largest of the trio, followed by Heart Lake and then a bushwack to Island Lake.

    Crescent has an intriguing peninsula poking into its middle, with a cramped but usable tent site amid its rocks. Farther along the shoreline, a couple more campsites sit well-hidden in the alders and huckleberries. Use one of these instead of the over-hammered spot at the foot of the lake.

    Good-sized golden trout live in Crescent Lake, and a tricky angler might bring bugs or worms collected along the trail to dunk in the lake’s depths to get past the dinky surface loungers. Fly-fishers better have a good barrel-cast, because many of the banks are thick with vegetation.

    That annoyance can become a source of fascination if you’re willing to plunge down to the duff and see what’s growing there. The intense moisture trap of the Mission peaks provides a perfect environment for mushrooms and other fungi, which produce more colors and forms than the best wildflower display.


    Location: Trailhead is 11.5 miles west on Kraft Creek Road, between Seeley Lake and Condon in the Mission Mountains Wilderness.

    Distance/Duration: 4.5 miles one-way from Glacier Lake trailhead – a day hike or overnight backpack experience.

    Difficulty: Moderate, with a 1,000-foot elevation gain over 1.5 miles of switchbacks.

  • If you prefer your wilderness in small doses, the Humbug Spires has your medicine.

    One of the few proposed wilderness areas overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management instead of the U.S. Forest Service,

    the Humbug Spires poke out of 8,800 acres a half-hour south of Butte. The forested slopes of the Highland Mountains enclose about 50 spires of quartz monzonite, some sticking 600 feet above the trees.

    A pleasant dayhike starts in a wildflower-filled creek drainage sprinkled with random piles of granite boulders. Much of the country looks like the similar batholith formation around Lolo Hot Springs south of Missoula. Wild rose bushes, yellow lanceleaf stonecrop flowers and orange Indian paintbrush grow along the switchbacks. Field mint perfume lingers around occasional stream turns, competing with the gin-and-tonic aroma of juniper berries. Mountain raspberries are several weeks from red. White yarrow blooms impersonate beargrass in the boggy spots.

    About four miles in, the trail passes the remains of a prospector’s cabin. This is the last good place to get water, so have your filter handy. From this point, a web of unmarked trails wanders around and up to dozens of rock towers. Bring good route-finding skills or a GPS locator if you want to range widely.

    The BLM ranks the more popular climbing routes between 5.5 and 5.7 difficulty, but there are plenty of places to practice novice bouldering skills. Non-climbers can scramble around the bases of many towers and find lookouts with fascinating vistas. Cutthroat and brook trout hide in Moose Creek and some of the other tributary streams leading to the Big Hole River.

    A few well-used campsites appear among the trees, especially around the more popular climbing spires. The lack of water in many of those gullies requires backpackers to think ahead, especially if they want to reach the higher ridgetops. Public campgrounds at Divide Creek and Maiden Rock are just a few miles away for easy car-camping bases.

    The Humbugs rise just a few miles from the Continental Divide. But a quirk of climate makes them warm and popular in spring, when the rest of Montana’s high country remains snowbound and frigid.


    Location: 26 miles south of Butte on Interstate 15, with trailhead off Moose Creek exit south of Divide.

    Distance/duration: Main trail leads 4 miles into central rock formation area. Unmarked trails provide several dozen more miles of exploration.

    Difficulty: Moderately strenuous dayhike or backpacking experience. Rock climbers have opportunity for free-climbing and gear-intensive ascents.

  • FORT SMITH — The problem with Bighorn Canyon is that it’s not supposed to be here, at least in visitors’ expectations.

    If you can picture stumbling across a twisting 1,000-foot chasm by accident, then you can imagine this southeastern Montana landmark.

    Everything about Bighorn Canyon is a surprise, from its rich human history to its geologic wonders. More than 570 million years of the Earth’s history is exposed in the canyon’s walls, including sediments laid down by volcanic forces and large inland seas.

    The human history is equally rich. Native peoples have known this area for 12,000 years. Early trappers and traders, including Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith, used an overland route along the canyon to transport furs to St. Louis.

    Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area offers a variety of options for hikers and sightseers. It can be as wild as it was at the beginning of time. It can also be tame, thanks to paved overlooks and public restrooms offering modern accommodations.

    The park offers 27 miles of designated trails and a number of campsites. The popular State Line Trail sits north of the Wyoming border, offering an easy one-mile hike through arid country to the canyon rim.

    In contrast, the Two Eagle Trail offers more on the side of history. It circles the remnants of campsites that sheltered indigenous hunters 1,000 years ago.

    Old tepee rings reflect a style commonly used by the Crow people who called this area home before the close of the 19th century.

    The views throughout the park are spectacular, as is the summer heat. And while the canyon commands attention, there’s plenty here worthy of a visit, regardless of your abilities.


    Location: Access to the park is through Fort Smith and Lovell, Wyoming. Trail maps are available at the Bighorn Canyon Visitor Center in Lovell.

    Distance: Located on the east side of Highway 37 about five miles from the park entrance north of Lovell, the State Line Trail is a 1-mile out-and-back hike through rocks, sage and cactus to the canyon rim.

    Difficulty: The hike is easy, though proper footwear and water are recommended.

  • ST. REGIS — Every bit of Western Montana’s diverse landscape is accounted for in the three miles to Hub Lake.

    Humongous rainforest cedar trees guard the trailhead, while high-altitude krummholtz grows barely knee-high in the glacier-carved upper lake basin. In between, dry forests of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir show scars of the Great Burn of 1910. The historically inclined can even poke around the remnants of a collapsed mineshaft.

    The hike begins off Ward Creek Road, which requires some advanced route-finding skills just to get off Interstate 90 properly. The road starts at Exit 26, which can only be reached from the eastbound lane. So to get there from Missoula, get off the westbound lane at Exit 25, turn back east, and be prepared for the very short-notice off-ramp for Ward Creek Road in about a mile.

    That well-groomed dirt road leads into the timber for eight miles to the trailhead. The first third of the trail could be a destination in itself, with trees 7 feet in diameter surrounding a little opening marked by log benches. It’s perfect for small children or slow walkers who want to see a bit of the Pacific Northwest rainforest without going all the way to Glacier National Park.

    The trail starts climbing steeply out of the forest, soon presenting the second goal of the venture. Dipper Falls makes an appearance just as the forest begins to switch from cedar to fir and pine trees.

    After the falls, the trail grinds uphill in earnest. Plenty of trees provide shade, but there’s not much water to filter until it starts penetrating the upper bench where the pocket lakes hide.

    Hazel Lake has bigger fish, but no good camping spot and few places to cast a hook. Keep going to Hub Lake, which has attractive campsites at both its foot and head. A really steep trail climbs out of the cirque and past Mary Lake before joining the Stateline Trail on the Montana-Idaho border.

    That’s also the best way to get to nearby Square Lake, although some bushwackers like to reach it from the Hazel Lake contour. The cirque trails take quite a beating from spring avalanches, and can be hard to follow.


    Location: Trailhead starts roughly 20 miles west of St. Regis in the Bitterroot Mountains.

    Distance/duration: 3-mile day hike or overnight backpack trip.

    Difficulty: First mile suitable for all ages, in cedar forest. Ascent to lake basin moderately strenuous, with 1,500-foot elevation gain.

  • PHILIPSBURG — The Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness isn’t a top tourist destination in Montana, but it’s a great escape if you’re looking to get a true backcountry experience without the crowds of Glacier or Yellowstone. And, because it’s just a couple of hours’ drive from Missoula, it makes an easy weekend getaway.

    Upper Seymour Lake, in the northern part of the wilderness on the east side of the Continental Divide, is a beautiful, crystal-clear lake with dozens of good campsites and plenty of trout waiting to be caught. The best part of the trip is Goat Flat, a scenic alpine wildflower meadow with views of 10,000-foot peaks.

    Most people take the 5-mile route from Storm Lake, but we hiked the much more physically demanding 20.8-mile round trip via the Page Creek Trail 39 from the East Fork Reservoir.

    To get there from Philipsburg, follow the Skalkaho Highway toward Hamilton until you see signs for the East Fork Reservoir. Drive along the east side of the reservoir until you reach the trailhead to Page Lake.

    We hiked Trail 39 along Page Creek, through a heavily wooded area and past several small streams. After about 6 miles, we camped at Page Lake. The next day, we continued several grueling switchbacked miles on Trail 9 to Goat Flat. After stopping to take in the view there, we intersected with the Continental Divide Trail and hike down a couple of more miles of switchbacks on Trail 9 to Upper Seymour Lake.

    Remember that anything you pack in should get packed out. Always observe campfire regulations, and visitors are required to register at trailheads.

    Location: The trailhead starts at the southern end of the East Fork Reservoir just outside of the northwestern edge of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness in southwestern Montana.

    Distance/duration: From the East Fork Reservoir, Upper Seymour Lake is a 20.8-mile two-night backpacking trip, or a 10-mile roundtrip day hike from Storm Lake.

    Difficulty: The trail from the East Fork Reservoir over Goat Flat includes many switchbacks and at least 2,000 feet of elevation gain.

  • Pilots often make multiple approaches at Montana’s only wilderness airstrip to avoid elk, deer and other wildlife grazing in their flight path.

    Built in the 1930s and situated in the Great Bear Wilderness of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, the Schafer Meadows airstrip offers access to the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the wild Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Initially, the airstrip and a ranger station were built at Three Forks, but the area proved too dangerous for flights, so both the landing area and the station were moved to Schafer Meadows.

    Because the airstrip was dedicated to public use, it remained open when the 285,000-acre Great Bear Wilderness was established in the 1970s.

    Despite the area’s popularity, a float trip still provides more opportunities to view elk, moose, bears, deer and other wildlife than other people.

    The nearest road to Schafer Meadows is 15 miles away, and 30-minute flights from the Glacier International Airport in Kalispell help shuttle people and gear into the meadow during peak floating season, typically between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.

    We were lucky enough to have a family member who is a pilot and a whitewater enthusiast, so flew in from the Hi-Line town of Gildford with our raft and supplies for three days and two nights on the river.

    The first several miles of the float down the Middle Fork of the Flathead are deceptively calm. Then, relentless class 3, 4 and 5 whitewater lasts through much of the 34 miles from the put in to the Bear Creek takeout, located a few miles before Essex.

    Camp spots can be created anywhere along the river’s banks. The first night, we pulled the rafts ashore and set up in a grassy area above the rocky bank.

    The next morning, we set off again and took out midday for the popular mile-plus, steep hike up to Castle Lake. We had the place to ourselves except for a bald eagle and fish.

    Deciding we hadn’t had enough river action, the third day we floated past Bear Creek and continued to the next takeout before Essex.

    Many floaters take this option and go past the Goat Lick Overlook, where they’ll likely see mountain goats, including kids, scaling the mineral-laden cliffs.


    Location: The Schafer Meadows airstrip is located in the Great Bear Wilderness of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and floaters travel there down the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.

    Distance/duration: 34 miles from Schafer Meadows to Bear Creek. During high flows, floaters can finish in six hours, but typically spend three days and two nights on the river.

    Difficulty: Rafting experience for navigating numerous class 3, 4 and 5 rapids. Practice leave-no-trace camping techniques and use bear-proof containers or hang food items; a fire blanket or pan and a way to contain human waste are required. Parties can be no larger than 15 people. Float guide encouraged.

  • It’s nearly impossible to enter Meriwether Canyon in the 28,000-acre Gates of the Mountains Wilderness without thinking about the history of Montana.

    In 1805, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark camped on the site of today’s picnic area as their expedition paddled west. Lewis’ journal described the cliffs towering above them, and how they seemed ready to tumble at any moment.

    The hike into Meriwether Canyon begins by retracing the steps of Lewis and Clark via a boat ride to the Meriwether Picnic Area from one of the boat launches on Holter Reservoir. Tour boats stop several times throughout the day at the picnic area, so those without a boat can still access the trailhead.

    Meriwether Canyon Trail 253 runs east, away from the river for a half mile to the wilderness boundary. Daunting cliffs jutting up from the canyon floor provide plenty of picturesque spots for photographs with an abundance of caves chiseled in the limestone walls.

    The trail meanders along the flat canyon bottom, snaking through twists so tight they somehow hide 400-foot cliffs not visible until you turn the next corner. With each mile, hikers are treated to a seemingly endless stretch of stunning geology.

    About a mile into the 6-mile trail, the canyon becomes a lesson in nature’s rejuvenation after wildfire. A 2007 fire left hardly a tree unburned in nearly 20,000 acres. While the relics of once-magnificent pine trees still stand, the forest floor abounds with thick brush and budding new trees.

    Near the edge of the burn, running water suddenly appears in the stream bed. The trail continues to cross the stream for the next three miles before climbing to a vista of the canyon’s twists and turns, looking like interwoven fingers.

    A couple more miles of climbing brings hikers to the end of Trail 253 when it intersects with Trail 252. From the junction, hikers can exit back down the canyon, or take a detour through Mann Gulch – with its own rich, albeit tragic, story.

    For the truly intrepid hiker, an 18-mile point-to-point hike from Refrigerator Canyon to Meriwether Picnic Area can make for an extremely long day or a two-day adventure.


    Location: Take Gates of the Mountains exit about 15 miles north of Helena, then go east approximately three miles to the Gates of the Mountains Boat Club. Meriwether Picnic Area is approximately 2.5 miles downstream of the marina on the east side of the river.

    Distance/duration: Meriwether Canyon Trail 253 runs 6 miles to the intersection with Trail 252.

    Difficulty: Moderately strenuous 2-mile climb after gentle 4 miles.

  • STEVENSVILLE — St. Mary or St. Mary’s?

    That’s a good question to ponder after you strap on your boots to begin the nearly four-mile march up the summit of one of the most accessible peaks in the Bitterroot Mountains.

    The trail begins at a sizable trailhead that’s often filled with cars in the summer months and for a time winds through a pine forest that provides ample shade on a hot summer day.

    About a mile up the trail watch for the nice little stopping place at a fenced spring, with its few comfortable places to sit while preparing for the nearly three miles of uphill that’s to come.

    A mile later and you’ll officially enter the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness as the forest begins to falter and sweeping views of the mountains and valley below start to appear.

    The last push to the mountain top takes hikers over a few steep switchbacks above timberline that offer glimpses of the bright white historic lookout tower standing tall on the 9,351-foot summit.

    The lookout tower is actually the second to grace the mountain. The first took flight following a particularly high blast of wind in 1952. Some folks claimed that it actually hovered for an instant or two before it crashed into the ground.

    On a clear day, visitors are offered stunning views of the Bitterroot and Beaverhead mountains to the south, the low but rugged Clearwater Mountains to the west, the Mission, Swan, Rattlesnake and Lewis and Clark ranges to the north, the Sapphires and John Day mountains to the east, and the Flint Creek and Anaconda ranges to the southeast.

    In summer months, visitors wondering which range is which can carefully climb the lookout tower’s steps for a visit with the volunteers hosted by Selway-Bitterroot Foundation.

    As far as the name of this popular hiking spot goes, even the Bitterroot National Forest’s website has it both ways.

    The U.S. Geological Survey and the forest’s official map agree that its name is the singular noun – Saint Mary.

    Or is it St. Mary?


    Location: Travel 3.5 miles south of the Stevensville junction on U.S. Highway 93, and turn west onto Indian Prairie Loop. Continue west 1.8 miles to St. Mary’s Road, turn right and continue 1 mile to the McCalla Ridge Road and St. Mary’s Peak Road 739 junction. Travel on that road about 14 miles to the road’s end at the trailhead.

    Distance/duration: 3.8 miles from trailhead to summit at 9,351 feet in elevation, with 2,500 feet of gain.

    Difficulty: An easy first mile gives way to 3 miles of moderately difficult uphill travel. Bring plenty of water and something to cut the sharp, cold wind.

  • EAST GLACIER — If you hike to Buffalo Lakes and beyond in the Badger-Two Medicine area, you’ll probably spend as much time staring across the valley into the eastern peaks of Glacier National Park as actually trudging uphill.

    To access the unmarked trailhead, drive 4.5 miles west from East Glacier. A small pullout on the south side of U.S. Highway 2 makes this a tricky spot to locate. A barbed-wire fence blocks an old access road and the fence provides a hiker walk-through, but be careful of snagging that expensive backpack on a barb.

    The trail to Buffalo Lakes in the Lewis and Clark National Forest offers a short but steep climb to a mountain wetland teeming with waterfowl and also hosting beaver, moose and grizzly bears. Sitting just above 4,000 feet from sea level, the lakes lie unexpectedly nestled against a ridge two miles from an unmarked trailhead.

    The protruding crags of Dancing Lady Mountain, Bearhead Mountain and Red Crow Mountain punctuate the skyline to the north while the trail tunnels through a lush forest of pine, aspen, shrubs and wildflowers. Each thicket looks like it could hold a griz, and with plenty of signs including tracks and scat, one probably was not far away when we hiked through a cool drizzle in early June.

    Upon first arrival at the lower lake, a pair of bufflehead ducks greeted us with the flapping of wings. The hen and drake flew to the opposite side of the lake and landed again, seemingly content with our presence.

    With the Prairie Pothole Region extending onto the flats of the Blackfeet Reservation to the east, the wide regional expanse makes these mountain potholes all the more inviting for waterfowl.

    A beaver dam industriously constructed with surrounding debris and mud separates the two lakes and provides a slippery passage to the continuing trail. Once across, we continued uphill to Lubec ridge, providing the first panoramic view of the Badger-Two Medicine roadless area and the distant summits of the Great Bear and Bob Marshall wilderness areas to the southwest.


    Location: The hike begins from an unmarked trailhead 4.5 miles west of East Glacier off U.S. Highway 2.

    Distance/duration: From the pullout on the south side of U.S. Highway 2, hike along a well-marked trail for two miles to the first lake. Once there, the trail continues over Lubec Ridge into the Two Medicine River drainage for several more miles.

    Difficulty: Moderate due to elevation gain.

  • ST. MARY — Glacier National Park’s Triple Divide area holds the centerpiece jewel in the Crown of the Continent. What it lacks in tourist attention, it makes up for in geographic significance.

    The Cut Bank Ranger Station between St. Mary and Two Medicine is one of Glacier’s least-used access points, despite its location along its busiest border. An inauspicious sign marks the turnoff along Highway 89. No hotel or visitor center awaits at the end of the road.

    Nevertheless, the front-country campground at the entrance to the Cut Bank Valley makes a fine staging ground for trips into the park’s interior. Cut Bank Creek burbles alongside many of the campsites, and a huge meadow of wildflowers surrounds the trailhead.

    After about 4 miles, that trail splits at the junction with Atlantic Creek, with one route turning south toward Pitamakan Pass and the Two Medicine Valley. The other continues to Triple Divide Pass and crosses into the Red Eagle drainage and on to St. Mary Lake. Nobody will write raves about the Atlantic Creek backcountry campground, which lacks both scenery and privacy.

    But all campsites look alike in the dark, so don’t waste daylight there. Stroll instead 1.4 miles to Medicine Grizzly Lake for excellent fishing, or march the 2.6 miles to Triple Divide Pass. The former sparkles 1,800 feet below the latter for most of the long, steady climb to the pass.

    Triple Divide Peak doesn’t punctuate the Glacier skyline the way Razoredge Mountain does. But its summit marks the meeting point of three continental drainages. Rain and snow on its west face flows to the Pacific Ocean. Moisture on its southeast side finds its way to the Missouri River, and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. And what lands on the northeast slopes drains into Hudson Bay, near the Arctic Circle.

    Blackfeet Indians called the northern Rocky Mountains “the Backbone of the World.” Modern-day enthusiasts have named it the Crown of the Continent. Triple Divide, at the meeting point of North America’s three major waterways, landmarks that reverence.


    Location: East side of Glacier National Park between St. Mary and Two Medicine entrances.

    Distance/duration: 4 miles to backcountry campground, followed by about 2 more miles to either Medicine Grizzly Lake or Triple Divide Pass.

    Difficulty: Long day hike or pleasant overnight backpack experience, with 1,800-foot elevation gain from Atlantic Creek backcountry campground to Triple Divide Pass.

  • DILLON — The abundance of high mountain lakes in southwestern Montana presents innumerable great opportunities to get into the wild.

    The hard part is deciding where to go.

    Pick a mountain range, then pick a lake.

    Sawtooth Lake, located toward the south end of the East Pioneers mountain range, northwest of Dillon, is a stunning area tucked at the base of craggy ridges. The improved trail offers relatively easy walking.

    The first few miles take hikers through an old burn area, which on occasion brims with the purple blossoms of fireweed, some over 5 feet high. The trail then proceeds through a relatively dense forest, where birds – lots of juncos – can be heard chirping from the depths of the pine and fir trees.

    At the end of the trail, hikers are greeted with spectacular views of the jagged ridgeline and the crystal clear water so typical of high mountain lakes. Wildflowers are in abundance this time of year – blue gentian, elephant heads, asters, lupine, arnica and cinquefoil, to name a few, presenting a colorful contrast to the green grasses around the lake.

    An added interest factor is the wreckage of an airplane crash from years ago at the east end of the lake. The walk around the lake is not challenging, although a boulder field on one side requires careful stepping. Fishermen like standing on the boulders, which give them a little height looking into the lake.

    Golden trout are said to inhabit Sawtooth Lake, but one avid fisherman who has visited the lake numerous times hasn’t seen a hint of one. It’s still fun to look.

    On the trek out, hikers get a bird’s-eye view of Maverick Mountain Ski Area, located on the west side of the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway.

    On the drive back, if your kids are antsy and still not pooped from the hike, stop at Crystal Park, a public area along the scenic byway, to dig for quartz crystals. That’ll give them an East Pioneers prize to take home.


    Location: To get to the Sawtooth Lake trailhead from Butte, it’s a bit of a drive – about 85 miles, but the good news is it’s a beautiful drive. Take Interstate 15 south and turn west at Divide, onto Highway 43, proceeding west to Wise River. At Wise River, turn south on the scenic byway, and proceed south around 30 miles or so until you get to Maverick Mountain Ski Area on the right. Then watch for signage. You’ll turn east, or left, and drive four miles on a good graveled road (sedan friendly) to the trailhead. From Dillon, the drive is about 45 miles.

    Distance/duration: 3.7 miles from the trailhead to the lake, with 1,500 feet of elevation gain.

    Difficulty: Family friendly, relatively easy, high mountain lake trail.

  • BIGFORK — The “high” part of high mountain lakes can discourage some hikers, so that’s where the Jewel Basin comes in handy.

    A well-maintained U.S. Forest Service road acquires most of the elevation gain as you motor 2,500 vertical feet above Bigfork and Flathead Lake to the unfortunately named Camp Misery. It’s really a parking lot and trailhead entry.

    The basin holds 15,349 acres, 35 miles of trails, 27 named lakes and beauty.

    The 6-mile loop route to Mount Aeneas is so accessible, many people climb it on the night of the Fourth of July to watch fireworks explode up and down the Flathead Valley.

    It’s 22 miles round-trip to Big Hawk Lake, making it a good link for a multi-day backpacking excursion. One common complaint is there are so many trails interlacing this compact area, it’s easy to wind up at the wrong lake.

    Designated campgrounds await at Crater, Birch, In-thalm-keh and numerous other lakes, and undesignated sites can be found at most of the other large water bodies. Please be considerate of the amount of use this convenient area gets and practice leave-no-trace camping.

    Hardy skiers skin into the Jewel Basin to carve turns around the “snow ghosts” – trees flocked in crystallized snow. Motorized, bicycle and horse use is prohibited in the Jewel, making it a hiker’s playground. Dogs are allowed, but must be kept on a leash.

    While not a designated wilderness area, the “hiking area” designation achieved in 1970 prevented the basin from being overwhelmed by motorcycle use.

    Climbers enjoy views into Glacier National Park to the north and the Bob Marshall Wilderness to the east from most of the five named mountains and 11 unnamed peaks in the basin.

    The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks recently completed an effort to remove non-native rainbow trout from many of the Jewel Basin lakes and restock them with native westslope cutthroat trout.


    Location: Northeast of Bigfork in the Swan Mountains, following Highway 83 to Echo Lake and then Forest Service Road 5392 to Jewel Basin Hiking Area.

    Distance/duration: Jewel Basin offers everything from half-mile saunters overlooking the Flathead Valley to 30-mile round-trip backpacking opportunitites.

    Difficulty: Easy to strenuous, depending on how far you want to go.

  • BUTTE — Although the 2.5-mile hike to the top of Haystack Mountain, northeast of Butte, is a little on the strenuous side, the reward at the summit is well worth the effort.

    At least 10 mountain ranges are in view from the apex of the boulder-strewn 8,829-foot mountain that itself appears nondescript from lower elevations.

    “You can see a lot of Montana,” said hiker Pat Grantham, surveying the mountainous skylines from Haystack’s highest point recently.

    Consider these ranges, all in view on this particular day, although some of them were somewhat obscured by smoke: Highland, Tobacco Root, Madison, Gravelly, Elkhorn, Flint, Bridger, Pioneer, Anaconda — and even the Swan Range in the distant northwest.

    The trek, a National Recreation Trail, takes hikers through a variety of zones — from grassy aspen-drenched wetlands to whitebark pine stalwarts at the top.

    First-time visitors to this neck of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest are warned that much of the area is scarred by beetle-killed lodgepole pine trees. Still, the forest boasts a lot of healthy trees, inherent beauty — and a nicely maintained trail.

    On a recent day, two hikers reached the summit at 7 p.m. under blue skies and, by that time, 65-degree temperatures. En route, they inadvertently flushed out a Franklin’s grouse hen. She flew up toward the hikers — who snapped photos then left the hen in peace — in an attempt to distract them from her chicks. The youngsters scattered under logs and some fluttered up onto tree branches.

    On the walk down, fresh elk tracks marked the trail. The usual suspects also made their presence known with their unique calls — golden-crowned kinglets, brown creepers, mountain chickadees, Clark’s nutcrackers and downy woodpeckers. Even in late July, wildflowers like Indian paintbrush, miner’s tea and kinnikinick bloomed.

    Although GPS info logged by the hikers showed the trail averaged a 12 percent grade, much of the walk into this wild place is shaded.

    Location: 12 miles northeast of Butte. To get there, take the Elk Park exit off Interstate 15. If you’re driving from Butte, turn right off the interchange, then left onto the frontage road. Proceed about 3 miles to an intersection of Elk Park Road and Haystack Road. Turn left onto Haystack Road, and continue past the “Dead End” sign. You’ll soon see the Haystack Mountain sign. A higher-clearance vehicle is best to proceed the remaining mile to the trailhead.

    Distance/duration: Aside from a couple of saddles, this National Recreation Trail seems to climb the entire way. The trailhead starts at about 6,700 feet elevation and gains 2,100 feet over 2.5 miles, for an average grade of 12 percent.

    Difficulty: Strenuous. It took two middle-aged hikers in relatively good shape 1 hour, 40 minutes to reach the top.

  • STEVENSVILLE — Kootenai Canyon has a dedicated, year-round fan club whose members rarely meet.

    The long, scenic creek bottom with the soaring cliff walls attracts rock climbers near its opening on the Bitterroot Valley. Day-hikers enjoy the cascades and deep forest of Kootenai Creek’s rambling descent. Elk hunters have favorite camping spots secreted in the ledges and little meadows of the midsection. And hardy anglers and backpackers make it all the way to the back where the Kootenai Lakes lurk.

    The lower canyon trail climbs gently enough for small children to enjoy the wildflowers, huckleberries and other forest attractions. About 3 miles in, the grade gets steeper as hikers enter the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

    From here on, the grind gets intense as you climb more than 2,000 vertical

    feet to the western basin, where four fishable lakes await your lure. Come prepared to ford Kootenai Creek once or twice as well.

    The lakes lie about nine miles from the trailhead, but there are lots of places to rest for those willing to practice low-impact camping in a popular wilderness area.

    Kootenai Canyon gets lots of summertime use, and its upper basin attracts backcountry skiers seeking powder stashes or splendid isolation. Hunting outfitters often stockpile firewood and other material for their fall clients, so be respectful of others’ activities.

    Rock climbers have made the canyon’s opening walls one of western Montana’s most popular free-climbing sites. The smooth granite walls provide durable holds and pitches 60 feet or longer that give both beginners and experts plenty to practice on. Many of the best walls are 15 minutes from the trailhead, making the approach far easier than other climbing destinations.


    Location: 23 miles south of Missoula at the end of Kootenai Creek Road, just north of Stevensville.

    Distance/duration: Day hikes and rock climbing are best in the first 3 miles. Upper lake basin is best for backpackers, at 9 miles in.

    Difficulty: Easy to strenuous, depending on distance.

  • WEST GLACIER — Situated at the north end of the Lewis Range and with views across the valley to the Livingston Range, Glacier National Park’s Fifty Mountain backcountry campground lives up to its name.

    Cathedral Peak and Mount Kipp stand above a glacier lily-filled meadow just uphill to the northeast. Rainbow, Vulture, Anaconda and Longfellow peaks, Mount Geduhn and more line up along the horizon to the west, past Flattop Mountain. And if that’s not enough, the nearby Sue Lake overlook offers views north to the Stoney Indian Peaks and Mount Cleveland, the tallest in the park.

    As for getting to Fifty, there are options, though they’re nowhere near as numerous as the surrounding summits.

    The scenic Highline Trail stretches 19.5 miles northwest from Logan Pass to the camp. From The Loop and Packers Roost on Going-to-the-Sun Road, a trail travels about 12 miles north over Flattop Mountain through the remnants of a 2003 wildfire. And from Goat Haunt, after crossing the U.S.-Canada border by foot or boat from Waterton Lakes National Park, it’s about 11.5 miles south up out of a lush valley.

    If you plan to stay at Fifty Mountain, you’ll need a backcountry camping permit – issued each spring by drawing or 24 hours before departure at stations around the park.

    We recently tried our luck at permits and pieced together a trip starting with a night at Goat Haunt, spending two at Fifty and ending at The Loop.

    Our first day on the trail was marked mostly by rain, with a couple of short breaks in the storm at Kootenai Lakes, where moose can be seen, and on the lingering snowfields leading to camp near the Continental Divide.

    The next morning, the clouds began to break at breakfast and we caught sight of a grizzly sow feeding on a ridge outside of camp. We climbed to the Sue Lake overlook and hiked a short distance southeast on the Highline before returning in time for a spectacular sunset.

    On the final day, we packed up and crossed the Divide west of camp at Kootenai Pass, rising over Flattop and down through the beargrass-filled burn and a waterfall-filled canyon. Back at The Loop, we arrived at our vehicle, ready for the drive home.


    Location: The Fifty Mountain backcountry campground is at the north end of the Lewis Range in Glacier National Park.

    Distance/duration: The campground is 19.5 miles northwest of Logan Pass on the Highline Trail, 12 miles north of The Loop and Packers Roost on Going-to-the-Sun Road via Flattop Mountain or 11.5 miles south of Goat Haunt. We hiked in from Goat Haunt and out to The Loop, which took about six hours each day with a lot of stops for photos.

    Difficulty: Moderately strenuous, with steep sections if hiking up from Goat Haunt or The Loop and long distance from Logan Pass.

  • CARDWELL — A popular and relatively easy trek into the heart of the Tobacco Root Mountains, about 30 miles southeast of Butte, is Lost Cabin Lake.

    You can hike this trail – or ride it on a mountain bike. Mountain biking is popular in the Tobacco Roots these days, so hikers need to be wary of two-wheeled action on the trail.

    Aside from that, it’s a nice, family-friendly 4.5-mile hike.

    It rises gently from the trailhead, at 7,564 feet, to the lake at

    9,066 feet. Probably the steepest section – as is often the case at high-mountain lake hikes – is the last 50 yards, but nothing that the average hiker can’t handle. Switchbacks interspersed throughout the hike help ease the intensity.

    While the scenery and sites beneath the forest canopy are beautiful en route, the view at the lake is breathtaking – with 10,396-foot Noble Peak serving as a backdrop to snowfields, talus slopes and the lake’s crystal-clear water.

    Lost Cabin Lake, like its neighbor Louise Lake (both share the same trailhead), is a fun and uncomplicated overnight backpack, although the 4.5 miles are easy enough to make a day hike out of it. People who want to travel light may consider car camping along South Boulder Road (near the few latrines located along the way) on Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest land, then spend a day hiking up to Lost Cabin Lake and back. Visitors new to this area will find the Tobacco Roots are multi-use and popular – from horse riders to four-wheelers to extra-large, self-contained campers. Not all trails are motorized, but most of the trails are open to mountain bikers.

    One appeal to Lost Cabin Lake is just getting into the Tobacco Roots. The mostly graveled South Boulder Road is one of the main access routes, and takes vehicles right up into the heart of the range, passing amazing geological formations and the quaint mining town of Mammoth (now mostly summer homes) along the way. The Tobacco Roots, in fact, have such interesting geology that Indiana State University maintains a geologic field station for summer study there. Forty-three peaks rise higher than 10,000 feet elevation.


    Location: To get to the trailhead from Butte, drive east on Interstate 90 and exit at Cardwell. Drive south about 5 miles, and watch for the South Boulder Road sign on the right. The sign isn’t easy to see. Turn right, and drive about 15 miles, watching for signs. The road starts out paved, then turns to gravel and is adequate for most cars to the Louise Lake-Lost Cabin Lake trailhead.

    Distance/duration: 4.5 miles with a gain of about 1,500 feet.

    Difficulty: Easy for seasoned hikers, and a pleasant first-time day hike to a high mountain lake for beginners.

  • DAYTON — Wild Horse Island State Park on Flathead Lake is one of the real treasures of Montana’s state park system.

    To make a perfect summer day, you can sail or kayak to the massive, mostly undeveloped island and swim, fish, hike or watch wildlife to your heart’s content. The island is three miles long, but is very hilly and the landscape alternates between grassland and forest.

    At 2,164 acres, Wild Horse Island is the largest freshwater lake island west of Minnesota. Salish and Kootenai Indians are thought to have used the island to keep their horses from being stolen by other tribes. Today, a population of about five wild horses, a herd of mule deer and about 100 bighorn sheep inhabit the island.

    Since it was sold to the state in 1978, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has managed the animals to keep the population of horses and sheep at a level the habitat will support. The island is managed as a primitive area and overnight camping, firepits and pets are not allowed. Groups of 15 or more must get a permit, and a state-tribal fishing license is required from the Flathead Indian Reservation.

    The state has six sites it recommends for public boat landings: Skeeko Bay, Eagle Cove, Rocky Bar, Driftwood Point, Osprey Cove and East Shores. All the docks are privately owned. There are 52 private, circle-shaped lots on the island. There is a public, unisex solar-powered composting toilet at Skeeko Bay.

    The waves on Flathead Lake can turn surprisingly big in open water, and weather can change unexpectedly. Almost every year, boaters without life vests die on the lake. Anyone traveling to the island should have life jackets and, if possible, a partner.

    There’s just one trail on the island that connects Skeeko Bay to an old homestead. An old stone fireplace is all that is left of the three-story Hiawatha Hotel that was torn down on the east side of the island in the 1990s. It’s also a fantastic trip in the spring and summer when there aren’t as many people around.

    Location: The island is located near Big Arm State Park on the western shore of Flathead Lake. It is most easily accessible by boat from any public dock along U.S. Highway 93. Dayton is a good place to launch.

    Distance/duration: Depending on wind conditions and your endurance, a kayak trip to the island from Dayton can take 45 minutes, sometimes much longer.

    Difficulty: Getting to the island is easy, as long as you wear a life jacket and are aware of any dangerous weather conditions that might arise. Always check the forecast, and be sure to pack out any garbage you bring. For more information, visit stateparks.mt.gov/wild-horse-island.

  • CRAIG — The Dearborn River offers your paddling Goldilocks a classic three-bears set of options.

    The upper third coming out of the Scapegoat Wilderness is Baby Bear, with a little stone-walled water park just outside the wilderness boundary popular with summer swimmers and a dramatic canyon near Bean Lake along its 16-mile reach where kayakers play.

    The middle third is the more sedate Momma Bear, with 10 miles of rolling hills, little shade but curiously good fishing, according to local guides.

    Papa Bear dominates the last reach, where 19 miles of twisting canyon curves get packed into 12 miles between the Highway 287 fishing access site and the confluence with the Missouri River. By August, only 70 cubic feet of water per second flow into the Big Mo’ at the U.S. Geological Survey gauging station near Craig. Prime floating time is just after spring runoff when the flow is between 300 and 600 cfs. That usually occurs between early June and early July. Even then, it takes a fast paddler about seven hours to make the run, while a raft can need half a day.

    Even though nine of 10 Dearborn floaters use the lower reach, the river’s geography ensures you’ll rarely see another boat. The water cuts through volcanic tuff of the Adel Mountains with dozens of fishhook and horseshoe bends that restrict the view. That also means few places to pull out or camp, making a Dearborn trip generally a one-day adventure.

    Since Meriwether Lewis noted the Dearborn’s “handsome, bold and clear stream” in 1805, the river has played several roles in Montana history. Hollywood cowboy (and Montana native) Gary Cooper had a ranch on the lower reach. Other ranchers had a court battle over their definition of trespassing that helped the Montana Supreme Court clarify the state’s expansive stream access law. While yet to receive a federal Wild and Scenic River designation, the Dearborn would get protection in the proposed Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act.


    Location: Trailhead to Devil’s Glen cascade is about 22 miles west of Augusta. Access to lower Dearborn River is about 20 miles north of Wolf Creek on Highway 287.

    Distance/duration: Devil’s Glen cascade lies about 3 miles up from Dearborn River trailhead. Lower river only accessible by boat, with lower 19-mile reach most popular

    Difficulty: Easy day hike to Devil’s Glen. Lower river requires boating experience with class-II rapids and at least seven hours paddling endurance.

  • The gray and green dome of Stuart Peak stands above downtown Missoula and the North Hills, within reach nearly any day of the year.

    Depending on your mode of travel, the 19-mile round trip to the 7,971-foot summit can take from a few hours to all day, or be an overnight camping trip.

    Recently, a friend and I ran to the top, hoping to get above the haze of wildfire smoke.

    Starting about 7 a.m. from the main Rattlesnake National Recreation Area trailhead, we followed the wide Trail 515 north to Spring Gulch. Two trails – 517 and 517.1 – lead up the gulch, paralleling Spring Creek on either side. We opted for 517.1 on the shadier, cooler east side of the creek. After crossing a small footbridge 1 2/3 miles up the gulch, it reconnected with Trail 517 for the remainder of the route.

    After passing the turn for the Wallman Trail and Kench Meadow at 3 miles, the trail left the creek, entered more dense forest and began the first of two steeper climbs.

    At about 4 1/4 miles, we reached a junction with Trail 24.1 from the west. Turning northeast, here, the grade eased and the trail went up a couple of series of switchbacks. As we rose above the valley, surrounding ridges became visible through the haze, the forest thinned and beargrass bloomed in patches.

    About 7 3/4 miles from the start, the switchbacks ended and the trail reached the boundary of the Rattlesnake Wilderness. From here, the route rounds the top of a basin, the trees sparse enough to see northwest to Point Six and the Montana Snowbowl ski area. After a nearly level 1 1/4 miles, we arrived at a saddle below Stuart Peak and looking over Twin Lakes and deeper into the wilderness.

    For the final steep climb to the summit of Stuart, we turned back southeast and followed the rough trail along the cliffs for about 1/2 mile.

    On a clear day, you’ll have views south back to Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley and north to the Mission and Swan ranges. While we could see other peaks in the wilderness the day of our run, the haze heightened the sense of isolation.

    After a break, we retraced the route to the main Rattlesnake trailhead and arrived back downtown just before noon – in time for a slice of pizza for lunch.


    Location: Stuart Peak is in the Rattlesnake Wilderness, north of Missoula. To reach the main Rattlesnake National Recreation Area trailhead, drive north on Van Buren Street and Rattlesnake Drive about 3 1/4 miles, then turn west on Sawmill Gulch Road and follow it for about 1/4 mile.

    Distance/duration: 19 miles. We recently ran to the top in a little more than 3-1/2 hours, with an additional 35 minutes of stopping for food and to take pictures.

    Difficulty: Moderate, with a couple of strenuous uphill stretches.

  • DARBY – The 101-mile primitive Magruder Corridor Road offers a unique opportunity for a windshield tour of the largest unroaded block of land in the lower 48 states.

    But with hundreds of miles of scenic trail, incredible fishing opportunities and plenty of places to camp along the way, it would be hard to imagine anyone passing this way without getting out of their car and enjoying the solitude.

    The history of the current corridor dates back to 1980 with the passage of the Central Idaho Wilderness Act, which left the unique road open between two sprawling wilderness areas: the 1.2 million-acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness to the north and the 2.3 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness to the south.

    The original road was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Not much has changed since then.

    The corridor bears the name of Elk City merchant Lloyd Magruder, who was murdered – along with his four companions – near the Selway River in 1863. The murderers was captured, brought back to Lewiston, Idaho, and found guilty. Their hanging was the first legal execution in the Idaho Territory.

    This trip isn’t one for people who like to drive fast.

    The primitive road can be rough, steep and winding, with few turnouts for passing oncoming vehicles on its narrowest sections. High-clearance vehicles, pickup trucks, motorcycles and mountain bikes are the best and safest way to travel the road. The U.S. Forest Service recommends against towing a trailer along the route due to several hairpin turns that make it hard to successfully navigate.

    This is a trip to come prepared for the unexpected.

    There are no gas stations, tire pumps or fast food restaurants for 117 miles – at 12 mph. Make sure your vehicle is in good working order and that your spare tire has plenty of air in it.

    It’s not a bad idea to call ahead to the Bitterroot National Forest office to see what kinds of obstacles you might face along the way.

    It’s also best to set aside a couple of days or more to make the trip, so you can stop along the way to enjoy the views or dip a fly line or just absorb the sense of remoteness that this incredible drive has to offer.


    Location: You can access the Magruder Road Corridor from both the Montana and Idaho sides. In Montana, the road begins a little less than a mile south of the Bitterroot National Forest’s West Fork Ranger Station (18 miles southwest of Darby).

    Distance/duration: The winding 101-mile, sometimes single-lane, mostly unimproved Magruder Corridor Road takes six to eight hours to travel from Darby to Red River without stops at an average speed of 12 to 15 mph. A two-day trip is ideal, with an overnight stay at one of the dispersed campsites along the way.

    Difficulty: The road isn’t recommended for low-clearance vehicle travel. Remember, there’s wilderness on both sides of the road; keep those tires on the gravel.

  • GLACIER NATIONAL PARK – Legend has it, park rangers opened the doors of the Ptarmigan Tunnel one spring to be greeted by a hungry – read, grumpy – grizzly bear. Seems the bruin had denned in the tunnel, not realizing there would be no escape once winter’s snows blocked all retreat.

    The story came courtesy of a retired, longtime ranger who once led a gullible pack of politicians, reporters, land managers, business owners and conservation leaders up 2,480 feet to the Ptarmigan Tunnel and across the rocky scree to Elizabeth Lake, in the heart of Glacier National Park.

    We were believers, although we may have been woozy from the altitude and exertion.

    The Iceberg-Ptarmigan trailhead is just north of Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, in the ever-serene Many Glacier area. For 2.5 miles, the trek is an easy one around the southern slopes of Altyn Peak and across Ptarmigan Creek at its stair-step falls.

    Mount Wilbur commands the scene on your left; the Ptarmigan Wall is before you. At the junction just beyond the falls, the Ptarmigan Tunnel trail is to the right – or north.

    For the next 1.5 miles, the trail ascends through a forest to the foot of Ptarmigan Lake. Then comes the steepest mile of the day, that last push to the tunnel up the side of the Ptarmigan Wall. But oh, what a vista lies ahead.

    The Ptarmigan Tunnel was blasted through the 7,200-foot divide in 1931. It’s an eerie piece of civilization in the wilderness, but a fortuitous one for hikers enjoying the relatively easy access to Elizabeth Lake and the Belly River country. Walk through the tunnel to the north for your lunch stop. The view is unmatched: the sheer wall, the lake below, Natoas Peak rising above the water.

    About a half-mile north of the tunnel is another spectacular vantage: Mount Merritt, Old Sun Glacier, Helen Lake, Ipasha Peak, the heart and soul of Glacier Park’s backcountry. The 4.8 miles downhill to the campground cross glacial scree, gnarly whitebark pine stands and mixed forest.

    The campground is surely one of the loveliest sleepover spots in the park. The lake is crystalline. The fish are abundant. There’s another grizzly bear story to be told around the campfire. And the loons wake you with the dawn.


    Location: Glacier National Park.

    Distance/duration: A 10-mile roundtrip day hike from Swiftcurrent Motor Inn to Ptarmigan Tunnel; or 9.8 miles to the Elizabeth Lake campground for an overnight stay.

    Difficulty: Moderately strenuous.

  • SUPERIOR – It’s humbling how many times you can miss the trail on a 2.5-mile hike.

    What looks like a big path heads straight up the hill across Cedar Creek Road, but it peters out quickly. The real Stateline Trail takes off through a thicket of trees, but we didn’t find it until the return trip. Instead, we stomped right over the hump on game tracks until we found an intersection of real trails.

    The path heading uphill pointed toward the Bonanza Lakes Basin, while the downhill path looked like it led elsewhere. So we marched uphill until we found ourselves on top of the cirque overlooking the lakes, several hundred feet below. Try again.

    The deceptive but correct trail moved from arid, open landscape to a suddenly moist, lush pocket of thick brush and trees around the lakes. It marches straight into one of the few campsites on the lower lake, which was occupied the weekend we made this trip. So we bashed into the thicket on the faint trace up to the second lake.

    Along the way, frustration set in as to whether this second lake actually existed. Given the previous wrong turns and diversions, credibility was in short supply. To forestall a family fight, we dropped packs at the first spot we could find with room for a tent and access to huckleberry bushes.

    Half an hour after we got the tent up, we found a game trail that turned out to go right to the upper Bonanza Lake. Whether this was the official route or not, it ended in a shoreline spot just big enough to cast a fishing rod.

    Most Montana mountain lakes have spots like this that get hammered by every camper who visits. Giving these overused sites a break will help the next person have a more enjoyable experience, as long as you leave no trace of the alternative you chose.

    The Stateline Trail goes for miles up and down the Montana-Idaho border, dropping into dozens of fishable lakes along the way. Remnants of the Great Burn of 1910 are disappearing under a century of new growth, combined with occasional scars of more recent fires.

    The Missoula Lake campground attracts front-country campers a short distance from the Bonanza Lakes trailhead, making it an option for day hikes. It’s also possible to mountain bike into Bonanza Lakes, although the last portion of the trail is an axle-buster.


    Location: 25 miles west of Superior on the Cedar Creek Road No. 320.

    Distance/duration: 2.5-mile hike.

    Difficulty: Suitable for novice backpackers, even with lousy route-finding skills.

  • MELROSE — Mountain goats, three crystal-clear lakes filled with trout, and a short side trip to see historic charcoal kilns are waiting for those willing to navigate a narrow mountain road into southwest Montana’s Pioneer Mountains.

    The trip for most people begins at the tiny town of Melrose. The road turns to dirt right after leaving town as it follows the creek to the old mining town of Glendale. After a short but steep climb, the road continues past an odd-looking group of domed charcoal kilns that are definitely worth some time to explore.

    The Canyon Creek trailhead is 18 miles from Melrose.

    The well-maintained trail — that’s sometimes used by horses — leads to three mountain lakes that offer plenty of opportunities for solitude, fishing and scenic views.

    Crescent Lake is the largest of the three.

    Parked at timberline, Crescent Lake is the perfect spot to wet a line while keeping an eye out on the rocky crags above for the tiny white specks that become mountain goats through a good pair of binoculars.

    Canyon Lake is the first of the three lakes that you’ll see after a 5.5-mile hike with 1,500-feet elevation gain. A side trail drops down to the lake’s shoreline. Canyon Lake is the shallowest of the three and offers good fishing for pan-sized trout.

    Lake Abundance is not far from Crescent Lake and has a beautiful camp spot along its southern edge.

    The trail to the lakes begins near the Canyon Creek Campground and crosses immediately over Canyon Creek on a pretty good bridge. The trail branches after about a mile. Hikers heading to Crescent Lake stay to the right across the creek once again. That crossing can be challenging during spring runoff, but is easy once the water drops.

    The other branch leads to Vera, Grayling and Lion lakes.

    The trail branches again following a steady climb of about three miles. The right branch leads to Abundance and Crescent lakes. The left goes to Canyon.

    The trail gets a bit steeper from here as it climbs to a ridgetop that provides a panoramic view of the upper Gold Creek drainage, including Maurice Mountain in the background.

    From there, the trail drops down into the cirque that contains the two lakes. At times, horse packers will set up camp on the east side of the lake. There are places to camp on the other side of the large mountain lake.

    For those looking for more solitude, the campsite at Lake Abundance is a nice alternative.

    The Pioneer Mountains are often overlooked, but they have a lot to offer folks looking to get away to explore, fish and camp the more than 80 alpine lakes found in the range.

    Location: Drive west from Melrose up Trapper Creek Road for seven miles to the old mining town of Glendale. Turn north up the hill to Canyon Creek to the campground near Canyon Creek Guest Ranch. Total distance to the trailhead is about 18 miles.

    Distance: The hike to Crescent Lake is about 5.5 miles with a 1,500-foot gain in elevation.

    Difficulty: Moderate.

  • If you want to cross the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park and are looking for more adventure than walking past the sign atop Going-to-the-Sun Road, take the trail over Gunsight Pass instead.

    The 20-mile trail connects Jackson Glacier Overlook on the east with Lake McDonald Lodge on the west, and can be done as a long day hike or as a backpacking trip.

    Along the way, you’ll see plenty of waterfalls, at least a couple of glaciers, possibly moose and more than likely mountain goats.

    One of the easiest ways to hike the full length of the trail is to park at Lake McDonald Lodge, ride the free shuttle over Logan Pass to Jackson Glacier Overlook and then walk back to your vehicle – at the end, you’ll have the added benefit of being able to sink your tired feet in the lake behind the lodge.

    The trail begins by dropping from the overlook and crossing Reynolds Creek into the St. Mary River drainage. Here, you can look for moose in bogs, then take a side trip to see Florence Falls.

    Before reaching Gunsight Lake at about 6 1/4 miles, the trail rises out of the trees, offering you views of Mount Jackson, Blackfoot Mountain and their respective glaciers, and Mount Logan. From the shore at the east end of the lake, take in the numerous cascades down the red and gray cliffs and green slopes surrounding the basin.

    After crossing the suspension bridge at the outlet of Gunsight Lake, the five miles over the pass and down to Lake Ellen Wilson account for most of the 3,287-foot elevation gain along the entire route. It’s also where you’re most likely to encounter mountain goats.

    The trail rises above the bright blue Gunsight Lake, and early in the season crosses lingering snowfields – some of which can be quite steep – and runoff creeks, before arriving at the 6,946-foot pass. From here, descend through drier, rockier terrain to Lake Ellen Wilson – you might want to remove your footwear where a waterfall splashes over the trail.

    From Ellen Wilson, head uphill again, over a snowfield and through goat territory to Lincoln Pass, where there’s an optional scramble up Lincoln Peak.

    About three miles from the lake, you’ll reach Sperry Chalet, then it’s six miles downhill on dusty horse trails and into the shade of dense forest to the Sun Road, Lake McDonald Lodge and your ride home.


    Location: Gunsight Pass is between Jackson Glacier Overlook on the east side of Glacier National Park and Lake McDonald Lodge on the west.

    Distance/duration: About 20 miles. Could be hiked in a long day or backpacked over one or more nights, with stops possible at Gunsight Lake, Lake Ellen Wilson, and the Sperry Chalet or campground.

    Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous, with the possible hazard of steep, lingering snowfields depending on the time of year.

  • HERON – A wannabe wilderness in Montana’s northwest corner has plenty of real wild country for those wishing a remote experience.

    The Scotchman Peaks can’t be seen well from the road, although plenty of trails take off from easily reachable spots along Montana highways 200 and 56. The outer hillsides give little clue of the dramatic peaks concealed inside.

    The proposed wilderness area covers 88,000 acres, 20,000 of which lie in Idaho. In fact, the namesake mountain, Scotchman Peak, rises just across the border north of Cabinet, Idaho. Nearby Lightning Creek ranks as the wettest place in the Idaho Panhandle, recording 10 inches of rain in one 2006 day.

    While the next-door Cabinet Mountains Wilderness won recognition in the original 1964 Wilderness Act, the Scotchmans remained stuck in bridesmaid status. That’s despite outstanding scenic trails, occasional wolverines and grizzlies wandering through, a unique mix of Pacific Northwest rainforest and subalpine landscapes and between 5,000 and 6,000 species of lichen growing in the trees – only 1,600 of which are currently known to science.

    The trail up to Star Peak gives a warning/welcome to anyone entering the Scotchmans. It starts near the Big Eddy Campground on Cabinet Gorge and launches up the mountainside for about 4,000 vertical feet over five miles to a fire lookout. The view to the south includes the waterways impounded by Noxon Rapids Dam and the Kaniksu National Forest,while the vista north spans corregated ridgetops all the way to Troy.

    The trail has little water, so pack plenty for the long, hot southern exposure. Mountain goats regularly hang out along the ridgeline near the lookout. For all its moisture, only one significant lake exists in the Scotchmans. Little Spar Lake awaits hikers who can drive to the trailhead and frontcountry campground at the main Spar Lake west of Highway 56.


    Location: Bounded by the Clark Fork and Bull rivers northwest of Heron. Big Eddy campground and trailhead to Star Peak are at mile marker 6 on Montana Highway 200 east of Heron.

    Distance/duration: 5 miles one way to the Star Peak lookout.

    Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous uphill hike with little water.

  • MANY GLACIER – Midsummer crowds on the Grinnell Glacier trail can inspire complacency. But rest assured: This is wild country and choice bear habitat, deep in the heart of Glacier National Park.

    The 5.5 miles to Grinnell Glacier rise through forests of subalpine fir, across alpine meadows, along cliffs with panoramic views of high-altitude waterfalls and majestic peaks, up and over a terminal moraine to the foot of one of the park’s largest remaining glaciers.

    Grizzly bears are not uncommon on this trail, so make your presence known as you round blind corners. Mountain goats are sometimes spied on the cliffs above. Moose frequent the lower lakes and bogs, and bighorn sheep make occasional appearances.

    Look up! It’s easy to become too focused on the trail ahead, which climbs steadily from the Swiftcurrent Lake picnic area to the glacier – a 1,600-foot elevation gain. The upper slopes can be toasty on summer afternoons, so bring more water than you expect to use. You’ll drink it all.

    Then, take in the wonder around you. As the trail ascends out of the valley, Allen Mountain is in the foreground. Above the head of the valley are Mount Siyeh and Cataract Mountain. The western rim above you is the Garden Wall, with Mount Gould to the southwest.

    The Blackfeet Indians called this the Land of the Walled-in Lakes, and you’ll see many on your way to the glacier. First Swiftcurrent Lake, with the mighty Many Glacier Hotel along its shore, then Lake Josephine, then lower Grinnell Lake at the foot of Grinnell Falls, then the milky aquamarine upper Grinnell Lake.

    The higher you climb, the more you’ll soak in the solitude. The crowds thin, the mountains close in. There’s a much-needed dousing of the trail by a waterfall. You’ll be grateful for the drenching.

    Near trail’s end, the National Park Service has hidden away a little picnic area with log benches. Finally, comes a short but steep hike up and over the terminal moraine to upper Grinnell Lake and its attendant glacier. As are all of Glacier Park’s glaciers, Grinnell is rapidly melting. I was shocked by how it had changed in 10 years between visits.

    It remains well worth the hike. More times than not, you’ll have the lake to yourself. Above its waters are three glaciers: the larger Grinnell, with its caves and fissures clearly visible; the long, narrow glacier called Salamander above and to the north; and a tiny glacier called Gem high on Mount Gould’s northern shoulder. Gem Glacier – as its name would imply – is small in acreage, but great in depth.


    Location: The Grinnell Glacier trail is accessed from the Many Glacier area of Glacier National Park. The trailhead is at Swiftcurrent picnic area.

    Distance/duration: An 11-mile roundtrip day hike, gaining 1,600 feet in elevation from trailhead to Grinnell Glacier. You can shave 3.4 miles off the trip by taking boat shuttles across Swiftcurrent and Josephine lakes.

    Difficulty: Moderate.

  • ROCK CREEK — There was a lot of debate about including Welcome Creek in this list of 50 Wild Places in Montana.

    Is it a trail to nowhere, with little scenic or recreational interest? Or does this pocket wilderness hold subtle values that underpin the whole reason for preserving landscapes?

    It certainly starts with a thrill. A rope suspension bridge crosses Rock Creek right at the trailhead, just beyond the frontcountry Welcome Creek Campground. Then the path heads into the woods for a long, steady march to Cleveland Mountain. Welcome Creek itself flows below, but doesn’t offer nearly the blue-ribbon angling of its more famous mainstem.

    There aren’t any lakes either in the 28,135-acre federal wilderness. There aren’t many flat places to raise a tent either. Look carefully, though, and you’ll find several traces of old mining activity above where Ferret Creek flows in. Those scars were one of the arguments against adding Welcome Creek to the wilderness system before it was admitted in 1978. On the other hand, as writer Don Berg noted, the forest’s ability to erase intrusions over time has a great example here.

    At just nine by seven miles square, Welcome Creek is one of the smallest designated wilderness areas in Montana. It protects the headwaters of Rock Creek, which many of the fly-fishing persuasion would call justification in itself.

    Visitors tend to be anglers looking for something really different or hunters who capitalize on the wilderness’ trademark “outstanding opportunity for solitude,” as the 1964 Wilderness Act puts it. They also benefit from Welcome Creek’s linkage of the Sapphire, John Long and Garnet mountain ranges, which in turn connect to the Selway-Bitterroot, Anaconda-Pintler and Bob Marshall wilderness areas. Its rugged ridgelines and canyons make it popular with bighorn sheep and elk intent on evading lazy predators.


    Location: 25 miles southeast of Missoula on Interstate 90 and 13 miles south on Rock Creek Road.

    Distance/duration: Welcome Creek trail travels five miles to Cleveland Mountain (7,280 feet). Another 20 miles of hard-to-find side trails access the wilderness.

    Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous, with a 3,000-foot elevation gain from trailhead to Cleveland Mountain.

  • LEWISTOWN – There is no heart of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, but there is a circulatory system.

    This 1.1-million-acre, 125-mile-long territory along the Missouri River Breaks has long been known as the “American Serengeti” by generations of big-game hunters who’ve made pilgrimages there.

    Outside of hunting season, the area offers scenery unlike any other part of Montana, stunning herds of elk wandering as they did when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark first passed through, and isolation that belies the network of roads seen on a map.

    Most people come to the CMR’s west end from U.S. Highway 191 north of Lewistown, although the Fort Peck Lake area to the east draws anglers and boaters. In between lie the Breaks – thousands of gullies, coulees, dry riverbeds and canyons that make the country look like a shattered pane of glass from the air.

    This landscape holds bizarre secrets. Hikers have literally stumbled across nearly complete dinosaur skeletons recently eroded out of cliff walls. In the fall, hunting dogs occasionally probe balls of soon-to-be-hibernating rattlesnakes, much to their dismay. Herds of antelope gallop across the prairie, showing the inexhaustible speed that’s allowed them to escape Ice Age and modern-day predators.

    The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the CMR and the interior UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge and UL Bend Wilderness. This last finger of land, bounded by the hose-kink of the Missouri River on three sides, is a fully protected landscape with rules similar to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. This often catches hunters by surprise when they learn they can’t use a wheeled game cart to lug their elk to camp.

    Visitors to the CMR must always watch the weather. Winter storms hit here with “Made in North Pole” stamps still leaking ink, while a rain cloud at any other time of the year is a warning to get out – fast. What looks like high desert turns to gumbo mud in even light rain, making roads unpassable and even walking treacherous until things dry out.


    Location: The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge field office is located in Lewistown, which is about 65 miles southwest of the western edge of the refuge on U.S. Highway 191.

    Distance/duration: Slippery Ann Elk Viewing Area lies about 6 miles east of Highway 191’s Fred Robinson Bridge across the Missouri River and the adjacent James Kipp Recreation Area. Front-country camping is available at the recreation area, and at-large camping is allowed within 100 yards of the river or numbered roads.

    Difficulty: While apparently flat, the Missouri Breaks can be tiring due to constant up-and-down climbing of gullies and ridges. Beware of cactus spines, rattlesnakes and rainstorms.

  • WEST GLACIER — On some hikes, you never cross a contour line but feel like you’ve still climbed a mountain.

    It’s worth it, nevertheless, to find Harrison Lake on Glacier National Park’s southwestern edge. The Middle Fork of the Flathead River acts as gatekeeper here, discouraging all those unwilling to make an occasionally thigh-deep ford of the big water.

    But the crossing is much easier than it looks, especially in August and September when flows are low and days are warm. Once across, a short bushwhack leads to the boundary trail and then to the spooky remains of the Doody homestead.

    The story of Josephine Doody alone makes this trip worthwhile. “The Bootleg Lady of Glacier Park” may have murdered a man in Colorado before running the homestead ranch with husband Dan Doody, one of the park’s first rangers. She provided moonshine to Great Northern railroad riders, who would signal their requests with train-whistle blasts.

    A short climb over the Harrison Valley’s terminal moraine is the only elevation gain that appears on the map of this 6-mile hike. The rest appears to follow the (flat) lakeshore. In reality, the next 2 miles are a constant 20-feet-up, 20-feet-down Stairmaster routine.

    Only mountain climbers, aircraft passengers and river-forders get to see the head of the Harrison Valley at the north end of Harrison Lake. The ridgelines of Mount Jackson hide most of this area from Going-to-the-Sun Road travelers, and motorists on Highway 2 only see snatches through the trees.

    So they miss Mount Thompson, Walton and Blackfoot mountains rising straight from the forest floor, hiding the extremely remote Harrison and Pumpelly glaciers in their upper reaches. While not one of Glacier Park’s larger lakes, Harrison holds some big trout as well.

    The best spot to ford the Flathead River changes slightly from year to year, so consult with a Glacier backcountry ranger when you pick up your camping permit.


    Location: About 6 miles east of West Glacier on Highway 2.

    Distance/duration: 6.6-mile hike to campground at head of Harrison Lake, suitable for day trip or overnight experience

    Difficulty: Moderately easy trail with 500-foot elevation gain, but lots of ups and downs along Harrison Lake. Requires fording the Middle Fork of the Flathead River or extra mileage along the South Boundary Trail from West Glacier.

  • DARBY – We think of mountains as solid, singular things. But what if they’re really just tall piles of little rocks?

    The last thousand vertical feet of Trapper Peak feels that way, as the steep-but-functional trail turns into a boulder field. The final approach to the summit is less a march than a game of leapfrog, bounding from one wobbly, refrigerator-sized rock to the next.

    But climbing the tallest peak in the Bitterroot Mountains isn’t as daunting as it sounds. Trapper Peak tops out at 10,157 feet above sea level. It has some sheer sides, and looks positively wicked from the Bitterroot Valley near Darby. But the standard routes near the West Fork Ranger Station require no special equipment or technical expertise. And you don’t have to tell your map-challenged friends that a forest road drops you off at a 6,500-foot elevation trailhead.

    Nevertheless, don’t assume Trapper Peak is a casual day hike. Lots of climbers like to set up a base camp at the nearby Sam Billings Forest Service campground, or the more scenic State Creek and Painted Rocks campgrounds around Painted Rocks Reservoir (a beautiful destination in its own right). It’s far more comfortable to rest cramping thigh muscles around the campfire than on a car seat dodging U.S. Highway 93 evening traffic.

    Those seeking more of a backcountry experience can try to get tent spots at Gem Lake or Baker Lake, two mountain basins reachable from a trail beyond Forest Road 5634. However, these sites get lots of use, so be considerate of their delicate nature.

    The mountain itself rises from the part of the Bitterroot that looks like it got left too long in the oven. The rocks have a charred look. Their sharp, granite edges put the beat on soft shoes and delicate fingers. One recommended piece of climbing gear is a pair of leather gloves.

    On a clear day, the views from Trapper Peak include most of the 1.3-million-acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, as well as the Bitterroot Valley and the adjacent Sapphire, Beaverhead, Pintlar and Mission mountains.


    Location: 12 miles southwest of Darby.

    Distance/duration: 4.2 miles from Forest Road 5630A trailhead to summit.

    Difficulty: No technical skill required, but 3,794 feet of elevation gain.

  • JACKSON — Big Hole, big mountains.

    Just getting to the trailhead for Rock Island Lakes makes the trip worthwhile for those who’ve never dropped into Montana’s Big Hole Valley. The expanse of sky fringed by the Beaverhead, Pintlar and Pioneer mountains makes the grassland look that much bigger.

    Continental Divide Trail travelers may know the Beaverheads better than many Montana hikers. The range sits on the stretch of the Montana-Idaho line defined by the great watershed boundary, and a rugged chain of trails stays within sight of it for miles. The Rock Island Lakes Trail forms one of those links.

    The trip takes off from the Miner Lake Forest Service campground, an excellent front-country destination for families and anglers. Above the campground, a high-clearance dirt road leads 2 miles to the base of the mountains. If your vehicle can handle it, you can shave those miles off the effort. If not, they’re the easy part of a 5-mile hike.

    Soon after entering the thick forest at the trailhead, the trail makes a stiff ascent to the Rock Island Lakes basin beneath Homer Youngs Peak. A southeast spur leads to Upper Miner Lakes, and considerably steeper country. Proposed wilderness legislation would designate the Upper Miner Lakes as nonmotorized backcountry, while Rock Island Lakes would remain accessible by snowmobiles and bikes.

    The larger of the two lakes actually has several rock islands, along with a split personality. Steep forest covers one shoreline, while the other has a bright green apron of grass. This meadow hides a fascinating bog, where dozens of little streams lace through the wrinkled ground filled with wildflowers. While the bog water is remarkably warm, the lake itself maintains the freezing standards of mountain water bodies across the Rockies – swimmers be warned.

    Upper Rock Island Lake has an outlet stream so large, it seems impossible all the water hasn’t drained away. The geology of the area seems to hide catch basins for snowmelt in odd places, making the cirques around Homer Youngs Peak well worth exploring.


    Location: 15 miles west of Jackson.

    Distance/duration: 5-mile hike (3 miles if you have a high-clearance vehicle), suitable for day trip or overnight backpack.

    Difficulty: Moderately strenuous, with 1,500-foot elevation gain.

  • RIVULET — You can’t see the fish of Fish Creek from the Williams Peak fire lookout, but you can scan the whole of Montana’s second-largest state park.

    Mountains rise 2,000 feet above Fish Creek’s tributaries as they flow down from the Bitterroot Range. The Williams Peak lookout gives a view of the north and south forks of Fish Creek, as well as Tarkio flats below the Clark Fork River’s Alberton Gorge.

    Visitors must walk around a gate for the last mile of Forest Road 7721 to the lookout. While the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has done a lot of maintenance work on the structure, it’s currently closed to public access. Nevertheless, the view from the summit is worth the walk.

    About 520 miles of old logging roads zigzag across hillsides, making Fish Creek State Park popular with mountain bikers, ATV clubs and horse riders. While some areas are gated, most of the roads open during Plum Creek Timber Co.’s ownership remain accessible.

    Forest Road 7750 leads to the Clearwater Crossing Ranger Station, which sits at the trailheads to several popular lakes and basins in the Great Burn Area along the Montana-Idaho border.

    In the bottom of the drainage, Forks and Big Pine fishing access sites both have front-country camping facilities. Big Pine’s namesake ponderosa pine tree is one of the state’s largest, and the recipient of a very tricky bank stabilization project to keep it from toppling into Fish Creek. Another 20 unofficial campsites and pullouts bulge out of the roadway at popular fishing spots.

    The state paid $17.35 million for 41,000 acres of former Plum Creek land covering most of the upper Fish Creek drainage. The U.S. Forest Service and other state agencies own much of the rest. FWP manages the bulk of the area for wildlife, including a remote portion north of Alberton Gorge called Nemote Creek.


    Location: 41 miles west of Missoula, from the Fish Creek exit off Interstate 90.

    Distance/duration: One-mile walk from the gate to the top of Williams Peak and the base of the lookout off Forest Road 7721.

    Difficulty: Easy uphill walk.

  • AUGUSTA – As appetizers go, Whitewater Falls makes a great introduction to the banquet of backcountry behind it.

    It takes some pretty rugged bushwacking to reach the cliff where it tumbles down the side of Crown Mountain, just outside the Scapegoat Wilderness. But it’s a pleasant hike of about a mile to a vantage point where its cascade becomes visible.

    Crown Mountain Trail No. 270 eventually leads deep into the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and some of the most amazing scenery in Montana. Some use this to climb 8,401-foot Crown Mountain itself, while others like it as a dramatic alternative to the more monotonous pack routes. It involves a 2,000-vertical-foot grunt to Crown Pass followed by a long descent where the bottom two miles have been erased by a debris flow.

    Whitewater Falls itself presents only slightly more challenge than nearby Double Falls, which has an undeveloped front-country campground next to it off Benchmark Road. This pretty picnic area gives visitors their first taste of the thrusting rock formations that give the Rocky Mountain Front its character. What used to be a shallow sea filled with sedimentary limestone and mudstone got thrust skyward by tectonic plate shifting, often putting billion-year-old Precambrian rocks on top of 200 million-year-old Jurassic and Cretaceous layers.

    The path passes a private cabin just after the trailhead, before entering a thick forest. As fall grows moist, yellow, red, white, black and freckled mushrooms replace the wildflowers of summer. Once Whitewater Falls comes into view, the geologic oddities of the Front start jutting out of the trees with increasing frequency. Eventually, the trees get left behind entirely as the upper thousand feet of Crown Mountain rises in a sheer wall.


    Location: The Crown Mountain Trailhead is 20 miles west of Augusta on Benchmark Road.

    Distance/duration: 1-mile hike to Whitewater Falls viewpoint, followed by unlimited distance into the Scapegoat and Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.

    Difficulty: Easy hike to the viewpoint, followed by strenuous, 2,000-vertical-foot climb over 3 miles to Crown Pass. Motorists can drive within a few hundred feet of Double Falls on Benchmark Road.

  • GOLD CREEK — In the northern reaches of the Rattlesnake Wilderness, Boulder Lake provides solitude not found closer to the main trailhead on the edge of Missoula.

    That likely is mostly due to the drive to the start, 16 miles up forest roads from Montana Highway 200 along the Blackfoot River. The final five miles to the West Fork Gold Creek trailhead includes steep switchbacks and is very rough.

    Once at the trailhead, you’ll find yourself surrounded by gray snags left by a 2003 wildfire.

    Follow Trail 333 north through this landscape for about 2 1/2 miles, crossing a couple of creeks and entering green forest near a junction. On sunny days, this first section of the trail has little shade and can be quite hot.

    At the junction, Trail 333 continues south then northwest and climbs a rocky ridge to the wilderness boundary at about 3 3/4 miles. Here, you can spot the Mineral Peak lookout high to the south.

    After the boundary, the trail continues up through burned trees to a saddle at about 4 1/2 miles that provides a view of Boulder Point. A short distance farther, a side trail climbs north a quarter mile to the point. When the path fades, continue uphill to the top.

    Atop 7,293-foot Boulder Point sits the remains of a lookout. About 800 feet below the cliff edge sits the lake, and beyond it the Swan Range can be seen to the northeast and the Mission Mountains to the north.

    Back on the main trail, it’s a short distance to a forested junction, then about a mile down past a wetland and across a creek to Boulder Lake at 6 miles.

    A grassy spot on the southwest shore is an ideal spot to cool your feet surrounded by lily pads before turning around, and campsites are available if you want to turn it into an overnight adventure.


    Location: Boulder Point and Boulder Lake are in the Rattlesnake Wilderness, north of Missoula. To reach the West Fork Gold Creek trailhead, drive northeast of Missoula on Montana Highway 200 to Gold Creek Road, along the Blackfoot River. Follow Gold Creek Road, also known as Forest Road 126, northwest for 6 miles, then turn northwest on Forest Road 2103 and drive 5 miles. Turn onto Forest Road 4323 and continue northwest 5 miles to the trailhead. This last section of road switchbacks steeply and is very rough.

    Distance/duration: 12 miles round trip to Boulder Lake, with an extra 1/2 mile to Boulder Point and back.

    Difficulty: Moderate, with a gradual climb to Boulder Point, then a steep descent to the lake.

  • NINEMILE – Before you lace up your boots and strap on a backpack to climb the lone mountain soaring on Missoula’s western horizon, it’s probably a good idea to know how to pronounce the peak’s name you’re about to scale.

    It’s Ch-paa-qn, pronounced “Cha-pa-kwin.” The Salish name means “shining peak.”

    The delicate symmetrical point that rests on the boundary of the Lolo National Forest’s Ninemile Ranger District and the Flathead Indian Reservation is a perfect destination for a day hike that offers a top-of-the-world viewing experience.

    From Missoula, it’s about an hour and half drive to the most popular trailhead, past the historic Ninemile Ranger Station and Remount Depot.

    A 10-mile drive up Edith Peak Road will put you at the Reservation Divide trailhead and the relatively easy 3.5-mile march to the top of the peak.

    There are a couple of other routes up the mountainside.

    The Sleeping Woman Trail is a shorter and steeper 2.8-mile route that can be found on Forest Road 2178 about 11 miles from the ranger station.

    Hikers with more energy to burn can walk the 8-mile route up the Kennedy Creek Trail that can be found about 14 miles from the ranger station on Road 5507.

    The Reservation Divide Trail is the most popular. The well-pounded path traverses the ridgeline that separates the Ninemile Creek drainage to the south and Flathead River drainage to the north.

    On our hike this summer, we ran into a young family that included a woman pushing a jogging stroller along the trail while her husband kept a close eye on a pair of tiny hikers no older than 5.

    After walking up a couple of pretty steep, rocky stretches of trail, we both decided that woman was in really good shape.

    Expect to gain about 1,836 feet of elevation on the Reservation Divide Trail. A good chunk of that elevation comes in the last quarter mile or so when the trail disappears and the scramble over rocks and boulders begins on your last leg to the top.

    The views from the pinnacle are both expansive and breathtaking. To the north, you can see the Mission Mountains, Flathead Reservation and even a bit of Flathead Lake. Turn around for an incredible view of the Missoula and Bitterroot valleys.


    Location: From Interstate 90, take Exit 82 at Ninemile. Take Highway 10 west to Remount Road. Turn north and continue to the Ninemile Ranger Station. From there, continue north on Edith Peak Road 476 for 10 miles to the Reservation Divide trailhead.

    Distance/duration: 7 miles round trip.

    Difficulty: Moderate, with a scramble over rocks and boulders to the top.

  • ENNIS – There’s nothing quite like Sphinx Mountain in all of the Madison Range.

    Blocky in shape with a truncated summit, the mysterious conglomerate that gives the top 2,000 feet of Sphinx Mountain its unique reddish-brown color isn’t found anywhere else in the mountain range.

    The approach to the fortress-like mountain passes another interesting crag called The Helmet. Together, they serve as two of the most distinctive landmarks in the Greater Yellowstone area.

    It takes a pair of sturdy legs to make the climb that begins in a gentle fashion at the Bear Creek trailhead about 20 miles southeast of Ennis, off U.S. Highway 287.

    Be prepared for a nearly 4,500-foot gain in elevation if you plan to hike to the summit of the Sphinx.

    The trail up Bear Creek offers an easy climb through Douglas fir and spruce forest on a well-pounded trail. Get there early enough in the year and you’ll be greeted by meadows ablaze with arrowleaf balsamroot and bluebell.

    There are a few minor creek crossings to negotiate and maybe a wet spot or two.

    It doesn’t take all that long to break out of the timber and be met with the jaw-dropping sight of The Helmet reaching for the sky. Turn west just a little to catch sight of the rugged top of the Sphinx Mountain.

    The trail of switchbacks continues to gain elevation as it leads to the saddle between the two peaks. The saddle’s trees are the last bit of tall shelter from high-powered winds that often sweep across the Madison Range.

    The wind blew so hard on the day we journeyed there that, at times, it felt like it might actually lift you off your feet and blow you away.

    Once you make the saddle, it’s time to make your legs burn.

    Stay right as you begin the steep ascent toward the summit. Watch close to find the dimly marked climber’s trail leading to a broad, obvious gully heading ever upward.

    The climb is steep for the next 1,200 feet. Once you reach the summit plateau, the true summit will be found on the northeast end of the ridge.

    Be careful of your step. It’s a 2,000-foot drop into the Indian Creek drainage from here.

    You can come back down the same way you went up, or make a loop by dropping over the other side at the saddle and coming out on the Middle Fork of Bear Creek. The entire route is 13 miles long.

    Location: The trailhead is 20 miles southeast of Ennis at Bear Creek campground, off U.S. Highway 287.

    Distance/duration: The trail and climb up Sphinx Mountain is about 13 miles round trip. Total elevation gain from the trailhead is about 4,400 feet.

    Difficulty: Strenuous, especially the climb from the saddle to the top of Sphinx Mountain.

  • CONDON – It’s easy to find Cold Lakes on the U.S. Forest Service’s Mission Mountains Wilderness map: They’re the ones rimmed with reddish-pink ink in the otherwise deep-green wilderness zone.

    The map legend denotes pink as “No camping within 1/4 mile of lakeshore.” Both Lower and Upper Cold Lake have that restriction, making them glow like a bandit’s mask on the map. In a place honored for “outstanding opportunities for solitude” that

    are “untrammeled by man,” according to the Wilderness Act of 1964, Cold Lakes has attracted a little too much love.

    They are one of two spots in the 74,000-acre

    Mission Mountains Wilderness, the other being Glacier Lake a few miles to the south, where generations of visitors have trampled the shoreline so regularly, virtually nothing can grow there. Roped-off

    former tent sites show some native plants taking hold, but it’s taken them almost two decades to do so.

    Cold Lakes initially earned their popularity from an old custom of gathering cutthroat trout when they came to spawn in the stream between the upper and lower lakes, according to wilderness ranger Kari Gunderson. In season, people would bring nets and coolers to harvest loads of fish, cutting social trails between the lakes to reach good sites.

    The sheer beauty and accessibility of the basin is the modern factor. Lower Cold Lake sits two miles west of the trailhead, on a well-groomed path that grandparents and their grandchildren can manage. The route to Upper Cold Lake is more complicated, with no official trail but lots of amateur offerings wandering through the thickets, blowdowns and bogs. Less than a quarter-mile separates the two lakes, but the meanderings seem to go much longer.

    The fragile makeup of many wilderness landmarks inspires a lively debate over how best to acknowledge them. Some argue for silence, saying anyone who can’t find their own way into the wilderness doesn’t deserve help getting there. Others say the more people learn about what wilderness has to offer, the more they will cherish it. Like a sacred relic in a sanctuary cabinet, Cold Lakes awaits our decision.

  • ST. IGNATIUS – It’s a favorite view for many Montanans, when they top Ravalli Hill on U.S. Highway 93 west of here and the Mission Mountains explode into view, with a magnificent waterfall tumbling down them.

    With a recreation permit from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes – who 32 years ago became the first American Indian tribe to ever permanently designate some of their own lands as a wilderness area – you can get a lot closer.

    There’s something here for all ages and abilities.

    While it would be hard to argue that the reservoir itself is “wild,” given that it was created by a man-made dam likely built in the 1930s, there’s no denying the stunning lake-like scenery it created.

    The reservoir is a beautiful spot to picnic, camp or fish (make sure you have the proper stamps on your permit for the latter two activities). There are three areas available for mostly primitive camping.

    The first you’ll arrive at is on the northwest side of the reservoir, and the second is at the east end of the reservoir. Both have restroom facilities. People also camp at the Mission Falls trailhead at the end of the road, although there are no restrooms there.

    Here’s what you should know about the trail itself. That spectacular waterfall you see from Highway 93? That’s Elizabeth Falls, and it’s farther above the waterfall most people hike to.

    The 2-mile trail leads to Mission Falls, spectacular in its own right.

    Mission Falls can be deceivingly dangerous, according to Tom McDonald, division manager of CSKT’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, Recreation and Conservation. The trail, which includes three steep sections, takes you to a pool atop the falls that couldn’t look more serene.

    “A light film of algae grows on the rocks, and people who wade out into the pool can slip and go over the falls,” McDonald says. “It’s the only trail in the wilderness we’ve had fatalities on in my time here.”

    Stay out of the water and you won’t slip on the algae.

    The trail continues another 3 to 4 miles to Lucifer Lake. It is extremely steep, not maintained, and doesn't offer good vantage points for viewing Elizabeth Falls, which it passes.

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