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.