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Photo by Thor Mark
THERE’S SOMETHING about waking up deep in the backcountry, having carried all of your gear in to camp near a quiet lake or alpine cirque with panoramic views of the surrounding peaks.
You can find dozens of places like this in the Big Sky State. These are nine of my favorites, the ones I consider the “ultra-classic” Montana experiences.
Montana has incredibly varied terrain, so I’ve included different regions as well as different levels of difficulty and distance.
East Rosebud Trail (aka The Beaten Path)
Location: Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness
Arguably one of the best hiking experiences the Rocky Mountains has to offer in any state, the East Rosebud trail between Red Lodge and Cooke City has something for everyone, from wildlife that walks right up to you, to incredible fishing in lakes surrounded by craggy peaks, to trailside berries to munch on.
A strong hiker could make this 26 mile hike in one day, but if you want to get the most out of the trip, expect to spend three or more days out there. Though the trail gets its nickname from the mid-summer throngs of people, it’s far from crowded. Take any of dozens of side trails and you’ll find yourself in complete solitude.
Cottonwood Creek, Crazy Mountains
Location: Gallatin National Forest
Unlike many backpacking routes, this hike offers great mountain views right from the start. The trail follows Cottonwood Creek through prime moose habitat before climbing to excellent camping in the beautiful glacial tarn that embraces Cottonwood Lake.
Fishing is good at Cottonwood Lake, but another unnamed pond just below Cottonwood has water so clear you can watch the foot-long trout strike your line. Make sure you bring a stove to cook your catch as firewood is scarce.
Location: Glacier National Park
If you’re looking for a variety of interesting geological features Boulder Pass won’t disappoint. The beginning of the hike is marked by ample huckleberries along alpine lakes, lovely expanses of prairie and spectacular views of Harris Glacier. Waterfalls line the mountainsides as you make your way up to Boulder Pass.
Here, the geology gets more interesting. The terrain resembles a moonscape with lava pools and other reminders of the area’s volcanic past. The trail goes through Hole-in-the-Wall campground, said to be the most remote campsite in Glacier Park, and along narrow cliff-side trails Glacier is famous for.
Bechler River Trail
Location: Yellowstone National Park
Bechler River Trail has everything people come to Yellowstone Park for: wildlife, waterfalls, hot springs, picturesque river canyons, and great fishing. It is also one of the least visited areas of the park. That said, don’t leave getting your backcountry permits until the last second.
Camping is limited to established campsites and there aren’t many. It is also one of the least strenuous trails in the Rockies, being flat or a slight decline for most of its substantial length. Its flat grade turns boggy in some areas, making it almost impassable until early August.
Big Creek to Bear Creek Traverse
Location: Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness
The first several miles of the Big Creek Trail wander along the bottom of a forested canyon and belie the rugged nature of the Bitterroot range. Stepping out of the trees near Big Lake, however, will introduce you to the jagged peaks that characterize most of the hike, twice crossing the spine of the Bitterroot divide between Montana and Idaho.
The stunning views and complete solitude make the considerable trek in well worth it.
Moose Lake Trail
Location: Bob Marshall-Great Bear Wilderness
This trail, located just south of Glacier Park’s southern boundary, offers what’s best about the Bob Marshall Wilderness: options. Studying the map for a few minutes will reveal almost infinite possibilities from lake-to-lake angling excursions to alpine summit expeditions.
The trail to Moose Lake begins in dense woods but soon opens up into spectacular views north into Glacier and south/east into the Great Bear Wilderness. Next, drop into Moose Lake, or change your mind and climb to Tranquil Basin, descend into Elk Lake or hook up with the Twenty-five Mile Creek Trail.
From there, choose between heading for the Middle Fork of the Flathead River or climbing Vinegar Mountain. You get the idea.
Hyalite Creek to Hyalite Peak
Location: Gallatin National Forest
This trail is short but sweet, and considered by many to be the premier hike of the Bozeman area. In the first five miles to Hyalite Lake, the trail passes eleven seperate waterfalls cascading from Hyalite Basin’s red rock bowl. At Apex Falls, just below Hyalite Lake, the trail branches toward Apex Crest and Hyalite Peak.
Hyalite Peak may not be the highest peak in the Gallatins, but it may be the most beautiful, looking down on one of the most unique drainages in Montana.
Crystal Lake-West Peak
Location: Lewis and Clark National Forest
Starting at Crystal Lake, the trail leads in a long loop to the top of the Snowy Mountains, connecting with several side trails that lead to peak-bagging opportunities—notably Promontory and Grandview Peaks. At least two cave entrances along the trail will entice spelunkers to light up and explore.
Upper Potosi Hot Springs
Location: Tobacco Root Mountains
The Tobacco Root Mountains are often overlooked when it comes to backcountry adventures. Big mistake. The landscape is more arid than most in Montana, which makes for open, panoramic views. Hot springs on the trail bubble into primitive backcountry soaking pools. A just reward for the hike in.
This article is sponsored by our friends at the State of Montana. It was originally published on March 30, 2009.
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