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Cowboy Heaven Consulting, LLC
6116 Walker Road
Bozeman, MT 59715


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The Bob Marshall Wilderness

If you can't get away from it all here, you aren't trying.

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ig. If I had to limit myself to one adjective to describe the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex, big would be it. Of course, a host of other adjectives also apply, but no matter where you may find yourself in this area, you are quite likely going to be struck by the sheer magnitude of the surrounding country. The complex actually consists of three adjacent wilderness areas, from north to south the Great Bear, Bob Marshall, and Scapegoat Wilderness areas. For all practical purposes they comprise one huge wilderness, though, and most people refer to the whole area as the Bob Marshall, or for the sake of brevity; the Bob. This area is roughly bounded by US 2 just south of Glacier Park on the north, MT 200 east of Lincoln on the south, the Rocky Mountain Front on the east, and the crest of the Swan Range on the west. For perspective, on a straight line from north to south the area measures right at 100 miles, and 40 miles from east to west. Of course, if you set out to hike either of these distances, you would find that the trails, rivers, and mountain ranges are not neatly laid out according to the points of the compass and trail miles would considerably exceed these figures. These are just numbers, though, and as anyone who has suffered through a statistics class can well attest, numbers alone oftenWhite River Pass.jpg (19904 bytes) don’t do justice or present the whole picture, and one needs to visit the Bob to get a true idea of the overwhelming scope of the country. This enormous area contains not one single road, and in fact only a handful of roads penetrate the surrounding country to within a short distance of the wilderness boundary. This is another fact that is hard to appreciate until you experience it first hand, when you find yourself a long two-day horseback ride, or four-day hike from a road. Personally, I find that a delightful sensation.  At this point you may be saying "darn it, why isn't there a map included with this article?" This is as good a place as any to explain my policy on putting maps into articles. Any map sufficiently detailed to be useful, when reduced to a size compatible with this format, becomes unreadable. You really need to have a full-sized map available, and a good one for the Bob Marshall is the Lewis & Clark National Forest (Rocky Mountain Division) Visitors Map and Travel Plan, available from the Forest Supervisor's Office in Great Falls, MT, 406-727-0901. Studying maps is a hugely entertaining activity in itself for myself and most other outdoor types, and the map mentioned covers a staggeringly vast area containing the Badger-Two Medicine area, Bob Marshall Wilderness complex, and adjacent National Forest Lands. My copy has been reduced to tatters, and in reaching that state has created an enormous treasure trove of memories. Trust me, you want this map.

I have included this article in our Adventure section because a Bob Marshall Wilderness trip isn’t just a trip or vacation, but a bona fide adventure; something that not everybody gets to do. No matter whether you book a trip through Cowboy Heaven Consulting with one of the several excellent outfitters who offer trips into the Bob or shoulder a pack and head out on your own, you will be embarking on an adventure that is guaranteed to stand out in your memories. I have been extremely blessed in being able to experience many summer pack trips and a few fall hunting trips into this fabulous country, and have visited all the major areas of the Bob. Of course, I am not implying that I have traveled every one of the thousands of miles of trail. That would be a lifetime undertaking, or at a minimum would preclude doing anything else for a period of years, a luxury few can afford (it’s nice to dream, though). I have at least been in the vicinity of all parts of the Bob, however, and will gladly impart my experience. This article will provide an overview of the entire area, and will touch on the routes I have used.

Since the Bob is obviously a roadless wilderness area, the only way you are going to see it is via horseback or your own two feet (One exception exists, which we will get to in a bit). I have done plenty of both, and so speak from personal experience. Two main advantages come to mind regarding backpacking; and the first is that it is cheap. Those on a budget can visit some incredible spots on a shoestring, so to speak. The second is that it offers a somewhat higher degree of flexibility than horse packing. Backpackers only have to be concerned with feeding themselves, and can camp pretty much anywhere they choose. Horse parties, on the other hand, have to limit themselves to areas where good grazing is available, or else pack horse feed, which imposes some real constraints and is only practiced when snow covers the grass late in the fall hunting season. Of course, the downside of backpacking is that it is very hard work. If you are reasonably physically fit and set realistic goals this is a manageable disadvantage, and I have encountered family backpacking groups with small children deep in the wilderness. They were having a good time, too.

Since I am fortunate enough to own my own horses, and have accumulated a good deal of packing and camp equipment and experience, I most often use horses unless I am headed for a particularly rugged area and/or one without trails suitable for horses. Of course, these can be some of the most interesting spots. So, I quite commonly use horses to get to a particular vicinity and set up a comfortable base camp, hiking from there. The primary advantage to travelling by packstring is that you can cover much greater and more difficult distances far more quickly than hiking and carry vastly more equipment in the process. Also, the horses are obviously doing the bulk of the work, although packing is a good deal more work than those who haven’t done it might think. Horseshoeing.jpg (9854 bytes)The primary disadvantage is the considerable expense of owning and maintaining a string of horses or mules plus tack and equipment, or hiring an outfitter who does. Also, horses are not machines, they are individuals with their own mind and every one I have been around will test you at some point to see what they can get away with. It’s critical that you come out of this little contest of wills as the undisputed boss, or you are going to be in for some real grief. This doesn’t mean beating or abuse; that is nearly always counterproductive. Rather it is a subtle psychological thing, an attitude demonstrated by your actions that you will tolerate no mischief. A saying, which I think accurately sums up the situation is: Horses are stronger, people are smarter, and stubbornness is a tossup. As previously mentioned, horses also require a good bit of care, primarily related to the fact that they need to eat, which limits where you can camp. Of course, if you hire an outfitter, all of this becomes less of a concern. Personally, I don’t view the constraints horses impose as a disadvantage in most cases, rather being attuned to and able to provide for the needs of my stock adds considerably to the whole experience. For me, horse packing is not just a means to an end, but also an end in itself. In this increasingly technical world, it is immensely gratifying to be able to practice a skill that remains largely unchanged from earlier days, and I love travelling by packstring.

Due to the great distances involved, the Bob Marshall lends itself to horse use more than many wilderness areas. I am certainly not trying to discourage backpacking, but those considering it need to realistically appraise their abilities. The best example I can think of that demonstrates the contrast occurred in what sometimes seems like a previous life, during my college days in the late 70’s. A friend and I horsepacked into the North Fork Sun River country from Gibson Dam and camped near Biggs Creek, a trip of about eighteen miles. A group of three college chums had also departed on a backpacking trip from Gibson Dam, but theirs was a vastly more demanding trip of around seventy miles; a great loop involving crossing the continental divide at White River Pass at the southern end of the famed Chinese Wall, recrossing the divide at the north end of the Wall, and descending Rock Creek to the North Fork Sun River, which put them in the same vicinity as us. We were keeping an eye out for them, but unfortunately we never crossed paths. Late one afternoon a wilderness ranger stopped by our camp for a visit. In a strange coincidence, he was also a student at MSU, and had not much previously ran into our backpacking buddies. At the time we had been out for about four days, as I recall, and were getting ready to pop open a cold beer and grill up the last of our T-bone steaks. We shared a sympathetic chuckle over our backpacking friend’s considerably more spartan diet. They had been planning on augmenting their food supplies with fish, but as is often the case, particularly when one is depending on success, the fish had been uncooperative and when the ranger ran into them they were on the last of their oatmeal and still a very long days hike from the trailhead. They later told us they finally caught some fish and made it out OK, however they failed to see humor in tales of our comparatively luxurious wilderness lifestyle.

The Bob Marshall Wilderness complex is naturally divided into different areas by the drainage basins of its different rivers. The northern portion is comprised of the Middle Fork Flathead River watershed, which lies west of the continental divide. South of there, the wilderness boundaries expand to include the Sun River drainage east of the divide, and the South Fork Flathead to the west. These two drainages comprise the bulk of the Bob. The southern tip of the complex is drained by the North Fork Blackfoot River and the Dearborn River.

All of the Bob Marshall is wild and remote country, but the interior Middle Fork Flathead country is perhaps wilder and more seldom visited than the areas to the south. Some of its lower reaches, while still wild, are quite easily accessed, though. In fact, the closest the wilderness boundary ever gets to a paved road is at the north end of the wilderness complex. The Big River trail # 155 departs US 2 at the confluence of Bear Creek and the Middle Fork and crosses the wilderness boundary within a mile. Trail #155 follows the Middle Fork all the way to its source near Gooseberry Park, over forty miles away. Due to severe runoff, the lower stretches of this section offer less than stellar fishing, but outstanding whitewater rafting, some of the wildest in the state. Of course, getting a raft into this area could present some complications, but one exception to the foot and horse rule exists. A wilderness airstrip is maintained at Schafer Meadows, which lies just over 25 miles above the Big River trailhead, and charter flights are available into this area. Only very experienced whitewater rafters should attempt this trip on their own, it is almost continuous whitewater, with numerous Class IV and V rapids. Coupled with the remoteness of the area, this makes for a dangerous undertaking. Fortunately, we can set you up with an experienced professional for a float trip through this area, an experience that will peg your adventure meter.

I have most often accessed the upper Middle Fork country on packtrips originating at trailheads along the Rocky Mountain Front. This necessitates crossing the continental divide, but some of the passes, particularly Gateway pass, are quite low and make for a relatively easy trip. I have made numerous trips from Swift Dam on Birch Creek west of Dupuyer, and have often made a nice loop trip of about sixty miles in this area which entails ascending the South Fork Birch Creek, crossing the relativelyBig River Meadows.jpg (15608 bytes) uninspiring but easy Gateway Pass, followed by the vastly more inspiring Big River Meadows (source of the Middle Fork) and Gateway Gorge. After ascending Strawberry Creek the continental divide is crossed at the more alpine Badger Pass and North Fork Birch Creek is followed back to Swift Dam. Naturally, this loop can also be made in the opposite direction, which places the more difficult pass earlier in the trip, perhaps the best choice for backpackers. The fishing in this upper Middle Fork Country is superb, as is the scenery. I have also explored around the upper reaches of the Middle Fork by crossing Teton Pass to the south of the passes mentioned previously. Teton Pass is most easily reached from the West Fork Teton trailhead. This trailhead lies at the end of the North Fork Teton road west of Choteau, which is a beautiful, if somewhat long and rough drive. I would advise against backpackers taking this route, as after crossing Teton Pass the trail descends through nearly continuous mud bogs along Bowl Creek for about six miles till its confluence with Basin Creek. A friend and I went on an unsuccessful but most educational early season elk hunt in this area in 1985. There is an early rifle season that opens on September 15 in parts of the Middle and South Fork Flathead country, which offers one of the only places in the country where you can hunt elk during the rut with a rifle. This is much more difficult than you might think, though. The country is remote, enormous, heavily timbered, and the elk hold considerable advantage. Outfitters in the area who have made a lifelong study of it have reasonable success, though, and we can set you up with one if you desire.

I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite area of the Bob Marshall, but if I had to the Sun River country would be on a short list of finalists. The North Fork Sun River heads just over a low divide from the aforementioned Bowl and Basin Creeks. A significant portion of the upper part of this drainage burned in the 1988 Gates Park fire, but fire is an integral part of nature, and the burn will be beneficial in the long run. Below Gates Park the country was mostly spared, though, and is a gorgeous area. The North Fork valley is broad here, with huge meadows and beautiful timber. The entire area west of the river up to the continental divide is part of the Sun River Game Preserve, and is exceptional wildlife habitat, home to every species of wildlife that ranged here in prehistory (with the possible exception of bison, which didn’t frequent the mountainous areas anyway). Discounting grizzly bears (maybe not the best idea), the most famed residents of this area are the Sun River elk herd. At the risk of sounding provincial, the elk you see in Yellowstone often seem slightly scruffy and semi-domesticated to me. Sun River elk on the other hand are sleek and magnificent, completely wild and glimpsing a group of them or listening to their challenging bugles reverberate during the rut should be considered a personal treasure.

As mentioned, the western boundary of the Sun River country is the continental divide, and an area of about twelve miles framed by Larch HillAtop the Chinese Wall.  Photo courtesy WTR Outfitters Pass and White River Pass consists of the thousand vertical foot Chinese Wall. By anyone’s standards this area must be considered one of the jewels of the entire Bob Marshall and is a most awe-inspiring view.

I have most often entered the North Fork Sun River area via Headquarters Pass. This spectacular pass lies four miles from the end of the South Fork Teton road west of Choteau. After the pass the trail descends Headquarters Creek to the North Fork. Unfortunately, the Headquarters Creek drainage was a casualty of the Gates Park fire, and the resulting loss of vegetation with its water use has resulted in the trail becoming quite boggy in places. A better option for backpackers is the trail along Gibson Reservoir west of Augusta. This trail doesn’t cross any passes and is quite easy. It used to be a something of a nail-biter for horse parties due to a vertical drop into the lake for much of its length, but it has recently undergone a major reconstruction and is much improved. The North and South forks of the Sun River come together at the head of Gibson Reservoir. Calling this beautiful lake a reservoir always seems a bit of an injustice to me, but it lies behind Gibson Dam and a reservoir it is. Also located at the confluence of these two streams just outside the actual wilderness boundary, is a most unique guest ranch only accessible by trail or boat. One other unique attraction in this area is the Medicine Springs, a hot springs mentioned in Blackfeet Indian lore. The spring is now part of the guest ranch facilities. If you wish to vacation in the area and are averse to horses or backpacking, this ranch is a good option and we can book you a stay there.

The South Fork Sun River is best accessed from Benchmark, which consists of a couple of campgrounds and trailheads at the end of a molar rattling and seemingly interminable (although beautiful) drive on gravel west of Augusta. I have inflicted considerable wear and tear on my vehicles on the Benchmark Road, but it reaches more deeply into the mountains of the Rocky Mountain Front than any other, and I hope to travel it many more times. The South Fork Sun River is only a few hundred yards from the campground at the end of the road, which also provides abundant parking for horse trailers. A pack bridge makes for a convenient crossing of the South Fork, and the trail along the river lies just on the other side. Proceeding north (downstream) for four miles leads to the confluence of the West Fork and South Fork Sun Rivers. Good trails along the West Fork lead to White River Pass and the Chinese Wall, among other destinations. Continuing past this intersection for another mile and half leads to the aptly named Pretty Prairie, and within another few miles the South Fork empties into Gibson Reservoir.

Proceeding upstream along the South Fork from Benchmark will eventually lead to the spectacular Scapegoat Mountain and Dearborn River areas. This area is more easily reached from trailheads off either the Elk Creek or Bean Lake roads south of Augusta, though, which involve much less rough gravel driving than the Benchmark road. The route I have often followed upstream from Benchmark is to turn up trail # 226 along Hoadley Creek, about 3.5 miles from Benchmark. After crossing the continental divide through a timbered and somewhat unspectacular pass it becomes trail # 271 and descends along Stadler and Basin creeks to the South Fork Flathead, our next area of interest. Camp Creek pass to the north and Observation Pass to the south are more spectacular, I’m told, but the Hoadley/Stadler route is far more direct and consequently the one I have used. I have also heard that the trail from Observation Pass down to the South Fork country is impassible for horses, something I will probably have to verify for myself sometime.

The South Fork Flathead is perhaps the epitome of a wilderness river. This jewel of a stream flows through the Bob for over forty miles from its head at the confluence of Young’s and Danaher creeks to where it leaves the wilderness near Bunker Creek above Hungry Horse reservoir. Every inch of this is wonderful country; full of fish, birds, and wildlife large and small. No part of this area could be construed as easy to reach. A road does reach within less than a mile of the wilderness boundary at its northern reaches near Bunker Creek, but reaching this point requires a trip of around sixty miles of gravel road along Hungry Horse Reservoir. A paved road does extend for much of this distance along the west side of the reservoir, but is curvy and narrow in the extreme, and myself and most others prefer putting up with the rougher, but somewhat wider and straighter (relatively speaking) gravel road on the east side. Reaching the upper stretches of the South Fork from the Bunker Creek trailhead will necessitate a forty mile hike or horseback ride. Most seem to prefer the alternatives, which include crossing the continental divide from the east via various passes, crossing the impressive Swan Range from the west, or perhaps easiest; entering the area via the North Fork Blackfoot from the south. This last route involves the least elevation gain, but still involves a fairly impressive distance of well over twenty miles, which leads us back to my original point that this area is difficult to reach. That is no small part of its charm, though, in my opinion, and given its many wonders if it was easily accessible it would be overrun with people.

As mentioned previously, I have most often used the Hoadley/Stadler Creek trail from Benchmark to enter the South Fork country, a trip ofThe Basin.jpg (15222 bytes) fourteen miles. This trail reaches Danaher Creek (one of the headwaters of the South Fork) at the Basin. This is a gorgeous area with huge meadows offering excellent grazing for horse parties, as well as views of the surrounding peaks. It is an excellent place to locate a base camp from which to make day trips exploring the surrounding country. Another excellent spot in the vicinity where I have camped several times is Danaher Meadows; seven miles upstream from the Basin. Five miles downstream from the Basin, Danaher Creek joins with Young’s Creek to officially become the South Fork Flathead. Several outfitters operate camps throughout this area, and some offer raft trips down the South Fork originating from this vicinity. Fishing is fabulous for feisty native cutthroat trout all through the South Fork country, and wildlife is abundant. Deer and elk are often visible in early morning and evening, and I have even seen herds of elk bedded in the meadows in mid-day. I’ve also encountered black and grizzly bears, but fortunately, as yet haven’t had any problems with them. Due caution in hiking and camping practices are advised, but these wilderness bears are less habituated to humans than the ones in Glacier or Yellowstone and rarely cause problems.

Good campsites are abundant all along the South Fork; backpackers have their choice of secluded, intimate glens along the river, and horse parties can select from the many meadows that dot the river. The first large series of meadows five miles below the headwaters is the aptly named Big Prairie, site of a backcountry ranger station. Six miles below Big Prairie lies White River Park. This jewel of a spot is actually on a bench aboveWhite River Park.jpg (15631 bytes) the river and consists of several acres of towering pines. There is no brush or undergrowth under these magnificent trees, just grass, and the area seems like a giant cathedral. The White River intersects the South Fork below the park, and the trail ascending it offers several possibilities for outstanding, if somewhat lengthy and strenuous loop trips back to east side trailheads. Five miles up the White River from the South Fork, trail # 138 heads up the South Fork White River to White River Pass. This trail offers outstanding views of the seldom-visited Flathead Alps to the south. From the pass travelers can descend the West Fork and South Fork Sun Rivers back to Benchmark. Those with the time and fortitude can make a considerably more lengthy trip to the headwaters of White River, cross Larch Hill pass at the north end of the Chinese Wall, and descend Rock or Moose creeks to the North Fork Sun River.

Getting back to the South Fork Flathead; a few miles below White River Park lies Salmon Forks. A most worthwhile side trip from this area is to Big Salmon Lake, which lies a mile west of Salmon Forks. This lake is by far the largest in the Bob, and is well worth the trip. Spaced a few miles apart below Salmon Forks are Little Salmon Park and Independence Park, followed by Black Bear guard station. Below Black Bear, the valley of the South Fork narrows and becomes more continuously timbered till its exit from the wilderness near Bunker Creek.

The final region of the Bob is its southern tip, drained by the North Fork Blackfoot River. This area is accessed by several trailheads reached by gravel roads north of MT 200 in the Lincoln and Ovando area. Outfitters offer hunting trips in this area, but aside from that it is not commonly used as a vacation destination in itself. As previously mentioned, it does provide one of the easier routes in to the South Fork Flathead, which accounts for much of its use during the summer months. Also, much of the eastern portion of this area burned in the 1988 Canyon Creek Fire

This article provides an overview of the Bob Marshall, but words are wholly inadequate to describe the charm of this vast country. You really need to visit it to gain an appreciation for its mind-boggling size and the uniqueness of its attractions. Be warned, though, after a single visit you will realize that you have only scratched the surface of the possibilities, and you will likely want to return again and again. The Bob holds a lifetime of vacation possibilities, and if you seek adventure in remote country, a Bob Marshall Wilderness trip should be on your list.

See you on the trail.





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