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The cool blue light against the mountain peaks hints at a clear fall day on the horizon. Steam emits from the heavy exhale of a weary wanderer as a distance elk bugle breaks the morning silence. Breathtaking scenery appears through the mist as the explorer moves on, walking forward without a worry in the world as to fences or restraints. That is what Montana has to offer, miles and miles of public land straight out of a movie scene, and they belong to all of us.
The United States, in its entirety, consists of 760 wilderness areas, property of the public. That is over 109 million acres for adventurers to explore. Montana may only have 15, but they are some of the most coveted in the western states.
1. The Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Area
Located in both Montana and Wyoming, the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness area was created in 1978, encompassing 943,626 acres of land to the northeast of Yellowstone National Park. Nestled between the Beartooth Mountains and the Absaroka Ranges, the area offers everything from the highest jagged granite peaks, resembling bear jaws, to secluded green lakes, canyons, and glaciers. Including parts of the Shoshone, Gallatin, and Custer National Forests, a stunning variety of landforms and ecology greet visitors.
With much of the land reaching beyond 10,000 feet, hikes here are not for the inexperienced climber, but the views are worth it for those feeling ambitious. Granite Peak is the most popular draw for hikers of the Absaroka-Beartooth. As the highest in the state at 12,799 feet, it is known as the most difficult of the 50 state high points. For those looking for calmer treks, the wilderness area also contains over 700 miles of maintained trails abundant with wildlife and wildflowers.
A favorite, and must-see, is the Beartooth Highway. Though it does not go through the wilderness area, it passes the same forests and mountains while running adjacent to the protected lands. Passing glaciers and canyons on its way from Montana to Wyoming, the Beartooth Corridor is a must-see.
2. Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness Area
If pristine mountain top lakes or fishing are your things, a day or ten spent in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness Area will leave you breathless. Following the peaks of the continental divide, this wilderness area is jagged, rocky, and high. Covered in snow and frozen over for most of the year, once the waters clear, anglers flock for the blue ribbon fishing. Besides stocked waters, the wilderness boasts multiple species of trout and char for fishing fanatics. With many lakes taking some effort to reach, the stock often grows to trophy size.
For those looking to get out and enjoy the land, hundreds of miles of trails are set aside for hiking, horseback riding, and motorsports. The most popular is a 45-mile long trek along the very peak of the tall mountains known as the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.
For a day trip to the area, consider visiting the nearby cities of Butte and Missoula or other smaller municipalities, such as Hamilton and Philipsburg. The surrounding landscape is full of ranches and hidden treasures like The Pintler Scenic Byway http://www.nanpa.org/montanas-hwy-1-the-pintler-scenic-byway-by-pam-w-barbour/
3. The Bob Marshall Wilderness
Montana's well-known motto, “Get Lost,” is no joke. With millions of acres to explore, this is truly the place for adventure seekers to disappear. The Bob Marshall Wilderness Area is one such place as one of three national wilderness areas combined to form the massive Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
https://www.wilderness.org/robert-marshall Bob Marshall was a Wilderness Society Co-founder known for his contributions to today’s Forest Service programs. As an avid outdoorsman having lived from the east to west coast, Marshall loved his wilderness areas and pushed for the public ownership and upkeep of these important ecological regions.
Having climbed multiple peaks in his early life (including 46 of the Adirondacks) Marshall made it to the Montana mountaintops in the 1920s where he quickly pushed for their conservation. He described the encroaching human activity long before it became an issue as a potential threat and urged everyone to take action. Thankfully, the lawmakers listened. He left his legacy to live on today in the now protected wilderness areas.
Today the Bob Marshall Wilderness is one of the best-preserved natural areas of wilderness in the world and is affectionately referred to as, “The Bob,” by locals. Here you will find remote areas in which to get lost and even annual music festivals like The Bob Festival https://www.thebobmusic.com/ located right next to the popular Seeley Lake.
There is just one hope for repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every inch on the whole earth. That hope is the organization of spirited people who will fight for the freedom and preservation of the wilderness.
4. Cabinet Mountain Wilderness
The Cabinet Mountain Wilderness is one of Montana's smaller wilderness areas stretching only 35 miles north to south. Though it may be lesser in size, the area features tall picturesque rocky peaks and perfect mountain top lakes. The “Cabinet” portion of the name comes from the French. As the first to encounter and record the unique shape of the mountains, it was pointed out that they look like kitchen cabinetry, and the name stuck.
Only becoming part of the Wilderness Preservation Act in 1964, the mountains have seen extensive use throughout their history. Natives of the Kootenai Tribe used to use the area for large game hunting, particularly mountain goats, and for foraging the medicinal herbs and food that only grew at the higher elevations. Later, Europeans discovered the Snowshoe Fault and used it commercially on and off for mining.
Unlike many other wilderness areas, hikers will only find 30 short trails here. Most of the landscape is vertical and rocky, making hiking difficult but creating a climber's dream. For fishermen not afraid of a challenge, 85 lakes are scattered throughout the range too. Mostly stocked for use and known to bring in a decent catch, sparse campsites dot the shores for overnighters.
A main feature of the Cabinets is the Blackwell Glacier, the remnants of a colder era. Despite the implementation of mines and a large reservoir, the water draining off the peaks takes claim as the top 5% of the cleanest water in the lower 48.
5. Gates of the Mountains Wilderness
First seen and named by Europeans when Lewis & Clark passed through, the Gates of the Mountains look as spectacular as they sound. Looming over the Missouri River, the Gates open up into miles of dams and lakes along the Helena National Forest. The area is known for fishing, kayaking and even has a Gates of the Mountains Tour leaving daily from the marina during the busy season. http://www.gatesofthemountains.com/
An alternative entrance to this wilderness is only a short drive from Helena. Passing the famous York Bar, known for its burgers, and the smaller towns of Nelson and Beaver Creek, visitors often take the route after a long day on the lake. Nelson is little more than a ghost town these days but is self-proclaimed as the "Cribbage Capital of the World." Both places provide access to a majority of the trailheads heading into the wilderness. Beautiful to explore, the Helena National Forest manages this land totaling 28,465 acres. With 53 miles of trails in multiple high and low elevations, hikers will find it suitable for earlier seasonal trips than many other locations due to the weather. https://www.hikingproject.com/directory/8020816/gates-of-the-mountains-wilderness-area
Some more unusual hidden treasures in The Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area, Refrigerator Canyon, Confederate Gulch, and Diamond City aren’t too far away. Refrigerator Canyon is a unique trail leading to a narrow canyon of two great walls of rock. The temperature drops here significantly, hence the name. The other side of the canyon, within a couple of miles of the trailhead, opens to beautiful views and more hiking. An ambitious hiker that prefers the longer runs (18 miles) can eventually find themselves at the Meriwether picnic area.https://www.visitmt.com/listings/general/national-forest-trail/meriwether-canyon-trail.html
For those looking for a road trip, a short drive past the trailhead heads to Diamond City. Unfortunately, after discovering that the town lay on the third-largest gold strike in history, it was all but swept away in the mining activity that ensued. At one point, the area was possibly the largest population in Montana, today, there is nothing left but a few building remnants. https://www.greatfallstribune.com/story/outdoors/2017/11/07/confederates-gulch-cribbage-canyon/814504001/
6. Great Bear Wilderness Area
Another piece of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex falls into place after visiting the Great Bear Wilderness Area. Bordered in the north by Glacier National Park, the southeast by the Flathead National Forest, and the east by the entire continental divide, the only thing sectioning off these vast 285,771 acres is the Middle Fork of the Flathead, often proclaimed as “Montana’s Wildest Waterway.” Difficult to get to unless it passes a highway, the river is lined with cliffs, boulders and is nothing less than dangerous to the inexperienced floater if taken at the wrong time of year. The National Wild and Scenic River System includes this area as officially “wild” and warns anyone looking to venture there to have wilderness training and/or experience before planning to venture too far.
Though the entire wilderness area contains roughly 300 miles of trails, the middle “wild” park is mostly unmapped and untouched. Those seeking a spot to disappear off-grid and go skiing or hiking will feel at home here among the sheep and wolverines. Be warned, The Great Bear Wilderness is aptly named with the largest population of Grizzlies left in the state.
7. Lee Metcalf Wilderness
Born in Stevensville on a typical Montana farm, the life of Lee Metcalf was not that of your average rancher. After attending school for a bachelor's in history and economics, he went on to law school where his education left him with a solid foundation to become both a State Representative and Senator.
When war hit the world, Metcalf pursued his passion overseas. His law practice always coming in useful, he helped pass laws for displaced persons in Germany and went on to return home to continue his perseverance towards helping others by playing key roles in the founding of institutions such as the PeaceCorps and Medicare. With a reputation for protecting the environment and being for the people, he is often included on lists from multiple well-known publications. The Missoulian recognized him as one of the 100 Most Influential Montanans of the Century.
The Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area was named in recognition of this dedicated individual and is aptly a popular destination for those from all walks of life. Encompassing four separate units conveniently accessible along the Madison Range, the variety of activities here draws the attention of hikers, environmentalists, sportsmen, and more. Interestingly, though parts are easy to get to, the ones that do not reveal little information. With the exception of an old blog post or two showcasing a hashtag from years prior, the wilderness here does appear to truly be an unexplored terrain.
BEAR TRAP CANYON
Along with the rest of the complex locations, the Bear Trail Canyon Unit of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness is known as one of the originals by outdoorsmen far and wide. Recognized both for great fishing and hiking, the most popular attraction here is a 9-mile rafting trip along the Madison featuring 2,000-foot canyon walls and a “Kitchen Sink” known to dissuade the uninitiated rafter.
In an area known for its scenic views and high elevation, these 78,000 acres are conveniently located close to Big Sky and the ever-incoming tourism that Bozeman provides. Moderate and experienced hikers often visit the Spanish Peaks unit due to its ease of access and well-developed trail system. Featuring 110-miles of trails, hiking here shows off no glaciers, but their remnants in patterns of glacial cirques and sharp skylined peaks.
http://montana-skiing.blogspot.com/2015/05/madison-range-taylor-hilgard-unit.html A backcountry skiers paradise, this almost 150,000-acre area is largely unvisited by the usual tourist crowd. Filled with backcountry goat trails and several 11,000+ peaks, the snowy treks are meant for those seeking a backcountry adventure. Be aware that fewer people means this is wilderness territory and only those with planning and experience should venture into such a place. Also, be warned that the reward of a 10+ hour hike will be well worth it. Sunrises and sunsets over snowcapped peaks and fairytale high mountain meadows will whisk any explorer away into an unimaginable dreamland brought only back to reality by the grueling climb.
Though bordering Yellowstone National Park and seemingly close to what would be a “touristy” area, the Monument Mountain Wilderness Unit is anything but. With peaks completely surrounded by Gallatin National Forest and nearing the 10,000-foot range, the mountains here are more accustomed to Grizzly Bear snarls and mountain lion roars than hikers wary footsteps. There are a few more well-known hikes, such as the Blue Lake Trail https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/montana/blue-lake-to-monument-peak that welcomes adventurers to visit for a taste of the steep wilderness terrain.
8. Medicine Lake Wilderness
The landscape of eastern Montana is different from the rest. Often described as moon-like in the perfect midnight lighting, this expansive rolling prairie is somewhat magical. Littered with sudden bluffs and ravines created by retreating glaciers, the Medicine Lake Wilderness appears as a whole other land.
Eastern Montana is not usually known as a popular vacation destination for anyone other than the avid bird hunter or curious off-roader, but the mountain-less terrain that the state is not so well-known for keeps secrets of its own. Fossil hunters flock to these lands and do their best to get landowners to agree to a short dig. Cattle-ridden fields where nothing but steer and antelope benefit from the tawny sage promise the possibility of ancient rocks. Bird and whitetail hunters follow annually closely in their paths, chasing the buck a buddy posted online.
The areas crowning feature, Medicine Lake, takes no justice away from the other landscape though. Shallow and littered with islands, Medicine Lake is nothing less than a sacred water body of the big sky's offerings.
9. Mission Mountains
Anyone having had the honor of driving along the Mission Mountain Range recognizes the power and beauty of such a uniquely just landscape. Towering out of seemingly nothing, the Missions are known for their roots running far beyond that of the natives who call them home. Largely known to belong to spirits, the over 70,000 acres of rugged terrain was not even classified as a wilderness area until 1975 when a documented “exploration” took place. As a border to the Flathead Reservation, this is not the common popular stop where peak baggers and offroaders come to hang. Here, it is expected that hikers accrue permits and treat the mountains with nothing less than the respect earned.
10. Rattlesnake Wilderness
Traditionally a ground for spirit quests and hunting, the Rattlesnake Wilderness area is now known for its outdoor recreational trails set with a backdrop of spectacular scenery. Here locals take advantage of the miles of hiking and biking trails easily accessible from their backdoors. Streams originating from springs and snowmelt run throughout the forested slopes creating ravines and open cliff faces, as well as popular fishing holes and brooks.
Though rattlesnakes are not a common threat in the area, despite the name, the wilderness zone is located within the Northern Continental Divide Grizzly Bear Recovery Area. Visitors can expect to share the paths with the many species calling the place home and should expect to pack away food if staying for an extended amount of time.
11. Red Rocks Lake Wilderness
It may surprise many to learn that barely a century ago vast areas of wilderness were yet unexplored and often held secrets kept by only the wildlife living there. Though this can still be said today about many of these remote wilderness locations, technology developed fast making it easier for us to track and discover pieces of the puzzle that were once a mystery.
Red Rock Lakes Wilderness is one such area. Home to the infamous Trumpeter Swan, North America’s heaviest flying bird, these beautiful creatures were thought to be extinct in the 1930s until explorers discovered them nesting in the remote lakes that are now part of the Red Rocks Complex. Located in the warm waters of Southern Montana’s Centennial Valley, the lakes here provide the perfect wintering grounds for a variety of migratory birds and other animals. The area is meticulously cared for to enhance and protect the delicate ecosystem where wildlife viewing is the main sport. Be sure to plan ahead though, year-round access is limited and there is no trail system. Visitors are encouraged to respect the habitat and practice leaving no trace.
12. Scapegoat Wilderness
Founded as the first citizen-initiated wilderness area, the Scapegoat is another one of the three complexes that make up the great Bob Marshall. Totaling over 200,000 acres, the adjoining million acres of land mean that a person could spend a lifetime exploring the remote mountains.
320 miles of trails extend through the Scapegoat welcoming explorers of all backgrounds. A variety of landscapes form the vast terrain with the limestone cliffs of the Scapegoat Mountains, beckoning travelers towards the imposing Chinese Wall located just along the way in the Bob Marshall. Not for the wary, though beautiful, the complex is truly a wilderness escape belonging to the animals that call it home.
13. Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness
Bordered by the Frank-Church River of No Return Wilderness https://wilderness.net/visit-wilderness/?ID=194 and connecting to the wilds of Idaho, the Selway-Bitterroot is part of multiple connecting wilderness complexes totaling over one million acres. Though only covering approximately 250,000 acres in Montana, the wilderness is the third largest of the lower 48.
A historical Nez Perce Trail traverses the land along with the jaggedly protruding granite caps of the Bitterroot. Meanwhile, thick forests and rapid rivers run through the ravines and undergrowth. 1,800 miles of trails wind through the area, though they are considered rarely used when compared to those of many of the other wilderness areas due to the secluded location. An elk herd is more prominent here than the human footstep.
14. UL Bend Wilderness
For Charlie Russell fans, the consensus is that the famous artist was not only good at portraying old-western life with real-time action scenes, but also at capturing the scenery of what is eastern Montana. Compared to the lush forests, ravines, and jagged snow-packed peaks of the west, the eastern side of the state moves into territory much like that of the Dakotas. Rugged, barren, rolling, and unforgiving, the landscape consists mainly of sagebrush and cactus with elk herds seen running for miles across rocky ridges. Though mountains line the horizon, it is this type of terrain that is often most often used to accurately depict the life of early settlers. Summers are hot and dry, and the winters are harsh. Despite what seems like a rough place to live, the wildlife thrives here.
Named after the bend the mighty Missouri River takes here, the UL Bend Wilderness is a smaller part of a secluded section of a wild area close to the popular fishing reservoir of Fort Peck, just north of the Missouri. The hiking and camping are spectacular with free-range of use left to the explorer, but it is not a landscape for the faint of heart. Unexplored by any but the true adventurer, there are no maintained trails, only those left behind by the wildlife that resides here.
15. Welcome Creek Wilderness
With the trout-filled Welcome Creek flowing through thick forests and high mountain slopes only 25 miles from Missoula, one would think this wilderness area a popular location to visit. Visitors here though are usually limited to fishermen and day hunters due to the extremely rough terrain. With rocky slopes abutting more rocky heights, few are able to find a decent hiking path, let alone a tent spot. With 28 miles of trails, the area is a great spot to visit for a solitary day hike.