Living the High Life
If the Anaconda Pintlar Wilderness were located, say, in the middle of Kansas, it would undoubtedly be a national park and the most famous wild area in the state. But it's located in exorbitantly scenic Montana, north of Yellowstone and south of the bigger, more famous Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier National Park. That accident of location makes it not a celebrated centerpiece but a hidden jewel.
Although it's less well-known than its eminent cousins, there are three compelling reasons to visit this alpine wilderness. First, the absence of crowds. Second, the absence of grizzly bears (It is not unheard of for a grizzly to be spotted here, so take normal bear-bagging precautions. But don't sit up at night worrying: This is not occupied grizzly habitat.). And third, the absence of permit requirements and camping restrictions.
A long, thin wilderness running east-west along the spine of the Continental Divide, the Anaconda-Pintlar Wilderness offers two distinct kinds of high country. The open highlands on the western side make for easy ridgeline walking through open parks and light forest, while the craggy, dramatic, but sometimes fiercely difficult slopes on the eastern side pose a more challenging route to experienced hikers.
The 30-mile hike from Mussigbrod Campground to Pintler Campground via the Continental Divide meanders along the Divide, and it proves that high-country hiking need not always be a contest between hiker and mountain, or will and weather. A combination of open ridges, wide parks, and light forests makes this walk rather gentler (and safer) than more exposed traverses. If you've ever stood far above treeline as a mountain thunderstorm gathered, you'll appreciate the many side trails that descend from the ridge. Good footway lets you relax a little and enjoy the views of the Bitterroot Range and the Big Hole (site of the famous battle between Chief Joseph's Nez Perce Indians and the United States military). Surrounded with steep slopes, small, quiet Lake Oreamnos offers a fitting campsite for an alpine addict, a place where you can watch the dusk draw colors out of the air until all that is left are shades of gray sky, gray rock, and gray waters. From there, the route drops back down to the Forest Service Campground at Pintler.
But if it's exposed open scree and talus that you're looking for the kind of country that mountain goats call home you might want to double the traverse and tackle the Wilderness's much tougher eastern section. Instead of descending at Oreamnos Lake, continue on the Divide another 30 miles, then drop down to the campground at Lower Seymour Lake. On this stretch the terrain turns frankly ornery, and the mountains occasionally force the trail to detour down and around rough and rocky obstacles. Note: Rangers recommend that only experienced hikers in good shape tackle this section, and having flailed and floundered on the steep talus and lingering July ice-slopes, I second that advice. But the landscape of sheer mountain walls and towering cirques offer rewards aplenty for your work.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication