Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest
The more than three dozen rustic cabins and lookout towers available for rent on Montana's national forests provide one of the greatest, yet least known, opportunities for recreationists. For fees ranging from 15 to 20 dollars per day, visitors who have spent their days hiking, skiing, or snowmobiling can spend their nights wrapped in the warm, wooded solitude of a historic backcountry field station or perched high in the clouds in an old fire tower. Most of these units are best described as primitive, offering little more than a table, chairs, bunks, and, in most cases, cooking utensils and firewood. Water usually must be treated or boiled before drinking, and outhouses are the order of the day. But the accommodations are sufficient for those seeking the chance to straddle some glorious high cleft of the Rockies or immerse themselves for a week in the thick of a backcountry forest.
The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest currently has 12 cabins available for rent; second in number only to the Gallatin National Forest. The Canyon Creek Cabin, located 13 miles west of Melrose, can be rented year-round, while other units are open anywhere from 3 to 11 months of the year. Bloody Dick, a remote cabin located in the shadow of the Continental Divide, is open weekends only from December 1 through March 31.
The ease with which the cabins can be reached varies widely. Birch Creek Cabin, open from December 5 through March 31, is a scant 1/4 mile from a plowed road. Horse Prairie Guard Station, set in sweeping high plateau country and available for approximately the same period, can be reached in just 1.5 miles. On the other hand, depending on snow conditions, reaching Bloody Dick Cabin may require a 23-mile trek by snowmobile or ski.
The cabin rental program provides a wonderful opportunity for the public, as well as a chance for the Forest Service to preserve these historical structures for years to come. Money collected from rental fees remains within the rental program and is used for the upkeep or restoration of the units. Permits are required for the use of all cabins and lookouts and can be obtained by mail or in person through the individual ranger districts that administer the sites. A complete list of the available lookouts and cabins in the Northern Region can be obtained by writing the Regional Office of the Forest Service at: Federal Building, P.O. Box 7669, Missoula, MT 59807.
Cabins are inventoried and checked for cleanliness by each new visitor. Those who fail to leave them in good order are not allowed to rent again. But the vast majority of people who use these cabins and lookouts see them as a kind of special gift. They not only pack out or burn every bit of trash, but leave a good supply of kindling for the next person who walks cold and tired through the door. Some visitors leave a little extra dry or canned food for that time when someone runs short. If handled with care, the cabin and lookout rental program will continue to be one of the most precious recreational assets of Montana's national forests.
Cabins in the Wisdom Ranger District
Three Forest Service cabins are available for recreation use on the Wisdom Ranger District. Permits for cabin use are issued on a "first-come, first-served" basis to anyone 18 years or older. Use under each permit is limited to three nights, and the permit is good until 12 p.m. the following day. Reservations can be made for only one weekend per season. Additional days can be rented during the week.
To find out when opening day for reservations begins call the Wisdom Ranger Station at (406) 689-3243. This day is normally on October 15th (unless the 15th falls on a weekend) beginning at 8 a.m. Most years many of the cabins are completely booked for the rental season within the first few hours of opening day for reservations. Office hours are from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Permits must be obtained in person prior to use or if handled by mail, payment must be received by the Ranger District seven days prior to the beginning of the use period so that the exchange of mail can be completed. Once the permit is issued, refunds will not be made. Your fee will be deposited in a cooperative account and used to maintain the cabins.
Most of the cabins are equipped with wood stoves, tables, beds, mattresses, axe, shovel, dishes, bucket, and cleaning gear, and they all have outdoor toilets. Because of vandalism problems, the presence of these items cannot be guaranteed. Cabins are not wired for electricity and do not have running water. We recommend that you either supply your own drinking water or treat the local water, either chemically or by boiling for at least five minutes. We also recommend that you call the day before you plan to use the cabin to inquire about existing and projected weather conditions, as weather patterns can vary drastically from day to day.
These cabins were built in the 1920s through the early 1960s to provide field quarters for trail crews, smoke chasers, timber cruisers, or grazing inspectors. Crews often stayed in them all summer. After a hard day's work in the woods, crews returned to the cabin, fed and tended the horses, built a fire in the stove, fetched water, put on dry clothes, filled the lanterns, split wood, cooked supper, and washed the dishes. If, by then, they were not ready for bed, they may have read an old magazine or western novel, wrote in their daily diaries, or played a game of cards.
The Hogan Cabin is a one-room log building. The cabin has no electricity and no running water. The cabin is equipped with a wood stove, a table, chairs, four bunk beds, an axe, a shovel, a bucket, dishes, cleaning gear, and a propane stove and lantern. There is also an outdoor toilet.
Availability: December 1-March 31
Attractions and Considerations: Winter recreationists snowmobile and cross-country ski to the cabin. Using the cabin as a base camp visitors can take day trips to explore the area, photograph winter wildlife, or enjoy the scenery.
Access 1: FS Road #1260: This road takes off from the Chief Joseph Pass sign. The first mile is for skiers only. The remaining road is shared by both skiers and snow machine users. The route is marked with Blue and Orange diamonds. This route is recommended for the novice or inexperienced skier. The total distance is approximately 6 miles.
Access 2: Shoofly Trail #101B is the shortest route into Hogan Cabin; it is also the most difficult. This trail takes off from the Parking Area alongside Highway 43 by the Cabinet Creek sign. There are a few sections with steep pitches and most of the difficult sections are tree lined. If you choose the Shoofly Trail, consideration should be given to snow conditions and skier experience. This trail is marked with Blue diamonds.
Access 3: Shoofly Alternate. This trail leaves the Shoofly trail from the north end of the meadow and it rejoins Shoofly at the top of the hill. The Shoofly Alternate offers skiers going towards Hogan Cabin a more gentle ascent of the hill. If snow conditions are poor when you are returning from the cabin or you are not comfortable with the faster downhill that Shoofly offers, this route may be advisable. It is marked by Blue diamonds.
Access 4: The Trail Creek Road #106 is the main snow machine route into the area and is marked with Orange diamonds. It is also the flattest route into Hogan Cabin. If skiers plan to use this route, encounters with snow machines can be expected. It is 6 miles to Hogan Cabin on this road.
May Creek Cabin
The May Creek Cabin is a wood frame building; it has one room with four bunk beds and mattresses, a wood-burning cook stove, and a propane cook stove. The cabin is equipped with a table, cooking and eating utensils, axe, shovel, bucket, cleaning gear, and firewood. The cabin has no electricity or running water. There is also an outdoor toilet. There is a non-refundable maintenance fee.
Availability: December 1-March 31 and July 5-last weekend of August
Attractions and Considerations: Cross-country skiing and exploring the area around the cabin are activities people enjoy here in the winter.
Winter Access: Take Highway 43 and head west from Wisdom about 16 miles until you reach the May Creek Campground. The Montana Department of Transportation provides a small plowed parking area at the entrance of the campground. Follow the campground road (marked with Blue diamonds) to the fence at the south end of the campground. From the fence, head south and follow the Blue diamond marked trail across the small bridge to the west side of May creek, and follow the creek south. About 1/4 mile past the bridge the May Creek Trail intersects with the May Creek Ridge Trail. Stay on the May Creek Trail, and follow May Creek south for about 2 miles. The cabin is located on the edge of a large meadow in the timber on the east side of May Creek. The cabin is somewhat hard to see; however, you should be able to follow the large Blue diamonds across the meadow to it.
Summer Access: Take Highway 43 and head west from Wisdom about 16 miles until you reach the May Creek Campground. Follow the campground road to the fence at the south end of the campground. From the fence, head south and follow May Creek Trail #103 across the small bridge to the west side of May Creek. Follow the creek south. About 1/4 of a mile past the bridge the May Creek Trail intersects with the May Creek Ridge Trail. Stay on the May Creek Trail and follow May Creek south for about 2 miles. The cabin is located on the edge of a large meadow in the timber on the east side of May Creek. The cabin is somewhat hard to see; however, you will see poles with blue diamonds that will lead you to the cabin.
Twin Lakes Cabin
The Twin Lakes Cabin is a one-room wood building; it has two beds, a wood-burning stove, and a propane cook stove. The cabin is equipped with a table, cooking and eating utensils, axe, shovel, bucket, and cleaning gear. The cabin has no electricity or running water. There is also an outdoor toilet.
Availability: December 1-March 31
Attractions and Considerations: Winter recreationists enjoy snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and exploring the area around the cabin here in the winter.
Access: The cabin is located approximately 26 miles Wisdom. Take Highway 278 and head south from Wisdom about 6.5 miles until you reach Road #945. Drive to the end of the plowed road. Follow Road #7945 to Road #183. From there it is approximately 12 miles to the cabin. The route is marked with Orange diamonds. The cabin is beautifully located at the base of Squaw and Jumbo Mountains on the shore of Twin Lakes.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication