Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest
The Wisdom District has fine backcountry trails for hiking and backpacking. The population of Beaverhead County is sparse and during the summer months backcountry use is relatively light compared to the more well-known and publicized areas of Montana.
Hiking trails on the District vary in terrain. Stream bottoms, high ridges, open meadows, and dense forests are mixed with streams, rivers, and lakes. Insects are bothersome during the summer months, so it is advisable that insect repellent be carried. Bears, poisonous snakes, or plants have not been major problems. Several trails exist within cattle grazing allotments. Many hikers use a backpacker stove instead of an open fire. Please be careful and use existing fire circles when possible. Packing out non-burnable refuse is always necessary. Maintaining the quality of any outdoor recreation experience requires a land use ethic that is every user's responsibility.
Summertime temperatures are quite pleasant during the daytime, but in the high country, they drop rapidly at night. Snowstorms can and do occur any time of year. Always leave a schedule with a reliable person. State where you are going, when you will return, and what gear you have. Always carry adequate clothing and survival gear.
1. From Pintler Creek to Surprise Lake, the trail is marked and in generally good shape, except for the segment from Pintler Creek to Elk Park, which is wet at the beginning and steep and rocky as it climbs up towards Elk Park. This segment is in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness Area and offers extremely scenic views of the surrounding high country. This part of the CDNST can be accessed by the Pintler Creek (#37), Mystic Lake 9#369), West fork Thompson Creek (#7), and Plimpton Creek 9#371) trails. The Beaver Creek Trail (#378), a secondary trail, also accesses this section of the CDNST.
2. From Surprise Lake to the end of Forest Road 725, the trail is generally in pretty good shape and marked until you hit Forest Road 725. The trail was reconstructed in 1992 from Surprise Lake for about 2.5 miles to the Southwest. It was rerouted, from out of the wet meadow above Hellroaring Creek, following the old trail to Bender Saddle, and from here back to the Divide. Once on the Divide, the trail stays on or just below the Divide, which is right about treeline in this area. The trail offers excellent views of the surrounding Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, the Big Hole Valley, and the Bitterroot Valley. The trail has three 25 percent grades as it comes up from Hellroaring Creek to Bender Saddle, but after it reaches the divide, is generally pretty flat, though it is rocky in some places. This section of the trail is unique in that alpine larch can be found in this area. The trail generally follows the Divide, dropping through a wet meadow and past the foundation of the old Schultz Saddle Fire Lookout before reaching Schultz Saddle and Forest Road 725. At this point, the route follow Forest road 725 to the southwest until it hits the junction of Trail #62 (the Trail Ridge Trail). The Mussigbrod Creek, which has some steep pitches, Hellroaring Creek (#379), which was reconstructed in 1990 and is good shape, and Bender Cabin (#170), which has a few boggy sections, provide the best access to this section of the trail.
3. Trail #62 accesses the CDNST in about 1/2 mile. From here, the trail is in excellent condition for the next six miles. This section is generally flat and wooded, without the opportunity for great views like the earlier sections had. It is unique, however, because the Divide through this section seems almost flat as it winds through the lodgepole pine forests. As you follow this portion of the trail, you will notice several old stumps and logs that were cut with an ax. This may be some of the old Divide Trail that was constructed in the early 1920s. The trail section connects with a four-wheel-drive road, which it follows to Gibbons Pass. Both the Elk Creek (#18) and Hogan Creek (#9) access this section of the CDNST, and both are in pretty good shape. They do pass through cutting units and timber sale roads, however, and you will need to keep your eyes open for blazes through these areas.
4. From Gibbons Pass to Chief Joseph Pass, the trail is not fully constructed. It starts as a jeep trail at Gibbons Pass, but you will eventually want to walk down the Trail Creek Road (#106.3) to the junction of the Seven-Mile Cutoff Road (#1260), following it to the vicinity of Chief Joseph Pass. It does veer away from the divide about 1 1/2 miles east of Chief Joseph Pass and follows a forest road out to Chief Joseph Pass. The terrain in this and the two above segments is rolling, with Lodgepole Pine being the predominant tree species. There are some nice views of the East Fork/Bitterroot River drainage along these segments.
5. From Chief Joseph Pass to Big Hole Pass, the trail follows Forest Road #106. It is marked and in good shape. This segment of the trail offers nice views of the area above the North Fork of the Salmon River off to the west.
6. The next segment runs from the Big Hole Pass to the head of Big Lake Creek. It is currently being constructed. It is located on the North Fork Ranger District of the Salmon National Forest. For more information regarding this segment, you may contact the North Fork Ranger District at the following address: North Fork Ranger District, Box 795, North Fork, ID 83466.
7. The trail from the head of Big Lake Creek to Slag-a-Melt Lakes was finished in 1993. This segment offers extremely scenic views of the West Big Hole Mountains and the Big Hole Valley. The route follows the crest of the mountains, right along the timberline. This trail wanders through spectacular alpine scenery, with only one spot where the trail grade exceeds 15 percent. The Twin Lakes Trail (#467), which starts at Twin Lakes campground and stops about 3/4 of a mile short of the CDNST, allows access to the area by bushwhacking from the end of the trail to the Divide. The South Fork Big Lake Creek Trail (#910) also accesses this section of the CDNST. It begins about one mile below the Twin Lakes Campground, and does have one boggy spot and a few steep pitches.
8. The trail from Slag-a-Melt to Lena Lakes has not been constructed. The best route would be to ascend the ridge to the south of Slag-a-Melt Lakes and drop through the timber to Lena Lake. From Lena Lake the CDNST will follow the existing trail out to Forest Road 625. This trail does have a few steep pitches, but is generally in pretty good shape. The Slag-a-Melt trail (#186), which provides access, has a few steep spots.
9. The trail from Forest Road 625 to Rock Island Lakes is partially in place. Follow Forest Road 625 west about 1/2 mile to the junction of the trail. The trail dips off the road, crosses Big Swamp Creek, and then climbs quite quickly to the timberline. The trail goes over and through a pass separating the Big Swamp drainage from the Little Lake drainage. It drops from the pass to an oval-shaped lake that sets in the basin. In this area, you find old trail blazes painted orange on trees and rocks. The trail fizzles out about 3/4 mile beyond this lake. At this point, the best route is to stay high and work to the ridge above Little Lake. Drop into Little Lake and follow the trail to Rock Island Lake. The Little Lake Trail (#87) provides access into this area, as does the Rock Island Lake Trail (#54), which begins at Miner Lake Campground and is very rocky.
10. The segment from Rock Island Lake to Berry Meadows follows existing trails away from the Continental Divide, through the Hamby Lake drainage, and over to Berry Meadows. This trail starts where the Rock Island Lake Trail meets the Miner Lake Road, and follows down (east) the road for about 1 mile to where it crosses Miner Creek and heads south. From here this trail is very steep in one spot (20 percent) and has one boggy spot just above this steep section. It has some nice views of the West Big Hole and winds through Lodgepole pine forests and meadows. Hike southwest from Berry Meadows for about 1 mile to the existing trail. Follow this trail to the junction with Trail 479, the Pioneer Mine Trail, which takes you down to the Pioneer Creek drainage through stands of Englemann Spruce. It then takes you across Pioneer Creek and over to the Jahnke Lake Trail (#113), and is in good shape in this area. Follow this trail west to Jahnke Lake.
11. From Jahnke Lake to Goldstone Pass, the trail follows just below the Divide to Darkhorse Lake. The trail from Darkhorse to Cowbone Lake does receive ATV use. The trail from Cowbone is in place for about 1/2 mile. It leaves Cowbone Lake and climbs through the timber to a pretty alpine wet meadow. At this point, the trail fades, but it is easy to follow the meadow up to a small lake that sets just below the crest of the Divide. From here, look south and you will see the trail winding through a scree slope up to the top of the Divide. From the top, follow the ridge slightly southeast to Goldstone Pass.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication