Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest
Montana's Beaverhead-Deerlodge is prime hiking territory if, like me, your favored destination is a high mountain pass. The Continental Divide winds through the heart of the forest in the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness. When it hits the Idaho border, it makes a u-turn and heads southeast forming the forest boundary.
The forest must contain close to a dozen passes over the Divide, and probably that many trails again that take you near the top if not over. Here are a few favorite day hikes and one backpack from a couple of weeks touring the forest. - Bill Greer
Carpp Lakes - Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness: The Carpp Lakes on the north side of the Continental Divide make a great 5-hour loop of about 10 miles. Highlights are Warren Pass and the sheer north wall of Warren Peak.
The trail starts at the end of a long gravel road past the East Fork Reservoir. Do the loop counter-clockwise and your first mile will follow Carpp Creek downhill. Then you will hang a left and begin a modest climb. In a bit over a mile, you'll pass lower Carpp Lake, and about a mile farther, upper Carpp Lake.
Now get ready for the ascent. Warren Pass at about 8,600 feet lies just ahead. The climb's not really tough and it is rewarding. The sheer north wall of Warren Peak (10,463 ft.) looms overhead. Stop for lunch even though the hike is not half over. After all, the trail is all downhill from here. The path turns northeast winding through Maloney Basin. It becomes hard to follow across the meadow, but a tree is blazed on the far side to help you pick it up again. Shortly you will come back to Carpp Creek for another downhill stretch back to the trailhead.
Access: Head west from Anaconda on route 1 and turn west on route 38 toward Hamilton.. When you see signs to the East Fork Reservoir, follow them. At the top of the reservoir, turn right. You have quite a few miles to go until you dead-end at the trailhead, but it is a good gravel road and well-marked.
Homer Youngs Peak - Bitterroot Mountains: An out-and-back hike of about 8 miles to a col on the Continental Divide.
The southwest Montana-Idaho border runs along the Continental Divide. The hiker has many choices for day hikes up the east side of the Divide. Rock Island Lakes and Homer Youngs Peak give a good feeling for this rugged country. The trail starts up a jeep road a couple of miles beyond Lower Miner Lakes. The first mile is a modest uphill to a fork. Veer right toward Rock Island Lakes about 2 miles farther. The left fork heads toward Upper Miner Lakes. The trail flattens out as you wind around Rock Island Lakes, named for what are really rocky outcroppings rising from the pool's center. Beyond the lakes, you start serious climbing, very steep up to Little Lake. From there, you face another steep climb up to a saddle that is virtually on the Continental Divide. But it's not a pass; the north side of the saddle takes you back down the east side of the Divide, same as you came up. Homer Youngs Peak is the 10, 624' mountain to the east.
Access: Follow Highway 278 a mile south of Jackson and turn right (west) onto a marked road to Miner Lakes. You have several miles to Lower Miner Lakes campground—a nice uncrowded spot even in late August when we were there. You need 4WD to go another couple of miles beyond the campground to a parking area at the trailhead.
Waukena Lake - Pioneer Mountains: An out-and-back 5-mile hike to a pleasant alpine lake.
One of the highest ranges in Montana, the Eastern Pioneers have a 30-mile backbone, a single high ridge running north to south. On either side of this ridge, the millennia have carved a variety of glacier cirques and bowls. Waukena Lake lies at the base of one such cirque and makes a pleasant two- or three-hour destination. The hike takes you through magnificent Blue Spruce forests that seem more typical of Colorado than Montana. The lake shore is in scattered forest, open enough for views of the craggy heights.
Access: Take Interstate 15 north from Dillon to the Brownes Bridge exit. Head west to Brownes Lake. Drive past the north side of the lake below a rock slide—it looks treacherous but it's not. The road ends about two miles beyond the lake.
I had been perusing the map of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness for a few years before I finally found the time for this hike. Its attraction was a vast stretch of the Continental Divide, bisecting the wilderness for about 60 miles. We trekked the eastern stretch, starting from Storm Lake, exiting via Rock Creek. We scheduled this as a four-day backpack. Heavy rain on the third day pushed us onward and we spent only two nights out.
Day 1: From Storm Lake, the trail climbs steeply to Storm Pass, 9,150', in 2.3 miles, the first crossing of the Divide. You enter Goat Flats and trek across this alpine meadow to pick up the Continental Divide trail. Heading back down the west side of the Divide, the next landmarks are Page Lake and Flower Lake at just over 5 miles from your start. You will have dropped 850 feet from the Divide by the time you reach the lakes. Get ready to climb back up. Rainbow Pass, at 9,250 and 7.5 miles from Storm Lake, lies just ahead, really more of a saddle since it does not cross the Divide. The trail plunges back down into Queener Basin. In another mile, you will cross a creek running through the Basin. The mile-long stretch beyond this stream is your best bet for finding a campsite.
Day 2: The second morning, you will walk through Queener Basin and cross the East Fork of Rock Creek. Then it's another steep climb to Cutaway Pass and over the Divide, two hours from camp. As you are passing through Queener Basin, watch quietly. We saw several elk, one a large bull bounding into the deadfall that litters the ground here. After Cutaway Pass, you will descend to Lemarch Creek, then follow it upstream to Warren Lake. During this stretch, a cow moose eyed us with an intimidating stare about 10 yards up the trail. If you've never stared down a moose with nothing but trail between you, you have no idea how big these animals are! Warren Lake is a lovely spot for the second night's camp.
Day 3: Warren Lake to Rainbow Lake is a relatively easy 5.3-mile stretch. The elevation falls a thousand feet, then regains most of it. Enjoy it because beyond the latter, you face another climb to Rainbow Pass at 9,000 feet. From the pass, drop two miles to Johnson Lake.
We exited at Johnson Lake, making a 5-mile slog in pouring rain out to the Rock Creek trailhead. Other options are to spend the night at Johnson and climb up to Pintler Pass for another Divide view, or just keep going. In another 16 miles, you can exit the wilderness at Surprise Lake.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication