Boomerang Backpacking

Bob Marshall Wilderness

The Bob Marshall Wilderness of northern Montana is one of our last big, untamed places. Mountain goats, bighorn sheep, elk, wolves, and grizzly bears all call this land of soaring peaks and plunging canyons their home. Not to be outdone by mere wildlife, the geology puts on a show of its own. An 18-mile-long 1000-foot-high escarpment of overthrust limestone that juts into the sky, looking like nature's mirror of the Great Wall of China is the most dramatic effect.

Snow-clogged peaks, rushing streams, and the northern latitude combine to make the Bob, as it's called, wet country. Snowmelt lasts well into July, and horses churn up the muddy trails, especially in low-lying riverine areas. You'll need good rain gear, gaiters, plenty of bug stuff and a pair of boots that can stand up to mud and water.

There's a fine network of trails in the Bob. A basic 75-mile loop takes advantage of the spectacular scenery along the Continental Divide, and by using other trails, you can customize your trip to be longer or shorter depending on your time and inclination.

Location: Bob Marshall Wilderness, northwestern Montana, west of Great Falls.

Distance: 75 miles; 100-mile option.

Maps: Get the USDA Forest Service's map of the Bob Marshall, Great Bear, and Scapegoat Wilderness areas in the Flathead, Helena, Lewis and Clark, and Lolo National Forests. That's all one map, and it includes rudimentary topographic information.

The route: Start at the Benchmark trailhead and follow the Continental Divide Trail out past the Chinese Wall. You'll follow the wall for several miles. (You can even take a side-trip to the top, although it's a 1000-foot gain of elevation.) The CDT swings east just before Spotted Bear Pass, and you'll follow it for another 11 miles until you pick up Trail 166 heading south and back toward the trailhead via Trail 202 and Pretty Prairie. Unless, that is, you've got time to add on 25 more miles, in which case you'll want to continue north of Spotted Bear Pass on Trail 83 to Kevan Mountain, where you'll climb up to the Bob's spectacular above-tree-line passes. Be warned: some of the climbs in the Bob are big, so cut yourself a little slack with the mileage. They weren't kidding when they gave Switchback Pass its name.


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