Bob Marshall Country

Open Creek & the Wall Trail to Halfmoon Park

From this point, over 50 miles (80 km) from Marias Pass, the country starts to open up and the trail leaves the deep, forested river valleys and low-wooded ridges for more mountainous and rugged terrain. Glimpses of what is to come can be seen during the climb of Open Creek, as the headwall of the valley soaring up above pops in and out of view. The trail crosses the creek (the last water for 6 miles (9.6 km) and soon afterwards reaches open country below tiers of limestone cliffs. Suddenly the somewhat mysterious, confined atmosphere of the shady forest with its hints of hidden secrets and denizens is left behind and the world outside is revealed, as the vista expands from a few feet of trees and a shining strip of river to an open, unrestricted, airy spaciousness. With this comes a feeling of release, and Scott and I picked up speed without being aware of it as we hurried to partake of this new freedom. The gentle and relaxing mood engendered by the forest walking gave way to a rush of exhilaration as we headed for the heights.

Snowbanks lay across the trail as we wound our way up a minor wooded ridge that splits the cliffs to a wide snow basin, which would be a flower meadow in just a few weeks' time. A steep climb, all on soft snow in mid-June, climbed by us in running shoes, but with ice axes, leads to the Divide and a fantastic view. Range upon range of snow-covered mountains fade away into the west, while to the south run the limestone terraces of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Half a mile north along the Divide lies Kevan Mountain at 8,412 feet (2,523 m), well worth climbing if the weather is clear, as the view from the top is even better than that from the pass below, with the distant peaks of Glacier National Park to the north coming into view.

Closer to hand is the green jewel of Lake Levale, visible below the cliffs to the south. The knowledge that one is deep in the wilderness here is confirmed by this view. There are no signs of humanity in any direction, even though one can see for mile after mile across the mountains and forests. The pervading sense is that this is a huge, untouched and pristine land, a land of natural grandeur, where the wildest of wildlife, the mighty grizzly bear and the wolf pack can roam free. May it remain so forever.

Scott and I spent an hour on the ridge despite a cold north wind, reveling in being high above the forests we'd walked through for so many days, before curving round to the north-west to 7,750 feet (2,325 m) Switchback Pass and the start of a 3,500-foot (1,050 m) descent back into the green blanket of the forest to the Spotted Bear River and Pentagon Guard Station 6 miles (9.6 km) away. Four miles (6.4 km) below the pass, a small creek provides the first water since Open Creek. The last part of this descent is on an excellent dry trail through dense forest broken by small meadows brilliant with flowers such as the scarlet Indian Paintbrush and the large yellow Mountain Mule's Ears. Several campsites are passed by as you descend.

Mule deer were browsing in the forest round the wooden guard station and a yellowhaired porcupine stared at us from a bush beside the trail. Beyond the cabin there are several fords, including two of Pentagon Creek and one of the Spotted Bear River, across which lies a good campsite where, 4 miles (6.4 km) from the guard station and 14 miles (22.4 km) from Open Creek, Scott and I camped, after a fulfilling and satisfying day that made up for all the previous days of slogging along muddy forest trails. It's my belief that you can only really appreciate the wilderness qualities of areas such as the Kevan Mountain Ridge if you've worked for them. To reach such areas easily, by motorized transport or after a short stroll from a car park, devalues them and reduces their glories to no more than picture-postcard tourist viewpoints.

A gradual climb for 6 miles (9.6 km) in the Spotted Bear River valley, along a trail overhung with thick spiny undergrowth (which lacerates your legs if you foolishly wear shorts as I did), leads to 6,200-foot (1,860 m) Spotted Bear Pass. Here, the appropriately named Wall Trail is joined, appropriate because it heads straight for the scenic high point of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the great limestone reef known as the Chinese Wall. However, after a mile I recommend leaving the Wall Trail, which cuts left to My Lake and a good, if well-used campsite, to follow the Continental Divide over 8,183-foot (2,455 m) Larch Hill, so-called because it's one of the few places in this region where the graceful alpine larch grows, to Larch Hill Pass where the Wall Trail is rejoined. The ascent to Larch Hill is quite steep, but well worth the effort for the views are superb, especially of the gradually unfolding Chinese Wall rippling away in waves of rock to the south. On my walk, this section was still completely covered in snow.

From the 7,700-foot (2,310 m) pass, the trail descends to the base of the Chinese Wall, which is then followed for several miles. Although over 20 miles (32 km) from the nearest dirt road, the wall is a fairly popular destination, especially with horse parties, and many of the fragile timberline campsites along its base have been grossly abused. There may well be restrictions on camping in some areas, but, even if there aren't, great care should be taken not to add to the damage and, in particular, no fires should be lit. Too many of the small, slow growing timberline trees have already been cut down or stripped of branches for fires.

We camped in the shelter of some scrubby trees near the source of Moose Creek with a good view of Cliff Mountain, after wandering for 4.5 miles (7.2 km) along the wall's base. The walk was exhilarating, although the snow-covered trail presented problems as we kept breaking through the snow and cutting and bruising our legs on boulders hidden under the crust. We soon found that climbing out of a knee-deep hole into soft snow with a heavy pack, isn't easy. But the views made up for it, as above us towered the vertical, pate yellow cliff, while rolling away to the east from its base lay a succession of alpine cirques full of flowers divided from each other by long ridges that dropped down into the dark forest. Hawks, marmots and squirrels abound here.

A mule deer hung around our camp all night, a sure sign of a popular site. Then, early in the morning, we were woken by the sound of stonefall from the Chinese Wall. A steep climb leads from the site to the ridge at the base of Cliff Mountain and more views, before the trail starts to bend south-east and away from the Chinese Wall, as it begins a long descent of the West Fork of the South Fork of the Sun River. An excellent trail with a firm, dry surface makes for fast progress through the flower-filled meadows and woods and gives good views of the richly colored rocks of the aptly-named Red Buttes. Just past the ford of Black Bear Creek, where we met three horse riders heading up to the Chinese Wall, Indian Point Guard Station is reached and you have a choice of routes. The (apparently) more scenic and less used route leads for 17 undulating miles (27.2 km) to the roadhead at Benchmark. The more direct 11-mile (17.6-km) route stays by the West Fork of the South Fork and then the South Fork of the Sun River. This being our seventh day out from Marias Pass, Scott and I decided on the shorter route. Our supplies were dwindling and we had boxes of goodies waiting at Benchmark Wilderness Ranch.

I thought the direct route quite beautiful as it ran through wooded parkland, rich with flower meadows above the river. We camped 6 miles (9.6 km) on from the Indian Point Guard Station, where the trail crosses the river on a bridge and turns up the South Fork towards Benchmark. From this site, it took us an hour and a half to reach the roadhead on a pleasant woodland trail. At Benchmark, there is a large campground designed for horse parties which we used. Here we encountered the large Connecticut Continental Divide Expedition group, a party of backpackers who were walking, as I was, all the way from Canada to Mexico. However, unlike my basically solo, unsupported trip (Scott was only with me for the first 500 miles), the CCDE had a back-up van transporting surplus gear and meeting them at roadheads with food supplies. Their numbers varied as people joined and left for different sections and only a few of them were going the whole way.

Solo walkers usually progress faster than groups, so I was to leave the CCDE behind after 800 miles (1,280 km) and not see them again. My own walk having been completed in late November I heard after I returned home that they'd finished in early January. Self-supporting or not, I wasn't averse to help when it was proffered, so Scott and I accepted the offer of a lift in the CCDE van down to the Wilderness Ranch to pick up our food boxes. The holding cost in 1985 was $20 per package. For another $1 you could have a cold shower (well, it's meant to be hot but it wasn't when I stood under it!) and cabins can also be rented.

Bud and Bev Heckman, who own the ranch, use it as the base for an outfitting business leading horse parties into the mountains, usually but not always for hunting purposes. Outfitters are found throughout the mountains of the western USA and Canada, usually operating in wilderness and unprotected forest service areas, as hunting is not allowed in national parks. They are the heirs to the first white trappers and frontiersmen and many, though not all of them, still tend to have a rather pioneering attitude to the wilderness. This can be somewhat at odds with no-trace backcountry ethics and a tension often exists between backpackers and horsepackers. It shouldn't be so, as the future for both activities lies in the preservation of the wilderness.

Bud Heckman, looking every inch the western outdoorsman in his cowboy boots and hat, blue jeans and studded shirt, laughed at our description of hanging food to protect it against grizzlies."They won't trouble you round here," he said. "They're all too scared because this is a hunting area and even though they are a protected species they keep away from people and the sound of rifle shots." Only in the national parks where hunting was banned, he went on, did grizzlies cause trouble. Yes, but we're not carrying high velocity rifles and traveling on horseback, we thought. Even so, we weren't as careful with our bear-avoidance techniques after leaving the ranch.

Back at the campground, we off-loaded our heavy and unnecessary rope, plus other surplus gear into the CCDE van and spent the rest of the day eating and relaxing. That night nighthawks (known as nightjars in Britain) screeched around the campground. A 10-mile (16-km) trek up the Straight Creek valley leads from Benchmark to the Green Fork Guard Station and 3 miles (4.8 km) into this walk, the Scapegoat Wilderness is entered. Beyond the guard station, where we had lunch and watched a hummingbird speeding about like a giant manic bee, a vast burnt area is crossed, with young lodgepoles rapidly covering the scars, as the trail ascends Green Fork, while above the forest rises the rocky summit of Halfmoon Peak.

Two and a half miles (4 km) past the guard station, a cliff can be seen out of which gushes a spring, and, down other high crags nearby, waterfalls tumble. Soon afterwards, the wooded saddle between Scapegoat Mountain and Halfmoon Peak is crossed and the trail descends into the flat basin of Halfmoon Park, below a gently curving 1,000-foot (300m) limestone wall. To the south, the cliffs are topped by the 9,200-foot (2,760 m) summit of Scapegoat Mountain. This amphitheater is an excellent place for a scenic camp, although when I was there the mosquitoes were out in force. At 6,950 feet (2,085 m) this is one of the highest sites on the walk.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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