Bob Marshall Country
Adventure Treks: Western North America
Chris Townsend, long-distance hiker and travel journalist, explores deep into the unspoiled wilderness of the northern Montana Rockies in a 161-mile trek that includes the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Townsend's hike takes him and his companion along the Continental Divide, past the 1,000-foot cliffs known as the Chinese Wall, and into pristine forests inhabited by grizzly bears, wolves and cougars.
Northern Montana offers abundant rewards for those willing to make the journey. For example, walkers can retrace the steps of Meriwether Lewis at Lewis and Clark Pass, where Lewis recrossed the Continental Divide on his way back east in July, 1806. Perhaps even an greater elation is the feeling of deep wilderness. At Lake Levale, Townsend writes,"There are no signs of humanity in any direction, even though one can see for mile after mile across the mountain 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."
The largest roadless area in the Rocky Mountains of the USA lies near the northern end of the range in the state of Montana. Most of this huge 1.5 million acres of mountain and forest is taken up by the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Great Bear Wildernesses. There are no roads across the mountains between US Highway 2 in the north and Montana Highway 200 in the south, a straight line distance of more than 100 miles (160 km).
The Continental Divide winds for over 200 miles (320 km) down the center of the region, twisting and turning along the top of the massive limestone cliffs that typify the landscape here. Either side of these cliffs, the biggest and most famous of which is the 1,000-foot (300 m) high, 13-mile (20.8 km) long Chinese Wall (so called apparently because it looks like the Great Wall of China, although no one knows who named it) in the center of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, lie subalpine bowls, deep canyons, rushing rivers and mile after mile of pristine forest. These features give the area a distinct character very different from Glacier National Park on the other side of US 2, whose classic alpine scenery is really the southern extension of the Canadian Rockies, and the lower, wooded terrain found south of Rogers Pass on Highway 200. The vastness of this wilderness has allowed wildlife that has disappeared from most of the USA Rockies to survive here, species including grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, wolverines, and cougars, although there's not much chance of seeing any of these. In my view, it's enough just to know they're out there. The knowledge of their presence adds an indefinable quality to the wilderness, which is lacking in more tamed areas. The largest wilderness area in this region is named for Bob Marshall, a pioneer conservationist employed by the Forest Service in the 1920s and 1930s who used his position to work to protect roadless areas, 14 million acres of which became designated wilderness during this time. A prodigious walker, often covering 30 miles (48 km) a day, he wanted to see wildernesses where people could travel for two weeks at a time without crossing a road. A year after his death in 1939 such a wilderness was created in his honor, the 1,009,000-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness, known to aficionados as"The Bob". Adjacent to this wilderness to the south is the 240,000 acre Scapegoat Wilderness, created in 1972.
Any walk in these remote wildernesses is a serious affair. There are no easy or quick routes out of the heartland of the region. Our route traverses the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wildernesses from north to south, a distance of 161 miles (257.6 km). There is only one possible supply point along this route. This lies 101 miles (161.6 km) into the walk where the end of a dirt road is reached at Benchmark. Three miles down this road lies the Benchmark Wilderness Ranch which, for a fee, will hold parcels for hikers (the address is Bev and Bud Heckman, Benchmark Wilderness Ranch, Augusta, MT 59410).
Although much of the walking is in fairly flat, forested river valleys, there are a number of steep ascents which can be difficult early in the season, when patches of snow still lie on the trails. An ice axe is then a useful accessory. As most of the rivers aren't bridged, fords can be deep and hazardous during snowmelt and a rope could be required. I walked the route in mid-June and, although some of the creeks were difficult to cross and a third leg (I used a ski pole) was essential, the rope my companion and I carried was never needed. The trails for most of the route are good (they are regularly used by horse parties), with junctions signposted, but for the last 40 miles (64 km), much of the route is crosscountry and care is needed with navigation, especially in bad weather. This is a walk for the experienced backpacker who likes remote and lonely country and you won't meet the crowds here that are to be found on the John Muir Trail or in the Oregon Cascades. Two weeks should be ample time for the trek and both ends of the route can be reached by public transport.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication