Bob Marshall Country
Adapted from Adventure Treks: Western North America
The best place to start the route is probably at Marias Pass itself on US Highway 2 near the Summit Campground, from where the Elk Calf Trail leads down to the South Fork of the Two Medicine River. Having walked from Glacier National Park, I started the route 4 miles (6.4 km) east of the pass at a dirt road signed for Trail 101, the Two Medicine-Heart Butte Trail, which leads on dirt roads open for vehicle access past the Rising Wolf Ranch, via a fairly complicated route through several locked and barred gates, for 4 miles (6.4 km) to where the Elk Calf Trail joins it.
Apart from the care needed not to take a wrong turning up one of the many side tracks, there is a bridge across the South Fork of the Two Medicine River on the route I took that can only be described as heart-stopping. It consists of a single, large log, across which have been nailed a series of fairly widely-spaced short planks, which rock from side to side as you step on them. There is no hand rail, except for a worse than useless loose rope and far below, the river foams through a narrow rocky gorge. It took me four attempts to cross this bridge and I would not like to have to do it again. Some people we met later had taken one look at it and decided instead to make a difficult roped ford of the river below the gorge. The Elk Calf Trail avoids all this.
From the junction, Trail 101 is followed as it winds above the river through wooded terrain with some good views of Elk Calf Mountain. There are several potential campsites. My American companion, Scott Steiner, and I pitched our tent on a shingle bank next to the shimmering river after 8 miles (12.8 km), a beautiful site from where we watched dippers darting up and down the stream hunting for insects. The walk stays by the river in lodgepole and spruce forest broken by wet, flowery meadows for another 4 miles (6.4 km) during which there are several easy fords. Then at Whiterock Creek, where there is a good campsite, the trail heads up to a low wooded saddle that marks the divide between the Two Medicine and Badger drainages. Dropping down into the latter the route passes the locked cabin of the Badger Guard Station around which camping is not permitted, although its porch makes a shady lunch spot. From here the North Badger Trail is taken up a narrow valley hemmed in by the rocky slopes of Goat and Running Owl Mountains. Fords of Kip Creek and North Badger Creek are necessary and these required care when I was there. After the crossing of the latter, the trail switchbacks up steeply to a 6,250-foot (1,875 m) wooded saddle and then descends to the confluence of Elbow and Muskrat Creeks. The flat shelf of Lost Horse Camp is just above this junction and here we pitched our tent after a 17-mile (27 km) day. The site provides a good view down Muskrat Creek to Curly Bear Mountain.
Cold, early morning fords of both creeks serve to wake you up if you've stayed at Lost Horse C& they certainly did me! After a 4.5-mile (7.2 km) climb, Muskrat Pass at 6,000 feet (1,800m) on the Continental Divide is reached, the Bob Marshall Wilderness entered and the Great Bear Wilderness, which lies on the far side of the pass, is touched upon for the only time. The gentle and pleasant, although mostly viewless, walking in dense forest continues for a while, but as the trail meanders on close to the Divide before crossing it again at 6,300 feet (1,890 m) Badger Pass and its extensive meadows, there opens up a view of rounded peaks. In early season, the trails here still have snow patches on them and are running with water. From the pass, there begins a slow descent of the Strawberry Creek valley, through alternating lodgepole pine and Engelmann's spruce forest. Small flower meadows break up the monotony of the trees and there are a number of creekside campsites, at one of which, 8 miles (12.8 km) from Badger Pass, Scott and I stopped. The remnants of a huge log jam on the edge of the wide creek provided an idyllic spot for our kitchen and, as we lazed on the warm wood in the hot evening sun after dinner watching the cool, blue water rippling down between the dark borders of the forest, we were entertained by a sandpiper flitting up and down the pebble banks.
After another 3 miles (4.8 km), Strawberry Creek has to be crossed. In mid-June this proved to be a hazardous crutch-deep ford and, as I hung on to the quivering ski pole out in the middle of the strong current, I thought that we really should have used the rope and it was with great relief that I reached the far shore, shivering from a combination of fear and cold. Luckily, an ascent follows and we were able to warm up quickly as we climbed to Sun River Pass, a densely wooded crossing of the Divide with no views.
From here until Benchmark, the route lies in the Sun River Game Preserve, in which no hunting is allowed, as well as in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The muddy trail undulates on through the trees to cross some meadows known as Round Park. Everywhere was very wet and at one point Scott actually had a shoe sucked off in an especially deep and glutinous bog. (We were walking in training shoes, ideal for the soft forest paths, but not so good for waterlogged and muddy areas.) There are meant to be good campsites in Round Park, but as the area was flooded Scott and I kept going to ascend beside Open Creek and camp in a small meadow with a good view of Signal Mountain. Again, this is a quiet, peaceful site where one can relax and unwind from the day's walk, the sort of wilderness camp which is very difficult to leave. Why make the effort of walking on when you could stay here in the sunshine watching the clouds pass overhead and the river running past as you lie under the shade of the trees?
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication