Tag Archives: Montana

Custer National Forest

Custer National Forest

Montana, South Dakota

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Northern Region

1,278,749 acres (1,188,130 federal/ 90,619 other)

Website: https://www.fs.usda.gov/custergallatin

Overview

Custer National Forest is split across multiple units from the Absaroka Mountains in southern Montana east to five isolated patches in the northwest corner of South Dakota.  It ranges in elevation from dry prairies to glaciated summits, including the highest point in Montana (12,807-foot Granite Peak).  In eastern Montana, Capitol Rock is a sandstone and white clay formation that looks like a capitol dome from the east.  In South Dakota, the National Forest also encompasses The Castles National Natural Landmark.  Since 2014, Custer and Gallatin National Forests have been managed together as Custer-Gallatin National Forest.

Highlights

Beartooth All-American Road, Rock Creek Vista, Hellroaring Plateau, Granite Peak, East Rosebud Lake, Impasse Falls, Crooked Creek Canyon, Big Ice Cave, Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range, Lost Water Canyon, Cook Mountains, Tongue River Breaks, Poker Jim Lookout, Chalk Buttes, Capitol Rock, Slim Buttes, The Castles, Glacier Lake, Basin Creek National Recreation Trail, Basin Lakes Trail

Must-Do Activity

Custer National Forest is most famous for its stretch of Highway 212 (Beartooth All-American Road) that climbs switchbacks from the prairie around Red Lodge, Montana up to 10,947 feet at Beartooth Pass across the Wyoming border in Shoshone National Forest.  These two National Forests also share with Gallatin National Forest the giant 943,626-acre Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, which contains 12,807-foot Granite Peak.  Backpackers come from around the world to this Wilderness in the summer because its trailheads start at such high elevations that it does not require much climbing to reach scenic alpine lakes.

Best Trail

There are more than 1,500 miles of hiking trails in Custer National Forest, mostly concentrated in the western mountains.  From the Glacier Lake Trailhead (high-clearance vehicle required), the two-mile Glacier Lake Trail steadily climbs 1,100 feet then drops into a bowl containing a stunning reservoir that straddles the Wyoming-Montana state border.  You can turn around here at 9,691 feet in elevation or continue around the north side of the lake up to Goat and Sheep Lakes.  We backpack camped at Glacier Lake for one night during Labor Day weekend and had the place to ourselves.

Watchable Wildlife

In addition to the raptors typical of western National Forests, merlins (a type of small falcon) are more common here than anywhere else in the country.  Mammalian predators include grizzly bears, black bears, gray wolves, coyotes, red foxes, pine martens, mountain lions, and bobcats.  Ungulates found here are pronghorns, moose, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, mule deer, elk, and bison (on private ranches).

Instagram-worthy Photo

During our backpacking trip, the Glacier Lake reservoir was especially scenic during the jaw-dropping twilight hours when the mountains were drenched in alpenglow.

Peak Season

Summer

Fees

None

Road Conditions

The paved Beartooth All-American Road (Highway 212) is typically open only June to October due to snow.  At the bottom of the “Beartooth Switchbacks” on Highway 212 in southern Montana is Main Fork Rock Creek Road, a rough dirt road that follows the shallow creek past campgrounds and dispersed campsites back to Glacier Lake Trailhead.  A high-clearance vehicle or an ATV is required if you want to drive the entire eight miles.  Many recreationists bring the latter to tackle the nearby road that steeply ascends to the top of 11,000-foot-high Hellroaring Plateau.

Camping

There are more than 30 campgrounds in Custer National Forest, as well as numerous dispersed camping options (especially on roads west of Red Lodge, Montana).

Wilderness Areas

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness (also in Gallatin and Shoshone National Forests)

Related Sites

Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area (Montana-Wyoming)

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (Montana)

Beaverhead National Forest (Montana)

Nearest National Park

Yellowstone

Conifer Tree Species

Douglas-fir, ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, limber pine, whitebark pine, Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, Rocky Mountain juniper

Flowering Tree Species

eastern cottonwood, quaking aspen, water birch, Rocky Mountain maple, boxelder, Bebb willow, blue elderberry, choke cherry, white alder, curlleaf mountain-mahogany, sagebrush

Explore More – Found on the side of Granite Peak, how did Grasshopper Glacier get its name?

Learn more about this and the 154 other National Forests in our new guidebook Out in the Woods

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Bitterroot National Forest

Bitterroot National Forest

Montana, Idaho

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Northern Region

1,655,753 acres (1,587,070 federal/ 68,683 other)

Website: https://www.fs.usda.gov/bitterroot

Overview

First established as the 4.1-million-acre Bitter Root Forest Reserve in 1898, the smaller Bitterroot National Forest today flanks both sides of Highway 93 and the Bitterroot River Valley.  This stretch of the Idaho-Montana border is rough, mountainous country and about half this National Forest is designated Wilderness (see below).  The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail follows a portion of the boundary between Bitterroot National Forest and Beaverhead National Forest, heading northeast from Lost Trail Pass where Highway 93 crosses into Idaho.

Highlights

Nez Perce Auto Trail, Lost Trail Pass, Lake Como, Magruder Massacre Site, Trapper Peak, Skalkaho Falls, Blodgett Canyon, Boulder Creek Falls, Palisade Mountain National Recreation Trail, Continental Divide National Scenic Trail

Must-Do Activity

There are trails going west up seemingly every canyon in the Bitterroot Mountains, while Lost Horse Creek has a road that follows it nearly to the Idaho border.  Wildfire smoke obscured the views during our visit in July 2021, but the glacier-carved mountain scenery was still impressive on Blodgett Creek Trail.  We imagine on a clear day the views would rival California’s Yosemite Valley.  There are many more roads (and some trails) to explore in the Sapphire Mountains east of Highway 93.

Best Trail

Blodgett Creek Trail leads 12.6 miles one-way to Blodgett Lake, but you do not have to go that far to appreciate its incredible beauty.  The trail climbs steadily as it follows the creek, passing the memorial to smokejumper Don Mackey on its way to two waterfalls: the first at 4.5 miles hidden in a slot canyon and the second a wide cascade only a half-mile further (for a cumulative elevation gain of 1,637 feet).  Leaving from a nearby trailhead, Blodgett Overlook Trail is a steep 2.8 miles out-and-back.  A similar trek with outstanding views, Bear Creek Overlook Trail climbs about 1,000 feet as it switchbacks 2.6 miles one-way.

Watchable Wildlife

On our backpacking trip into Blodgett Canyon we saw bats, many trout and a beaver dam in the creek, plus a variety of bird life, including a dipper (or ouzel) and a hairy woodpecker.  We also heard hermit thrushes and pikas calling in the rocky scree slopes.  The Bitterroot and Sapphire Mountains are home to elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and moose, as well as mountain lions, black bears, and grizzly bears (which were reintroduced starting in 2003).  Wildlife watchers should drive the U.S. Forest Service’s Sula Deer, Elk, and Bighorn Driving Tour.

Instagram-worthy Photo

As you hike the Blodgett Creek Trail keep an eye on the ridgeline to the south for a massive natural arch that punches a hole in the skyline.

Peak Season

Summer

Fees

None

Road Conditions

The last three miles to Blodgett Trailhead were well-groomed dirt road and the route from Hamilton, Montana had signs at every turn.

Camping

Located on a creek, Blodgett Campground (fee) seemed like a nice spot, though it was a bit noisy and smoky on a weekend in mid-July.  We also read that Deep Creek Campground is nice and is located near the ruins of a 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps camp.

Wilderness Areas

Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness (also in Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest)

Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness (also in Payette, Salmon-Challis, Boise, and Nez Perce National Forests)

Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness (also in Nez Perce, Clearwater, and Lolo National Forests)

[Allan Mountain Roadless Area]

Related Sites

Beaverhead National Forest (Montana)

Big Hole National Battlefield (Montana)

Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming-Montana-Idaho)

Nearest National Park

Glacier (Montana)

Conifer Tree Species

ponderosa pine, whitebark pine, lodgepole pine, Douglas-fir, western redcedar, subalpine larch, Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, grand fir, western yew

Flowering Tree Species

quaking aspen, black cottonwood, bog birch, Rocky Mountain maple, red alder, red-osier dogwood, sagebrush

Explore More – How tall is Trapper Peak, the highest point in Bitterroot National Forest?

Beaverhead National Forest

Beaverhead National Forest

Montana

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Northern Region

2,199,013 acres (2,130,671 federal/ 68,342 other)

Website: https://www.fs.usda.gov/bdnf

Overview

Co-managed since 1996, Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest is spread across multiple mountain ranges in the southwest corner of Montana.  The dividing boundaries between the two forests are unclear, though Beaverhead National Forest tends to be more southeast than Deerlodge National Forest and includes portions of the Beaverhead, Bitterroot, Centennial, Gravelly, Madison, Pioneer, Tendoy, and Tobacco Root Mountains.  Bordering Idaho’s Salmon National Forest, 7,323-foot Lemhi Pass is located on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.  This is where the Corps of Discovery crossed the Continental Divide in 1805 and is why the Sacajawea Memorial Area was established here in 1932.

Highlights

Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway, Lemhi Pass, Sacajawea Memorial, Chief Joseph Pass, Pintler Falls, Upper Potosi Hot Springs, Charcoal Kilns, Gravelly Range Auto Tour, Nez Perce National Historic Trail, Continental Divide National Scenic Trail

Must-Do Activity

It is about a 17-mile drive from Harrison, Montana back to the free Potosi Campground, but it is well signed and worth the effort.  From here a 0.8-mile trail leads to Upper Potosi Hot Springs, a clear 100°F pool with room for about six adults.  Further west, about ten miles north of Highway 278, is the privately owned Elkhorn Hot Springs (fee), a great place to relax after hiking around Big Hole National Battlefield (managed by the National Park Service).  If you keep driving north on Wise River Polaris Road (FR 484), there are plenty of dispersed campsites and trailheads for several long hikes into the Pioneer Mountains.

Best Trail

We only hiked less than a mile trail to Upper Potosi Hot Springs, but that trail keeps climbing three miles to the top of the ridge.  We read good reviews for Louise Lake National Recreation Trail (see note on Road Conditions below), Pioneer Lake National Recreation Trail, Browns Lake Trail, Blue Creek Trail, Sand Lake/Lily Lake Trail, and Gold Butte Trail.  Hopefully we will make it back here to go backpacking someday.

Watchable Wildlife

Beaverhead National Forest still has most of its pre-settlement carnivores: grizzly bears, black bears, mountain lions, Canadian lynx, coyotes, and gray wolves.  Grazing ungulate species include moose, elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and pronghorns.  We saw bald eagles and ospreys on our drive out from Upper Potosi Hot Springs.  Mountain whitefish, golden trout, cutthroat trout, rainbow trout, brook trout, lake trout, arctic grayling, and burbot are some of the gamefish sought by fishermen.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The ruins of a developed hot springs resort (located on private land) are visible from Upper Potosi Hot Springs.  Watch for moose downhill in South Willow Creek and a cute little garter snake that hangs out in the rocks by the pool (possibly year round if it stays warm enough not to hibernate).

Peak Season

Summer

Fees

None

Road Conditions

The dirt roads to Potosi Campground and over Lemhi Pass are both in very good condition, but we do not know about all the other dirt roads that cross the Continental Divide.  We read the access road to Louise Lake National Recreation Trail is pretty rough, requiring four-wheel drive the last two miles.

Camping

There are more than 20 spots to set up at Potosi Campground, which is free and located near the trailhead for Upper Potosi Hot Springs.  You will want a high-clearance vehicle to drive across South Willow Creek to the official trailhead, but there are also pedestrian bridges.

Wilderness Areas

Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness (also in Deerlodge and Bitterroot National Forests)

Lee Metcalf Wilderness (also in Gallatin National Forest)

Related Sites

Deerlodge National Forest (Montana)

Big Hole National Battlefield (Montana)

Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site (Montana)

Nearest National Park

Yellowstone (Wyoming-Montana-Idaho)

Conifer Tree Species

lodgepole pine, whitebark pine, ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, subalpine larch

Flowering Tree Species

quaking aspen, balsam poplar, Bebb willow, sagebrush

Explore More – How tall is Hilgard Peak, the highest point in Beaverhead National Forest?

Glacier National Park

Overview

Officially, since 1932 this American-Canadian natural reserve has been called Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.  We will focus on the U.S. side since you still need a passport to cross the border (when it is open).  The million-acre Glacier National Park was established in 1910 as a tourist destination and to protect its wildlife, including grizzly/brown bears.  It is open year round, but sees more than half its visitors in July and August.

Learn more in our guidebook to the National Parks, A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks (available on Amazon).

Highlights

Going-to-the-Sun Road, St. Mary Lake, Logan Pass, Many Glacier Hotel, Iceberg Lake

Must-Do Activity

The world renowned Going-to-the-Sun Road was built to cross the park from east to west in the 1920s.  At its highest point (6,646-foot Logan Pass), the road crosses the Continental Divide, an imaginary line where a raindrop drains all the way into the Atlantic Ocean on one side and into the Pacific Ocean on the other.  Hidden Lake Overlook near the Logan Pass Visitor Center is known for sightings of mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and hoary marmots.

Best Trail

Avalanche Lake is located at the end of a two-mile one-way hike from the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road.  We spotted a grizzly/brown bear on the way back from our hike there.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Hidden Lake often reflects the image of Bearhat Mountain, which is why we chose it as our logo design for Glacier National Park (see below).

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$35 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

Vehicles over 21 feet in length or eight feet in width are prohibited in the middle sections of Going-to-the-Sun Road.  Good dirt roads lead to campgrounds at Bowman Lake and Kintla Lake on the west side of the park.

Camping

St. Mary and Fish Creek Campgrounds accept reservations and several others are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Related Sites

Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming-Montana-Idaho)

Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site (Montana)

Big Hole National Battlefield (Montana)

This design we created to celebrate Glacier National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – When were the iconic “red jammer” buses first introduced to the park?

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area

Overview

Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is an underappreciated gem in the National Park Service (NPS) system.  It has gorgeous scenery, a winding reservoir, and abundant wildlife, including bighorn sheep and wild horses.  The 525-foot tall Yellowtail Dam was completed in 1968, creating a 71-mile long reservoir, the majority of which is in narrow Bighorn Canyon where cliffs soar up to 2,000 feet above the water.

Highlights

Devil Canyon Overlook, Hillsboro Dude Ranch, Horseshoe Bend, Yellowtail Dam

Must-Do Activity

No road connects the north and south portion of the park, making for a long drive between the NPS visitor center in Lovell, Wyoming and the one at the Yellowtail Dam in Montana.  Thus, it is best to choose either one side or the other and explore the canyon by boat.  Devil Canyon Overlook and most of the 27 miles of hiking trails are in the southern section.  This is also where the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range enters into Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.  In the summer there are lifeguards at the designated swimming areas at Horseshoe Bend and Ok-A-Beh.

Best Trail

The southern portion of Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area has trails to historic sites like Hillsboro Dude Ranch and several tipi rings found along Bad Pass Trail, a route which has seen over 10,000 years of human use.

Instagram-worthy Photo

If you are unable to get out on the water, the highlight of the park is Devil Canyon Overlook where the cliffs drop over 1,000 feet straight down to the lake.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/bica/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

Almost every road is paved, but they are narrow and winding so may not be advisable for very long RVs.

Camping

There are drive-in campgrounds (fee) in both states, as well as free boat-in campgrounds on the Montana side.  Backcountry camping is allowed below the highwater mark of Bighorn Lake.

Related Sites

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (Montana)

Devils Tower National Monument (Wyoming)

Jewel Cave National Monument (South Dakota)

Explore More – The Yellowtail Dam is named after whom?