Long run from canyon to canyon in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness

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What was supposed to be a final long run – up one canyon and down another in the Bitterroot Mountains – before a 55K race turned into a day of navigating cold stream crossings, flattened forest and snow-covered trail last month.

While trying at times, the 27 miles between Fred Burr Creek and Mill Creek northwest of Hamilton offered plenty of Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness beauty.

After a couple of days of trying to check trail conditions that yielded few facts, two friends and I set out about 7 a.m. from the Fred Burr trailhead.

Not even half a mile down the trail to the west, we were surprised when a young bear fled up the brushy slope next to us. While it was the only wildlife we’d see all day, we’d find plenty of evidence other animals were around.

The trail continued above Fred Burr Creek on an old forest road, then diverted to the south side of it around private property and rejoined it again to cross the Bitterroot National Forest boundary at a gate.

From there, we continued up to the dam at the lower end of Fred Burr Reservoir at about 4.5 miles, the smooth surface of the water reflecting the surrounding mountains and clouds above.

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After a short break, we followed the trail through the trees on the north side of the reservoir, reaching the first of four creek crossings at its upper end. Determining there was no way to stay dry, I forded the cold water and my friends soon followed.

On the south side of the creek, we came to our first downed trees of the day. While getting past them slowed us slightly, it was nothing compared to what we’d find farther up the trail.

Just before entering the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness at about 6 miles, one friend who was rehabilitating an injury turned around. He planned to shuttle the truck to the other trailhead, go for a short run there, then wait for the two of us who were continuing on.

After the wilderness boundary, it was a short distance farther up the trail to the next creek crossing, which was wider but shallower than the first. Back on the north side, we occasionally encountered downed trees as we made our way up through the forest.

About 6.75 miles up, the canyon opened and revealed views of the surrounding ridges at the first of several meadows left from fires in the late 1980s.

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The next couple of miles were made easier by the meadows, though we still found a few downed trees in the forest. We also found two large, fresh piles of bear scat and tracks in the trail.

After two more creek crossings – the first cold and deep to the south side, and the second high and dry on a log back to the north side – the rock wall of the Bitterroot Divide rose directly to the west of us.

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At about 9 miles, we turned south with the creek and canyon and entered the forest again.

Soon, we found ourselves making our way over and around downed trees, zigzagging across the trail. At times, we stood on logs stacked 20 feet above the forest floor, and we twice waded up the creek because it was easier to go under the trees spanning it.

By the time we were through what clearly was a swath of forest flattened by wind – possibly in the big storm last August – we had covered just 2 miles in 1 hour 35 minutes. While we knew we’d have a couple of slow miles over the pass ahead of us, we weren’t turning back.

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After a break along the creek to eat and refill our hydration packs, we started up the canyon again through alternating stretches of forest and meadow.

At about mile 12, we turned up the western wall of the canyon and ascended the steep switchbacks to Fred Burr Lake, reaching snow as the trees thinned. After nearly a mile, we arrived at the lake, set in a rocky basin and still frozen.

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Standing near the lake, we could see mountains for miles around – as well as the flattened forest below.

The next section was the riskiest of the day as we continued west up a steep ridge to about 7,800 feet and traversed a snowy shelf to the south, the trail buried beneath us. The angle of the snow increased as we approached another ridge, and we decided it would be safest to scramble up and over the rocks above us rather than continue across to a notch where we thought the trail must be.

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Once over the ridge – in the Mill Creek drainage – we were on rocky ground again, but saw no clear trail. We made our way south, down to the shore of the frozen Lockwood Lake at about 14 miles, then continued across moose-tracked snow and down farther to the melting Heinrich Lake.

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At Heinrich Lake, we could see the open water of Mill Lake below us to the south, across boulder fields and rocky slabs interspersed with brush. A topographic map saved on my cellphone, however, showed the trail going over another snowy shelf.

Not having seen the actual trail for a while, we decided to continue off it and down the rocks.

After hopping across the lower part of a waterfall and descending through beargrass, we reached the trail again at about 15.5 miles, just above the junction leading to Mill Lake. We stopped here to eat and refill our water again, then started east down Mill Creek.

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The clouds above us darkened and it rained for a while, but the next few miles went by much more quickly as we were able to really run again.

At about mile 18, we slowed, however, as we started to encounter a lot of trees across the trail. Thankfully, it was nothing like the flattened forest of Fred Burr Creek, and four hikers we passed told us the trail would clear when it crossed out of the wilderness with five miles to go.

Near mile 23, my phone found a cellular signal and buzzed with text messages when we stopped in a rocky clearing left by the fires of 2000.

Our friend who was waiting at the trailhead was concerned – justifiably, as we had been out for 10 hours and were long overdue. We were all right, we assured him, but would likely be another hour.

With the sun shining again, we continued down the trail, skipping a stop at the small cascade and pool with three miles to go. After crossing Mill Creek on a new bridge, we quickly covered the final mile to the trailhead, glad to see our friend and the truck.

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In the end, we covered 27 miles with about 4,500 feet of elevation gain in 11 hours. On the way home, we stopped for dinner and a beer – and to explain our delay.

Here are more photos from the Fred Burr Creek-Mill Creek run.

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Steep switchbacks to Ward Mountain

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Looking for a hike with some elevation and rocky terrain to prepare for an upcoming ultramarathon, I found myself atop 9,108-foot Ward Mountain last month, the ridges of the Bitterroot Range lining up into the distance to the north and south.

About 4 hours earlier, Jen, the dogs and I started up the trail where Roaring Lion Creek runs out of the mountains and into the valley southwest of Hamilton. The first 2 miles switchbacked west up through the forest and crossed a couple of grassy openings.

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At 2.5 miles, the switchbacks steepened and entered an old burn where lupine bloomed and we got our first views of the valley floor. Another 1.25 miles up, I stepped onto a boulder field along the trail to take in the view of the ridges rising to the north over Roaring Lion and Sawtooth creeks.

The switchbacks re-entered the forest and continued up the mountain until we reached Judd Creek at about 5 miles. After the dogs lapped up some water, we crossed the creek and stepped onto snow.

As the trail disappeared, we followed other hikers’ footsteps uphill for the next mile, the trees becoming more sparse. Eventually, we stepped off the snow and onto rocks at a cliff overlooking Roaring Lion Creek.

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While Jen and Gus waited there among blooming cushion plants, Josey and I continued up the edge of the cliff to the top of the mountain, 6.3 miles and 4,800 feet above for the start.

After taking in views up and down the valley, and west into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, we rejoined Jen and Gus. Back together, we descended to the trailhead quickly, getting in some glissading and running.

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Here are more photos from Ward Mountain.

Distance: About 12.6 miles round trip.

Trailhead: The Ward Mountain trailhead is 4 miles south of Hamilton on U.S. Highway 93 and 2.5 miles west on Roaring Lion Road. Park at the Sawtooth Creek trailhead on the north side of the road; the Ward Mountain trailhead is on the south side of the road.

Cooling off in snow-ringed Glen Lake

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In early June – on the first 90-degree day of the year – we decided to take the dogs on a short hike to cool off at Glen Lake, in the Bitterroot Mountains west of Victor.

The last time I hiked there was before a wildfire burned the area in 2006, and I remember it being fairly forested with few views out.

What a difference a decade makes.

Today, the forest is mostly bare, gray snags, but the views extend north and south along the Bitterroots, and across the valley east to the Sapphire Range.

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From the trailhead, we hiked gradually uphill to the northwest along the edge of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. A couple of quickly drying creeks provided water for the dogs.

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After about 1.3 miles, we reached a small snowfield at a saddle and crossed the wilderness boundary. From there, the trail dropped slightly to another saddle, turned west and started up a snowy ridge at about 2 miles.

From my previous hike, I remember trying to go through the trees slightly to get a view of St. Mary Peak across the drainage to the north, which proved difficult. Today, the lookout tower at the top the mountain is clearly visible.

After the trail reached its high point, we rounded a corner to the southwest and dropped slightly again to the lake at about 2.75 miles.

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Sitting in a rocky basin at about 7,500 feet, the lake was still mostly ringed by snow, providing a cold swim for the dogs – and for me after a short glissade down a slope.

After cooling off and eating a little, we backtracked out of the wilderness and returned to the hot valley below.

Here are more photos from Glen Lake.

Distance: About 5.5 miles round trip.

Trailhead: From U.S. Highway 93 between Stevensville and Victor, turn west on Bell Crossing and drive half a mile. At the Curlew Orchard Road/Meridian Road intersection, turn north and continue on Curlew Orchard for 1.3 miles. Turn northwest on Curlew Mine Road and drive about 1.7 miles. At the intersection with Forest Road 1321, turn south and continue about 8 switchbacking miles up the mountain to the trailhead.

‘Gem’ of a peak in the Sapphire Range

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Searching for a new place to hike with our dogs on Memorial Day, we were led up Palisade Mountain east of Corvallis by an online guide.

“A surprising gem in the Sapphires,” the description on the Montana Wilderness Association’s Hike Wild Montana website states.

Indeed.

I’ve always thought of the forested summits of the Sapphire Mountains as being less interesting than the granite canyons and peaks of the Bitterroots across the valley to the west. But the Willlow Creek and Palisade trails have changed my perspective.

From the undeveloped trailhead, we started east up a wide trail through the trees on the north side of the creek. After crossing a couple of tributaries, we arrived at a break in the woods at about 1 mile, with rocky outcroppings above offering a preview of what was to come.

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At about 2 miles, the trail began to climb steep switchbacks through dense forest. A few feet through the trees to the south, boulder fields looked back east to the Bitteroots.

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We reached snow on the last switchback, then crossed a creek at 2.5 miles and stepped out of the forest at the foot of rocky spires. Re-entering the trees, we continued up through the snow aided by a topographic map on my iPhone.

As we hiked higher, the forest grew thinner and wildflowers bloomed from melted patches in the snow.

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At about 4 miles, we reached a saddle where the Willow Creek Trail joined the Palisade Trail. There, we turned northwest and continued out the ridge on firm snowpack, following blaze marks on trees and the topo map on my phone.

We exited the woods where boulders rose from the snow, then climbed to the 8,451-foot peak of Palisade Mountain at about 4.75 miles. While our older dog Josey had no trouble, the blocky rocks brought a few whines from puppy Gus and he stopped just short of the top.

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After taking in the views west to the Bitterroots, north and south along the Sapphires, and east to the Flint Creek and Anaconda ranges, we made our way back down through the snow and along the creek.

We arrived back at the trailhead, our SUV still the only one parked there and having seen no other hikers all day.

Here are more photos from Palisade Mountain.

Distance: About 9.5 miles round trip.

Trailhead: From its intersection with the Eastside Highway in Corvallis, follow Willow Creek Road 10.5 miles east to the undeveloped trailhead. At about 2.3 miles, Willow Creek Road turns south where Coal Pit Road continues east.

Snowshoeing up Bear Creek with new puppy Gus

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Meet Gus, our newest addition!

This Beagle-American Staffordshire cross joined our family as an 11-pound 3 1/2-month-old in late November. One month older and a few pounds heavier, Gus went on his first real adventure showshoeing up Bear Creek in the Bitterroot Mountains on Christmas Day.

The outing was a fitting tribute to our old dog Belle, a 12-year-old black Lab-hound that died last summer not long after her final hike at Bear Creek.

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While we snowshoed only the first 1 1/2 miles west to the small waterfall, keeping up with Josey – our 6-year-old, 85-pound Rottweiler-hound cross – was no easy task for Gus. He ended up wrapped in a fleece blanked in my backpack after getting chilled when we stopped at the overlook.

In the end, he made it out on his own four legs and slept in the back of our SUV the whole way home – proving he was up to the bigger adventures to come.

Here are a few more pictures from Bear Creek.

Distance: 3 miles round trip.

Trailhead: From Victor, the Bear Creek trailhead is 3.3 miles south on U.S. Highway 93, 2.3 miles west on Bear Creek Road, 0.8 miles north on Red Crow Road and 3.2 miles west on Red Crow and Bear Creek roads.

Spring sights on the way to Camas Lakes

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A short May hike to Camas Lakes, southwest of Hamilton in the Bitterroot Mountains, highlighted the changing of the seasons: spring runoff and wildflowers, and the last of winter’s snow.

For the first mile, the trail climbed steadily to the north, crossing Hayes Creek at about a quarter mile then turning northwest at 1 mile and entering thicker forest. Along the way, purple and yellow violets dotted the edge of the path.

Nearly 2 miles up, the trail crossed an open outcrop that provided a brief view of the surrounding drainage and eastern ridge of Ward Mountain. Here, tufts of phlox could be found among the rocks.

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About another third of a mile up, a broken log bridge crossed Camas Creek as it cascaded down through the forest. While our younger dog Josey followed us across, our older dog Belle forded the creek.

Across the water, the trail climbed two-thirds of a mile of switchbacks as the forest thinned, then the final half mile past patches of snow to the lowest of the three Camas Lakes.

While it’s possible to round the lake and continue up the creek to the next two, we ate lunch on the shore then retreated to the trailhead when rain arrived.

Here are more photos from Camas Lakes.

Distance: About 7 miles round trip.

Trailhead: About 9.4 miles south of Hamilton on U.S. Highway 93, turn west on Lost Horse Road. Continue 2.4 miles, then turn northwest and follow Forest Road 496 about 6.1 miles to the trailhead.

Spires and ice in Blodgett Canyon

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With its towering rocky spires, Blodgett Canyon is a geological highlight of the Bitterroot Mountains for summer visitors. In winter, however, it becomes a frozen wonderland.

And while it’s quite popular in warmer months, it seems hardly anyone goes there in the snow. On New Year’s Day, for example, we saw four other people, and passed only two of them on the trail.

When we arrived at the trailhead in the Bitterroot National Forest northwest of Hamilton, the temperature on the dashboard of our SUV read 1 degree. And while the sky was blue and the north rim of the canyon sunny, the south rim kept the creek bottom shaded.

In the first couple of miles, the trail parallels the creek upstream to the west, mostly through the trees above but also along its edge in a few spots.

Off the side of the trail, hoarfrost clung to the branches of shrubs. At a frozen bend in the creek, bigger crystals dotted the ice. At another bend farther up the trail, I was able to get an closer view of the intricate ice “flowers.”

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At 2 miles, the trail leaves the trees and rounds a boulder-filled bend. Here we could see across the canyon to a couple of ice climbers on a frozen cascade between Nez Perce and Shoshone spires on the north rim.

A short distance up the trail, we strapped on snowshoes and continued through the powder. Where it returns to the side of the cascading creek, we found icy pools – including one with a small frozen circle stuck in an eddy.

At about 3 miles, the trail crosses a bridge to the north bank of the creek, the canyon widens and a natural rock arch is visible on the south rim. A little more than a quarter mile farther, where the trail passes between a boulder field and a wide section of the creek, we stopped when the deep snow started to give the dogs trouble.

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On the way back down the canyon, with the shade rising up the north rim, we passed the only two people we would see on the trail all day.

Here are more photos of Blodgett Canyon.

Distance: About 6.5 miles round trip.

Trailhead: North of Hamilton, turn west off U.S. Highway 93 onto Bowman Road and drive three-quarters of a mile. Turn south on Ricketts Road and continue 2 miles. After Ricketts turns west, continue onto Blodgett Camp Road and follow it west, north and west again about 3.9 miles to the trailhead.