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August 2007

Perfect Substitutes: Crowd-Free Destinations

You know that the big-name parks draw big-time crowds. But each of those outdoor icons has a lesser-known replacement that offers some of the same classic features and epic scenery–and you get it all to yourself.

Swap out: Glacier National Park
Swap in: Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, MT

Grizzlies have no respect for boundaries. If the land is big, humans few, and food abundant, they’ll claim it, whether it’s national parkland or federal wilderness. In the Lower 48, the Bob is one of the few places wild enough to satisfy a griz.

The 40-by-100-mile complex is actually three wildernesses combined–the Scapegoat, Great Bear, and Bob Marshall. Entire mountain ranges fit within its borders, as do verdant river valleys and broad prairies. At 1.5 million acres, Bob Marshall is half again as large as Glacier. And unlike that more famous neighbor to the north, in the Bob you can’t simply drive a Going-to-the-Sun type road into the interior. "I’m humbled and inspired every time I get on one of the high peaks there," says Bill Cunningham, who has guided more than 200 backpacking trips in Bob Marshall for his company, High Country Adventures, in Choteau. "Everything I see within a 360-degree sweep–as far as 70 miles–is wild and unroaded. That’s overpowering."

And rare. Bob Marshall is a last vestige of primeval America. Elk and moose browse its meadows and marshes; mountain goats and bighorn sheep clamber its rocky ridges; eagles, hawks, and falcons soar its thermals; cutthroat and rainbow trout swim its streams; and lynx, mountain lions, wolves, and wolverines stalk its forests. "If you want an authentic wilderness experience with less regulation," Cunningham says, "go to the Bob Marshall."

2 Days
Explore the lake country beneath glaciated peaks on a strenuous 21-mile loop into the Swan Range, on the wilderness’s wet west side. The forests are thicker, trees bigger, and lakes more common here than over on the east. Starting from Holland Lake’s north trailhead, hike 7 miles uphill to Upper Holland Lake and the junction with Pendant Pass Trail 457. Horse traffic can be heavy to this point, but you’ll shed the pack trains by veering left to Pendant Pass, the entry into the wilderness. The trail descends gradually for 5 miles past the string of Pendant Lakes to a junction with Big Salmon Creek Trail 110. Jog north 1 mile, then left onto Sapphire Lake Trail. Climb gently to the rocky-shored Necklace Lakes. Return to Holland Lake via Necklace Pass, where the views are stellar but the descent brutal: You’ll lose 3,600 feet in 4 miles. Consider adding a day to linger at Necklace Lakes.

7 Days
With 1,856 miles of trail and all that wildlife, Bob Marshall is backpacking’s Costco. Load up on jumbo-sized wilderness with a suitably ambitious, 42-mile shuttle route into what Cunningham describes as "the front of the Rocky Mountain Front," inside the complex’s remote Scapegoat Wilderness. This is where tilted limestone reefs crest like waves above the Great Plains. On a weeklong guided trek with High Country Adventures ($850; high-country–, you’ll hike into a river chasm at Devils Glen, witness a forest’s rebirth at the site of the huge 1988 Canyon Creek fire, explore deep caves, and spy on elk and grizzlies snacking on the alpine plateau below 9,202-foot Scapegoat Mountain. "It’s the highest peak in the whole Bob," Cunningham says, "with a clear view of ranks of peaks, and then the northern Great Plains in the distance, looking like the ocean."

Plan It
Erik Molvar’s Hiking Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness ($20) has route information. For the 7-day trek, get USGS quads Benchmark, Scapegoat Mountain, Jakie Creek, Heart Lake, and Steamboat Mountain; the Rocky Mountain Ranger District (406-466-5341) has beta. For the 2-day hike, get Holland Lake, Holland Peak, and Big Salmon Lake West, and call the Swan Lake district (406-837-5081).

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