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Hiking Montana’s Lonely Mountains

Hidden deep in Montana's high country lies the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, a seldom-visited range of cool forests and skyscraping peaks.

“I think the trail must be just up ahead.” My wife Penny’s voice flutters past me like an errant scrap of paper. Below me, she and our friend Kris Karlson clamber over deadfall and through brush up a steep slope toward the saddle where I’m scouring our map, which suddenly seems less detailed than I’d like. We’ve spent 30 minutes bushwhacking through sub-alpine forest trying to relocate the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), which we lost amid a maze of rogue camper footpaths beside Warren Lake.

Penny’s sense of direction proves true as a compass needle. After a bit of scouting, we’re back on the CDT. But our diversionary romp begins to solidify my impression that the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness remains true to its historical reputation. The mountains here in southwestern Montana, near the Idaho border, have been losing people for centuries.

Two hundred years ago, even Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had difficulty crossing the Continental Divide. They believed the Missouri River would lead them to the continent’s spine at a place where a mere half-day portage would deposit them in the Columbia River drainage. But on August 12, 1805, when Lewis crested the divide just south of here, he saw “immence ranges of high mountains still to the West of us with their tops partially covered with snow.”

The land today looks little different. In 1937, the U. S. Forest Service declared it a primitive area, citing the “almost complete absence of man’s influence.” In 1964, Anaconda-Pintler was deemed sufficiently wild to merit inclusion in the inaugural class of 54 federal wilderness areas created by the Wilderness Act.

Named for the Anaconda Mountains and Charles Ellsworth Pintler, a 19th-

century settler in the Big Hole Valley, the wilderness comprises 159,086 acres of the Beaverhead, Bitterroot, and Deerlodge National Forests. Half a dozen peaks top 10,000 feet and numerous others rise above 9,000, their slopes and valleys home to mountain goat and lion, elk, moose, deer, wolverine, and black bear.

Not many people find their way here. On this Labor Day weekend, we find just three vehicles at the trailhead. Two sunrises into our 4-day loop, we’ve hiked through cool pine forests, strolled beside creeks coursing with ice water, traversed an exposed talus ridge overlooking sweeping glacial cirques, and slept beneath a cold sky liberally salted with stars. Yet we’ve passed only four backpackers.

“It’s easy to see why Lewis and Clark had trouble getting over the Bitterroots,” Penny muses, gazing west at the daunting wall of mountains. We’re straddling the divide at an unnamed pass beside an unnamed 9,800-foot summit. Pikas chirp at us from the talus. Moments earlier, five mule deer bounded away.

To our right, the ground peels away through cliff bands and meadows of wind-blown grasses to Rainbow Lake, where waters spill into Fishtrap Creek to begin a long journey to the Atlantic Ocean. To our left, Martin Lake tumbles into the Falls Fork of Rock Creek to begin an impressive trek to the Pacific.

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