Take Montana’s steep corrugated mountains, add Yellowstone’s grizzlies and meadows, and you get this 260,000-acre wilderness in the Madison Range. You’ll trek straight to the best camping on this 17.4-mile out-and-back. From the Potamogeton Park trailhead (1), hike southwest to a bridged crossing of Beaver Creek at the wilderness boundary (2) in .2 mile. Tackle a steady climb through thick forests of aspen, lodgepole pine, and spruce (“See This,” next page) before breaking into the first of several narrow meadows (3) at mile 2.5. Just past this point, the trail bends west along the tumbling Sentinel Creek. Don’t take your first long break too soon; wait until the first blown-open views (4) of the Madison Range’s hanging snowfields and ragged peaks at mile 4.4. Emerge into a large meadow (5) in another .3 mile, and scan the open slopes to the north for elk or mule deer.
Reentering the forest, continue climbing to the runout of a large avalanche chute (6) at mile 5.9. This is where the author spotted fresh grizzly tracks in a layer of early snow last year. In fall, the bears congregate in rich foraging areas like this, fattening up for hibernation on yampa roots, whitebark pine nuts, and other high-calorie foods (see “Key Skill,” next page to keep your grub safe). Less than a mile later, leave the forest behind (7) and enter rolling tundra filled with clear streams and narrow bands of conifers. At mile 7.3, cross the headwaters of Sentinel Creek (8), now just a trickle. Begin a final uphill push, cresting an exposed pass (9) with views into wide-open Hilgard Basin. Switchback down a half-mile to the first of the basin’s many prime campsites along the shores of Expedition Lake (10). Follow the trail southwest, watching for the left turn (11) to Crag Lake in just over .2 mile. Continue to Crag’s east shore, reaching a secluded camp (12) shielded by whitebark pine.
Want to extend the dream? Basecamp here and spend the next day tackling a two-mile, 1,700-foot climb to nearby Echo Peak (“Locals Know,” next page). It’s too nice not to stay awhile.
Get there From Bozeman, take US 191 80 miles to US 287. Go west 10 miles, then turn right on Beaver Creek Rd. (gravel). Park at the trailhead in 4.5 miles.
Maps USGS quads Pika Point and Hilgard Peak ($8 each, store.usgs.gov)
Gear up Northern Lights Trading Co., 1716 W. Babcock, Bozeman, MT; (406) 586-2225; northernlightstrading.com
Contact (406) 823-6961; fs.fed.us/r1/gallatin
Trip data backpacker.com/hikes/1219381