Congress designated the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in 1975. Over 920,000 acres of the wilderness area coincide with Montana's Gallatin, Custer, and Shoshone national forests. Just over 23,000 acres of the wilderness lies in Wyoming. The Absaroka-Beartooth, just north of Yellowsyone National Park, is considered an integral part of the 20-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
The wilderness consists of two distinct mountain ranges. The Absaroka, named for the Crow people, is the more fertile range, densely forested with spruce, fir, and pine, and frequented by bighorn sheep, mountain goats, elk, deer, moose, marmots, coyotes, wolves, black bears, grizzlies, and Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Fauna thins out in the higher-elevation Beartooth Range, which features treeless plateaus, steep canyons, small alpine lakes, and Montana's highest point: 12,799-foot Granite Peak.
The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness's 700-mile trail system is most often accessed via the Beartooth Highway, US 212, from Red Lodge or by forest access roads off of US 89 south of Livingston.
Ackley State Park is 160 acres of campground and shoreline surrounding Ackley Lake, near Lewistown, in dead-center Montana. Ackley Lake, name for a local pioneer, is stocked with rainbow trout, and 10-15-inch fish are common.
Fifteen campsites (primitive, tent, and RV), two boat launches, vault toilets, fire rings, grills and picnic tables are available at this pack-in/pack-out park. There are no fees for camping, and no potable water is available on-site. Maximum trailer length is 24 feet.
The Alberton Gorge, 35 miles west of Missoula on the Clark Fork River, is the most accessible and best-sustained whitewater in western Montana. Best-sustained in terms of bang-per-mile, with eight named Class II-III rapids (and maybe a high-water Class IV) in a 10-mile stretch of isolated, almost development-free river, and also in terms of seasonal duration: the Gorge is runnable year-round, depending only on your tolerance for cold water and weather.
The default put-in utilized by commercial raft guides, and a good many DIYers, is the Cyr fishing access site at Exit 70 on Interstate 90 headed west. The first notable rapids are called Cliffside I and II, large and confused wavetrains hugging the river-right shore. Kayakers and open-boaters frequently bypass Cliffside by putting in at Sandy Beach (also a popular picnic spot) two miles downstream, and accessible by dirt backroads. Triple Bridges, named for the interstate and railroad overpasses, is just a mile downstream, offering a good warm-up wave that’s surfable at good flows. Split Rock, a relatively minor rapid, is next, followed by perhaps the Gorge’s most fearsome rapid, Tumbleweed, a quick right turn narrowly framed by tumult on river left and a giant hole to the right of the line. At certain flows Tumbleweed is sneakable at far river right.
Tumbleweed is followed by Surfer Joe (another good surf spot), Boat Flipper (which comes in at high water), Boateater, and finally Fang, the Gorge’s second-scariest rapid, which also features a meaty surfing wave for those skilled enough to brave it.
Most raft trips continue to the Tarkio FAS, five miles downstream of Fang, usually battling a wide river and upstream winds to reach the easy-access boat-ramp take-out. Kayakers and canoeists frequently lop off the last four quiet-water miles by taking out at the “Ralph’s” access on river right, a steep 200-yard uphill haul to a dirt parking lot accessed by backroads.
Aside from whitewater, Alberton Gorge is famed for its steep, colorful canyon walls and wildlife. Sightings of beavers, eagles, deer, elk, otters, and osprey are common, and black bears are always a possibility. Swirling flocks of American avocets can captivate the least-observant of birdwatchers. Beware shore-wading yourself, though: most of the Gorge’s shoreline is cluttered with sharp and slippery rocks, and beyond the rocks are some of western Montana’s densest populations of poison ivy.
During the high-summer season, the Gorge also hosts one of western Montana’s densest populations of rafters. Expect plenty of company in the warm months.
In 2005, the Montana Power Company transferred 320 acres of land forming a corridor along the river into public ownership, preserving public access, and scenic values, in perpetuity.
The decommissioned Anaconda smelter stack, visible from almost anywhere in Anaconda, and up to 20 miles away, is the decommissioned chimney of the former Anaconda Copper Company smelter that dominated life in the Deer Lodge Valley from its founding in the 1880s until its closure in the early 1980s.
The stack itself, 585.5 feet high and constructed of brick masonry, was completed in 1919.
The chimney site is part of an ongoing Superfund cleanup, and currently no public access is allowed. A viewing station/interpretive area featuring a replica footprint of the stack is located at the intersection of Park Street (MT Highway 1) and Monroe Street at the city of Anaconda's eastern edge, adjacent to Goodman Park.
No camping—no anything other than viewing, really—is allowed.
The Wilderness's 158,615 acres straddle the Continental Divide and are jointly managed by the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge and Bitterroot national forests. Sixty miles of the 3,100 mile Continental Divide National Scenic Trail cross the Anaconda-Pintler.
Elevations in the wilderness range from 5,100 to 10,793 feet. West and East Goat Peaks, Warren Peak, Mount Evans, and Fish Peak, among other 10,000-foot-plus peaks, are considered climbable without technical equipment. Mountain goats and bighorn sheep are common in the wilderness, which is also home to black bears, rare grizzlies, moose, elk, mule deer, wolves, and wolverines.
Hiking trails are extensive. Mort Arkava's book Hiking the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness traces 48 routes. Be aware that water can remain frozen and snow remain a threat in the high backcountry even in mid-summer.
Also be aware that with so much mega-profile Montana backcountry available in Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness—splitting the distance between those two tourist magnets and relatively remote from Montana's urban centers—is little used. The opportunities for solitude are spectacular.
Access is limited. The O'Hair Ranch charges a rod fee and encourages anglers to hire local guides to track the creek's abundant brown, rainbow, and Yellowstone cutthroat trout.
Midges, scuds, and eggs are recommended for winter fishing; baetis, midges, and sculpin in spring; PMD's, hoppers, crickets, and beetles are popular in the summer months; baetis and midges in the fall.
Bannack is the site of Montana's first big gold strike, on July 28, 1862. By 1863, more than 3,000 people lived in walking distance of the 50 buildings lining Bannack's Main Street. The log and frame structures, now a National Historic Landmark, are still there, the state's best-preserved ghost town.
The annual Bannack Days festival, featuring reenactments and history-themed activities, is held the third weekend of each July. A visitor center is open from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Grasshopper Creek runs through Bannack, and a campground on its banks features a tipi available for rent, fire rings, horseshoe pits, volleyball, firewood, and tent and RV camping.
Another ridge with much of its real estate above 9,000 feet, located between the Nelson Creek Drainage to the north and the Soda Springs Creek Drainage to the south, the Bare Peak ridge and its highpoints are accessed only by those willing to expend an above-average amount of energy.
Most recent topographical maps assign the name Bare Peak to the middle (and lowest, 9,289’) of the three highest points on the ridge, while older maps assign the name to the entire ridge. Many local climbers prefer the old way and refer to the entire ridge as Bare Peak and differentiate between the highpoints by calling them East, Middle, and West.
To climb this mountain, begin at the Nelson Creek Trailhead and follow the trail to the north side of Nelson Lake. Pass the lake and hike northwest through the cirque along a wide ridge to the northeast ridge-crest of Bare Peak’s east summit. Follow the ridge (Class 2+) southwest to the highest point (9,459’) on the ridge.
Reaching the middle summit requires Class 2+ climbing, but the summit blocks of the west summit are Class 4.
From Bass Lake, Bass Peak (8,761’) looks imposing as it rises from the southwest edge of the shore; however only from the dam-end of the lake can the actual summit be seen, and then just barely. Point 8752 blocks views of the summit from most all other spots near the lake.
Reaching the summit of Bass Peak requires Class 3 climbing and, though it can be climbed on a single-day round trip from the Bass Creek trailhead, it is much better to establish a base-camp at Bass Lake and make it a multi-day affair.
To reach the summit, follow the established trail around Bass Lake to the saddle south of the lake—the trail is not very well maintained after it leaves the area of the lake. Leave the trail and hike in an easterly direction up the ridge-crest to an elevation of 7,550’. To avoid the arêtes guarding the upper portion of the ridge, drop off of the ridge-crest and hike southwest across the bowl toward the south ridge. Once on the south ridge, it’s an easy hike to the summit.—Michael Hoyt