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The Rocky Mountain Front

The real deal; rugged, beautiful, undeveloped, but still accessible

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tretching over one hundred miles, from just south of Glacier National Park to not far north of Helena, lies one of the jewels of the continent, Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. Largely undeveloped, this area showcases the abrupt transition from prairie to mountains. Spectacular scenery, abundant wildlife, and uncrowded conditions make this area a fine alternative to some of the state’s more popular destinations.

Largely unroaded, this area offers nearly limitless backcountry camping opportunities for the backpacker or horsepacker. In subsequent articles we will feature specific pack trips in this area, however, the vast scope of the country prohibits any kind of comprehensive review in a single article. Questions about specific off-road destinations are best dealt with through our consulting service. Fortunately, most of the roads that do access this area provide good camping at Forest Service campgrounds. While conditions are more primitive than at the National Park campgrounds, they are certainly adequate.

The Badger-Two Medicine area extends for approximately thirty miles south of Glacier Park. While offering superb off-road opportunities, road access is quite limited. There are no developed campgrounds and the roads that access the mountain front are primitive. Access is through the Blackfeet Indian reservation. Some of the finest trophy trout fishing in the country is available in area lakes, but that is another story. Remember that tribal permits are required to recreate on the reservation.

South of the Badger-Two Medicine, a couple of decent gravel roads access the front. One leads from just north of Dupuyer to Swift Dam and another from Bynum to Blackleaf Canyon. Limited camping is available at Swift Dam, but both these spots are more trailheads to the surrounding backcountry than destinations in themselves. Continuing south, the nextEar Mountain.jpg (20550 bytes) access road (actually paved most of the way) leads from north of Choteau to the north and south forks of the Teton river. Both these canyons provide good camping opportunities and are personal favorites. The access roads lead well into the mountains, the scenery is rugged and spectacular, and there are an abundance of good hiking trails in the area. Shortly before reaching the mountain front, watch for the intersection with the South Fork road. Continuing straight ahead, the North Fork road provides the best example in the area of the abrupt transition from flat prairie to rugged mountains. Within a few miles, Cave Mountain campground is reached and Elko campground is not much further. Cave MountainN.Fk Teton.jpg (18225 bytes) is a good sized campground with plenty of space for RV’s. Elko is small, with only three sites, more suited to tent or pickup camping. Both are fun places to camp with the Teton River and good hiking trails close at hand. Past the Elko campground the road climbs a small divide, passing the Rocky Mountain High ski area before dropping to it’s end at the West Fork Teton campground. The sites are somewhat larger than Cave Mountain or Elko, but are also less sheltered, a factor to remember. The wind can really howl everywhere along the Front. In my opinion, the West Fork is more a place to stay before embarking on a trip into the surrounding country than a destination in itself.

The South Fork Teton road leads to several worthwhile attractions before even entering the mountains. Shortly after crossing the Teton River, the road forks. Taking the left fork leads to the Ear Mountain Wildlife management area, Pine Butte Swamp Preserve, and Egg Mountain. The Ear Mountain and Pine Butte areas provide good hiking and wildlife viewing opportunities. The Pine Butte preserve is owned by The Nature Conservancy, who operate a small visitor center that explains the unique ecosystem of this area. Egg Mountain is an archeological dig where Dr. Jack Horner of the Museum of the Rockies made important discoveries about the nesting habits of dinosaurs. Tours are available, inquire at the visitor center in Choteau.

Continuing along the South Fork road for a few miles leads to Mill Falls campground, shortly before the end of the road. This is another fairly small and primitive campground, with only four sites, although they are big enough for RV’s. There are some superb hikes close at hand. The trailhead at the end of the road leads to Our Lake and Headquarters Pass. Our Lake, probably the most popular destination along the Front, is a small lake nestled in a high basin. It’s frequented by mountain goats and well worth the three mile hike. Headquarters Pass is a bit longer and more strenuous trip, but offers great views into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, with the famed Chinese Wall visible in the distance.

The next access roads south of the Teton River area lead west from Augusta. The more northerly of these roads leads to the Sun River area and dead-ends at Gibson dam. For several miles before reaching the mountain front, this road skirts the Sun River game preserve. This area provides winter range for the famous Sun River elk herd as well as habitat for the many other species of wildlife in the area. Shortly after entering the mountains, Home Gulch campground lies along the river below the dam. The road then climbs the ridge adjacent to the dam and Mortimer GulchGibson camp.jpg (25628 bytes) campground is shortly before where the road ends at the lake. Both of these are good sized campgrounds. Home Gulch has perhaps better fishing close at hand, but is located in a more brushy area. Mortimer Gulch has a wider variety of sites, from small secluded spots nested in the timber to more open areas with large sites well suited to groups or larger RV’s. During the late fall and early spring, this is a prime spot to view bighorn sheep. The Sun River area has a wider range of activities available than most other areas of the Front, with plenty of good hiking trails, decent fishing in the Sun River, and boating on Gibson Reservoir. There is also a bar/restaurant, Sun Canyon Lodge, near Mortimer Gulch campground, and a couple of outfitters offering trail rides and backcountry pack trips.

The other primary access road out of Augusta leads to the Benchmark area. This road reaches farther into the mountains than any of the others and the trailheads at its end are popular departure points for backcountry trips. All of the access roads discussed can be rough at times, but the Benchmark road usually takes the dubious honor of having the most miles of tooth-rattling washboard. The gorgeous scenery makes the trip worthwhile, though. The first campground reached is Wood Lake, which sits just across the road from its namesake, a pretty little lake nestled in the canyon bottom. This is a fairly small campground, with nine sites. It is quite popular with local families, great fun for kids and dogs, perhaps less so if you are seeking seclusion. A few miles farther along is Benchmark campground. It sits near a mile-plus long airstrip, just in case you are planning on arriving by private jet. Actually, this strip is little used, and would appear to be mostly aRoute Cr. Pass sign.jpg (24611 bytes) contingency for planes used in fighting forest fires. Benchmark is a good campground, with plenty of sites, but a personal favorite is the smaller South Fork campground, located at the end of the road a couple of miles beyond Benchmark. There is good fishing in the South Fork of the Sun River nearby and close trail access to the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas. Several guest ranches and outfitters also operate in this area.

Several other campgrounds are available at prairie lakes adjacent to the mountain front. These are fairly popular with locals as the lakes can offer good fishing. The common techniques are trolling hardware from a boat or bait fishing from the bank. With the majestic mountain front to the west, these lakes cannot exactly be said to lack scenic value, but their immediate vicinity consists of bald prairie and the campsites offer little or no shelter. As such, they lend themselves to RV camping.

One area resort, the H Lazy 6 ranch, offers trophy fly fishing with the attendant amenities on their private lakes. More info on this as well as the other guest ranches and outfitters in this area are available through our consulting service.

The Rocky Mountain Front offers visitors a look at what I consider the real Montana. It’s rugged, beautiful, and sometimes more than a little harsh. Like most of the few people who call it home, it makes no pretenses, because it doesn’t need to. It is what it is, and that is one of the last major undeveloped, scenic, relatively accessible areas in the state. May it long stay that way.

 

 

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