Explore the Bob Marshall Wilderness

Montana's Pristine Bob Marshall Wilderness offers windswept ridges, deep canyons, towering cliffs, dense forests, thundering rivers, and lush meadows.
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Montana's Pristine Bob Marshall Wilderness offers windswept ridges, deep canyons, towering cliffs, dense forests, thundering rivers, and lush meadows.

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All photos by Kent & Charlene Krone

“This isn’t a vacation, it’s an adventure!

Our cousin made this excellent observation as we rode Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness — affectionately called “the Bob” — an untamed, pristine, 1.5-million-acre paradise for trail riders. You’ll enjoy windswept ridges, deep canyons, towering cliffs, dense forests, thundering rivers, and lush meadows. 

The area’s Rocky Mountain Front, west of Augusta, forms 110 miles of the eastern rampart of the Bob. Due west are the slopes of the Swan Range, the Bob’s western flank.

Glacier National Park forms the northern border; the Blackfoot River valley is the southern terminus of the Bob’s eco-system. Four hundred miles of road circumvent the wilderness.

The area is rich with wildlife. Grizzly and black bears shuffle along the trails, stopping to claw apart rotting logs or overturn rocks in their constant search for food. Eagles soar from precipitous canyon walls. Timberwolves lurk unseen in dank evergreen thickets.

Here, we’ll tell you about the wilderness outfitter we used, then give you a day-by-day account of our trip. 

Allure of the Wilderness
For this pack trip, we decided to use a wilderness outfitter — a first for us. We’d previously done all of our packing ourselves.

We chose the 7 Lazy P (406/466-2245; www.7Lazyp.com), a lodge and outfitter business near Choteau.

Ranch owner Dusty Crary’s eyes sparkle when he talks about the wilderness.

For him, part of the allure is its unpredictability.

“Pack trips are like going into battle,” he noted. “You might plan for months, and within minutes, plans can go awry.”

Dusty, his wife Danelle, and their three children (Charlotte, Connor, and Carson) are fourth-generation ranchers and old hands at trail riding and packing. They recently purchased the 7 Lazy P from Chuck and Sharon Blixrud.

Joining us on the pack trip were our cousins from Ohio: Tess McCarihan, an avid horseman and animal advocate; and Pat Baker, a brave novice rider and elementary educator. Also joining us was our “honorary cousin,” Bob Reiswig of Polebridge, Montana.

Our head wrangler and packer was Dave Hovde, a long-time guide and wrangler who’s worked in the Bob for more than 35 years.

Dan Gifft, 25, wrangled, packed, and was our in-camp poet laureate and camp philosopher.

No pack trip is complete without the cooks! We had two culinary wizards: E.B Lawlor, who hailed from Iowa, and Julie Cisler, who made her way from Saint Louis, Missouri.

Our equine contingent consisted of 12 stout mules and 9 trustworthy trail horses.

Day-by-Day Account
As it turned out, Dusty accurately predicted our trip’s unpredictability. We lost the first two days of our trip, due to heavy, constant rain.

Here’s our from-the-saddle account of what ended up being a six-day pack trip into the Bob.

Day 1. Our first riding day was a damp, cold 14-mile ride from the West Fork trailhead to our camp at Basin Creek.

We worked our way through black, skeletal trees, a mute testament to the ravaged destruction of the 1998 and 2007 forest fires. Yet Mother Nature comes through.

Low-lying clouds of brilliant-pink fireweed covered the forest floor, overlying burnt limbs with ethereal beauty.

At our lunch stop, wrangler Dave Hodve surprised us with a blazing fire so we could warm our hands while eating lunch. Thus fortified, we crossed the Continental Divide at Teton Pass. This high point of the continent is where precipitation divides itself between the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean.

Dan, Julie, and E.B. went ahead of us to set up camp. They erected two big canvas tents: one for cooking, and one for a dining area.

When we arrived at Basin Creek Camp, the cooks had a cheerful fire going and a pot of hot coffee perking on the woodstove. We were ready for both!

Pine trees fringed our camp, which was nestled in a small basin alongside the well-named Basin Creek. Dave told us how to set up our personal, two-pole canvas tent. Our sleeping quarters felt cozy and welcoming after we unrolled our sleeping bags onto thermal mattresses. After dinner, the wranglers kept a couple of horses in a corral and fed them hay, then released the rest of the horses and mules to graze in the surrounding meadows. But first, the savvy horsemen affixed loud bells onto the halters of the herd leaders.

During the night, before drifting off to sleep, we could hear the distant sound of bells.

Early the next morning, with frost still on the grass, Dan and his loyal Border Collie, Laska, rounded up the horses and mules. It was thrilling watching Dan and Laska drive the stock through camp and on up to the corral. And all the while we were enjoying the morning fire and cowboy coffee!

Our camp cooks outdid themselves. Not only were we treated to a traditional cowboy breakfast every morning, but one night they even baked and frosted a chocolate cake.

Day 2. This was a layover day, meaning we’d stay in the same camp. We had the choice of staying at camp or riding. Pat, Kent, and Charlene stayed in camp. Kent tried out his new fishing flies. Tess and Bob rode with wrangler Dave under the Continental Divide, enjoying views of Pentagon Mountain.

Day 3. After a hearty breakfast, the crew packed up camp. Less than two hours later, 21 animals and 9 people were ready to go, leaving in their wake a clean campsite with no burning embers.

We started on the 10-mile ride from Basin Creek Camp to Switchback Camp. Trail #324 ran alongside Bowl Creek, which we followed downstream.

This trail intersected Strawberry Creek, a waterway that farther downstream combined with Bowl Creek to form the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System (www.rivers.gov/rivers/flathead.php).

We reached Gooseberry Cabin, a United States Forest Service camp. As we ate our lunch on the porch, we noticed bars on the windows and wicked spikes in front of the doorway. Definite deterrents for barefoot bears!

After lunch, we continued down Trail #155, no longer in the burn. On a hillside trail, fairly narrow in places, we suddenly stopped moving. We soon spotted the holdup: Ahead of us, Dan, seven mules, and the cooks had stopped. It wasn’t looking good; we were bunched up and stationary.

We learned that a stick had lodged in E.B.’s stirrup, poking her horse, which bucked and threw her over the hillside. Fortunately, E.B. fell only 10 feet before being stopped by shrubbery and was just banged up.

Our next overnight stop, Switchback Camp, was located on a tree-covered flat. The kitchen/dining area, situated under a large tent, was surrounded by a solar-powered electric bear fence.

After dinner, we’d sit around the campfire, maybe sip a relaxing beverage, and listen to wrangler Dan recite cowboy poems and stories.

Day 4. We packed up camp and rode 12.4 miles from Switchback Camp over to our next camp at Big River Meadows.

First, we backtracked to Gooseberry Cabin. When we reached Strawberry Creek, we took Trail #161 and headed north. Roughly five miles later, we turned left (west) on Trail #322.

Slowly, we began ascending into Gateway Gorge. Huge white walls on either side of the gorge stood facing each other. Foamy water moaned and thrashed below.

Dave reined his horse to a stop and looked back at us.

“Keep a space between your horse and the horse in front of you, grab your horse’s mane, and lean forward.”

“Why does he want us to do that?” asked Pat.

“I think we’re going to find out,” Charlene replied.

Sure enough, we found ourselves on a sheer cliff-side trail with short, very steep switchbacks. About 800 feet below us, the tumultuous river spewed foam. At one point, the mule string filled three switchbacks simultaneously!

After we got through the gorge, it wasn’t long before we arrived at Big River Meadows, our final camp, which offered a breathtaking view. Across from camp, a meandering creek ran through the long, lush meadow and was hemmed on two sides by the Continental Divide.

After dinner, as twilight fell, we experienced a magic moment. We were with loved ones, in the heart of wilderness, watching horses and mules being turned out for the night.

With the Continental Divide looming in the background, the animals raced joyfully across the meadow, kicking up their heels, playfully bucking. They had the nighttime to relax and eat.

Day 5. This was a layover day with an optional ride to Crystal Mountain. Tess, Kent, and Bob went with Dave on the ride, while Pat and Charlene stayed in camp.

Pat was writing a daily account of her Bob Marshall pack trip, so she could share her trip with family and colleagues in Ohio. We agreed that it’s difficult to describe the feelings one experiences in wilderness.

Perhaps Eckhart Tolle said it best: “We become aware that there is a hidden harmony here, a sacredness, a higher order in which everything has its perfect place and could not be other than what it is and the way it is.”

When Tess and Kent came back from the Crystal Mountain ride, their faces were wreathed with grins. They told tales of their thrilling ride up a steep ridge that culminated with amazing views and lots of crystals.

“Crystal Mountain is unbelievable!” Tess exclaimed “You’re in a world of your own. We could even see Glacier National Park.”

Since this was the last night of our trip, we were treated to barbecued steaks Dave grilled over an open fire. While we sipped relaxing libations, Dan recited cowboy poetry. Life was more than good — it was awesome!

Day 6. We packed up for the last time for the 18.5-mile ride back to the West Fork trailhead, where we’d begun the trip.

Our last ride was a gorgeous one! Such a variety of scenery: a 7,700-foot-elevation pass; lush valleys; canyons; and distant mountain ranges that changed shape as we rode along.

Grizzly bear tracks preceded us on a portion of our trail, but we never saw any bears.

When we reached the end of our trail, the Crarys’ thoughtfulness had preceded us. Danelle had filled an ice chest with beverages and snacks. It was greatly appreciated by all!

Dusty and Danelle’s hospitality wasn’t finished. Unlike many outfitters, they treated us to a final dinner and another night of lodging.

In the morning, Dave transported my cousins over to Great Falls International Airport for their flight back to Ohio. And “Cousin Bob”? He revved up his BMW motorcycle and headed back to Polebridge.

Our pack trip experience with the Crarys’ 7 Lazy P wilderness outfitters was over. However, the pictures and memories will fill our hearts for a lifetime.

Kent and Charlene Krone combine their interest in photojournalism with a passion for horses. They’ve sold photographs to magazines, books, calendars, postcards, and video producers for more than 20 years. (For a sampling, visit www.superstock.com, and type “supplier:1314” in the search box.) They enjoy sharing their horseback adventures in the United States and Western Canada. Reach them at kentandcharlene@gmail.com.

Who Was Bob Marshall?
In his 38 years of life, wilderness activist Bob Marshall became a legend in his own time and left a legacy that has enriched people’s lives.

Born in 1901 to a wealthy Manhattan, New York, family, Marshall spent his boyhood dreaming of Lewis and Clark, and their “glorious exploration.”

In the spring of 1925, after receiving his master’s degree in forestry from Harvard, Marshall headed west to the Northern Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station in Missoula, Montana.

As a junior forester, Marshall spent nearly all his free time hiking in the backwoods of Montana and Idaho. Rarely was a day hike less than 40 miles; most totaled 50 or more.

Marshall loved the wilderness. “It is the perfect aesthetic experience…vast panoramas…on a scale so overwhelming as to wipe out the ordinary meaning of dimensions…it is the song of the hermit thrush…unique odor of the balsams…the feel of spruce needles underfoot,” he once observed.

In 1928, Marshall headed east to study for a doctorate degree in plant physiology at John Hopkins University. Here, he wrote his most important wilderness thesis, “The Problem of the Wilderness,” often referred to as the Magna Carta of the wilderness movement.

He was one of the principal founders of The Wilderness Society (www.wilderness.org).

In November 1939, Marshall died in his sleep while on a train trip to New York. Two years after his death, as a way of honoring him for his accomplishments, the Bob Marshall Wilderness was set aside in his name.