2016 Summer Journal

Exploring New Wilderness in Montana

When I was growing up, “summer” was synonymous “Montana.” My parents were both teachers, so once the final school bell rang they packed up my brothers and I, along with our hiking, biking, and camping gear, and schlepped us out to my Grandparent’s house in West Yellowstone (about a 17 hour drive!) For weeks on end, we explored empty trails in unknown wilderness. As a child, I was blown away by the expanse of Big Sky Country – Montana was a place of dangerous beasts, beautiful vistas, and endless possibilities. I don’t know if I knew enough to appreciate it then, but those summers are one of the best experiences my parents gave to my brothers and I. 

As we grow up, the world tends to shrink. As we meet new people, travel to new places, and have new experiences, childhood memories start to seem underwhelming. It’s not surprising: we often build experiences up in our mind’s eye because they were the first, not because they are the best. Fortunately, Montana provides a richness and depth that refuses to give in to that standard.

The Indian Ridge trail in the Spanish Peaks with Gallatin Peak in the distance.

The Indian Ridge trail in the Spanish Peaks with Gallatin Peak in the distance.

When I was younger, 5 miles on the trail was tough and a 10 mile day on the trail was considered an epic. Now, with better fitness and more experience traveling in the backcountry, the wilderness that seemed impossibly huge when I was a child has become completely accessible and the perfect year-round playground. 

Eager to explore as much of this fantastic place as I can, I jumped at the opportunity for a long run in the Spanish Peaks with my friend Craig. After hatching the idea over beers the night before, we met up early the next morning at Craig’s place outside of West Yellowstone and perused the map as we drove north through the Gallatin Canyon. Initially we considered a two options, but settled on the shorter of the two knowing that the real challenge of the day would be the huge elevation gain and loss rather than the mileage itself.

The chosen route: park at Hell Roaring trailhead, run along the road to Indian Ridge trailhead, up Indian Ridge to Beacon Point, down into Hell Roaring and back to the car.

The chosen route: park at Hell Roaring trailhead, run along the road to Indian Ridge trailhead, up Indian Ridge to Beacon Point, down into Hell Roaring and back to the car.

After parking the car, lacing up our shoes, and doing a last minute gear check to make sure we had the essentials (water, food, rain jackets, and bear spray), we set out for the Indian Ridge trail. The climbing started almost immediately and didn’t let up for the next 10 miles. Our goal was to gain the ridge and follow the trail along its crest until reaching the small saddle right below a prominent feature named Beacon Point.

The climb continued for a few hours, but any monotony that may have formed was constantly swept aside by increasingly impressive vistas, endless fields of wildflowers, and a little anxiety about the numerous fresh piles of bear scat that we spotted along the trail.

Once the views opened up, we stopped to consult the map and figure out what peaks we were looking at. Gallatin Peak off in the distance there.

Once the views opened up, we stopped to consult the map and figure out what mountains we were looking at. Gallatin Peak off in the distance there.

Eventually we made it to the top of the ridge and were greeted with panoramic views of the Spanish Peaks, Tobacco Roots, and Bridger Range. We could see Beacon point off in the distance and knew we still had a couple of miles of traversing and a few hundred more feet to climb before we were at the top. 

Craig running along the top of Indian Ridge. The Spanish Peaks to the left, Tobacco Roots to the right, and Bridger Range way off in the distance behind us.

Craig running along the top of Indian Ridge. The Spanish Peaks to the left, Tobacco Roots to the right, and Bridger Range way off in the distance behind us.

Feeling like we're on top of the world and then you see Gallatin Peak just a bit higher. That's an objective for another day!

Gallatin Peak off to the left. Beacon Point, our high mark for the day is the next high point a ways to the right of Gallatin.

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The first look at the Hell Roaring drainage down below. We have a long way to go!

After taking a few photos and enjoying the 360 degree view, we continued on along the ridge and felt the joy of being able to stretch our legs into long strides for the first time that day. The remaining miles to Beacon Point ticked by quickly except for the short, gruelling climb at the end that seemed to drag on for longer than it actually did. Finally at the top, we sat down to take in the view, refuel with a snack, and give our legs a rest from the 5,000 feet of climbing they’d just powered through.

Craig makes plans for climbing each peak while refueling before the long descent.

Craig makes plans for climbing each peak while refueling before the long descent.

From here it was 13 miles of downhill all the way back to the car. Even though we’d be able to keep a faster pace, we knew that the descent would be a lot harder on our bodies than the long climb up. One harsh side-affect of solitude in Montana’s wild places is that the trails are often overgrown and full of rocks a debris, making for difficult and technical running.

One last look at Gallatin Peak before heading quickly down into the valley below.

One last look at Gallatin Peak before heading quickly down into the valley below.

The first mile off Beacon Point was the hardest as we dropped more than 1,200 feet down to the valley floor. We stopped at the first crossing of Hell Roaring Creek and took a moment to refill our water at the mouth of a nearby spring. Down in the valley, the trail leveled off significantly and we enjoyed some easy running on a much more pleasant grade.

Snow still covered parts of the trail on the north side of the valley so we took some extra time to practice our stand-up glissading along the way.

Craig demonstrating near perfect standing glissade technique.

Craig demonstrating near perfect standing glissade technique. Gotta keep that left heel down Craig!

The heat picked up as we descended along the drainage and we began to take more time at each creek crossing to cool off before tackling the next section of trail. Our regular shouts of “Hey Bear!” and “Yaba-daba-doo!” didn’t end up doing much good because, even after a good shout, I rounded a corner and locked eyes with a black bear only about 20 yards down the trail clawing in the dirt for grub. Craig and I immediately had our bear spray out, but the bear was more surprised than we were and quickly high tailed it the other way. We kept up our noise-making all the way back to the car to avoid any more surprises.

A few more easy miles along the creek brought us to a final climb and a winding descent back down to the Hell Roaring parking lot. We jogged in hot, dusty, and tired, but absolutely stoked on having experienced a new place.

This year marks my 24th summer in Montana (I skipped a few when I was “too busy” in college.) I have changed significantly from my childhood years, and many things have changed in the town of West Yellowstone as visits to the park hit record numbers year after year, but the second you step off the beaten path it might as well be 1995 again. It’s worth mentioning that the “off beaten path” experience begins immediately where the pavement ends… that’s as far as most of the park’s 3 million annual visitors care to travel.

Though our trailhead was less than an hour from the hustle and bustle of Yellowstone National Park, we saw only four other people out on our excursion (two of those were only a few hundred yards from the car). The beauty, magnitude, and solitude in Montana is truly unique – something that has not changed for hundreds of years and I hope remains unchanged for hundreds more.

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  • A year ago, I would have thought a 17 hr was was insurmountably long. Now, it feels like such a manageable two-day trip! It’s amazing how moving out west and getting used to being on the road a lot changes your perspective. And I’m glad it was a black bear you ran into (definitely my choice of bears if I have to happen upon any). Aren’t grizzlies more common out west? But Big Sky country looks incredible. I can’t wait to get out there and take some astrophotos. All that space…yet, still incredible that you only fan into a few people on your outing! Go figure.