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Wild Southwest Montana

We the people of Montana grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains, and desiring to improve the quality of life, equality of opportunity and to secure the blessings of liberty for this and future generations do ordain and establish this constitution.

~Preamble to the Montana Constitution, 1972

The Montana constitution enshrines, albeit in more grandiose language, the popular Montana sentiment “our state has the best nature, definitely better than all of the other states.” While I’m willing to give credit where credit is due and admit that other states might also have very nice rivers and mountains and such, I am fully on the obsessed-with-Montana bandwagon, which leads me to the actual topic of this blog: Wilderness Areas. Specifically the three Wilderness Areas in Southwest Montana, all splendorous showcases of the state’s spectacular scenery.

Southwest Montana’s three Wilderness Areas are: Bear Trap Canyon (a section of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness), Scapegoat (which, together with the Bob Marshall and Great Bear Areas forms the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex), and Gates of the Mountains. Although individually unique, the three all flaunt distinctly Southwest Montana features, mostly in the form of towering limestone cliffs and coursing rivers.

The Kitchen Sink in Bear Trap Canyon, photo from thearmchairexplorer.com

Six thousand acre Bear Trap Canyon Wilderness Area is named for the Madison River’s nine mile long Bear Trap Canyon. If the Fifty Mile Riffle–the broad, straight, blue-ribbon trout stream–is the quintessential Madison River, then Bear Trap Canyon is the river’s alter-ego–fierce, frenetic, and unrelenting. Funneled between hundred foot cliffs (made, incidentally of Madison limestone), the otherwise idyllic river turns wild. This short stretch of river features two Class III rapids, a Class IV rapid, and probably the state’s most dangerous stretch of whitewater. The danger, though, is part of the allure and that, combined with the fact that it is the state’s only wilderness whitewater that can be undertaken in a day, makes it a perennial favorite among whitewater-ers and anglers alike.

Scapegoat Wilderness Area, photo from wildmontana.org

In the Scapegoat Wilderness the Madison Limestone again takes the form of towering cliffs, this time as extensions of the Bob Marshall’s 22 mile long Chinese Wall. The towering cliffs of the Scapegoat shelter mountain goats, bighorn sheep, grizzly bear, deer, elk, wolverine, moose, and mountain lion. it is a place of legendary backpacking, hunting, and fishing.

Gates of the Mountains

Near Helena, the Gates of the Mountains continue the Madison Limestone cliff theme, though this time the river running through them is the Missouri. Visited for thousands of years by the Native American tribes that called the area home, the Gates of the Mountains owe their current name to Merriweather Lewis, who called them “the most remarkable clifts that we have yet seen,” writing, “The tow[er]ing and projecting rocks in many places seem ready to tumble on us […] from the singular appearance of this place I called it the gates of the rocky mountains.”

Whether you want to hike, hunt, boat, climb, or something else entirely, the Wilderness Areas of Southwest Montana have you covered. I can think of no better place to revel in the beauty, grandeur, and vastness of our state than by planning a visit to any one of these three remarkable specimens. For more information on visiting the Wilderness Areas of Montana, check out this page by the Great Falls Tribune.

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