The Continental Divide in Southwest Montana

By Rick and Susie Graetz | Office of Research and Creative Scholarship | University of Montana
Betsy Garland on the CD Trail at Flesher Pass | Rick and Susie Graetz

With the morning sun at his back on August 12,1805, Meriwether Lewis followed a well-worn Indian trail from southwest Montana’s Horse Prairie Valley up Trail Creek, gradually topping out on a 7,373-foot pass.

“… the road was still plain, I therefore did not dispair of shortly finding a passage over the mountains and tasting the waters of the Great Columbia this evening. At the distance of four miles further the road took us to the most distant fountain of the water of the mighty Missouri in surch of which we have spent so many toilsome days and wristless nights.”

When he walked through today’s Lemhi Pass, Lewis became the first known white man to cross the Continental Divide. He was however, mistaken about reaching the most distant waters of the Missouri. That distinction belongs to the earliest trickles of Hellroaring Creek flowing out of the eastern end of the Centennial Mountains and the Divide into the Red Rock River, a good distance to the east.

Lemhi Pass | Rick and Susie Graetz

This Continental Divide, that gives Montana distinct water sheds, is part of a greater hemispheric divide stretching from the Brooks Range of northern Alaska south through the Andes to almost the farthest tip of South America. And, the USA Continental Divide National Scenic Trail allows folks to trek the 3,100 miles from Canada to Mexico following the actual divide as closely as possible. Bestowing order to every drop of moisture that falls on it, when the spring’s sun turns the Divide’s blanket of snow into rivulets of water, the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico can count on more volume.

Snow melt and rain falling on the west side of Montana’s Divide powers the many creeks and rivers leading to the Clark Fork and the fast-moving Snake rivers, each flowing to meet the Columbia that in turn discharges its flow into Pacific Ocean. Sky born liquid landing on the lee or sunrise side of the continental Divide eventually makes its way to the Missouri River and from there to the Mississippi and on to the Gulf of Mexico.

Pioneers pointing their wagon trains westward to the Oregon Country were unfamiliar with the land and viewed the imposing mountain crests as an immense obstacle. The many Indian Nations inhabiting or migrating through what would become western Montana, knew the easiest crossings well and had used them for centuries as a passageway to the bison hunting grounds of the northern Great Plains.

Montana’s Divide respects no geologic structural dictate, but rather snakes at random through the high terrain of the state’s Northern Rocky Mountains. With a spectacular start in the remote western reaches of Glacier National Park, at the 49th parallel of latitude where Alberta, British Columbia and Montana join, the northern most point of Montana’s Divide begins its run to the south at an elevation of 7,460 feet. It leaves our great state about three miles into Yellowstone National Park at 8,320 feet where Montana, Idaho and Wyoming join in a nondescript, flat, difficult to find timbered landscape.

Elevations along Montana’s Divide range from a low of 5,280 feet at Marias Pass near Glacier Park to 11,141 feet at the most southerly situated Eighteenmile Peak.

Once embroiled in politics, the Continental Divide played an important part in Montana’s early history. The Idaho Territory, established in 1863, included all of what is now Montana. When Ohio congressman Sidney Edgerton was named Chief Justice of the Idaho Territory and reported to his post, he discovered that his new assignment was to cover only the eastern portion of the new territory.

Initially, Congress determined this mountain crest line was to serve as the border between Montana and Idaho.

A movement was growing in Edgerton’s domain to create a new territory (Montana). Initially, the Idaho Territorial Legislature asked Congress to establish the Continental Divide as a boundary. This would mean that half of Glacier Park, Flathead Lake, Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley would today be part of Idaho. Edgerton, with his powerful political connections, as well as being closely acquainted with President Lincoln, asked to have the boundary move west to follow the Bitterroot Divide instead. His request was granted and in July 1864 he became Montana’s first Territorial Governor headquartered in the new territorial capital of Bannack.

Second only to the Chinese Wall in Bob Marshall Country notoriety is Scapegoat Mountain, a three-mile long reef of limestone honeycombed with caves. The Great Divide defines its east edge. South of Scapegoat near Caribou Peak, the Divide leaves the wilderness for an area often called the Lincoln Back Country. Now its journey encounters a more roaded landscape and lowers sufficiently to allow a pass to go through.

Scapegoat Mountain in winter | Rick and Susie Graetz

In 1806, following a trail along the Blackfoot River the Indians called “the river of the road to the buffalo,” Captain Meriwether Lewis crossed the Continental Divide back to the prairie here at the now named Lewis and Clark Pass. Today this historic place is protected and only foot or horse travel is permittedSouth of Lewis and Clark Pass, the Great Divide meets Rogers Pass and Highway 200, the first road crossing the barrier since Marias Pass 145 miles to the north.

Only a short way from Roger’s Pass, Flesher and Stemple passes provide recreational access to the land of the Divide. In winter, cross-country skiers from Helena and Great Falls frequent the area. From Stemple Pass, the Divide follows, in some places, a road passing Granite Butte and just east of Nevada Mountain.

Surrounded by logging, the Nevada Mountain Roadless Area, an island of dense stands of lodgepole pine providing high quality elk habitat, straddles the Continental Divide. Serving as sentinels for the area, Nevada Mountain and the somewhat higher Black Mountain are both over 8,000 feet. From their tops some of southwest Montana’s big intermountain valleys, including the Helena Valley are visible.

Mid-way into its southward journey and just beyond Nevada Mountain, the Continental Divide traverses above a heavily mined district and the historic town of Marysville one of the state’s leading producers of gold. The famous Drumlummon Mine, established here by Thomas Cruse, had an output of almost $50 million of the precious yellow metal. A lasting legacy from Cruse is the beautiful Helena Cathedral built as a tribute, and thank you for answered prayers.

Today, hiking, mountain biking and snow sports at the Great Divide Ski Area …formerly Mount Belmont, have replaced the search for minerals in the Marysville-Bald Butte region.

As the Divide nears Helena, three passes are attained. One, which was prominent in Helena’s much younger days, is Mullen Pass named for Lt. John Mullen, who in the early 1860s was in charge of building the military road between Fort Benton and Walla Walla, Washington. At the 1911 Montana State Fair, a daring stunt pilot named Cromwell Dixon took off from the Helena fairgrounds and made the first flight across the Continental Divide landing in the vicinity of Mullen Pass near the then town of Blossberg. Upon returning to the wild cheers of a large crowd, the 19-year-old aviator collected a $10,000 purse.

Red Mountain and the Copper Creek Headwall north of Lincoln | Rick and Susie Graetz

Next in line is Priest Pass. This once popular wagon road lost favor when in 1870, when a man named Dundhy built a toll road close by. Due to his extensive use of “log corduroying” over the muddy spots, making travel easier for horse drawn stagecoaches, it soon became the main route to and from Helena. Alexander MacDonald was hired to manage the tollgate and the pass. Today, four-lane Highway 12 cuts across the top of MacDonald Pass. A well-used public cross-country ski trail system is maintained on the east side of the Pass in the vicinity of Frontier Town.

Long before whites came to Montana, MacDonald, Mullen and Priest passes served as important Indian routes to their prairie hunting grounds in the east. Between MacDonald Pass and Butte, this hydrological line goes through a mix-match of mining claims, clear-cuts, roadless backcountry and mine remnants. The former mining town of Rimini, complete with shafts and claims, is nestled below the Divide’s east side not too distant from Helena.

Though it has been witness to a great deal of Montana’s formative years, the range of the peaks between the Capital and Mining cities is yet unnamed. Geologically, this stretch of topography is known as the Boulder Batholith. Simply put, a large igneous bubble was created when magma rose, spreading up and out across the earth surface before hardening; thus, providing for many of the mineral deposits in the vicinity.

The Electric Peak/Blackfoot Meadows Wilderness Study Area, one of the untamed tracts enroute, contains 13 miles of the Continental Divide and is a favorite of hikers and horseback riders. Still heading south, the Great Divide comes across another major highway when it meets Interstate 15 aiming through Elk Park. An almost level, elevated valley extends to the east of the gap; on the west side, the road dives into Butte where enormous pits were dug to extract copper. The mining of this useful metal fueled the economy of the town and fattened the bank accounts of the famous Copper Kings.

From Elk Park, the Divide quickly gains elevation as it skirts up through granite rocks and past more old mine sites to form an impressive pedestal for the luminescent Our Lady of the Rockies statue overlooking Butte.

Two more thoroughfares are traversed as the Divide meets Homestake and Pipestone passes immediately south of Butte. Interstate 90 goes through Homestake, while Montana Highway 2 winds up and down Pipestone. Both passes are on the fringe of a grouping of mountains called the Highlands. With peaks over 10,000 feet, another striking backdrop for Butte is provided compliments of the Continental Divide.

As the Divide leaves the Highlands behind, it makes a sharp U-turn and charges north back towards Butte. Here, close to Deer Lodge Pass and Interstate 15, the Boulder Batholith exhibits its splendor in the Humbug Spires. Thousands of years of weathering has exposed the central granite core that gives the upwards of 600 feet high towers of rocks such a unique look. Amongst this rugged beauty, the Continental Divide turns and begins a westward course.

After a twisting passage through the Humbug Spires, the Continental Divide eases down in a westerly direction to the wide berth of Deerlodge Pass and Interstate 15 between Butte and Dillon, before beginning its upward climb to the Fleecer Mountain neighborhood. Here it blends with the high ranging country south of Anaconda that also exhibits substantial signs of mining and exploration. A paved back road from Anaconda to the Big Hole River incises across this segment of the Divide.

Backed up on the south edge of the Divide is the Mount Haggin Wildlife Management Area. A short distance to the west of the wildlife quarter, the rugged terrain of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, with many of its peaks soaring to more than 10,000 feet, is next to host the Great Divide.

Not since leaving the Bob Marshall, has the Divide been in such esteemed wilderness. The Anaconda-Pintlers are part of an undeveloped wildland complex totaling 368,000 acres. For 50 miles the Continental watershed now angles in a southwesterly direction through towering glaciated terrain. Like the Bob, this is home to a large population of predator/prey critters. It is in this wild and distinguished setting that two of Montana’s legendary trout streams, Rock Creek and the Big Hole River gather some of their waters.

Plenty of trails crisscross the Divide In this rugged landscape, many leading to high lakes, which characterize the territory. Some of the better known such as Cutaway and Pintler passes are excellent choices for adventure.

Often throughout Montana, the Continental Divide Trail approximates the actual Divide. Not so in the Anaconda Range, here the mountainous topography is far too harsh making it necessary for trekkers to walk well below the Divide. Some trails, such as the Highline path out of Maloney Basin, have a semblance of following the line but not for long.

When the Continental Divide left the Butte area, it wandered in a somewhat east/west direction. Bidding adieu to the A-P wilderness area, it meets the Bitterroot Range Divide, turns on its heel and begins to march true south once again, passing through a region representing both triumph and sadness in the annals of Montana and Idaho history. The Divide now becomes part of the Montana-Idaho border all the way to Yellowstone National Park. Technically, the entire range of mountains forming the Montana-Idaho state line is called the Bitterroot; but there are sub-ranges and it is in this area that the Continental Divide and the Beaverhead Mountains coexist.

William Clark crossed the mountains in this proximity as he left the Bitterroot in July 1806 on his way back to a cache made the previous summer. And on the Corps of Discovery’s initial journey to the West Coast, they also tread the forest between Lost Trail and Chief Joseph passes after following the North Fork of the Salmon as far as they could.

Crossing the Divide, Gibbons Pass leads from the Bitterroot Valley via Prairie and Trail creeks to the Big Hole Valley and Lost Trail Pass, just west of the actual Divide, connects the Big Hole Valley to Idaho’s Salmon River country.

Chief Joseph Pass, named for the great Nez Perce chieftain, allows paved road passage across the Divide from the Bitterroot to the Big Hole. Somewhere in this vicinity, Chief Joseph in an effort to bring his people to a safe sanctuary in Canada, led his tribe across the high country to an encampment now called the Big Hole Battlefield. In August 1877, Col. John Gibbon’s U.S. forces attacked these peaceful people, killing many women and children. Those who did escape the slaughter eventually surrendered only 20 miles from Canada.

eighteen mile peak in the beaverhead mountains near lima, montana

Upon meeting the Bitterroot Mountains at Chief Joseph Pass, the Continental Divide abruptly changes its mind directionally and hooking an abrupt left, it saunters south following the Montana/Idaho border. Though still part of the Bitterroot Range, these summits take on the name Beaverhead Mountains and to some folks, the West Big Hole Mountains since they edge the Big Hole Valley. Less rugged than those to the north, the peaks here are loftier, many are over 10,000 feet, and more massive. Monument Peak is one of the highest at 10,343 feet, but the best known and most visible of all the summits is 10,624-foot Homers Young which rises just a bit to the west of the actual Divide.

Part of the proposed West Big Hole Wilderness, footpaths in this untrammeled country follow distinct glacial U-shaped canyons and lead to more than 30 alpine jewel-like lakes. Attaining the Divide requires only good conditioning.

Some of the lower peaks south of the Big Hole watershed allow a few roads into the Beaverhead Mountains and to touch the Continental Divide. A dirt track out of the Horse Prairie Valley leads to Lemhi Pass, the route Lewis and Clark used on their journey to the Pacific, and crosses the Divide before taking a sharp drop off to Idaho on the west side. Lemhi’s open grassland provides a fine view of the Divide both to the north and the south. The name comes from a character in the book of Mormon named Limhi.

After the Lemhi passage, the mountaintops soar upward again culminating at the impressive 11,141-foot Eighteenmile Peak, the highest Continental Divide pinnacle between Banff National Park in Canada and the Wind River Range of Wyoming.

The Italian Peaks are the next to spurt up. Distinguished by a shear 2,000-foot high wall on its north side, Italian Peak at 10,998 feet is noted as being the southernmost point in Montana. Surrounded on three sides by Idaho, it is much like a peninsula of land. Though roadless, several trails provide access into the proposed Italian Peak Wilderness. These incredible mountains look down on some of the State’s least populated space, Big Sheep and Nicholia Basin. Surprisingly, this dry appearing area receives a heavy snow load in the winter.

In the mid 1800s, pioneers and gold seekers crossed the rough mountains leading into this sagebrush terrain on their way to the gold fields further north. Established in 1862, Bannack Pass, a route that still exists today, was the passage for the Bannack Freight Road coming from Corrine Utah. On the east edge of the Basin, and just beyond Four Eyes Canyon, the Lima Peaks-Garfield Roadless Area – Red Conglomerate Peak Complex completes the Beaverhead Mountains. Most of these Divide summits exceed 10,000 feet and then scale down to 6,870 feet at Monida Pass.

aspen in fall color below the red conglomerate peaks of beaverhead range near monida, montana

Interstate Highway 15 whips by the almost ghost town of Monida near the top of the pass. At one time, this was a stage stop for coaches between Salt Lake City and Montana’s gold camps. Barren wind-swept foothills east of Monida lead the way up once again to grand heights. The Divide now rides the 9,000 feet and higher Centennial Mountains for much of the final stretch of the Montana/Idaho border.

Below the north face of the Centennials, Red Rocks Lake National Wildlife Refuge, breeding ground of the Trumpeter Swan, is the centerpiece of a lonesome but heartbreakingly beautiful valley that some of Montana’s largest and oldest ranches call home.

Just to the west of 10,196-foot Mount Jefferson here in the Centennials, Hell Roaring Creek represents the Missouri Rivers most distant source; and nearby Red Rock Pass terminates the rise of the Centennials portion of the Divide.

From Red Rock Pass, the Divide points north for a short distance then ambles down to Henrys Lake and meets Raynolds Pass and Highway 87 at the state line. From here, it turns southeast while scrambling into mountains identified as both the Henrys Lake Mountains and the Lionhead Range. These writers, and other geographers, considers them to be the Lionhead Range and a southern extension of the Madison Range. From the town of West Yellowstone, the 10,000-foot peaks of these imposing mountains can be accessed for motorized as well as non-motorized recreation.

Scaling down as Highway 20 heading from West Yellowstone to Henrys Lake crosses it at Targhee Pass, the mountain range ends abruptly on its southern perimeter. Roughly 30 miles from the pass, still following the Montana/Idaho border, the Divide smacks into Wyoming. Here, just inside Yellowstone National Park, Montana gives up the Continental Divide. After a spectacular debut in Glacier National Park, the indomitable ridge bows out in a rather indistinct and obscure setting lacking any resemblance of the Great Divide that has made its southerly tour through Montana.