Gates of the Mountains Wilderness

by Rick and Susie Graetz
Missouri River Gates of the Mountains | Rick and Susie Graetz

Looking toward Helena’s northern horizon, foothills and mountains seem to blend in a 

continuously forested belt separating the valley from the prairie farther north. This distant view is deceiving. Out there in those hills, the legendary Missouri has carved its path through soft limestone, leaving towering walls that Lewis and Clark called The Gates of the Mountains. About ten miles to the east of this formation, a scenic road along Beaver Creek is also bordered by spectacular cliffs. In between lies Helena’s backyard wilderness, The Gates of the Mountains Wilderness.

Dizzyingly high peaks that characterize Glacier National Park, the Madison Range, the Beartooth, and other Montana wilderness areas are missing. In their place, picturesque limestone escarpments and gentle forested mountains reside. At 28,562 acres, it is Montana’s smallest designated wilderness area.

A wilderness experience in every way, The Gates offers an excellent trail system leading through high meadows, open forests, and narrow gorges cut by bounding streams. Elk, deer, bears, mountain lions, mountain goats, coyotes, and golden eagles frequent the area. In the spring, wildflowers hold court, and summer brings a bright green moss-like phlox covering much of the limestone outcroppings.

Trails are simple to negotiate, and no single trip through the country requires more than two days. For the keen hiker, it’s a oneday, 16-mile walk from east to west.

Refrigerator Canyon | USFS

Human use is relatively low, and the opportunity for solitude, high. There are 53 miles of well-marked, maintained trails. Water and horse feed are scarce. The Hunter’s Gulch Canyon trail has a stock unloading ramps and hitching rails. 

Human use is relatively low, and the opportunity for solitude, high. There are 53 miles of well-marked, maintained trails. Water and horse feed are scarce. The Hunter’s Gulch Canyon trail has a stock unloading ramps and hitching rails. 

Seven portals lead into The Gates. Trailheads are Hunters Gulch, Big Log, Spring Gulch, Refrigerator Canyon, Willow Creek. Meriwether Picnic Area and Coulter Campground are not officially trailheads but are signed jump-off points into the wilderness.

The most popular trip, Refrigerator Canyon, commences about 13 miles north of York and comes out at Meriwether landing on the Missouri River, some 16 miles away. A short distance up the trail, you enter a dramatic, deep, narrow gorge, barely wider than a horse that escapes the sunlight and funnels the wind. 

The resulting steep drop in temperature gives this canyon its name. Upon exiting, the path passes through a forest and winds its way up the mountainside, gaining elevation slowly. The midway point is Bear Prairie, a high meadow offering water, good views, a place to camp, and a chance to climb 7,443-foot Candle Mountain. From its summit, the Helena Valley, Rocky Mountain Front, and Bob Marshall Wilderness are visible. Those who know their mountains will also be able to identify the Flint Creek and Mission ranges. 

From Bear Prairie, the trail eventually drops sharply downward through Meriwether Canyon to the Missouri, where tour boats stop several times a day. Hikers can finish the trip with a pleasant boat ride out. A shuttle car and knowledge of the boat schedule are helpful.  For those not wishing to take the boat, another trail from Bear Prairie heads down Big Log Gulch to Hunters Gulch and out to Nelson, about five miles from Refrigerator Canyon. Two cars would be useful here as well. 

From Wolf Creek via a road that follows the Holter Lake shoreline to the Beartooth Game Ranch, northern segments of the wilderness are reached. With the aid of a compass and map, you can hike to Mann Gulch and an overlook of the Missouri River. Mann Gulch is the sight of the disastrous 1949 forest fire that took the lives of 13 firefighters. 

Trail 260 follows the northern perimeter of the wilderness. A steep passage pointing south to Bear Prairie, it ends up in the vicinity of 7,980-foot Moors Mountain, the area’s highest peak. 

Another course to take is a fullday trek up Spring Gulch to a divide and then down Fields Gulch to the Missouri River. This hike is in the southwestern part of the wilderness and reached via the American Bar Road from Nelson on the Beaver Creek Road out of York. 

The Gates of the Mountains Wilderness is void of lakes. Streams and springs provide periodic water, but since this is a dry country, bring plenty of your own. Willow, Moors, Porcupine, and Hunters creeks are reliable for water. Small springs such as Bear Prairie and Turnout are also dependable.

Owing to its lower elevation and the semi-arid climate of the surrounding landscape, The Gates offers perhaps the longest visiting season of Montana’s wilderness areas. Snow is often gone by mid-May and usually holds off returning until October. The flowers are at their best in June and July. Early autumn displays beautiful color in the lower elevations and up in the meadows.

Gates of the Mountains Wilderness | John Lambing

Exploring this landscape can best be described as a lovely encounter, not something that will overwhelm you like the high alpine country.

A Forest Service map of The Gates of the Mountains Wilderness shows all of thetrails and roads and points out places to get water. The Helena National Forest Supervisor’s office and the Helena Ranger District, have the map as do most outdoor shops in western Montana.