This year’s crazy weather patterns seem to have pushed all the seasons back by several weeks. Usually, the first snow in the high country arrives by the fall equinox, but that date brought only a light ashfall.
Now, we’ve had a little blast of winter air, the temperature is once again moderating, and you’re itching to get out.
The solution? Take advantage of this window of benign October weather and get up into the Bitterroot’s high country. You’ll find the last traces of fall colors, brisk, clean air, and vistas you had forgotten existed, spreading out at your feet.
The classic summits for Bitterroot hikers include St. Mary’s Peak, Trapper Peak, and Ward Mountain. Those peaks all have well-defined trails to the top and, though they may involve a bit of light scrambling or boulder-hopping, are accessible to fit hikers.
Of those, St. Mary’s is probably the most popular, and the most accessible. The trailhead is higher than the others, and the climb is only about 2,500 feet of elevation gain in 4 miles, one-way, topping out at the lookout, perched at 9,351’.
Trapper Peak is the highest summit in this neck of the Bitterroot range, and is more of a challenge. The trailhead lies about 3,800 feet below its 10,157’ summit, with a five-mile hike (each way) that climbs steeply away from your vehicle door, and ends with a boulder-y scramble to the top.
Ward Mountain is the most challenging of the trio, due to the total elevation gain and the length of the trail. From its trailhead, newly re-opened after the Sawtooth fire, it climbs nearly a mile in elevation to the summit, at 9,119 feet. You’ll hike a distance of about 13 miles, round trip. That’s a workout in anyone’s book, and a non-starter for anyone who isn’t in very good condition.
On any of these mountains, though, one needn’t make it to the top to enjoy a great autumn outing. All of them offer eye-popping views out toward the valley, or the neighboring peaks, right from the start.
They also offer passage through a variety of ecological zones, beginning with mixed pine and fir in the lower elevations, passing through lodgepole thickets, and ending up in a zone of gnarled whitebark pine and sub-alpine larch. These, and a few other hardy species, gradually become dwarfed-out by the extreme alpine climate, before giving way at last to bare rock.
Fall colors still cling to the mountainsides, though the leaves and needles are rapidly falling away with the turn in the weather. Huckleberry and whortleberry, aspen, and other high-altitude species lend their reds and yellows, but the prize is the sub-alpine larch, a species that grows only in a very restricted range, with the Bitterroots in the southeast corner of their range.
The larch are distinctive when their needles begin to turn in September, and are visible from the valley floor this time of year as a golden collar below the crest of the mountains. Larch are the only conifers that lose their needles in winter. Right now, western larch are beginning to streak the lower elevations with yellow as far south as Mill Creek, and its high-altitude cousin is present in a narrow band, generally between about 8,000’ and 9,000’ elevation.
The bare trunks of dead trees rot slowly up high, and belie the harsh alpine conditions under which they grew. Gnarled, twisted, knot-holed and scarred, these fallen giants provide yet another visual treat on which to rest your eyes and, conveniently at times, your tired body.
The next couple of weekends offer a last chance to get out before the beginning of Montana’s rifle hunting season, when venturing out safely requires more caution on the forest’s busy roads, and wise hikers (and their pets) wear a flash of blaze orange.
The upland bird hunting season is already open. Mountain grouse are, as a group, intellectually challenged, and tend to become more obvious during hunting season, instead of less. Don’t be surprised when they explode out from almost underfoot, whirring up onto a nearby branch in an attempt to draw even more attention to themselves.
Autumn hikers in the high country need to be well-prepared. The mornings will be crisp, and while afternoon highs in the valley remain in the comfort range, it can easily be 20-30 degrees cooler up high, and any breeze will make it feel chillier still. Be prepared for cold and changeable weather, with extra layers, extra snacks, and an emergency shelter, should things take an unexpected bad turn.
Those layers should include a base layer of wool or synthetic that wicks moisture away from the skin — anything but cotton, which gets clammy. An insulating layer will probably get stripped off early, but come in handy at the top. Likewise, a windproof layer will be welcome with a cold breeze whistling up over the summit ridge.
Those are among the so-called “10 essentials” that hikers should always possess. A headlamp, fire starter, map and compass, sunglasses and sunscreen are also things that should be in your pack. Some basic first aid items, for blisters and minor cuts, and a knife, are also handy.
A mix of high-energy snacks is a necessity to power you to the top. Dried fruit, gorp, and energy bars pack the calories you need into the least amount of weight. Eat a little bit, often, to maintain an optimal level of nutrition.
Taking more water than you think you need is also a good idea. These are all dry hikes, and a couple liters of water per person are not too much to carry. Any water you might encounter along the way should be purified before drinking.
Those who don’t wish to hike, or who are unable, can also enjoy the high country simply by driving to these and other trailheads, or to local high points like Willow Mountain lookout, in the Sapphires, or Gird Point.
Of special note: The road to the Trapper Peak trailhead is closed Monday through Friday, due to logging traffic, until at least Oct. 17. Check with the West Fork Ranger District, 821-3269, if you have any questions. Trapper Peak can also be climbed from the Baker Lake trailhead, hiking up to Gem Lake and then climbing up onto the face of Trapper Peak, but it’s an unmarked route and should only be attempted by fit hikers with good route-finding skills.
Maps with trailhead information are available at USFS Ranger Stations in Stevensville or Darby, or at the Forest Supervisor’s Office in Hamilton. Hiking and climbing guidebooks are also available at local bookstores and sporting goods stores.
With the smoke largely dissipated, it’s time to reacquaint yourself with the joy of being outdoors in the Bitterroots, and with the magnificent views from these slopes, before winter weather finally arrives.