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Horseshoe Lake

Dusk blankets the peaks above Horseshoe Lake in Montana’s sector of the Scotchman Peaks Proposed Wilderness Area.

Mapped in 1809 by famed explorer, merchant and geographer David Thompson, the Bull River country is the traditional land of the Kootenai Indians. Fur traders trapped the waterways, gold seekers washed gravel from the gulches in the 1870s, and in 1893 the Great Northern Railroad came through, bringing permanent settlers.

Located in the state’s northwest corner, the Bull River harbors some of Montana's most productive forests. Timber reaches up to the highest points. This is also Montana’s wet country: 50 to 100 inches of annual rainfall nourishes an old-growth rain forest, producing lush vegetation and an enormous variety of native plants. Yet it is also a land of contrast: Big fir trees and western red cedars, products of high precipitation areas, grow just a short way from Douglas firs and the western larch of dryer climatic zones. It is best described as an area where the more arid landscape of the Northern Rocky Mountains begins a transition to the moist environs of the Pacific Northwest.

Human presence is sparse, but caribou, grizzlies, wolves, moose and an abundance of other wildlife call it home. It is, at once, heavily logged and yet a pocket of pristine wilderness. 

Highway 56, the Bull River Valley road, stretches for 35 miles between Montana Highway 200 and the Cabinet Gorge of the Clark Fork River and U.S. Highway 2, skirting the Kootenai River. This former Indian trail provides access to the wild country rising on either side of the valley.

One of the star attractions is the Ross Creek Cedar Grove, located just south of Bull Lake and four miles west of Highway 56 in the west Cabinet Mountains. 

Rising above and west of the cedars, is the Scotchman Peaks section of the Cabinet Mountains. Shared with Idaho, more than 86,250 acres of this unprotected, roadless area are in Montana. The clean, clear waters of Ross Creek emanate from these rugged and wild alpine peaks.

Compared to other Montana mountains, elevations are low: The highest is 6,900-foot Savage Mountain. Most of the tops are only between 6,000 to 6,500 feet. In some cases though, the drop-off is more than 4,000 feet to the river bottoms. Scotchman Peak, in Idaho’s section, registers 7,000 feet in height.

Although the Scotchmans see plenty of rain and snow, they have only one named body of water, Little Spar Lake. There is plenty of evidence that glaciers once existed here. The upper Ross Creek Canyon is U-shaped, as if formerly filled with an alpine glacier.

The route through the Bull River Valley shows many outstanding views of the mountains on either side. Bull Lake, found midway, was formed by a landslide, and presents an invitation to canoe or kayak along its western shore. Bull River, with headwaters in the Cabinet Wilderness, enters the valley just to the south of Bull Lake and meanders to the Clark Fork River. Lake Creek drains from Bull Lake to the Kootenai River on the north.

Most of this Bull River country and mountain region is public land managed by the Forest Service. There are several campgrounds and places nearby to stay. Lodging can be found in Troy and Libby. For more information and maps, contact the Kootenai National Forest at 31374 US Hwy. 2 West, Libby, MT 59923 or call 406-293-6211.