Thursday, September 13, 2012

Exploring the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex

Just south of Glacier National Park, across U.S. Highway 2, is the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. This massive expanse extends for 60 miles along the Continental Divide within the Flathead, Lolo, Helena, and Lewis and Clark National Forests, and includes the Great Bear, Scapegoat and the Bob Marshall Wilderness areas. The complex, encompassing more than 1.5 million acres, forms the third largest wilderness area in the lower 48.

By far the largest of the three wilderness areas in the complex is the Bob Marshall, also known as the “Bob”, which includes more than 1 million acres, and is considered to be one of the most completely preserved mountain ecosystems in the world. Counting more than 700 wilderness areas in the National Wilderness Preservation System, the Bob is the 19th largest wilderness in the United States, and the 5th largest in the lower 48.

The preserve is named after Robert "Bob" Marshall, a forester, conservationist, writer, wilderness activist, and one of the principal founders of The Wilderness Society. As the head of recreation management in the Forest Service in late 1930s, Marshall was the first to suggest a formal, national organization of individuals dedicated to the protection of primeval land. Twenty-five years after his death, Congress passed the Wilderness Act of 1964 which protected nine million acres of federal land from development. As part of this key legislation the Bob was among the original wilderness areas set aside for preservation.

In addition to the “Bob”, Mt. Marshall in the Adirondacks is also named in his honor.

The Bob is home to moose, elk, black bear, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, wolverines, mountain lions, lynx, gray wolves, bald eagles, osprey, pelicans and trumpeter swans. It’s also prime grizzly bear habitat, and has the highest population density of the species found anywhere in the United States outside of Alaska. As of 2010 it’s estimated that roughly 940 grizzlies live within the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which includes the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, Glacier National Park and the surrounding forests.

Elevations in the complex range as low as 4000 feet, to 9411 feet at the summit of Red Mountain in the Lewis and Clark Range. Perhaps one the most impressive feature of the wilderness, at least from a geological standpoint, is the long limestone escarpment known as the Chinese Wall. Part of the Continental Divide, the wall extends for 22 miles, and has an average height of more than 1000 feet. From the Haystack Mountain area west of the Divide the view of the escarpment is virtually unbroken for almost 20 miles.

Due to its geography, pacific maritime weather provides ample moisture, resulting in lush, dense forests on the west side of the Continental Divide. However, the eastern side of the Divide has a much drier climate, and is much more characterized by open country.

In addition to its rugged peaks, deep canyons, alpine lakes, cascading waterfalls, grassy meadows, towering forest of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, larch, aspen and spruce, the Bob is also home to big river valleys, including the headwaters of the South Fork Flathead River.

Hiking in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex:

As you may have already guessed, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex is a hiker paradise. In fact, its home to more than 1700 miles of trails, and offers numerous recreational opportunities for day hikers, backpackers, horseback riders and cross-country skiers. Some of the more popular day hikes can be found in the Sawtooth Range near Choteau, Marion Lake near Essex, Stanton Lake near Hungry Horse, Jewel Basin near Big Fork, and Holland Lake near Condon, Montana.

Although there are no paved roads that bisect the interior of the Bob, the wilderness can be accessed by roads surrounding the complex. To the north is U.S. Highway 2; to the east are U.S. Highways 89 and 287; Montana Highway 200 to the south; and Montana Highway 83 to the west.

Additional Information:

* The Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation

* Flathead National Forest

* Flathead National Forest Trails

* Lolo National Forest Trails

* Lewis and Clark NF Trails

* Hiking Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness – by Erik Molvar

* Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex Map (Northern Half)

* Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex Map (Southern Half)

Hiking Glacier National Park


Mike's ALMOST Ultra-Light said...

I'm writing you after coming across your website and wanted to ask a question about Grizzlies in the Bob Marshall and some other things.
I'm going to be hiking the Bob Marshall with two of my friends this summer / September and wanted to know two things.
my wife is very concerned about our hike since there are Grizzly bears there - so concerned she doesn't want me to go.
So how dangerous is it? What is the likelihood of an interaction or an attack?
would we even see one?
My other question is if we go in mid to late September what might the weather be?
and finally if we go in late September what concerns should we have about hunting?
Any information will be greatly appreciated.

The Smoky Mountain Hiker said...


First of all, the weather in mid-to-late September is usually absolutely perfect. However, it's not out of the question that there could be snow - though not likely.

Early hunting season in the Bob begins on Sept 15th. If you guys are staying on the main trails it really shouldn't be an issue. To be safe it's probably a good idea to wear bright colors. I would recommend calling the national forest in which you intend to hike to ask for recommendations on staying clear of hunters.

Grizzly bears in Montana are always a threat - statistically, however, that threat is very small. 2 million people venture into Glacier NP each year, and yet there are maybe only 1 or 2 serious encounters. Moreover, of the handful of deaths that have occurred in the park over the last century, most involved a solo hiker. It's good that you're hiking with 2 other companions. 3 is a magical number, although Canada recommends hiking in groups of at least 4 while in grizzly country. Most attacks/encounters occur in groups of 1 or 2 - mainly because they're not making enough noise.

The best thing you can do is stay together, make a lot of noise, especially in blind spots on the trail, or near berry patches, and carry bear spray - and know how to use it. Each person in the group should carry a canister, and it should be readily available (not stuffed in your pack). I keep mine on a chest strap.

If you're backpacking, make sure you keep a clean camp. Don't cook anywhere near your campsite, put your food in bear canisters, don't bring the clothes you cooked in into your tent, and don't bring any food into your tent, etc.

I won't lie and say there isn't any risk with bears, but statistically it's very small. The rewards of seeing this incredibly beautiful country outweigh the risks, in my opinion.

Finally, some of the info on these two links should be helpful:

Good luck!