Rocky crags below summit of Saddle Peak
By Gordon DuBois
The following article is the fourth in a series on hiking trails that you may want to consider tackling as you make plans for your summer backpacking adventures. Over the next few months I will share my experiences of multi-day hikes. I hope this series will assist and inspire you to take advantage of the many trails that await you, not only in New Hampshire, but throughout the Northeast and beyond.
In 1865 Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, is credited with writing the famous phrase, "Go West young man (and woman) go West," as part of an editorial promoting western expansion. Three years ago, my daughter Annemarie and her husband Derek took up Greeley's mantra and headed west to Bozeman, Montana from their home in Burlington, Vermont. What better place to relocate if you enjoy fly fishing, hiking and being centered among some of the most spectacular scenery and national parks in the country? Last week, my wife Nancy and I flew out to Bozeman for a family visit and for me it meant getting in another hike to the peaks surrounding the Gallatin Valley, also known as the Valley of Flowers.
Bozeman is named for the early pioneer and trail builder, John Bozeman, who in 1863 blazed the first trail through the Gallatin Valley en route to the gold fields in western Montana and Virginia City. It is also the home of Conrad Anker, renowned rock climber, mountaineer and author. He is known around the world for his mountaineering feats and ascents in the Himalaya and Antarctica. In 1999, he located the body of the George Mallory on Mount Everest, as part of a climbing team searching for the remains of the legendary British climber.
I could only spend a week in Bozeman, but Nancy decided to stay and spend time with her youngest daughter. So, I had to make the most of my time if I wanted to get in a few days of hiking. Bozeman, at 4,820 feet, sits among several mountain ranges: The Bridger Mountains, the Tobacco Root Mountains, the Big Belt Mountains and Horseshoe Hills, the Hyalite Peaks of the Gallatin Range and the Spanish Peaks of the northern Madison Range. To the south, about a two hour drive away, lies Yellowstone National Park and to the north on the Canadian border sits Glacier National Park. The opportunities for backpacking are limitless.
I had originally planned to hike to the summit of Mount Blackmore (10,154 feet) which is accessible from Hyalite Canyon. However, when I arrived at the canyon entrance, the gate was closed, obviously due to the level of the snow pack still in the canyon. Hikers from the east, like me, often forget that the Rockies and other western ranges are much higher in elevation and significant snow levels remain well into the early summer. Having been turned around at the Hyalite Canyon gate I decided to try my luck in the Bridger Range on the following day and climb Mount Sacagawea (9,650 feet) the highest peak in the range. The mountain was named for the legendary Native American Woman of the Shoshone tribe who help to guide Lewis and Clark on their Discovery Expedition from St. Louis, Missouri to the Pacific Ocean. The Corps of the Discovery traveled along the Missouri River and rested at the Three Forks which are just north of Bozeman.
The mountain peaks surrounding Bozeman were still covered with snow and I knew it would be a challenge to reach the summit of Sacagawea. I have hiked several other summits in the area, including Hyalite Peak (10,298 feet) and Storm Castle (7,280 feet), but these were climbed in summer, when most of the snow pack had disappeared. I checked my map and decided to hike the Truman Gulch Trail on the southwestern side of the range. The morning broke with clear blue sky and temperatures were expected to be in the 70s. Knowing that I would be hiking in snow, I brought some winter gear with me, including snowshoes. When I got to the trailhead, it felt and looked like a summer day. The foliage was green, flowers were blooming along the creek, birds singing their hearts out, and the creek running freely. I checked the trail ahead, no snow. After considering the pros and con of packing snowshoes I foolishly left them in the car. I began my hike thinking I would easily make the summit of at least Ross Peak (9,004 feet) or Saddle Peak (9159 feet) by following a series of ridges that hopefully would be free of snow and bring me to the Bridger Ridge Trail. Once on the ridge trail, which follows the spine of the Bridger Range, I would be able to summit Sacagawea.
At the terminus of the Truman Gulch Trail, I turned onto the Bridger Foothills Trail which would lead me to the Ridge. After a quarter mile the trail disappeared into 5 feet of snow. Without snowshoes I was wallowing in snow up to my arm pits. I quickly came to my senses and turned back, knowing I couldn't continue on this route. I then considered an alternative option: bushwhacking to the ridge, by following south facing ridges. Much of the snow pack had melted on the south facing slopes due to the angle of the sun. I looked at my map and began the steep climb, keeping free of the snow pack. I was beginning my climb at about 8,000 feet and bushwhacking or off-trail hiking is far different in the west, especially above 8,000 feet. Much of the climbing is free of snarly blowdowns, thick spruce waves, and the infamous krummholz.
As I climbed higher up the ridge my breathing became labored. I had to stop frequently to catch my breath, before continuing the laborious climb that I hoped would bring me to the Ridge Trail. As I continued my slow climb, the snow levels began to increase and I was slowed to a crawl in my attempt to reach the ridge line. Reality began to take hold of my ambitious plans and I came to realize that I couldn't make the summit of Saddle or Ross Peaks. I had to turn back and get off the mountain before nightfall. With that in mind I began a slow decent back down the mountain. As I made my retreat I heard the Bridger Range "calling me back" when the snow fields have vanished and the entire ridge of 20 miles can be traversed in one day. I'll return to Bozeman again soon to visit Annemarie and Derek, but also to hike the entire Bridger Range.
If you haven't made summer plans yet and you want to experience the high peaks of southwestern Montana, then start to plan now. Bozeman is a great city with lots of amenities and the Museum of the Rockies is also located here. There are hundreds of great hiking trails in the mountains surrounding the Gallatin Valley, just minutes from Bozeman. In addition, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks are within a day's drive. Make your plans now to experience the Valley of Flowers, the sounding mountains and trout-filled streams.
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