• A hiker pauses at the Picnic Lakes in the Jewel Basin.

Wilderness Areas

Photo by Ian Cameron
"A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."
— Wilderness Act of 1964

Written by Howard Zahniser of The Wilderness Society, those poetic words have been used to describe Wilderness ever since. Succinct, simple and yet beautiful enough that any visitor who might have ventured into Wilderness would recognize where they stand, Zahniser's definition is used as the checklist for designation. A Wilderness Area is protected from development, shielded from industry and preserved for future generations to come.

Montana is home to 16 designated wilderness areas, comprising roughly 3.5 million acres (about 3.75 percent) of the state's lands. They include the highest peaks in the Treasure State, as well as low-lying marshland suited for wildlife refuges. These wilderness areas are home to thousands of species of flora and fauna, a number of them threatened or endangered.

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Location: In the Custer and Gallatin National Forests between Billings and Yellowstone National Park.
Size: 920,343 acres
Description: Designated in 1978, this very large area consists of two major mountain ranges with mountains stretching in every direction. On the east the Beartooths are rugged, glaciated, granite and predominantly above tree line with huge alpine plateaus. The Absarokas on the west are gentler, with less-rugged mountains, steep ridges, grassy meadows and more heavily forested canyons. This diverse area has semiarid grasslands at 5,000 feet and tundra plateaus form the largest continuous landmass above 10,000 feet in the United States. Ice carved out U-shaped valleys and created the distinct alternating plateau-canyon landscape. The Beartooth Range contains 29 peaks above 12,000 feet including the highest point in Montana, 12,799-foot Granite Peak. There is an abundance of water in the wilderness with nearly 1,000 lakes, 300-foot waterfalls plummeting to cirque lakes, countless cascades and rushing creeks and rivers. It is a key part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem with habitat for grizzly and black bears, bighorn sheep, elk, moose, mountain lion, pronghorn, bison, lynx and marten.

Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness

Location: In the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Bitterroot National Forests southwest of Butte.
Size: 158,615 acres
Description: Designated in 1964, it is among the seven largest wildlands in Montana and is certainly high country. With the exception of some stream valleys, most of the area is above 7,000 feet. The East Fork of the Bitterroot River is at 5,400 feet while West Goat Peak is at 10,793 feet. The Anaconda-Pintler country has old-growth forest, windswept ridges, alpine meadows and rugged alpine peaks along the Continental Divide. Lakes and U-shaped canyons reveal past glaciation. There are cirques with alpine lakes and glacial moraines which make for spectacular scenery. Some of the world’s finest trout streams, including Rock Creek and the Big Hole River originate here. A dozen species of conifers thrive on the North Slope; the south slope, drained by the Big Hole River, is mostly lodgepole pine with spruce-fir on the wet canyon bottoms. Species located in the wilderness are elk, moose, black bear, mountain goat, bighorn sheep, puma, wolverine, and lynx.

Bob Marshall Wilderness

Location: In the Flathead and Lewis and Clark National Forests west of Great Falls.
Size: 1,009,356 
Description: Designated in 1964, The “Bob,” as this wilderness is known, is the most ecologically complete mountain wilderness in the country. Rugged peaks, big river valleys, lakes, large meadows and extensive coniferous forests characterize this area. The most remote reaches of the Bob are along the Continental Divide, the center of which is the Chinese Wall, an imposing limestone precipice, towering 1,000 feet for 13 miles. Moist pacific maritime weather on the west side results in lush, diverse forests. But this changes dramatically to drier, more open country to the east. There are more than 100 lakes in the wilderness and major streams have their beginning there including the blue ribbon South Fork Flathead. The Bob is the last great stronghold of the silvertip grizzly and is home to every species of mammal indigenous to the Northern Rockies except for Plains Bison.

Cabinet Mountains Wilderness

Location: In the Kootenai National Forest, about 15 miles southwest of Libby.
Size: 94,272 acres
Description: Designated in 1964, it is a narrow north-south range, with snowcapped peaks, glacial lakes and valleys cut by streams and waterfalls. Parts of the Cabinets receive over 100 inches of precipitation annually, resulting in thick lowland forests of Western Red Cedar, Douglas fir, Western White pine, Western Hemlock and other conifers. While not a lofty range, rugged peaks, sharp ridges and glacial cirques rise above the forests, lakes and subalpine meadows while sheer walls plunge 1,000 feet into deep valleys. There are more than 80 lakes in the wilderness. The high point is Snowshoe Peak at 8,712 feet which is high above the wet meadows, hanging valleys and open stream bottoms. Wildlife is abundant and typical of the Northern Rockies. There may be a few grizzlies left but the population is in serious trouble. Other denizens include wolverine, deer, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, and black bear.

Gates of the Mountains W​ilderness

Location: In the Helena National Forest.
Size: 28,562 acres
Description: When Lewis and Clark first entered the Rocky Mountains, it seemed as though the immense limestone cliffs along the Missouri River would block their passage. Suddenly, the river twisted through a narrow “Gates of the Mountains” canyon. Hence the name of the wilderness. Designated in 1964, it is a place where the wild canyon landscape winds through limestone formations that have been weathered into spires, sheer cliffs, outcrops, and walls with shallow caves. This is Montana’s smallest wilderness with forests of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir in open parks, with gentle meadows and open bald ridges. However, it is an arid area with streams and springs disappearing in the summer. It is home to bighorn sheep and mountain goats.

Great Bear Wilderness

Location: In the Flathead National Forest south of Glacier National Park.
Size: 286,700 acres
Description: Designated in 1978, this wilderness encompasses the entire upper drainage of the Middle Fork Flathead River from the Continental Divide west to the Flathead Range. Knife-edge ridges along the divide drop to heavily forested mountainsides then to gently sloping meadows and finally to open river bottoms. Glacial action created U-shaped valleys and cirques. It was the free roaming grizzly that inspired Senator Lee Metcalf to achieve preservation of this northern habitat link between the Bob and Glacier Park.

Lee Metcalf Wilderness

Location: In the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Gallatin National Forests southwest of Bozeman
Size: 254,288 acres
Description: Designated in 1983, this region consists of spectacular alpine peaks, high sparkling lakes, U-shaped valleys, meadows and deep canyons. Elevations range from 4,500 feet in the canyon country along the Madison to 11,015 feet atop Gallatin Peak or 11,316 feet atop Hilgard Peak. This area is an important component of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and is crucial grizzly habitat. Lodgepole pines grow beneath craggy peaks and subalpine lakes.

Medicine Lake Wilderness

Location: Between Sidney and Plentywood managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is within Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
Size: 11,366 acres
Description: Designated in 1976, this Wilderness preserves a portion of northeastern Montana’s marsh–filled prairie and consists of a shallow lake and sand hills within a national wildlife refuge. Medicine Lake is the flattest and lowest of Montana’s designated wilderness areas with a high point of 2,025 feet. It’s a transition area between the short-grass prairie and the tall-grass prairie. The distinctive rolling dunes of the Sand Hills are mantled with a blend of mixed prairie grasses, Chokecherry and Buffalo Berry. It is a way station for hundreds of thousands of birds during spring and fall migrations and supports a large nesting colony of White Pelicans. This is a prairie-pothole wilderness existing as a haven for wildlife.

Mission Mountains Wilderness

Location: In the Flathead National Forest north of Missoula.
Size: 73,877 acres
Description: Designated in 1975, the Mission’s steep slopes rise abruptly from the Mission Valley to jagged peaks with elevations that range from 3,500 to 9,820 feet and hold hidden basins, big lakes and hanging valleys. There are 350 lakes, ponds and pools, sparkling clear streams and numerous waterfalls with the Mission and Elizabeth falls plunging 1,000 feet. It’s an area of rocky crags, sheer cliffs, knife ridges, cirques, valleys and active glaciers. Thick Pacific Northwest Forests are composed of larch, Douglas fir, Western Red Cedar, spruce, lodgepole and ponderosa pines. A dwindling grizzly population inhabits the Missions, along with mountain goats, black bear, deer, wolverine, and lynx.

Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness

Location: On the Flathead Reservation southeast of Polson.
Size: 89,500 acres
Description: Established in 1982 by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, it consists of privately owned tribal lands along the western slopes of the Mission Mountains that were designated as wilderness, the first such wildland dedication by any tribe on its own. These mountains have an abundance of water from perpetual snowfields that feed one of the densest concentrations of alpine lakes in the northern Rockies. Waterfalls, creeks and streams are plentiful. The tribes’ management demonstrates their cultural and spiritual links to wilderness with a priority on wildlife.

Rattlesnake Wilderness

Location: in the Lolo National Forest located only four miles north of Missoula
Size: 32,976 acres
Description: Designated in 1980, it has high, winding ridges with steep east-facing cirques and gentler western slopes. There are many lake-filled basins in sloping forests and secluded hanging valleys with waterfalls and steep-gradient streams. Timberline conifers drop into subalpine spruce-fir forests, then down to open parks with Douglas fir and ponderosa pine. Western larch and lodgepole pine are also abundant. The U-shaped Rattlesnake basin is fed by more than 50 small creeks that begin as seeps from springs and melting snow banks in the upper portion of the wilderness. The Rattlesnake is a wild place that blends wilderness with civilization.

Red Rock Lakes Wilderness

Location: In the wide-open Centennial Valley and within the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge
Size: 32,350 acres
Description: Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it was designated in 1976. This remote, virtually undeveloped basin holds an amazing system of waterways consisting of lakes and connected marshes that is managed for wildlife. More than 14,000 acres of wetlands provide habitat and solitude for a stunning array of birds and other wildlife. The wilderness comprises about 80 percent of a refuge that was established in 1935 to safeguard the rare trumpeter swan. Some 215 bird species have been observed within this wetlands wilderness. Red Rock’s high prairies and mountains combine with the water to create a habitat for moose, elk, deer and antelope.

Scapegoat Wilderness

Location: In the Helena, Lewis and Clark and Lolo National Forests southeast of Great Falls.
Size: 239,936 acres
Description: Designated in 1972, its highest point is the massive 9,202-foot Scapegoat Mountain that is the centerpiece of the wilderness. There are awesome 1,000-foot limestone cliffs that stretch nearly four miles on the east face. Scattered subalpine forests of spruce, white bark pine and fir open onto grassy parks and gently sloping meadows. The Scapegoat plateaus have great views of the Continental Divide.

Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness

Location: In the Bitterroot, Clearwater, Nezperce, and Lolo National Forests west of Hamilton
Size: 251,443 acres
Description: Designated in 1964, this wilderness straddles the Montana-Idaho border with areas located in each state. The Bitterroot Range is classically rugged and glacier-sculptured dropping off to deep canyons with sheer walls, cliffs, and tumbling waterfalls. A rough landscape of rugged granite peaks that is treeless and austere moves to forested ridges, hanging valleys and heavily forested valleys with surprising pockets of bogs and marshes. The area is tremendously diverse and includes low valleys with old-growth stands of Western Red Cedar, Giant Fir, Douglas fir, and Western Larch. Elk, moose, mountain goat, black bear, wolverine and pine marten thrive in healthy numbers.

UL Bend Wilderness

Location: Between Lewistown and Glasgow.
Size: 20,819 acres.
Description: Designated in 1976, it is overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The wilderness is scattered among four unconnected blocks within the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge located on a peninsula formed by a great bend in the Missouri River. The wilderness consists of short prairie grasses, sagebrush and greasewood on the gently rolling interior with ponderosa pine and juniper in the coulees that drop to the shores of Fort Peck Lake. This is a wildlife wilderness and is home to mule deer, whitetail deer, antelope and elk as well as birds and small mammals.

Welcome Creek Wilderness

Location: In the Lolo National Forest southwest of Missoula.
Size: 28,135 acres
Description: Designated in 1978, this is an area of forested slopes, exposed ridges and deep canyons with no lakes, high cliffs or cirques or hanging valleys. It’s a rare example of lower-elevation general forest as wilderness with wet bottoms and park-like ridges. It is an area of steep rough breaks covered with old-growth stands of lodgepole pine, Douglas fir and spruce. The highest point is Welcome Mountain at 7,723 feet and the east is bounded by Rock Creek, a famous blue-ribbon trout steam. It is an important summer-range area for elk, and bobcat, raccoon, mink, weasel and pine marten make their home in this area.

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