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Jun 28 2016

7 Lakes, 5 Elk, 3 Moose, 1 Trip

MWA intern takes whirlwind tour of the Pioneers and sees more than he bargained for

Exploring Montana, Featured, Voices of NexGen

Do you know just how wild the Pioneer Mountains are?

I visited the mountains last year. In less than 48 hours, I hiked just under 40 miles, and let me tell you what I saw.

I saw two different herds of elk, a bull moose, a mother moose, and her calf.

I saw Gold Greek, which is very much the color its name implies. I saw seven different mountain lakes, each with its own distinctly beautiful character. I saw numerous peaks that rise more than 10,000 feet into the air. I saw the calmest of mountain meadows and big skies more beautiful than I can describe.

And do you know how many people I saw? Three. Well, four, if you want to count my reflection in the crystal clear waters of Crescent Lake. I saw three people in a mountain system that is almost twice the size of Rhode Island. I saw as many moose as I did people. I saw more than twice the number of hidden lakes as I did people. There were so few people that the hundreds of little frogs dotting the shoreline of Teacup Lake seemed more intrigued by my presence than I was by theirs. I saw all of this in 48 hours.

I arrived in the Pioneer Mountains in the early afternoon. On my first hike, I ventured off the beaten path into the West Pioneers on a rarely used trail up to Grouse Lake. For most of the hike, the trail weaves back and forth across Grouse Creek through Douglas fir and lodgepole forests and lands suddenly upon Grouse Lake, which is quiet and forested on all sides but one, where a boulder field rises sharply up into the sky. It was a great starting hike to ground me in the silence of the Pioneer Mountains.

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And do you know how many people I saw? Three. Well, four, if you want to count my reflection in the crystal clear waters of Crescent Lake. I saw three people in a mountain system that is almost twice the size of Rhode Island. I saw as many moose as I did people. I saw more than twice the number of hidden lakes as I did people.

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My second day began with an early start at the Lost Meadow trailhead, wgere I followed Gold Creek through large, beautiful meadows. Between the golden rocks on the bottom of Gold Creek, the yellow grasses in the meadows, and the early morning sun peaking over the horizon, the entire world shimmered gold when I began my long day.

A few short and steep climbs brought me into the heart of the rocky backcountry of the East Pioneers. After startling a small herd of elk, I eventually climbed out of the Gold Creek drainage and into one of the most beautiful high mountain cirques I have ever seen. It contained three large alpine lakes, each within a short walk of the other: Lake Abundance, Crescent Lake, and Canyon Lake. Trees, wildflowers, and massive white boulders surrounded each of the lakes.

It was the kind of place you never want to leave, but I was on an ambitious hike so I continued up and out of the valley, taking one last look before I descended into my third drainage of the day.

The trail simply disappeared on my descent, only to be replaced by small cairns that led me down to one of the cutest lakes I have ever seen, Teacup Lake, which was small and surrounded by beautiful green grass and inhabited by tiny frogs. I took a quick dip and continued down until I connected with a much nicer trail that took me to Tahepia Lake, which rests below Tahepia Peak. The day was getting late ,so after a quick snack, I turned around and took a long loop back to Gold Creek and my campsite to cap off a ten-hour day on the trails.

On my third day, I enjoyed a much shorter jaunt up to the Bobcat Lakes, of which there are three. The only other visitor to the lakes was a bull moose. That night I headed further down the Pioneer Scenic Byway and rested two very tired legs in Elkhorn Hot Springs.

The serenity and wildness of the small portion of the Pioneers I saw left an amazing impression on me

There are ample opportunities in the Pioneers to discover and experience something amazing, from digging for quartz in Crystal Park to soaking in geothermal pools at Elkhorn Hot Springs, from cresting peaks that rise over 11,000 feet to fishing some of the best streams in the state. And the most amazing thing is that all of this is accessible from one 30-mile stretch of road.

Here's a wild idea: go visit the Pioneer Mountains. And if you need help deciding on a hike to take, visit our new online trail guide, hikewildmontana.org, where you'll find all of the hikes I've described above.

- Tyler Courville is a former MWA intern and student at Stanford University