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, 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: The Custer and Gallatin National Forests, between Billings and Yellowstone National Park
Size: 920,343 acres
Description: Designated in 1978, this large Wilderness area consists of two major mountain ranges, the Beartooths and the Absarokas, with peaks stretching in every direction. In the eastern part of the area, the Beartooths, with their huge alpine plateaus, are rugged, glaciated, granite and predominantly above the treeline. In the west, the Absarokas are gentler and less-rugged, with steep ridges, grassy meadows, and more heavily forested canyons. The Beartooth Range contains 29 peaks above 12,000 feet including the highest point in Montana, 12,799-foot Granite Peak. This diverse area's 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. Water abounds in this 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: The Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Bitterroot National Forests, southwest of Butte
Size: 158,615 acres
Description: Designated in 1964, the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness is among the seven largest wildlands in Montana. This is high country: with the exception of some stream valleys, most of the area is above 7,000 feet. West Goat Peak sits high at 10,793 feet, and even the East Fork of the Bitterroot River flows at a lofty 5,400 feet. Along the Continental Divide, the Anaconda-Pintler country contains old-growth forest, windswept ridges, alpine meadows, and rugged alpine peaks. Lakes and U-shaped canyons reveal past glaciation, and cirques with alpine lakes and glacial moraines make for spectacular scenery. Some of the world’s finest trout streams, including Rock Creek and the Big Hole River, originate in this Wilderness. A dozen species of conifers thrive on the north slope; the south slope, drained by the Big Hole River, is mostly lodgepole pines, with spruce-fir on the wet canyon bottoms. Elk, moose, black bear, mountain goat, bighorn sheep, puma, wolverine, and lynx all thrive in this area.

Bob Marshall Wilderness

Location: The Flathead and Lewis and Clark National Forests, west of Great Falls
Size: 1,063,503 acres
Description: Designated in 1964, "the Bob" 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 stretch along the Continental Divide, the center of which is the Chinese Wall, an imposing limestone precipice, towering 1,000 feet and extending 13 miles. Moist pacific maritime weather on the west side results in lush, diverse forests, which is dramatically different to the east, where drier, more open country lies. There are more than 100 lakes in the Wilderness, with major streams originating, including the blue-ribbon South Fork of the 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: The Kootenai National Forest, about 15 miles southwest of Libby
Size: 94,272 acres
Description: Designated in 1964, the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness comprises a narrow north-south range of 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 dedar, Douglas fir, western white pine, western hemlock, and other conifers. Although it is not a lofty range, rugged peaks, sharp ridges, and glacial cirques rise above the forests, lakes, and subalpine meadows, with sheer walls plunging 1,000 feet into deep valleys. There are more than 80 lakes in this Wilderness, including Lake Creek, which flows north to the Kootenai River, and Bull River, running south to the Clark Fork River. The highest point of the Cabinets is Snowshoe Peak, standing at 8,712 feet, high above the wet meadows, hanging valleys, and open stream bottoms. Wildlife typical of the Northern Rockies is plentiful in the area, although the grizzly population is scarce, if at all present. Other denizens include wolverine, deer, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, and black bear.

Gates of the Mountains W​ilderness

Location: The Helena National Forest
Size: 28,562 acres
Description: When Lewis and Clark first arrived in the Rocky Mountains, it seemed that the immense limestone cliffs along the Missouri River would block their passage. However, the river twisted through a narrow canyon, making a gate through the mountain and giving a name to the Wilderness. Designated in 1964, the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness boats a wild canyon landscape that winds through limestone formations which have been weathered into spires, sheer cliffs, outcrops, and walls with shallow caves. This is Montana’s smallest Wilderness, containing forests of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, with gentle meadows and open bald ridges. Despite its sylvan nature, the area's streams and springs disappear in the summer, revealing its true arid nature. No matter the climate, bighorn sheep and mountain goats are plentiful.

Great Bear Wilderness

Location: 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, down to gently sloping meadows, and finally to open river bottoms. Glacial action created U-shaped valleys and cirques. The free roaming grizzlies in the area inspired Senator Lee Metcalf to achieve preservation of this northern habitat link between the Bob and Glacier National Park.

Lee Metcalf Wilderness

Location: 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. Lodgepole pines grow beneath craggy peaks and subalpine lakes. Elevations range wildly from 4,500 feet in the canyon country, along the Madison, to 11,015 and 11,316 feet atop Gallatin or Hilgard Peaks, respectively. The Lee Metcalf Wilderness is an important component of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and is crucial grizzly habitat.

Medicine Lake Wilderness

Location: Between Sidney and Plentywood, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and 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. Unique among Wilderness areas, Medicine Lake Wildeness lies within a National Wildlife Refuge. It is also the flattest and lowest of Montana’s designated Wilderness areas, with a high point of only 2,025 feet. Southeast of the lake is the Sandhills Unit, containing sand dunes ranging from 20 to 40 feet in height, which are mantled with a blend of chokecherry and buffalo berry grasses. This prairie-pothole Wilderness is a haven for wildlife, providing a way station for hundreds of thousands of birds during spring and fall migrations and supporting a large nesting colony of white pelicans.

Mission Mountains Wilderness

Location: The Flathead National Forest, north of Missoula
Size: 73,877 acres
Description: Designated in 1975, this Wilderness' steep slopes rise abruptly from the Mission Valley to jagged peaks, ranging from 3,500 to 9,820 feet in elevation. These mountains boast hidden basins, big lakes, and hanging valleys. An impressive 350 lakes, ponds and pools, sparkling clear streams, and numerous waterfalls dot the Mission Mountains Wilderness, with Elizabeth falls majestically plunging 1,000 feet. This Wilderness is filled with 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, and 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: The Flathead Reservation, southeast of Polson
Size: 89,500 acres
Description: Established in 1982 by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, this Wilderness consists of privately owned tribal lands, which were designated as Wilderness – the first such wildland dedication by any tribe on its own. The tribes’ management of this Wilderness demonstrates their cultural and spiritual links to wilderness and wildlife. These mountains enjoy an abundance of water from the perpetual snowfields that feed one of the densest concentrations of alpine lakes in the northern Rockies. Waterfalls, creeks, and streams are plentiful here along the western slopes of the Mission Mountains.

Rattlesnake Wilderness

Location: The Lolo National Forest, only four miles north of Missoula
Size: 32,976 acres
Description: Designated in 1980, the Rattlesnake Wilderness displays high, winding ridges with steep, east-facing cirques and gentler western slopes. There are many lake-filled basins in these sloping forests and secluded hanging valleys, with waterfalls and steep-gradient streams flowing throughout the Wilderness. 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 in the Rattlesnake. The U-shaped Rattlesnake basin is fed by more than 50 small creeks seep from springs and melting snow banks in the upper portion of the wilderness. 

Red Rock Lakes Wilderness

Location: 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, the Red Rock Lakes Wilderness was designated in 1976. This remote, virtually undeveloped basin holds an amazing system of waterways, which consist of lakes and connected marshes. More than 14,000 acres of wetlands are managed for wildlife, providing habitat and solitude for a stunning array of birds and other wildlife. Some 215 bird species have been observed within this wetlands Wilderness, which comprises about 80 percent of a refuge that was established in 1935 to safeguard the rare trumpeter swan. Red Rock’s high prairies and mountains combine with the water to create a habitat for moose, elk, deer, and antelope.

Scapegoat Wilderness

Location: The Helena, Lewis and Clark and Lolo National Forests, southeast of Great Falls
Size: 259,966 acres
Description: Straddling the Continental Divide, this Wilderness includes the impressive 1,000-foot limestone cliffs, which stretch nearly four miles on the east face and extend from the Bob's Chinese Wall. Designated in 1972, the Scapegoat's highest point is the massive 9,202-foot Scapegoat Mountain. Scattered subalpine forests of spruce, white bark pine, and fir open to grassy parks and gently sloping meadows. Wolverine, deer, elk, moose, black bear, mountain goat, mountain sheep, and mountain lion inhabit the Scapegoat, with the Bob Marshall/Scapegoat Wilderness complex being the only place outside national parks in the lower 48 states that supports a population of grizzly bears.

Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness

Location: 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 and is situated within the boundaries of four National Forests. Elevations range significantly from 1,800 feet on the Selway and Lochsa Rivers to 10,000 feet in the Bitterroot Mountains. 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 jagged, treeless granite peaks changes to forested ridges, hanging valleys, and heavily forested valleys with surprising pockets of bogs and marshes. The area is tremendously diverse, including low valleys and 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, the UL Bend Wilderness is overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This Wilderness is scattered among four unconnected blocks within the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, which is located on a peninsula formed by a great bend in the Missouri River. The Wilderness consists of short prairie grasses, sagebrush, and greasewood on its gently rolling interior ,with ponderosa pine and juniper in the coulees that drop to the shores of Fort Peck Lake. This wildlife Wilderness is home to mule deer, whitetail deer, antelope, and elk, as well as birds and small mammals.

Welcome Creek Wilderness

Location: The Lolo National Forest southeast of Missoula
Size: 28,135 acres
Description: Designated in 1978, this is an area of forested slopes, exposed ridges, and deep canyons. There are no lakes, high cliffs, cirques, or hanging valleys in this rare example of lower-elevation general forest. Steep rough breaks, covered with old-growth stands of lodgepole pine, Douglas fir and spruce, as well as wet bottoms and park-like ridges are plentiful in this Wilderness. The highest point is Welcome Mountain, which stands 7,723 feet tall. The Wilderness is bounded by Rock Creek, a famous blue-ribbon trout steam, on its east. It is an important summer-range area for elk, with bobcat, raccoon, mink, weasel, and pine marten making their homes in this area.