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Sep 10 2013

Field Notes: Travels with Lizzy

West Big Hole Recreation Area and Wilderness

Afoot on the CDT, Exploring Montana

John Gatchell
Conservation Director

The sun slipped behind the western horizons of Montana’s fabled Big Hole Valley, backlighting summits along a vast sweep of Continental Divide.

At the north wall of the valley, a huge black cloud was swallowing the Pintlers, spitting forks of lightning into forest and sagebrush, trailing curtains of rain.

Beautiful? Oh my God.

Like the Rocky Mountain Front, the grandeur of the Big Hole reaches skyward from working ranches to the untrammeled crown of the American continent. I was struck by the similarities…


Lizzy soaking up the sun at Miner Lake in the West Big Hole. Photo by John Gatchell

Big Plans for the Big Hole

Like the Front, stewardship of the American lands along the Divide surrounding the Big Hole has been fiercely debated for generations. In 1973, the U.S. Forest Service recommended the West Big Hole as an outstanding candidate for wilderness. In 1980, Congressman Pat Williams held rowdy Congressional hearings in Dillon on his West Big Hole Wilderness Bill. Later that same decade, the Big Hole was the focus of heated national debate over federal forest road-building. Forest plans to increase roads in the Big Hole prompted ranchers and sportsmen to set aside differences and jointly announce the Big Hole Ranchers-Sportsmen Plan for the Big Hole Watershed in July 1988.

The ranchers-sportsmen plan protected working ranches, traditional uses, wild lands and the Big Hole’s legendary hunting and fishing. It was incorporated as the made-in-Montana blueprint for the West Big Hole by Montana’s Congressional delegation in statewide legislation subsequently passed by Congress in October 1988. But the bill languished unsigned, leaving the fate of the Big Hole (and the Front) for another generation to rehash.

On the Front, federal plans for oil and gas development inspired some area ranchers to set aside differences and work with sportsmen and conservationists. In the Big Hole, differences over grazing practices had the opposite effect, splintering the broad-based Big Hole Ranchers-Sportsmen Coalition. While plans for timber, watershed and off-road vehicle management stalled, motor vehicles tore up fragile wet lands, sullied trout waters and trampled stream banks, churning deeper into unprotected wilderness along the Divide.

Supervisor Tom Reilly understood stewardship was slipping badly. In 2003, the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest initiated a new forest plan to set management directions for the forest - from wilderness to watershed, grazing, fisheries, timber, wildfire and travel. Creating a new forest plan took six years, ignited fierce debate, and revived familiar arguments, but most importantly, launched new approaches. Beaverhead County sought to limit wilderness on Montana’s largest and wildest national forest, while conservationists sought to limit vehicles and protect wild headwaters. 

In 2009, with the forest plan complete, Senator Tester introduced the collaborative-based Forest Jobs and Recreation Act (FJRA). 

To forever protect the West Big Hole, FJRA includes two wilderness units (44,156 acres) embedded in a large recreation area (95,144 acres) protected by 2009 forest plan vehicle limits.

The wilderness units include some of the most rugged tracts along the Divide—year-round refuges for mountain goats, wolverine and quiet recreation. The encompassing recreation area allows snowmobiling and limits wheeled motor vehicle traffic to select designated routes. Existing grazing allotments operated by nearby ranches remain unchanged.

This approach is based on both the 2009 forest plan and the Big Hole Ranchers and Sportsmen 1988 plans for the West Big Hole: two wilderness units embedded in a large watershed/recreation area, with grazing unchanged. 

The Holy Big Hole

I parked at the trailhead by lower Miner Lakes within FJRA’s West Big Hole Recreation Area. Lizzy, looking sharp in her green doggie-pack loped alongside my 29-inch bike for the first four miles until we hit the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. At this point the main trail becomes the CDT and is closed to motor vehicles, except snowmobiles. Four backpackers offered directions to Miner Creek. About a half mile up the trail I traded my mountain bike for a backpack, proceeding afoot with Lizzy up the CDT one mile to the junction with Miner Lake Trail #3058.

A jackleg fence and trail gate marked the upper limits of grazing. We crossed a trail bridge over Miner Creek and headed up Miner Lake Trail #3058, crossing into FJRA’s proposed West Big Hole Wilderness. A prominent sign states “Area closed yearlong to all motor vehicles including snowmobiles.” 

Up the trail the forest seemed to grow taller and ice-carved mountainsides steeper. Pointed stands of fir and towering old spruce interspersed with bright avalanche openings, old logs from winter slides littered the creek bottom. We climbed steadily to Miner Lake, encountering a backpacking father and son from Dillon, smiling and fawning over Lizzy. At the lake three young brothers in cowboy hats pulled in their pack raft, saddled up and rode down the trail.

It got even quieter. Ahhh the hush of the land, so deep you can just sink into it!

Lizzy and I looked at each other, thinking, "You mean we get this heavenly place to ourselves?"

In the evening and into the night, lightning flashes illuminated our little tent, and thunder rumbled across the surrounding ring of 10,000-plus-foot peaks along the Great Divide. The bass thunder seemed to vibrate and reverberate in the steep-walled cirque. When I awoke later stars shone through the trees and the moon glowed above the Divide.

Sunrise colored the faces of Monument and Sacacawea Peaks, reflected in a glassy lake that stretched from camp clear to the mountain’s wall.


Camp coffee and breakfast, before heading around the lake and climbing up avalanche slopes to the uppermost Miner Lake (8,700 feet)—a sparkling sapphire-blue gem. Fat trout cruised the rocky lakeshore. Mountain goats grazed on the headwall as falcon, eagle and ravens glided along the encircling walls.

We fished and later found a perfect sunlit rock ledge for diving into icy blue waters.

The next morning we packed up camp and headed down the trail until we reached an avalanche chute that served as our stairway to check out the ridge running east from the Divide that marked the transition from wilderness to recreation units. From the ridge we gained a great overview of the steep wilderness terrain and less vertical pitch of Homer Youngs Peak, Rock Island and many other lakes in the recreation area.

Lizzy gave me that look—“please?”  We traversed mossy, forested slopes to find another sweet lake nestled along the Divide. 

The West Big Hole wilds harbor over 20 mountain lakes ranging from lily-pad lowland lakes to snow-fed blue gems. Amidst rising trout we plunged into cool clear waters, napped and enjoyed our last backcountry meal before heading downslope to find the Continental Divide Trail.

Let's keep it wild!