Western Montana’s Fish Creek country in Lolo National Forest’s Bitterroot Mountains offers everything you need for a good horse escape. Clearwater Crossing – a spacious campground complete with corrals situated at an elevation of 3,000 feet – sits at the end of a road adjacent to the proposed Great Burn Wilderness Area.
From here, there are several trails for day rides. Nearby is the Hole in the Wall Ranch, which offers guided rides. You can do your own pack trip into the wild country or go with an outfitter. We did this trip in the autumn when beautiful fall colors were at their peak.
For a map of the area, contact the Lolo National Forest headquarters in Missoula (406/329-3750; www.fs.fed.us/r1/lolo). To find Fish Creek country, start at Missoula, and travel 40 miles west on I-90, and take Exit 66. From there, it’s about 16 miles of good dirt road to the campground. Just follow the signs to the Hole in the Wall Ranch, and continue 1.2 miles past the ranch to the Clearwater Crossing campground and trailhead at the end of the road.
The Ponderosa is Montana’s state tree. On the way to the Hole in the Wall Ranch, a few miles after leaving the interstate, you’ll see a sign denoting Big Pine State Park. Pull in the park, and take a gander at Montana’s largest Ponderosa, which stands 194 feet tall and has a 6 ?-foot-diameter base. It contains 17,107 board feet, enough lumber to build two average houses. And, it’s still growing!
The tree was already 104 years old when the Revolutionary War started. As we felt the bark’s texture, we marveled at all the seasons, storms, and changes in the surrounding area the tree had witnessed in its lifetime. It’s a magnificent sight and well worth a stop.
When we arrived at the campground with our Missouri Fox Trotters, Buddy and Scout, we were surprised to find that we had the entire area to ourselves. One side of the camp has several spacious corrals. On the other side is Fish Creek. The camp’s only downside is the distance to water for horses.
Three trails go out from camp and make excellent day rides. Or, they can be combined in larger loops for a multi-day pack trip. We chose day trips.
Hidden Ghost Town
Our first ride was west out of camp on Trail 103T. Our destination was a small, little-known ghost town called Greenwood. Riding to Greenwood and back makes for a good day ride.
This ghost town is unique in that it can only be reached by trail. You won’t find Greenwood in any book on ghost towns; it waits to be discovered by you!
Shortly after starting, we came across two unusual structures. First, we thought they were kilns. Later, we learned they’re dynamite storage bunkers used for road construction in 1932.
It was one of those wonderful fall days following a cool night. The air was crisp, and the day was warming up. The horses were excited and happy to be moving out. We followed the North Fork of Fish Creek up a picturesque valley framed by intermittent views of forested mountains and sparkling streams. It was an easy ride to Greenwood; the trail gained very little elevation. This is a great place to tie up the horses, munch a lunch, and explore.
Greenwood was a gold-mining town. Two cabins remain standing among a number of fallen structures and foundations. We enjoy looking at remnants from the past, trying to imagine men mining for gold and living in these small ramshackle cabins. We marveled at the ingenuity of log-cabin construction. Charlene found an old bottle whose color had changed to blue after many years of sun exposure. I found part of a miner’s lunch bucket. If only these old items could talk, what stories they could tell!
For a longer adventure, continue straight on the main trail several miles past Greenwood to French Lake, a beautiful high-country destination. This trail winds through old-growth cedars. Many have trunks five to six feet across and could be up to 600 years old. They’ve somehow survived fires and loggers.
After Greenwood, the valley opens up, becoming wide and lush. In a short while, the junction to French Lake on Trail 143T comes into view. This junction is a good camping spot and has grazing for horses.
Through the Woods
The next day, we rode south up the main fork of Fish Creek on Trail 101T. Follow the signs, and cross the river beyond camp. This is a great ride for a hot summer day. Most of the first few miles are in a dense, shaded cedar forest.
After a couple miles, the trail widens by an idyllic pool that silently begs for hot, swollen feet. While soaking your feet, soak in the scenery. This spot is a 10 on the tranquility scale! Shortly after the pool, we rode by yet another set of large cedar trees and onto a trail junction where Trail 510T branches off toward Cedar Peak.
At the junction, we had a snack and coffee break. Charlene has two small, metal insulated containers that fit nicely into our saddlebags. On frosty fall days, we enjoy a strong, steaming cup of coffee. For us, nothing beats sitting on a log with our cold hands wrapped around a hot cup of coffee while we watch our horses and listen to the leaves rustling as they fall softly to the ground.
This time, our reverie was interrupted by hikers walking by with llamas. (Llamas are used as pack animals.) The llamas startled our horses, but our trail mounts maintained their composure.
Every horse reacts differently when confronted by a llama on the trail; this reaction can range from calm to ballistic. It’s good to know in advance your horse’s response to a llama. If his response is dramatic and unsafe, find someone who has a llama, and spend time acclimating your horse to the animal. This exercise may save you big trouble on the trail someday.
On this ride, we field-tested an item called The Booger, available from Walnut Grove Hunting Products (877/338-8171; www.walnutgrovehunting.com). This patent-pending tool is designed to retrieve things dropped from hunting stands, but it works equally well for materials dropped while on horseback. Think of how many times we get off our horses to retrieve dropped gloves, binoculars, hats, etc. The Booger is small and weighs only four ounces, but is strong enough to grasp anything from a set of keys to larger, heavier items.
Exploring the Waterfalls
Our third ride from the campground was our favorite. This trail is between the other two and goes up Straight Creek. Our destination on this ride was the Straight Creek waterfalls. To find the trail, we rode in the same direction as we did the first day, going west on Trail 103T. After three-quarters of a mile, there’s a trail junction and a sign on a tree. Turn right and you’ll find Greenwood; turn left, and you’ll go up Straight Creek. Shortly after the junction, we crossed Fish Creek and entered Straight Creek valley.
The ride up Straight Creek is beautiful. The first part is through a flat of cottonwood trees. Their yellow leaves fluttered in the wind like thousands of golden coins. This part of the trail had been an old mining road, which made for easy going. Farther down, the trail crosses the creek and starts in earnest up a steeper grade. Some portions hang on steep side hills. Even though the trail was reasonably wide, we felt apprehensive when surveying the deep canyon below.
An hour later, the view opened up to pristine scenes of snowcapped peaks and ragged ridge lines. Nature painted a vibrant picture! Splashes of crimson, gold, and forest green provided a dramatic contrast to the white-topped mountains. A black bear moved in the bushes near the creek, but our horses took no notice, and we continued on.
After two hours of riding and an elevation gain of 1,300 feet, we came to the Straight Creek waterfalls. This is another wonderful spot for a break and bite to eat. Water curls around rocks, falls to a pool, and cascades to the valley below.
After lunch, I rode Buddy on the rocks by the upper cascade. He eyed the foaming, twisting water suspiciously. When it was apparent the water wouldn’t jump out and engulf him, we rode off to explore the area above the falls.
With time running short and the temperature dropping, we rode just a couple more miles above the falls. This portion of the trail goes through a spacious, open area, then enters a forested region. There, an outfitters’ camp was set up for the fall hunting season. One strange item was a series of wooden planks forming a boardwalk-type trail. We were befuddled, as Charlene’s sister Eloise would say. As shadows lengthened and the afternoon light faded to gold, we reined our horses back toward camp. Buddy and Scout both liked that – they knew hay and grain waited for them down below!
Hole in the Wall Ranch
The next day, we decided to ride our horses back down the road to check out the Hole in the Wall Ranch (800/683-6500; www.holeinthewallranch.com), 1.2 miles from the campground. During our short ride, we saw several deer and a moose down by the stream. At the lodge, we tied our horses and went inside to order dinner.
Ranch manager Jason Cataldo told us this is a good place to escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Here, spectacular scenery, cozy cabins, and Western hospitality await you. The dining room offers warm surroundings and a full menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The restaurant offers everything from homemade waffles to 18-ounce steaks. The lodge has a toasty fireplace to relax by. Or, stretch out in the spacious hot tub and watch deer grazing on the lawn. Paddle boats are available for use on the small lake behind the lodge. In addition to horseback riding, there’s cycling, hiking, river rafting, and fishing.
This is an ideal place to bring your own horse. Spacious corrals are provided for lodge guests, and you can ride right out of the corral. If you don’t have a horse, lodge outfitters will take you into the backcountry for an hour or a week. They can customize your pack trip from one to six nights. You can ride to high mountain lakes to fish, view wildlife (such as mountain goats), and spend time in the vast Montana-Idaho Great Divide country. Only time can buy the wilderness, so soak it in!
A Howling Send-Off
As the sun settled over our camp and day gave way to night, we prepared for our last evening in Fish Creek country. The horses contentedly munched hay. Charlene happily split firewood, while I gathered marshmallow sticks and lawn chairs. While sitting around the crackling fire, we reflected on the good time we had with the horses. We felt so fortunate that we could ride in such beautiful country.
Earlier, we’d watched five college students begin a hike to Crater Lake. This hike was quite long and partially cross-country. The last part isn’t suitable for horses. We realized that the students hadn’t returned, and it was getting dark. We were wondering what to do if they failed to return when we heard them emerge from the brush. They were cold and chilled, so we invited them to share our fire.
We traded stories about our day’s adventure in the wilderness. The students were all majoring in outdoor studies, such as zoology, wildlife biology, and forestry. The future of our wild lands rests with kids like these. It felt great to know these students loved the land and valued its undeveloped state.
As if on cue, just beyond our camp, a group of wolves howled a haunting melody. It was a fitting send-off for the kids and for us as we prepared to say goodbye to Fish Creek country.
Kent and Charlene Krone combine their interest in photojournalism with a passion for horses.?They enjoy sharing their horseback adventures in the United States and Western Canada.?During riding season, you can usually find them on the trail, checking out new places to ride.