Exploring Western Montana

As you’re heading west through the prairie, suddenly, out there on the horizon, something is shining. Other travelers before you, the first white men to explore Montana, were told of this phenomenon by the Indians. They called the sight the shining mountains. Montana ‘s mountains, with their snow capped peaks, do indeed shine in the sun. They may be observed from as far away as 100 miles.

Western Montana is a majestic land dominated by these mountains. Here the horizon is limited, but what a splendid limitation. Peaks scratching the sky, magnificent forests, lakes, waterfalls, and wilderness. Montana ‘s mountains easily pass muster as what mountains are supposed to look like. From the east, the peaks rise abruptly off the prairie to heights of 10,000 to 12,000 feet above sea level. In the west, along the Montana-Idaho border, they ascend gradually from beautiful forest-covered foothills to the spectacular escarpments of the Mission Mountains, the Bitterroots and the Beaverheads. In all, thirty-one mountain ranges make up Montana ‘s Northern Rocky Mountains.

The ranges in the gold and silver country of southwestern Montana, the Pioneers, the Tobacco Roots, the Garnet Range, and the Rubies are steeped in history. Ghost towns and other relics of a colorful era abound. The high Beartooths and the Absaroka Range — the state ‘s highest — in south-central Montana hold hundreds of glaciers on their flanks.

In western Montana, the Swan Range, the Flathead Alps and the mountains of the Bob Marshall Wilderness are home to virtually every big-game animal found in the Rocky Mountains. The high country of the Madison Range and the Spanish Peaks spawns some of the finest fishing waters in the United States. The mountains of the Whitefish Range, the Bridger Range, the Rattlesnakes, Little Belts, Beartooth, and the Snowcrest feature the finest skiing in the west.

Western Montana ‘s mountains include twelve wilderness and primitive areas and two national parks. The Cabinet Mountains, the Mission Mountains, the Bob Marshall, the Scapegoat, the Gates of the Mountains, Beartrap Canyon, the Spanish Peaks, the Beartooths, the Bitterroot-Selway, the Absaroka, the Humbug Spires and the Anaconda Pintlar all enjoy wilderness or primitive-area status, At the time of this writing, there is an excellent chance that Montana may be blessed with nine additional wilderness areas. Among the areas being considered are the Madison Range, the Elkhorns, and the Great Bear.

East of the mountains, major settlement is, for the most part, restricted to the waterways. In the west, habitation is only feasible in the mountain valleys. Population density, although sparse by most standards, is greater in the mountain regions if only because the land for living is limited. Actually, Montana ‘s two largest towns, Great Falls and Billings, are located on the prairie. Agriculture is the dominant industry of Montana, and while it is important in the western mountains, the forest industries, mining, and tourism also play major roles.

In western Montana exploration is a matter of peaks and forest trails. The land is, to be sure, much more complicated than the prairies of the east. While the meadows, lakes, and wildflowers seem to offer gentle rambles, the spectrum as a whole is rugged, and one must pay in toil, if he is to see it. While the prairie has few natural restrictions to foot travel, the mountains have many. When one takes the mountains on their own terms and pays the price in physical exertion, he is well compensated.

The incredibly beautiful mountain areas of western Montana should be seen and explored, but with care. They should never be visited with the intention of staying, because that would destroy their very nature. The true outdoorsman remembers how scarce such unspoiled beauty has become. He is careful, after his visit, to leave only his footprints.