This is a 14 mile shuttle backpack through the heart of Montana’s Gates of the Mountains Wilderness. If you don’t get lost around mile 10, the hike could be a mile or so shorter, but we’ve done this route two times now, and have lost the trail at the same place both times, so I think it’s safest to just build in the “getting lost” miles.
The trail begins at the Refrigerator Canyon trailhead, at about 4,600 feet, climbs to beautiful Bear Prairie at 6,300 feet, and ends at the Hunter’s Gulch trailhead at about 3,700 feet. It has the considerable advantage of being an easy shuttle: we left one car at Hunter’s Gulch, and drove up the Beaver Creek Canyon about 5 miles to the Refrigerator Canyon trailhead. I’m really not fond of long shuttles – especially at the end of the hike when you’re tired and thirsty. June is definitely the best time for this hike, since water becomes pretty scarce later in the summer. We did it two weeks ago, and found a sweet campspot by a running spring.
The trail climbs about a quarter of a mile to Refrigerator Canyon, a steep, narrow canyon that is always cool, even on the hottest days of summer. We arrived at the trailhead at the same time as a thundershower, so cooling off wasn’t really a necessity.
The trail switchbacks up to a lookout a couple of miles in, where we stopped for lunch and another thunderstorm.
My husband never seems bothered by the rain; he just hunkers down and takes a little snooze:
This trail climbs pretty gradually for the next 4 miles. The wildflowers changed from wild roses at the bottom to clematis and lady’s slippers as we got a bit higher.
And there’s always the obligatory rest stop for Pringles. Don’t think I’d make it without Pringles.
Our campsite for the night was a pristine green meadow with a crystal clear stream running through it. After a toast, we set up the tents and had a grand night chatting around the fire.
After consulting the map the next morning, we figured we had about 8 miles to go to reach the trailhead. There was a huge wildfire in the Gates of the Mountains a few years ago, and we were actually surprised that we hadn’t reached the burned area the first day. After about a mile on the second day, we were hiking through the burn:
Two more miles brought us to Bear Prairie, a lovely green oasis in the middle of the burn. I was worried that the island of aspens in the middle of the meadow would be dead, but all was well:
The confusing part comes after Bear Prairie. We were looking for the junction with the Big Log Gulch Trail, and we found the sign, but could find no sign of a trail. No cairns, no footpath. After futzing around the ridge for a while, we ended up back at the sign, and noticed that we weren’t the first ones to be confused – see the “helpful” edit on the sign?
Not really so helpful, since we still couldn’t find the trail. We could see where we wanted to be, though, so we just bushwhacked our way downhill. We eventually intersected the Big Log Gulch trail, and all was well. The end of the trail follows the creek for a few miles, then cuts through a large open area and climbs over a ridge before dropping down to the trailhead. It’s a lot of downhill, and our knees were definitely feeling it by the end. I actually spent the final hundred yards with a little positive self-talk: “you’re all right, you can do it, almost there…you’re all right, you can do it, almost there…” The self-talk worked, I guess – I made it, and no one had to carry me…or even my pack!
With the heat spell we’ve been having here in Oklahoma the last couple of weeks I’d love to hike something called Refrigerator Canyon. Great pictures and descriptions of your hike. Stay safe.
I am with you, Beech! Iowa is hot hot hot! This looked great!
Don’t think I could take the kind of heat you guys are enduring…hope it breaks soon.
This hike looks so lovely. I hiked in that same area years ago. I’m going to have to try Pringles on my next trail run!
I’m not exactly writing a health food blog here, am I? Pringles, bourbon…
Wow! Love the grand vistas you saw along the way! This hike looks awesome.
Thanks – it is a nice one.
Great post… Many thanks…
You know, we hear so much about the fires out there, that I’m hopeful when looking at your photos of the vast expanses…
It is, indeed dry – and scary – but not nearly so bad here in Montana as it is in Colorado. We just keep our fingers crossed. Love your beautiful posts!
I have to tell you, I’ve been very glad for the western blogs because back east here, the news of the fires is intense and non-stop. I was glad to see there are areas that have been spared, while at the same time I’m glad for the intense news coverage because it’s a story I hope will never end up on the back page.
Pretty hardy guy who can hunker down and nap in the rain!
Kind of drives me crazy – he can sleep anywhere!
Fantastic post, I love it! I love reading about backpacking trips, mainly because I really want to learn, but have only been once with my daughter’s Girl Scout Troop on an introductory short trip for two nights. We learned a few basics. I have so many questions about backpacking. What is your favorite gear? How do you plan a trip? What do you pack? Thank you so much for sharing this post! Looks like a great trip!
Go to backpacker.com for a wealth of info. They even have a Women’s Forum, if you prefer to chat amongst the ladies. In the Gear Forum, there’s a pinned thread entitled “Gear 101” to get you started on the required gear.
This is great, thank you so much!
Thanks, your comments are always so enthusiastic. Marty’s advice is great – backpacker.com is really helpful. I think the most important thing is making sure your pack is comfortable; for me it made all the difference when I bought a women’s pack. Make sure that it fits correctly on your hips, so that the weight is mostly there, and not pulling on your shoulders. And a comfortable sleeping pad is becoming more and more important to me. (Just love my Big Agnes inflatable pad!)
But probably most important – just go! You’ll have fun, I can tell, and you’ll quickly figure out what’s important to you. (A friend of mine remembers going on his first backpack as a teenager and strapping an aluminum breadbox to his pack – “we wanted to bring bread, and bread goes in a breadbox!” And I think his buddy was hiking in penny loafers. I bet you won’t do either of those things!)
Thank you for the encouraging reply! I love the just go advice. And what a great story! I’m sure I’ll learn much more just by getting out there. We booked a short 3 day trip to Lost Maples, so here we go! In the meantime, I can’t wait to read about more of your trips!
Beautiful pictures! You make me look like an amateur (which I am but my ego tries to ignore). What a gorgeous trip. Love the green, green, green.
Thanks! I’ve enjoyed checking out your blog, too.
Hello, did you have to secure a permit to camp?
No, no permit required.
Hello, I have written a short story, (for friends & relatives, not for publication), about my great experience hiking in the ‘Gates of the Mountain’ area, over 20 yrs ago. I was searching for some pictures to enhance my story, when I came across your great pictures and narrative. I would like to use some of your pictures of the scenery in my article. No person’s face would be seen, just the scenery. Your pictures are exactly what I remember, and help to add so much to my story. May I use your pictures, giving full credit to my source.
Sure E.J. – no problem! Have fun with your story.