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.
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!