Bob Marshall Wilderness
Key information: Bob Marshall Wilderness
- The Bob Marshall Wilderness, affectionately referred to as 'The Bob', lies just south of the grandeur of Glacier National Park, in one of the largest remaining areas of true wilderness in the USA.
- Trek up imposing peaks, hike through dense forests and wander across wildflower meadows. This stunning mountainous scenery is populated by marmots, cougars, wolverines, deer, elk, moose, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, black bears and grizzly bears.
- Long limestone cliffs, the product of geological movements along the Continental Divide, criss-cross the wilderness. The most impressive of these is the 35 km long Chinese Wall, which can be walked in a great six day loop.
- With nearly 3,000km of trails reserved for walking and stock-use, hikes of every length abound. The Upper Holland Loop is a day of relatively hard walking, or a more relaxed overnight trip, exploring the beautiful alpine landscape around Swan Peak.
- Multi-day walks are a a good way of escaping the crowds, as many visitors remain within half a day's walk of the main access points.
- Walking in The Bob can be tough, and given the lack of access roads you will often have to be self-sufficient. Come prepared to deal with any difficulties, and be aware of and sensible about wildlife and weather.
- Walkopedia rating82
- Natural interest17
- Human interest0
- Negative points0
- Total rating82
- Length: Variable
- Maximum Altitude: 2,851m
- Level of Difficulty: Variable
The Bob Marshall Wilderness of Montana lies just south of the grandeur of Glacier National Park, and is known as the best preserved mountain/valley ecosystem in the lower forty-eight states. Affectionately referred to as "The Bob", this wilderness contains imposing peaks, open prairies, wildflower meadows, green forests, glacial lakes and clear mountain streams.
Bob Marshall was an extraordinary figure: founding the Wilderness Society and fighting for wilderness preservation long before it became a widely recognised issue, he would hike between 30 and 40 miles a day through mountainous regions - allegedly leaving the Native Americans who accompanied him trailing far behind. It was through his efforts that Congress became convinced of the need to protect the natural environment against human activity, and hikers today can experience his legacy in the peace and escapism of this isolated wilderness. The ecological and environmental debates are far from over; those seeking new sources of energy are looking to areas bordering the wilderness and, fortunately for future hikers, they face strong opposition from locals and environmentalists hoping to extend the protected wilderness zone.
The wildlife, as with other protected areas and national parks in the Northwest USA, is remarkable. Grizzly bears, wolves, wolverines, mountain lions, cougars, elk, moose, and deer wander the wilderness: Harlequin ducks breed here, whilst ptarmigan shed their dull brown in favour of a snow white each winter. During the autumn elk often gather in the Sun River Game Preserve, at the base of the Chinese Wall, for mating season, and their bugling echoes over the mountains.
With nearly 3,000km of trails reserved for walking and stock-use, hikes of every length abound.
- Long limestone cliffs, the products of geological movement along the Continental Divide, criss-cross the wilderness. The most impressive of these is the 35 km long Chinese Wall, which can be walked in a great six day loop through the splendour of The Bob.
- Upper Holland Loop makes a tough day walk or a more relaxed overnight trek, exploring the beautiful alpine landscape around Swan Peak.
- Another strenuous day walk follows the trail to Sunburst Lake, which lies cradled below Swan Peak and Swan Peak glacier, in the northwest corner of the Wilderness. The scenery here is stunning, but the richly filled lake is also a popular trip for anglers.
- A longer hike leads to Gateway Pass and Gateway Gorge, with some of the best scenery in The Bob. Multi-day walks such as this are also a good way of escaping the crowds, as many visitors remain within half a day?s walk of the main access points.
It is important to remember that walking in The Bob can be tough, and given the lack of access roads you will often have to be self-sufficient. Come prepared, and be aware of and sensible about wildlife and weather. You will have to carry all your gear, although it is possible to hire horses to carry equipment on some trails, the Chinese Wall in particular.
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Books and Maps
Books on this walk
Hiking Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness – Erik Molvar/Falcon
Hiking in the Rocky Mountains – Lindenmeyer, Fairbairn and McCormack/Lonely Planet: this provides a detailed route, beginning and ending at the Benchmark Trailhead. If you are considering any more walks in the Rockies, then this book is well worth investing in.
A Wilderness Original: The Life of Bob Marshall – James M Glover/Mountaineers: A biography of the fanatic hiker and passionate environmentalist Bob Marshall
A River Runs Through It, and Other Stories – Norman Maclean/University of Chicago Press: A celebrated prose book; nostalgic reminiscences of life in early twentieth century Montana, as the days of the wild west came to an end.
The US Forest Service 1:100,000 map of the Bob Marshall, Great Bear and Scapegoat Wilderness Complexes covers the wall and the whole surrounding area.
5 or 6 US Geological Survey topographical 1:24,000 maps covering the area are available as well, with those for Slategoat Mountain, Prairie Reef and Amphitheatre Mountain necessary for the standard hike. However, these are not nearly as convenient to carry.
Another recommended map is the Lewis & Clark National Forest (Rocky Mountain Division) Visitors Map and Travel Plan, which is available from the Forest Supervisor's Office, in Great Falls.
Best times to walk/weather
Best times to walk
The trekking season runs from late June through to the first of October, but the very best time to hike in this area is generally considered to be in late August and September. In June the trails are often boggy and churned up and in midsummer it can get too hot. Autumn brings both some beautiful colours and the opportunity to see and hear bugling male elk, but be careful about overlapping with hunting season.
Generally fine in season, but come prepared for unpredictable mountain weather – it can snow at any time: on the other hand, days in the middle of summer can get very hot.
The best gateway to walking The Bob is Augusta, Montana, around 50km from the trailhead for the Chinese Wall at Benchmark, and 85km west of Great Falls, the nearest major airport. However, a lack of public transport possibilities around Augusta means that hire cars or personal vehicles are likely to be necessary. If you are taking one of the few guided walks, then there are shuttle services to both Great Falls and Choteau.
No permits are required for this hike, although if you are intending to fish you will need a Montana Angler’s License.
See Walk Summary above.
Possible problems, health, other warnings
- Mountain weather: snow, rain, severe cold and wind are possible at any time of year and the weather can change rapidly. Variable temperatures – it can get cold and very hot. Some of the steep rock can get very slippery when wet. Come prepared.
- Heights: can be dangerous; not for those who have difficulties with heights.
- Dangerous/harmful animals of all shapes and sizes, including snakes, stinging/biting insects – including ticks – and plants. Bears are a problem: come prepared to deal with an encounter and store camp food appropriately. There are plenty of websites with advice on hiking in bear country, and a particularly good one is the US National Parks Service site. Take all appropriate precautions.
- This is remote country: you will have to carry all your food and other supplies and help may be hard to get if things go wrong.
See also the websites in our useful links page for more detailed, and up-to-date, information.
Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and problems can arise on any walk. Many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks and possible problems. This website cannot, and does not purport to, identify all actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to a walk or a country. Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.
Make sure you have appropriate insurance.
Guided or independent?
Most people hike independently in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, as there are relatively few options for guided walks. Good maps can easily be obtained, and with careful preparation this is perhaps the best way to make the most of the area’s splendid isolation.
There are a few organisers which provide guided walks in the Bob, including:
- www.triplejranch.com/wilderness-adventures – these expeditions are on horseback, a popular alternative to walking in Montana.
There are no big companies offering guided walks specifically along the Chinese Wall route. However, High Country Adventures, a small company run by Bill and Polly Cunningham and the only licensed backpacking outfitter in The Bob, offer trips of the North Chinese Wall Loop: best of all, they provide horses to carry food and camping gear.
TripAdvisor - www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ - as well as tens of millions of reviews, you can book your flights, accommodation and misc. travel arrangements through them.
PLEASE HELP Walkopedia by recommending any reputable tour organizers that you know of – local or otherwise. [leave in unless enough sites in our list]
The traditional trailhead for walking the Bob Marshall Wilderness is Augusta, a small town with a strong feeling of the traditional American West. There are several nearby campgrounds, and some ranches in the area, but there is only really one ‘hotel’ option – the Benchmark Inn. Luckily, it seems like a good one – reviews on Tripadvisor are very favourable.
There are several basic campgrounds at or near the Benchmark trailhead: the South Fork Sun campground is at the trailhead, and the Benchmark campground just one mile away. These fill up quickly on summer weekends, so bear this in mind when planning. Whilst on the trail, camping is the only option. Remember that there are restrictions on where you can camp, see Other Information below.
Hostelbookers usually has a good selection of cheaper-end accommodation.
Other information and tips
There are some significant restrictions on camping in the area of the Chinese Wall: the entire base of the Wall between Cliff and Salt mountains is a ‘no camping’ zone, and in addition there is no camping allowed within 100ft of waterways, and within 200ft of all trails. There are campsites at either end of the wall for those hiking its full length.
Useful websites and information
There are many websites with relevant information. Here are some that we think are useful or have been recommended to us.
· www.wikipedia.org - A reasonable starting place for some general information on the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
· www.wilderness.net is a good source of information on wildernesses in general, and of The Bob in particular. Includes detailed wilderness regulations.
· www.earmountain.com/page/bigchoteaucam/bigchinesewall1.html - This website has an account of walking the Bob’s Chinese Wall, along with some really great pictures.
· Cowboy Heaven Consulting is a great website. Hikers (in fact, any travelers) can pose questions and get planning help, and there are plenty of free articles with ideas, description and information on hiking and horse riding in Montana and its surrounds.
· www.trails.com features reviews of the hikes.
· Try www.flickr.com for pictures of this walk.
Other things to do in the area
Montana has many outstanding places to hike, including Glacier National Park in the north and the Bitterroot Mountains to the west; in neighbouring Wyoming, there is terrific hiking in both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.
The Continental Divide Trail also passes along the Chinese Wall.
Many people ride to and around the Chinese Wall: there are numerous ranches in the surrounding area, and this is beautiful scenery to experience on horseback. If you would prefer to follow a guided trail then it is well worth considering horse riding, given its ubiquity in Montana and a relative lack of walking companies.
Fishing and hunting are also possible in Montana, and their popularity means opportunities are plentiful.
Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and potential problems, and many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks, dangers and problems. Problems of any sort can arise on any walk. This website does not purport to identify any (or all) actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to any particular walk.
Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.
share your experiences
Add your experiences, suggestions and photos. We would be delighted to receive your writing and ideas (which will be attributed appropriately where published).
Anyone planning an expedition to this place should see further important information about this walk.
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