We decided that we were going to do a backpacking trip in Montana. Originally, we were going to hike out of Glacier National Park and into Waterton in Canada, but we weren’t able to get the permits for that, so we had a change of plans. It was on my grandma’s bucket list to take a multiple day trip for her 70th birthday, so the alternate planning began.
She decided that our trip would be in the Bob Marshall Wilderness area of Montana. This area is named after a wilderness activist who lived in the early 20th century. It lives up to its name of being a wilderness. Besides the trails, there is almost no sign that people have ever been there. Most of it is densely forested, and there are no trail signs in the 1,009,356 acres that stretch across the continental divide. This is an important little detail as it may be the largest contributing factor in why our 27 mile, 4 day trip turned into a 52 mile, 5 day trip. The following account details our little journey so that you can duplicate it if you feel like you want to grow a little hair on your chest.
Day 1: 8 miles.
We started our hike in the Flathead National Forest at Holland Lake. We left our car there and started up the trail. The first mile, as always, included some backpack adjustments. Once we all felt good about where our packs were sitting, we were on our way. Our destination for the day was Upper Holland Lake. It’s a steady climb up to the lake, but not too brutal. We paralleled a creek for most of it and as a result, ran into some beautiful waterfalls. About 3 miles up the trail, we ran into an awesome waterfall with a little swimming hole beneath it. We didn’t stop there, but I kind of wish that we had.
We ended up stopping for lunch at a waterfall next to the trail. We were able to take our shoes off and walk around in the stream under the waterfall, which felt quite nice. It’s definitely cold, but it felt really nice after walking for so long. We had “Uncrustables” again, which I still think are a most excellent backpacking lunch. They’re only good for the first day or so, but well worth bringing along if you freeze them first.
After lunch, we headed the rest of the way up to the way up to Upper Holland Lake. We were all pretty tired and ready to throw down our packs, so we ended up stopping at the first spot by the lake that we came too. It was on a rocky outcropping that jutted into the lake with only a couple scraggly trees. I had my heart set on hanging up my hammock in the shade, so I was not impressed. There also weren’t many flat areas for our tents, so my grandma and I left our packs there and scouted ahead. About a quarter mile down the trail, we came to the main camping area and found a more ideal location. There was even a pit toilet which, of course, is vastly superior to digging your own cat hole. There were also plenty of trees to hang hammocks from, and flat areas galore for our 3 tents. We headed back and packed up the rest of our crew and headed to the better location.
That spot ended up being awesome. My sister, her boyfriend, Granny, and I went swimming in Upper Holland Lake and my brother fished. He actually caught a good amount of fish and we could have conceivably cooked them for dinner, but we didn’t really want to make our campsite smell like trout, as that seemed to be tempting fate a little much when it came to the bear risk. So he did catch and release, and sent the fish back to their little fish families. We ended up having the ever-lovely Mountain House dehydrated dinner instead. Spaghetti or chicken and rice or some such.
Day 2: 8 miles
That night passed without incident and we were back on the trail early the next morning. We went on Big Salmon Creek Trail. Previous to this, we were in the Flathead National Forest, and the sign we saw here would be the last we would see as we were now headed into the Bob Marshall.
The hike out of camp was fairly steep to begin with lots of switchbacks. I can’t quite recall now, but I would say it’s maybe a mile, mile and a half, before you reach the top of the incline. It’s at the top that you officially enter the Bob Marshall. After that, it was really downhill most of the day. Almost painfully so. The downhill was a little hard on the toes and ankles, which is why I would take uphill over downhill any day of the week (luckily for me, there was plenty more incline in store). The best part about day 2, however, was the huckleberries. They were all over the trail. We moved pretty slow that day just because of the sheer amount of time we spent stopping and picking/eating berries. Before this trip, I could pretty much take ‘em or leave ‘em, but man were they good while we were hiking. Given the density of the berry bushes, we were understandably cautious, and my dad was constantly clapping and yelling to make sure we didn’t startle any dining bears.
We camped that night at Big Salmon Falls. The falls are right next to the trail and are really loud. I want to say they were maybe 50 feet high, but I’m notoriously bad at estimating distance so who really knows. Anyway, it’s big. There is a little pool at the bottom that you can swim in. It is quite cold though. We used it to rinse the trail grime off, and there were a lot of profanities flying due to the temperature. I would say it was precisely “get out within two minutes or start losing extremities” degrees.
We had more Mountain House for dinner, along with the ever-present Fireball (for those partaking) and just relaxed around camp for the rest of the afternoon. We built a fire, busted out the hammocks, and played some cards in the tent after it started raining. The rain wasn’t too serious, but it did prevent our clothes from drying overnight. Besides that, another uneventful night (not that we would have heard any bear activity over the sound of the falls).
Day 3: 12 Miles (AKA The Day Things Went South)
The first sign of the downward spiral that was Day 3 was the soggy clothes in the morning. The previous day, we got our boots quite wet during numerous stream crossings. That, combined with the soggy overnight weather meant wet boots in the morning. We tried drying things by the fire, but to no avail. Word to the wise, putting synthetic materials close to the fire to dry is not the best idea. We ended up with some holy socks and pants thanks to a couple popping embers. Then, a member of our party, who shall remain nameless, decided that they should see how quick their draw was on the bear spray. This person got the safety cap off without incident, but in trying to replace it, managed to spray themselves in the abdomen with a nice robust puff. The side effect of this was that the spray ricocheted off them and onto others near them, including myself. After much coughing and eye rinsing we (some of us) had a good laugh about it. After that nonsense, we packed up and headed out.
We anticipated a short day. We were going to hit the Necklace lakes in 2-3 miles, then pick the best spot we could find and set up camp early for our last night on the trail. We WERE going to that. But, alas the lack of trail signs and some botched compass checks prevented this from happening. Instead, we went on a 12 mile death march.
It started out pleasant enough. Aside from the unfortunate member of our party that had to soak their still burning abdomen in the creek, everyone was in relatively good spirits. There were quite a few stream crossings, so our wet boots that we started with didn’t make much of a difference. At one point, we heard movement in the trees to the side of the trail and looked over to see 2 baby black bears scrabbling up a tree. We stopped for a second to admire their cuteness, then hurried on when we heard Mama Bear growl from somewhere in the underbrush. After, of course, unholstering all our bear spray in diligent readiness.
After that excitement, we continued on through the forest, keeping a weather eye out for the anticipated Necklace Lakes. The terrain was gorgeous; we passed through meadows filled with wildflowers, thick underbrush, and quiet forest. However, we just kept going without seeing another soul. Lunchtime came and went, but we forged on with the intent of reaching the first Necklace Lake for lunch. Every time someone made noise about being hungry, our fearless leader would give the famous line “should be just around the corner”, and say to eat a snack while we walked.
Needless to say, it was not just around the corner. What was supposed to be a 3-4 mile easy day, turned into 12 miles of constant uncertainty. We kept making excuses for why we hadn’t reached the lakes yet… maybe the lakes weren’t as close to the trail as they looked on the map, maybe we had passed them already without realizing… As we kept moving, the sky grew darker with storm clouds and it began to rain. Finally, after about 10 miles, we sighted a lake. We assumed that this was a good sign and we had reached the Necklace Lakes. As we neared the lake, we saw two figures on the distant shore, fishing. We passed their empty camp and kept walking up the trail in search of a spot of our own. As we walked, we realized that this was a much larger lake than we had originally thought. It was much bigger than even the largest of the diminutive Necklace Lakes. It seemed to be about 4 or 5 miles long. As this realization took hold, we did a map check and failed to find any lake of this magnitude. Realizing we were good and lost now, we decided to make camp on the lake and double back to consult the fishermen in the morning. By this point, we had already walked about a mile from them, and it was about another mile before we were able to find a level spot by bush-whacking our way down to a beach on the lake shore.
The weather was threatening to turn worse, so we set up our tents on the pebbly beach, without much other choice. I was definitely nervous about sleeping in the tents, on the beach, so exposed to lightning, but that’s what we did. We were all pretty grumpy at the turn of events. I was annoyed because we hadn’t realized our mistake sooner, others were worried about being lost, and still others were thinking about the wasted miles. The combination of these things made for a rather tense camp. Until…. Fireball! I was probably the grumpiest out of anyone, but that loosened me right up, and after that, the situation didn’t seem so awful. We made it through the night without anyone being fried by lightning, so that’s a relatively good night.
Day 4: 15 miles
We got up bright and early the next morning to try to make up some ground. By this point, our main worry was that we were going to be a day late to our pick up spot and that my Grandpa may call search and rescue when we didn’t show up. We were hoping the fishermen we had seen the day earlier would have a satellite phone so we could call him to let him know that we did not need to be rescued. When we reached them, they told us that they had had pack horses bring them out that far and that they weren’t expecting them back to pick them up for another few days. I’m not sure if there was a Brokeback Mountain situation going on there with those gentlemen or what, but they certainly had no way of contacting the outside world. They were nice guys though, and gave us one of the copies of their map (which was far superior to ours). Turned out that we were at Big Salmon Lake, which was in completely the opposite direction of where we needed to go. You see, what had happened was that every time we checked the compass, we appeared to be going in the right direction, but that was because we were on a twisty trail with a bunch of switchbacks.
Anyway, we headed back out the way we came to try to get back on track. We backtracked our 12 miles from the previous day, and found the trail that we should have turned on just below the falls on the morning of Day 3. No sign of course, and the beginning of it was almost invisible in the brush just past a creek crossing. Already trail weary from the previous 12 miles, we headed up a pretty steep incline from there. We took about a thousand little breaks on the way up, but finally made it to the top and started to see the notorious Necklace Lakes.
The terrain up there was so different. It was a high meadow, with tons of bear grass and scraggly little pine trees. This area was my favorite of the trip thus far. There were a ton of mosquitoes due to the large amount of standing water, but drenched with enough Deet, they weren’t too bad. It was kind of Fairyland-esque.
We eventually stopped at one of the lakes and made camp in a beautiful campsite. We essentially threw ourselves down on the grass and moved very little for a while. Eventually we set up our tents and hammocks and got down to the task of eating the rest of our dehydrated meals. “A feast!” my sister called it. That night, our tents were on the beach again (much to my chagrin) and there was a massive thunderstorm in the pass. It was very cool, but very scary. I have never experienced anything like that in my life. The thunder followed each flash so quickly that I was positive we were going to get hit. I was making my peace with every god I had ever heard of, just to make sure I had all my bases covered. My best friend likes to say that I only pray when I think I’m going to die, and she was right that night.
Day 5: 9 Miles
I didn’t die, as you may have deduced by the fact that you’re reading this. Instead, we woke up to a chilly, damp, and beautiful morning. There was a mist that hung just over the lake that made the view out the arched tent doors like something out of a movie. We had breakfast (oatmeal), packed up our damp gear, and hiked back up to the trail.
The rest of our morning consisted of trekking up the rest of the pass to begin our decent back down to Lower Holland Lake. The thunderstorm picked back as we were headed over the highest point (of course). That had me renewing all my prayers from the night before. I had a strong compulsion to throw my metal tent poles as far away from me as possible. I kept them though, because by this point I began to suspect that I was, in fact, invincible.
When we finally did make it through the various up’s and down’s in the pass, we were greeted with a spectacular view of the Flathead Valley. I know it’s cliché, but looking at that view, you really understand why it’s called Big Sky Country. The sky and the land went on forever. It was a real treat for us Southern Californians, who are so used to our views being marred by the ever present haze. That view, combined with the pride that comes with putting real work into seeing it, is why I backpack. We have no pictures because our cameras were all dead by this point, so it will have to live in our heads.
After this, we sped down the mountains as fast of our exhausted legs would carry us. Again, the downhill was brutal on the toes and ankles, but we were like a horse to the barn, so we kept going. On the way down, we saw a black bear on the trail who looked very disappointed that he was going to have to go around us. He disappeared back into the forest as quickly as he arrived, and we were back on our way.
With great glee, we finally reached the parking lot at Lower Holland Lake to be greeted by a very exuberant dog and a very relieved grandpa. He didn’t call search and rescue, despite our worry that he would (at some points the previous day, we were sure that some of the planes we heard overhead were looking for us… we even practiced arm signals to show that we were OK). He had brought beer and sodas which were much appreciated. We headed home and stuffed ourselves with Dairy Queen and reveled in our glorious showers.
Nobody died, no serious bodily injury, no gear lost, beautiful views, unique experiences, lessons learned. You really couldn’t ask for anything more in the end.
-Flora– Pine Forest, Bear Grass, Wild Flowers, Ferns, Moss, Huckleberries
-Fauna- Bears! Deer. About a billion frogs. Fish. Birds.
-Difficulty- 5/10 If you go the right way. 7/10 for the way we went because of the sheer distance.
-As far as I know, we didn’t need a permit. The campsites are all pretty remote. We were there in August and had no problems with crowds. The only people we saw were at Upper Holland Lake. Bear spray is a must, we brought a gun too, but didn’t need it.