Mud-Free Meandering

Mud-Free Meandering

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Phil Knight

So the lifts have closed and the rivers are cold, muddy, and blown out. Your yard looks like half of Bozeman tossed their dog leavings there, and it’s too cold and wet to break out the road bike. If you’ve got the time and gas money, head south for that ultimate slot canyon or desert river trip. But if you don’t feel like driving that far, give those hiking boots a fresh coat of waterproofing and take a look at some local hiking options. You may slosh through some slush and mud-up your floor mats, but you’ll earn trail cred for trying.

Madison Buffalo Jump State Park
Set aside to protect a classic buffalo jump above the lower Madison Valley, this park is one of the closest to Bozeman that offers year-round hiking with little snow. There are few designated trails, but a network of user-created trails takes you to the top of the buffalo jump, and higher into juniper and limber pine. The views of the Tobacco Roots are unbeatable.

Madison River and Bear Trap Canyon
This low-elevation, desert canyon west of Bozeman is the go-to spot for folks looking for snow-free winter hiking or early spring access. Bear Trap is a BLM Wilderness with trails on both sides of the Madison that wind through a stunning canyon. There is rugged off-trail hiking high above the canyon on the west side. Unfortunately, some moron burnt down half the canyon last summer playing with fireworks, so it’s not as inviting as it used to be.

Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park
Although best known for its spectacular caves, this park also offers ten miles of trail, a 40-space campground, and three camping cabins. Located in the dry limestone hills above the Jefferson River, this is the land of Ceanothus shrubs and stunted juniper, with fir gracing the wetter sites. Hiking here is amazing and the trails are lightly used. Bicycling is also great on the access road to the caverns, or on some of the hiking trails. Since the caverns are closed from October 1 to April 30, you’ll find very few tourists here.

Yellowstone National Park
While most of Yellowstone percolates under its winter blanket, the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone offers a respite from the snow and cold of higher elevations. The river flows through a remote, spectacular canyon, and trail access is excellent, with two suspension bridges providing easy river crossings. Spring is a great time to through-hike the 23 miles from Tower to Gardiner, where a newly completed access trail bypasses the grumpy landowner on the former trail. Beware of bears feasting on winter-killed carcasses!

Missouri Headwaters State Park
Unlike Lewis and Clark Caverns, Meriwether and William actually walked here. You can stroll in their footsteps as you visit the source of the Big Muddy. Easy walking trails follow the margins of the Madison, Gallatin, and Jefferson rivers and an awesome cliff-top walk takes you along the edge of Fort Rock, where you may spot a moose browsing the willows below you or a marmot sunning on a ledge. Waterfowl and birds of prey are everywhere. There is also a pleasant campground here and even a rental tipi.

Madison-Wall Creek State Wildlife Management Area
Deep in the Madison Valley along the forested ramparts of the Gravelly Range, Wall Creek offers a fine, open landscape friendly for on-trail or off-trail exploration. The area is closed December 1 to May 15 for wintering wildlife, but after that it’s a fantastic place to look for birds of prey, antelope, black bear, moose, and spring wildflowers. Trails lead deep into the Gravellys from here. Turn off Highway 287 at McAtee Bridge, 35 miles south of Ennis.

Missouri Breaks
The high plains of Montana: land of rattlesnakes, skinny cows, dustbowl homesteads, impassable gumbo roads… and more rattlesnakes. One spring, my wife and I got scheming with some friends eager to try spring backpacking in eastern Montana. We drove to Lewistown and asked the BLM about backpacking the Missouri Breaks. “No one hikes there,” we were informed. Perfect. Off we went for a madcap 65-mile backpack through the White Cliffs in April. Two water filters, a million clods of gumbo, and several days of cold, windy hiking later, we made it to Judith Landing, wiser to the ways of the Mighty Missouri. Next trip, we waited till May and brought the canoe.

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