National Forest Foundation

A Weekend Trip Back in Time on the Bitterroot

Camping, Adventures


On a recent camping trip on our backyard public lands, the Bitterroot National Forest near Missoula, Montana, my family discovered more than a babbling creek, starry skies and the quiet of nature at our weekend campsite. We were also surprised to find relics of history that painted a picture of life on the forest years ago.

First, we stumbled upon the Old Alta Ranger Station, which according to the sign, is the first ranger station ever built, pre-dating even the establishment of the Forest Service.

Old Alta Ranger Station

Here is the story (with thanks to the Bitterroot National Forest):

Faced with the responsibility of patrolling thousands of acres in the Bitterroot Reserve, rangers Nathaniel E. "Than" Wilkerson and Henry C. Tuttle built a small cabin on Hughes Creek to serve as a ranger station. Using a horse borrowed from miner Pete Bennett, the rangers cut and skidded their own logs and spent their own money to purchase "hinges, nails, a window, and flag to fly over the building." The one-room cabin measured 13 x 15 feet, with V-notched corners and a sod roof. Completed in two weeks time, Alta Ranger Station was officially dedicated on July 4, 1899.

I learned after our visit that several forests claim to have the first ranger station depending on a variety of factors, but this one was the earliest built. It was exciting to find this little cabin still standing with the American flag flying high. I love thinking of early rangers coming back after working in the woods to cook their venison and beans and stoke up the fire.

Venturing further up the West Fork, we came to a sign for the “Old Alta Pine.” After a short walk, a tall tree trunk rose before us. Although fire has diminished the size of this tree, a sign told us we were looking at a Ponderosa pine over 800 years old. If only it could talk… I would love to hear what stories this old grandfather tree could share.

The Old Alta Pine.

It just goes to show that an exotic locale is not required to offer a great family trip. I am grateful for our National Forests!

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