National Forest Foundation

Feeling the Burn: Backpacking in the Great Burn

Adventures, Hiking and Backpacking


What were we to do on a busy Fourth of July weekend, when it was 100 degrees in Missoula? Our first thought was to get into the highcountry, where temperatures drop low at night and a mountain breeze could cool us down. However, knowing that everyone was thinking the same thing and wilderness areas would be “packed,” we decided to seek out a little known gem just west of Missoula – the Great Burn Proposed Wilderness.

The Great Burn Proposed Wilderness encompasses about 250,000 acres of roadlesss area on the Lolo and Clearwater National Forests just a short one-hour drive from Missoula. This region includes great mountains that define the “stateline” between Idaho and Montana and numerous alpine lakes with the perfect solitude we were seeking.

As we shouldered our packs and headed up the trail, we grazed on huckleberries – a very early crop due to near drought conditions in western Montana. Nearing our camp for the first night – an alpine lake sheltered by a high ridge–we found ourselves wandering through a subalpine meadow covered in native wildflowers. That night, we swam in the cool, uninhabited lake as the sun set over the ridge, and spent the night pondering our route to another lake for day two.

Climbing out of the first lake toward the ridge, we tracked a trail that had few markers of previous travel. We later discovered the trail had not been maintained in more than 30 years! No problem though – wandering in the high country is fun!, A gentle cool breeze swept across the mountains atop the ridge. We lost the trail but maintained the right direction toward a popular lake for a mid-day swim and lunch break. Determined to find another night of solitude, we pushed our hiking into the evening hours to yet another beautiful lake, all to ourselves.

On our last day we got up early so that we could have enough time to complete the 12 mile trip and spend an hour or two loading up on huckleberries., We approached a thriving huckleberry patch midway through our hike with bushes leaning to the ground under the weight of the many berries. As we walked the last six miles to the car with two gallons of huckleberries in hand, I smiled and looked back at my partner and said “This was the best way to spend the Fourth.” We both nodded in agreement and turned our focus back to the trail, determined to get back to town for ice cream before dark.

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