Mission Mountains Wilderness

Located in the Flathead National Forest in Montana.

The Mission Mountains Wilderness is on the Swan Lake Ranger District of the Flathead National Forest in northwestern Montana. The Forest Service manages it as part of the National Forest System. Officially classified as Wilderness on January 4, 1975, the 73,877 acre area is managed in accordance with the Wilderness Act of 1964.

History - The Salish and Kootenai peoples have traditional used the Mission Mountains for fishing, hunting, berry gathering. and other cultural events. Their paths across the Mission Divide from the Mission Valley into the Swan Valley are well traveled. Several miles of trails in the Wilderness are originally Salish and Kootenai trails.

In September 1922, a Northern Pacific Railway Company party including O. D. Wheeler, author of Trail of Lewis and Clark, and Asahel Curtis, famous photographer, led the first organized exploration of the area. Two Forest Service employees, Theodore Shoemaker and Jack Clack, accompanied the explorers. The group took numerous photographs of the region surrounding Lace, Turquoise, and Lake-of-the-Clouds Lakes, Sunrise Glacier, and Glacier Creek Falls. They were enthusiastic about the area. Curtis called it one of the most scenic areas in the United States.

Shoemaker led parties of the Montana Mountaineers into the area in August of 1923 and 1924. They extended the 1922 explorations to include the territory from north of Panoramic Peak south to Gray Wolf Peak and east to McDonald Peak in the Indian Reservation. During the 1923 trip, Shoemaker made field notes of triangulations from various peaks from which he made the first map of the high country of this area.

Interest in the area increased through the years. On October 21, 1931, a portion of the area was classified as a primitive area. The classified area named "Mission Mountains Primitive Area", encompassed 67,000 acres along the east side of the Mission Divide. An additional 8,500 acres was approved on May 29, 1939. This added the high country from Piper Lake to just north of Fatty Lake.

At the time of its classification, 30 percent of the land within the area was owned by the Northern Pacific Railway Company. Negotiations between the Company and the Forest Service during the late 1940's and early 1950's resulted in the exchange of the Northern Pacific's land in the higher elevations of the area for National Forest land elsewhere in the Swan Valley.

In November 1949, high winds blew down trees over 1,000 acres in the drainages intersecting the southeastern boundary of the area. The Chief of the Forest Service authorized the salvage logging of blowdown timber to prevent a serious outbreak. However, the timber was not removed because the logging was not economically feasible at that time. By 1952, spruce bark beetles had built up to epidemic proportions in the blowdown areas and had spread to the adjoining timber stands. Control logging began on the infested stands, next to the boundary within the classified area, to prevent spread of the epidemic. Eight roads were built into the area by the Forest Service and the Northern Pacific Railway Company. After logging was completed, all roads were blocked. About 2,000 acres were logged inside the boundary, 425 acres of which were National Forest land.

Management - The area is managed according to the 1964 Wilderness Act. Questions were raised over how to provide for the use and enjoyment of the area while preserving its natural environment. Its attraction is the natural, wild character of the area. How many trails are desirable and where should they be located? Should trails be constructed and maintained for hikers or horse users? Should portable toilets be provided in areas of heaviest use? How should stock use be controlled to avoid erosion problems and lack of forage? The answers to these questions are what makes up the management plan for this area. Enforcing the management guidelines will protect the fragile character of the area - thin soil cover, steep slopes, and short growing season. If disturbed, the area is slow to heal.

The Wilderness Act prescribes that the Wilderness will have no roads or permanent commercial developments, no motorized or mechanical transportation, and no buildings or other permanent structures except to meet minimum administrative needs for the area. Commercial logging is prohibited. Development of water resources within wilderness may be authorized only by the President. The only commercial activities permitted in wilderness areas are those connected with wilderness recreation. Currently only one commercial outfitter operates in the Mission Mountains. The Act calls for strict protection of the quality of wilderness environment.

Topography - The Mission Mountains are an area of outstanding scenic beauty -- rugged, snowcapped peaks, several small glaciers, alpine lakes, meadows, and clear cold streams. The topography is generally rough and broken, especially in the southern portion. The northern portion is more timbered and the terrain is less steep and rugged. Slopes in some basins are gentle but are steep toward the ridge-top.

Vertical cliffs, flat, slab-like boulders, and talus slopes are abundant. The rock is of metamorphic origin and the soils are thin and gravelly. Elevations range form 4.500 to 9.000 feet, with the average about 7,000 feet. The highest mountain is 9,820-feet McDonald Peak on the Flathead Tribal Wilderness side of the Mission Mountains.

Threatened and Endangered Species: You might see wildlife species - grizzly bear, bald eagle, gray wolf, who, because of their low populations, are protected by law and receive special protection and management consideration. The McDonald Peak area on the Salish & Kootenai Reservation side of the Mission Mountains is closed annually to allow grizzly bears to feed on a seasonal concentration of lady bugs and cut worms. This closure usually occurs from July through September and minimizes potential confrontations between humans and bear.

Animals: Mountain goats, grizzly and black bear, elk, mule deer, and an occasional white-tailed deer are found in the Wilderness. You may see coyote, badger, skunk, beaver, muskrat, porcupine, chipmunk, pica, squirrel, snowshoe rabbit, and yellow belly and hoary marmots. Occasionally you may see mountain lion, marten, mink, bobcat, lynx, weasel, and wolverine.

Birds: The Mission Mountains support a variety of raptors, water birds, upland game birds, shore birds, owls, hummingbirds, and song birds. The area has about 50 species. Some of the more common birds are red-tailed hawks, osprey, great blue heron, mallard, common goldeneye, ruffed grouse, killdeer, great horned owl, saw whet owl, rufous humming bird, common flicker, hairy woodpecker, stellar's jay, gray jay, belted kingfisher, black-capped and mountain chickadees, dipper, western tanager, and the American robin. Less common to view are golden eagle, bald eagle, common loon, and pileated woodpecker.

Fish: Most of the fishing is confined to the lakes. Dense brush and windfalls along major streams make stream fishing difficult. Streams usually drop rapidly in elevation and, consequently, are poor fishing. There are native cutthroat trout in many of the lakes. Other non-native fish species include rainbow trout, golden trout, hybrid trout, Dolly Varden, and mountain whitefish.

Flowers: The outstanding multi-colored displays of wildflowers in the alpine meadows and high basins will surprise you. The number of species has never been counted. Enjoy these flowers but PLEASE refrain from picking them as they quickly wilt and lose their beauty, no longer delighting anyone.

Trees Except for the lower portions of some drainages, most of the trees in the Mission Mountains are slow-growing: many are stunted and deformed. They serve as a watershed and wildlife cover. Of special interest is the alpine larch. This tree can be found at higher elevations, 6,500 feet-7,000 feet. The more common trees and shrubs are western larch, western red cedar, Engelmann spruce, Douglas fir, western white pine, lodgepole pine, whitebark pine, limber pine, alpine fir, grand fir, quaking aspen, Rocky Mountain maple, and alder.

When to Visit - Most people visit the wilderness between July 1 and October 1. Snow-filled passes and high streams make earlier travel difficult and hazardous. High lakes do not open up until early or mid-June.

June is normally a wet month. Snow still covers high, shaded basins and surrounds trees.

July, August, and early September are dry months. Daytime temperatures are the 80-90 degree range. Showers are frequent. Nights are very cool. Snow occur at any time. Heavy snow generally occurs in late October and early November.

If you are a skier or winter camper, late February through May provide the best snow conditions and longer days. When planning an extended backcountry trip, be informed of potential avalanche conditions.

Trails - There are about 45 miles of maintained Forest Service system trails in the Mission Mountains. Most trails are better suited to hiking than horseback riding because of rugged terrain.

Travel is primarily by foot with some horseback use. Mountain bikes, hang gliders, motorized trail bikes, motorcycles, three and four wheelers, and snowmobiles are not permitted. Few of the trails can be called easy. Some are especially difficult because of steepness. You should be an experienced hiker to travel cross country and should possess map reading and compass skills.

Throughout the Mission Mountains you will find old Indian and packer trails. These are usually steep and difficult to follow. They are suitable for only the most experienced horse users or backpackers.

Access Points - The major access points into the Mission Mountains Wilderness from the Swan Valley: Glacier Creek, Cold Lakes, Piper Creek, Fatty Creek, and Beaver Creek. Other access points from the Swan Valley include Lindbergh Lake (south end trail reached by boat), Jim Lakes, Hemlock Creek, Meadow Lake, and Elk Point.

There are also three major access points from the Salish & Kootenai Indian Reservation side of the Mission Mountains. Access through tribal lands requires a permit. These permits may be purchased at major sporting goods stores in Missoula and the Mission Valley or through the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Recreation Department in Pablo, Montana, phone (406) 675-2700.

A major portion of the Mission Mountains is suitable for backpacking only. Travel is strenuous, but it has many advantages: independence and self-sufficiency, opportunities for solitude, and you're more carefree when backpacking.

DAY HIKES: The Mission Mountains has several hikes ranging from 1 1/4 miles to 6 miles (one way) which can be completed in a day. You will carry less on your back and travel more easily.

BACKPACKING: Backpacking requires careful planning. Proper equipment, with maximum utility and minimum weight, will make the trip easier. The most important items will be your pack, sleeping bag, and foot gear. Take only what you need. A pack that is too heavy can spoil your trip. A pack without adequate food, clothing and shelter can be equally disappointing and unpleasant.

HORSE TRAVEL: Travel distances to lakes are relatively short, lending the trail system well to day rides and family outings. There are however, only 45 miles of maintained trails suitable for horse travel. Forage is limited so take supplemental, pelletized feed. Use of non-certified hay can cause the spread of noxious weeds. Several campsites are closed for restoration. Damage is caused by improper horse use. Either picket your stock, erect a temporary hitchrack, or use the tree-saver hitch racks located at Whelp, Gray Wolf, Mollman, Piper, Ducharme, and Cedar Lakes. Tying horses to trees will damage or kill the trees. To maintain water quality, keep stock out of and at least 200 feet away from creek bottoms and lake shores.

For more information contact: The Flathead National Forest.




Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 13 Sep 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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