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
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
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
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
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
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.