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Cowboy Heaven Consulting, LLC
6116 Walker Road
Bozeman, MT 59715
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The Beartrap Canyon of the Madison

Wilderness Whitewater

L.gif (904 bytes)ooking for somewhere you can take a hike in a wilderness area, as easy or difficult as you like, along a famous blue-ribbon river, with easy vehicle access? That sounds like a tall order, but fortunately the combination exists in the Beartrap Canyon of the Madison River. After a short drive from Bozeman, you can leave your vehicle and within a few steps be in the Beartrap Canyon unit of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. This is a unique wilderness area, one of the only official wilderness areas comprised primarily of Bureau of Land Management land. Like all wilderness areas, it is closed to motorized access, so you won’t be sharing the trail with motorcycles and ATV’s. Except for during the fall hunting season, the trail is closed to horse use also, so you won’t be dodgingHiking in the upper Beartrap Canyon horse droppings. For that matter, the trail gets very little horse use even during the fall, and for all practical purposes anyone you meet will also be afoot. The Beartrap is one of those spots that lend itself to hiking by just about anyone. The trail along the river has a very gentle gradient, and makes for one of the easiest wilderness walks you’re likely to find. If you’re more adventurous, the Beartrap won’t disappoint you, though. Once you get up in the canyon a few miles, you’ll find some of the roughest whitewater in Montana, and if you head off-trail the canyon walls are exceptionally steep and rugged, so much so that (particularly on the east side of the canyon) you may wish you had ropes and technical climbing gear.

To reach the Beartrap Canyon, take US 191 west from Bozeman five miles to Four Corners. 191 turns left (south) toward Big Sky and West Yellowstone at that point, but you want to continue straight ahead onto MT 84, the Norris Road. After about seventeen somewhat narrow and curvy miles, you reach the Madison River. The highway parallels the river from this point, and crosses to the west side in about four miles. Just before the bridge, signs indicate the turnoffs for the Beartrap Recreation Area. You want to take the one on the left (south) side of MT 84. A couple of miles of gravel road dead-ends at the trailhead for the Beartrap Canyon.

The area along both sides of the river from the point where MT 84 first reaches the Madison is BLM land, and is open to public use. It’s a very popular camping, floating, and fishing area. Being so close to Bozeman, it’s not the place to go if you’re seeking solitude, although you’ll find as you hike up into the canyon the crowds thin out dramatically. As camping areas go, the Beartrap Recreation Area is a little short in the tree and shade department. This stretch of the Madison runs more toward sagebrush and rattlesnakes, but if you’re wanting to spend a couple of days combining hiking up into the canyon with floating and fishing on the river, it’s the obvious choice. The Madison River is obviously a big plus, though, and offers very good fishing (particularly early and late in the season. The campsites are undeveloped pullouts along the river, although there are outhouses where the highway first hits the river, near the bridge, and at the trailhead.

The trail runs along the east side of the river, although there are very good hiking opportunities along the west side also, which we’ll return to after a bit. The canyon extends for a bit over eight miles, and is very rugged and scenic the entire way. It used to be possible to hike clear through the canyon, but access at the south end is now closed off. Montana Power Company has posted the area around the power generation plant below Ennis Dam, and so now you can only hike to within about a quarter mile of the power plant and must retrace your steps back out on the same route. The Montana Power Company is in the process of selling off their dams and hydroelectric power plants (summer 2000), and so the plant in the Beartrap Canyon will soon be under new ownership. I don’t expect any change in the access restrictions, though.

The canyon walls are high and steep, rising from about 1500 to 2000 feet above the river. The first break (and only break of any significance) along the east side of the river comes approximately halfway through the canyon where Beartrap Creek enters the Madison. This is a nice camping spot for backpackers. Unfortunately, exploration up Beartrap Creek is prohibited beyond about a quarter mile. Above that is part of Ted Turner’s Flying D ranch, and trespassing is prohibited. So, for all practical purposes you’ll need to stay in the canyon bottom along the river, which really isn’t a disadvantage. The entire canyon is very scenic, particularly above Beartrap Creek where the sagebrush gives way to pine and juniper covered slopes. Wildlife is abundant, and if you’re there during early morning or late evening you’re likely to see mule deer. Black bear are also fairly common, and it is not unheard of to see elk, particularly in late winter and early spring. I have also heard a reliable report of mountain goat sightings, which would be a real treat. Of course, most visitors will likely consider the Madison River the main attraction. Not far above the mouth of Beartrap Creek is where the serious whitewater starts, with the Greenwave, Kitchen Sink, and Whitehorse rapids. These rapids contain up to Class IV whitewater, are no place for novice floaters, and there have been fatalities here. Floaters put in just above the power generation plant, float through the canyon, and take out at the Warm Spring Access, which lies across the river from the trailhead. A couple of outfitters offer float trips through the canyon, and it is most entertaining to watch their rafts, as well as private rafters and kayakers thread their way through the boulders and churning whitewater.

Most hikers will be well advised to pack along a fishing rod. Particularly as you get further up into the canyon, there are some tremendous looking, deep emerald green pools that anglers will find irresistible. Be aware,Fishing high up in the Beartrap, spring 2000 though, that the Madison below Ennis Lake can get warm enough to threaten trout survival during the dog days of summer. Ennis Lake is basically a flooded hay meadow and only about ten feet deep for the most part. It acts as a giant solar collector, and normally by mid-summer the river below the dam is running quite a bit warmer than the upper river. To date, fish kills have only occurred in the lower river well below the canyon, where it spreads out and slows down closer to Three Forks. Still, if the weather has been hot and sunny, the survival rate of fish that are caught and released is low, and in the interest of preserving the resource you might want to consider giving them a break. Early and late in the season, though, or if the weather’s been cool, the Beartrap Canyon is great fishing. It gets considerably less fishing pressure than the more accessible parts of the river, and rest assured, there’s some big ones in those deep pools.

If you want to explore off-trail, I recommend you do it on the west side of the Madison. I’ve climbed and hiked around a fair bit on the east side, and in my experience it is mostly an exercise in frustration. It’s far too steep, brushy, and rocky for most casual hikers to enjoy, and not steep and cliffy enough for the hardcore rock climbing crowd. Fortunately, there’s some excellent off-trail hiking opportunities on the other side of the river.

The river tends to be deep and swift in the canyon, and while it may be possible to ford it in some spots during low water, I can’t recommend it. Better to start hiking up the west side at the mouth of the canyon. Instead of turning onto the Beartrap Canyon access road off MT 84, cross the bridge and continue along the west side of the river to the Warm Spring access. This popular access point is where the highway departs the Madison and follows Warm Springs Creek to Norris. Cross Warm Springs Creek, (usually possible without getting wet) and follow the trail along the west side of the river. After about a mile and a half the river bends around a rock outcropping, and just above that a creek comes in from the west. The area for several miles to the west is state-owned land, part of the MSU Red Bluff Research Station, and also includes some scattered parcels of BLM land, and you can hike to your heart’s content. The Red Bluff area was the scene of extensive mining activity dating from the 1860’s until recent years (although there is still some limited mining going on). While the tailing piles and other mining refuse doesn’t particularly make for a wilderness ambiance, it is still interesting to explore. Mule deer are abundant, up to a hundred or so elk sometimes utilize this area, and I once even encountered a lone bull bison, no doubt an escapee from the Flying D ranch across the river.

The aforementioned creek entering the Madison from the west offers a break in the canyon that allows a more gradual climb to the top of the canyon walls. You can then continue south above the Beartrap Canyon, and be rewarded with superb views of the Madison far below. It’s public land nearly until you’re above the power generation plant, which is farther than most will care to hike. Then, you can either retrace your steps back to the river or make a loop to the north back to your vehicle at the Warm Springs access.

If you’re staying on the Beartrap Canyon trail along the river, you would have to make a serious effort to get lost. If you’re venturing off-trail, though, you should always be carrying maps. As always, I recommend the 1:24000 USGS topographical maps. For the east side of the river, the Beartrap Creek quadrangle will cover the bulk of possibilities, and on the west side the Norris quadrangle does likewise.

The Beartrap Canyon offers good year-around hiking possibilities. Most use obviously occurs during the summer months, but I hike there all yearUpper Beartrap Canyon in February long. The surrounding area receives less precipitation than many parts of Montana, and the open slopes to the west get a good bit of wind which tends to clear off what snow does fall. If you get high up into the timber on the east side of the river the snow can get deep, but otherwise I have never encountered snow depth sufficient to discourage hiking.

So, if you’re looking for a unique wilderness hike, check out the Beartrap Canyon.

See you along the trail.

 

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