iven that our consulting
business is named after the area, its obvious that we should include a review of
Cowboy Heaven. That name might be applied to any number of places in Montana, but it
officially refers to an area on the west side of the Madison
Range, high above Ennis Lake. As you might guess, its one of our favorites;
beautiful scenery, abundant wildlife, and hardly any visitors. Of course, some might say
that articles like this could change that last quality, but like many of the places we
review it requires a fair bit of effort to get to, which thins out the crowds
To reach the trailhead, turn east off US 287 at McAllister, which lies 6.5 miles north
of Ennis. A gravel road shortly reaches Ennis Lake and follows along the north shore of
the lake. A bridge crosses where the lake enters the narrow Beartrap Canyon. Turn left
after the bridge, and follow the road down into the canyon, which some might consider an
adventure in itself. This road leads down to the dam and power plant which back up the
Madison River to form Ennis Lake. Its only wide enough for one vehicle, but there
are pullouts where two vehicles can squeeze by each other should they meet. It
doesnt get much traffic, though, and this isnt a big problem. The driver will
want to pay attention, since wandering off the road will run you into a cliff on one side
(aggravating but not disastrous) or into the drink on the other (disastrous and possibly
fatal). Incidentally, there can be superb fishing on the Madison between the dam and power
plant. The area around the powerhouse is posted, though, which precludes descending
further into the canyon. Those who want to fish this area badly enough can hike up from
the lower end of the Beartrap Canyon, a distance of about eight miles, and will be
rewarded with possibly the most remote and uncrowded (and consequently; superb) fishing on
the Madison. Alternatively, you can float the Beartrap. Some of the roughest whitewater in
Montana lies in this canyon, though, and it is no place for inexperienced floaters. If you
dont have your own raft or kayak, or have any doubts about your abilities, we can
set you up with an outfitter who offers float trips through the Beartrap.
I digress, though. We were headed for Cowboy Heaven, and the trailhead lies about a
quarter mile below the bridge at the head of the Beartrap Canyon. It is called the Trail
Creek trailhead, after the small stream which the trail more or less follows for much of
the route. There is abundant parking space and restroom facilities at the trailhead. The
trail to Cowboy Heaven covers from about 4.5 to 6 miles, depending on the route taken, and
gains about 2800 vertical feet, the bulk of it in the first and last thirds of the way.
While not a killer death march, its not really suited for couch potatoes either, and
I would classify it as moderately difficult.
The trail gains elevation fairly rapidly at first as it switchbacks up the side of the
Trail Creek gorge. After gaining about 350 of elevation it levels out a bit. It then
crosses to the north side of Trail Creek, where it remains for the rest of the route.
After the crossing it climbs up on to a large broad bench which lies between Trail Creek
and Barn Creek to the north. While the trail continues to steadily gain elevation, it is
quite easy hiking across this bench. This area is superb winter range for deer and elk due
to its generally southwest exposure. It receives less snowfall than much of the
surrounding country, and also a considerable amount of wind, which tends to blow off what
snow does fall exposing feed for wildlife. The lack of snow also makes it a good spot for
winter hikes, and on one such hike in February of 1998 I counted 46 bull elk in this area.
Of course, I should caution against approaching wintering wildlife too closely. At that
time of year, the last thing they need is to be harassed by humans. If you keep a
reasonable distance, though, they arent bothered. Before any elk hunters reading
this get too excited, I should add that the animals dont really utilize this area
until hunting season is over. Also, the trail crosses a section of private ground on this
bench, and hunting (as well as any other off-trail activity) is prohibited in this
section. There is a gate at the beginning and end of the private section, and the trail is
clearly marked along the way, except for a couple of potentially confusing spots, which I
will explain subsequently.
After entering the section of private land, the trail gradually ascends to an open
hilltop where you reach an intersection. The lower leg of the Pot Loop trail departs off
to the north from this point, but you want head southeast, following the posts marking the
trail (with signs warning you to stay on it). The trail descends slightly here, and then
is mostly level for a short way. The trail sort of disappears momentarily here, but you
want to veer back to your left when you reach the small ridge above Trail Creek. The posts
marking the way shortly re-appear, and in a few hundred yards the trail exits the private
land. Not long after that, you reach another hilltop where the upper leg of the Pot Loop
intersects the Trail Creek trail.
At this intersection you have a choice of routes. The main and most commonly used trail
to Cowboy Heaven switchbacks up through the timber above you, gaining another 1200
vertical feet in the process. Although cattle have cut across the switchbacks in many
places, this is a good trail and a recommended route. If you wish to make a loop though, a
somewhat obscure and little-used trail also accesses Cowboy Heaven off the upper Pot Loop
trail. This trail is easier to find from its lower end, and that is the way I will
describe, although those armed with topo maps and compass (which should include everyone)
and experienced in their use should be able to locate its upper end also.
From its intersection with the Trail Creek trail, the upper Pot Loop descends into the
first of three forks of Barn Creek. The trail shortly enters a forest consisting mostly of large Douglas
fir, which offers shade and relief from the wind that often plagues the open slopes below.
It is at this point that I usually seem to be beset with an urge to smile, something I
have also noticed on companions I have taken into this area. Its cool, quiet, and
green in there, and you will start to get the feeling that you are "out there".
There is another potentially confusing spot when the trail gets into the first creek
bottom. Cattle graze this area in the summer, and their trails will show more use than the
"official" trail. If you look carefully you will notice some old blazes on a few
trees, and if you get totally confused as to which is the actual trail, head straight over
to the creek, follow it uphill and you will shortly come to where the trail crosses it.
The trail is easy to follow from that point, as it more or less sidehills through the
forks of Barn Creek. Those who wish to make a short day of it will find some nice camping
spots in these creek bottoms. After crossing the last fork of Barn Creek, the trail
ascends to a ridgetop. Watch for this spot; the cattle trails make it appear that you
should proceed straight ahead, but the actual trail veers to the right. From this point
you are in for some elevation gain again; the trail steadily ascends for another 400
vertical feet. The trail to Cowboy Heaven departs the Pot Loop at the top of the next
ridge, which is the divide between Barn and Fall Creeks. The intersection is unmarked, but
if you veer slightly to the right (south) along the ridge top you will pick it up shortly
after you enter the timber. It climbs about 800 vertical feet, and enters the north end of
the Cowboy Heaven meadows.
The shortest route to make a loop connecting back to the Trail Creek trail would be to
head south across the open meadows of Cowboy Heaven. After reaching the ridgetop just
north of Red Knob Mountain, the Trail Creek trail (which has become known as the Indian
Trail by that point) skirts the southern edge of Cowboy Heaven. Although Ive never
done it, this loop would be do-able as a fairly strenuous day hike. Unless youre a
in a hurry or seeking a major workout, though, Id recommend packing along some
camping equipment and making an overnighter of it.
The actual Cowboy Heaven area consists mostly of a large open bench that lies above and
between the headwaters of Barn and Fall Creeks. It offers great views of the surrounding
country; the Spanish Peaks to the southeast, the Gravellies and
Tobacco Roots across the valley to the west, a vast scope of southwest Montana to the
north, as well as the meadows and timber of the upper Cherry Creek country closer at hand.
This area abounds in wildlife, and I have seen deer, elk, moose, bear, coyotes, a wolf,
lots of lion tracks, and a wide variety of birds in the vicinity. Speaking of bear, the
ones Ive seen have been black bears, but I know a couple of people who have seen
grizzlies in this area. While I obviously cant guarantee that you wont run
into a grizzly, I can say that their numbers are much lower in this area than some other
parts of Montana. While normal bear precautions are advisable, I feel that hiking in this
area is much safer than places like Glacier or Yellowstone, or National Forest land
adjacent to them, which can be absolutely stiff with grizzlies.
There are virtually unlimited good camping sites in the area east of the actual Cowboy
Heaven. Between Cowboy Heaven and Cherry Creek is an extensive series of meadows and small
creeks. One area I would recommend lies in the vicinity of the Cherry Creek ranger
station. Where the Trail Creek (Indian) trail skirts the edge of Cowboy Heaven, watch for
where the trail crosses a long, narrow meadow. Descending this meadow offers a shortcut to
the ranger station and Cherry Creek, and also helps avoid the somewhat confusing maze of
meadows further north. Also, if you wish to extend your explorations, you are well
situated to continue on trail #401 toward Cherry Lake. There are numerous trip
possibilities in this direction, leading through the high country of the Spanish Peaks.
Although it involves arranging a vehicle shuttle, there are several options for multi-day
trips leading to the Spanish Creek trailhead. The truly hard-core could continue even
further, coming out at trailheads in the Gallatin Canyon on the east side of the Spanish
Peaks. Stay tuned for subsequent articles on more of these trails.
As always, I advocate that any backcountry travelers equip themselves with good
topographical maps of the area, compass (and GPS, if you have one), and be familiar with
their use. I recommend using the USGS 7.5 minute (1/24,000) topo maps. For this area, you
will want the Ennis Lake and Cherry Lake maps. If you wish to continue east toward Spanish
Creek, you will also want the Willow Swamp map. These maps are available from http://mapping.usgs.gov/mac/findmaps.html
or most well-equipped sporting good stores.
See you on the trail