A good paddling.
At least once a year I like to drive out to the Missouri River 20 miles north of Helena, kayak into the canyon, and climb something in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness (GOM). It is 3.25 miles by kayak through a beautiful limestone canyon to reach Coulter Campground, the place where I leave my kayak and begin hiking. From there I’ve hiked to the tops of three prominent peaks in the GOM – Cap Mountain, Sacajawea Mountain, and Willow Mountain. Willow has become my favorite; it is the highest of the three and offers the best views of the region, including amazing views of Mann Gulch and the GOM Wilderness.

True or False?
To climb Willow Mountain, I follow a nice .5-mile trail along the river from Coulter Campground to the mouth of Meriwether Canyon. From there, I have a couple options (see map link below). For one, I can follow the trail for another 2 miles up into Meriwether Canyon, and then shoot off-trail for a difficult hike up to Willow’s summit. The second option is to follow a nice trail that switch-backs up to the ridge overlooking Mann Gulch, then eventually go off-trail, picking my way along the ridge to the false summit of Willow. I actually prefer the hike to the false summit; the views are much better, plus it is surrounded by really interesting outcroppings and cliffs. This trek from Coulter to the false summit is 4 miles with 3,000 feet of elevation gain, including 1.5 miles of steep off-trail hiking with a few scrambles. Unfortunately, cliffs around the false summit make it too dangerous to reach the true summit from there. The total round-trip distance is 14.5 miles, including 6.5 miles of paddling and 8 miles of hiking. If you go, be sure to take bear spray. I once encountered a bear on the trail between Coulter and Meriwether (it ran away). (Photo Tour)

Young Men and Fire.
One of the most interesting things about the hike to the false summit is the unique view it provides of Mann Gulch, the site of a 1949 wildfire that killed 13 smokejumpers. Norman Maclean (author of “A River Runs Through It”) wrote about the tragedy in his book “Young Men and Fire”. Many who read the book feel the pull of Mann Gulch – I certainly did. I’ve walked through the gulch with folks from all over the country, and have seen how important it was for them to visit this place. So, to gain a vantage point where I can look down and see the gulch with the river and canyon beyond it is a pretty neat experience. If you’re interested in learning more about Mann Gulch, one of the links below will take you to a “Mann Gulch Virtual Field Trip” that I created several years ago. I’ve included links to photo albums from other trips in the Gates of the Mountains area as well. Enjoy!

Below: This map marks hikes that have been featured on bigskywalker.com so far – Select full screen to expand, zoom in for more detail, or click on a marker for a link to the post.