A Guide to Hiking the Bitterroot Mountains

By: Colleen Cancio
The Clark Fork River in the Bitterroot Mountains, Montana. See pictures of national parks.
Wallace Garrison /Photolibrary/Getty Images

According to Flathead Indian legend, the bitterroot flower was created when the rising sun took pity on a woman weeping for her starving people. The sun sent a bird to tell the woman that a new plant would grow from where her tears had fallen. Though bitter, the plant would be nourishing. For centuries, Native Americans treasured the roots of the bitterroot flower as a tasty delicacy. Today, the plant as well as the mountain forests where it grows continue to nourished people both physically and spiritually [source: Explore the Bitterroot].

Part of the Rocky Mountain range, the Bitterroot Mountains are a majestic feat of natural architecture. With towering rugged peaks, plummeting canyons, flower-filled meadows, and clear alpine lakes, these geological giants offer stunning views, crisp clean air and endless opportunities for adventure and wilderness recreation. The Bitterroot Mountains run along nearly the entire border between Idaho and Montana – about 200 miles (322 kilometers) -- creating an outdoor playground for anyone who appreciates the great outdoors [source: Explore the Bitterroot].


If you've never hiked the Bitterroots, you're in for a real treat. For starters, these mountains contain several pristine wilderness areas, including the Selway-Bitterroot, the Frank Church-River of No Return, and the Anaconda Pintler wildernesses [source: U.S. Forest Service]. These form part of the largest untouched wilderness area in the lower 48 states. There is also a great deal of history contained within the Bitterroot Mountains. The Lewis and Clark expedition passed through the Bitterroots, though they nearly starved to death in the process [source: National Geographic].

Hiking in the Bitterroots ranges from leisurely strolls to extremely difficult climbs. Hikers on some trails face dangers such as falls from high peaks, drowning in fast-moving rivers, and the significant threat of avalanche in winter. But with a bit of care and some preliminary precautions, hiking in the Bitterroot Mountains offers the chance to truly unplug from modern society and connect with the natural world. That's because this area is still virtually unexploited and undeveloped. It's a mountainous mystery under a fedora of fog. Fortunately, there are a few things we can tell you about this pristine wilderness in our guide to hiking the Bitterroot Mountains.


Bitterroot Mountain Hiking: Rugged Peaks

Exploring the rugged peaks of the Bitterroot Mountains is an amazing experience. Throughout history, tectonic activity -- the shifting of the Earth's crust -- has given rise to a veritable art gallery of rocky outcroppings, and glaciation has carved towering peaks from which to view the valleys below. A stunning example is Trapper Peak, which at an impressive 10,157 feet (3,096 meters) is the highest point in the Bitterroot Mountains [source: Montana State Library].

These snow-capped peaks and alpine lakes bring an endless stream of thrillseekers, nature lovers, tourists, and outdoorsmen to enjoy the 1,600 miles (2,575 kilometers) of hiking trails, and recreational opportunities including river rafting, kayaking, swimming, rock climbing, and fishing [source: Forest Camping].


It should come as no surprise that hiking here is some of the best in the world. Day hikers can choose from more than 100 easily accessible trails that offer beautiful scenery without having to travel long distances; more adventurous backpacker can choose trails that are moderate to extremely difficult [source: US Forest Service].

While hiking, be sure to take time for the birds. The Bitterroots are home to bald eagles, great blue herons, wild turkeys, swans, osprey, and an impressive array of songbirds [source: Discover Montana].

Large predatory mammals such as mountain lions and wolves also make their home in these mountains, though hikers rarely see these shy and elusive creatures [source: Wilderness].


Bitterroot Mountain Hiking: Camping and Landscape

The Bitterroot Mountains offer an amazing array of ecosystems, ranging from gigantic glaciers to heavily forested areas to barren and rocky terrain. There are also many open grasslands and sub-alpine meadows in the Bitterroots. Choosing where to camp can be tough, as the options in Bitterroots are as varied as the landscape. There are dozens of developed campgrounds in the Bitterroot National Forest. Some offer fresh water and toilets, while others are simply primitive clearings designated for pitching a tent [source: U.S. Forest Service]. For families traveling by car, there are a number of developed campgrounds that are easily accessible by the average passenger vehicle.

You can also choose to "rough it" with backcountry camping throughout the Bitterroot Mountains,. Just be sure to follow the "leave no trace" rules of burying human waste, leaving fires dead out, packing all trash, and camping at least 200 feet (61 meters) away from the water's edge. You should also bring navigational gear such as a topographic map and a compass, and be sure to let others know where you intend to go and when to expect your return.


The Bitterroot Mountains' geology of exposed granite, towering glaciers, meandering streams, alpine lakes, steep canyons and ridges make for stunning scenery for hikers and campers. There is also an array of amazing wildlife and sunsets, so be sure to bring your camera.

Bitterroot Mountain Hiking: Wilderness Areas

An autumn sunrise in the Clearwater National Forest and Wilderness Area, Bitterroot Mountains.
Nivek Neslo/The Image Bank/Getty Images

There are several designated wilderness areas within the Bitterroot Mountains, including the Selway-Bitterroot, the Frank Church-River of No Return, and the Anaconda-Pintler. Each offer amazing views and plenty of opportunities for recreation and wilderness adventure, all with their own unique characteristics.

Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness is a beautiful, rugged country where you can forget about all the troubles of the modern word (i.e., no cell phone reception) and lose yourself in a majestic and pristine natural environment. It's just you and 1.3 million acres (526,091 hectares) of roadless and undeveloped forest [source: Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation]. While hiking in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, you are likely to encounter moose, deer, or elk along one of the many high mountain lakes, streams or meadows [source: Idaho Parks and Recreation]. However, keep in mind that many of the trails are not maintained. The Selway river is also great for self-reliant whitewater rafting.


Even larger than the Selway-Bitterroot is the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. At 2.3 million acres (930,776 hectares), this wild expanse of forest offers endless possibilities for adventure and recreation, including some of the best whitewater rafting in North America. Congress created the River of No Return Wilderness in 1980. The name came from the fact that the Salmon River's swift current only permitted one-way trips. "Frank Church" was added in 1983 to honor the Idaho senator who worked to enact forest protections in the region [source: Mussulman].

Another wilderness area in the Bitterroot Mountains is the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness in Montana, which covers 158,615 acres (64,189 hectares). Here you can catch trout in one of the many lakes and spot black bears, moose, elk and mountain goats [source: Wilderness]. A 45 mile (72 kilometer) section of the Continental Divide trail runs through the wilderness.

A number of additional areas have been proposed as protected wildernesses within the shadows of the Bitterroots, such as Sheep Mountain and Great Burn [source: Wild Rockies Alliance].

The Selway-Bitterroot and the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness areas are probably the most popular spots for hikers in the Bitterroot Mountains. Bisecting these two amazing areas is the Magruder Trail, a passageway with a storied past, which we'll explore in the next section.


Bitterroot Mountain Hiking: Magruder Trail

The bitterroot flower gave its name to the mountains.

The Magruder Trail is 101 miles (163 kilometers) of undeveloped road that twists and turns between the Selway-Bitterroot and the Frank Church-River on No Return Wilderness areas. It was created in the 1930s and remains largely unchanged to this day [source: U.S. Forest Service].

It's also known by many other names, including the Nez Perce Trail, the Elk City to Darby Road, Montana Road, and Parker Trailer.


The Magruder trail gets its name from a gruesome act of violence. In the mid 1860s, an Elk City merchant named Lloyd Magruder was murdered while traveling with four companions along the Magruder Trail near the Selway River. The killers initially fled, but were soon captured. They stood trial, were convicted, and became the victims of the first legal hanging in Idaho Territory [source: U.S. Forest Service].

This historic pass takes time to travel. Most people make it between Red River and Darby at a speed of about 12 to 15 miles (19 to 24 kilometers) per hour in six to eight hours, but that can vary based on weather conditions and vehicle types. Keep in mind that low clearance vehicles, mobile homes, and vehicles towing trailers are not recommended [source: U.S. Forest Service].

The main thing for hikers to keep in mind about the Magruder trail is that it's a forest adventure road, which means that it's narrow, steep, and winding, so it's best to tackle it in a four-wheel drive or other vehicle that can handle rough terrain. Corvettes, you've been warned.


Bitterroot Mountain Hiking: Indian Hill

This climber makes his way up one of the challenging routes in the Bitterroot Mountains.
Heath Korvola/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Indian Hill provides some of the finest scenery around. Located in the southern reaches of the Selway-Bitterroot wilderness, it is an open hillside surrounded by pine trees and rugged, snow-capped mountain peaks. However the climb is difficult and should only be attempted by experience hikers, according to the Bitterroot National Forest supervisor's office.

Gazing out from atop Indian Hill (which is sometimes wrongly called Indian Point) gives hikers a good sense of the daunting feeling that Lewis and Clark and other early inhabitants and explorers must have had about the Bitterroot Mountains. It is massive and rugged mountains for as far as the eye can see – utterly impenetrable. Hikers today may be similarly daunted from this vantage point, despite having the benefit of a map and a clear trail.


No matter where you go in the Bitterroot Mountains, basic safety precautions are critical to surviving and having a good time. Be sure to hike with a friend; check the weather reports; stay on the trails, and always make camp before dark. Following these rules and using common sense will ensure that your hiking trip in the Bitterroot Mountains is both safe and fun.

Author's Note

I felt a slight bit of intimidation when I received the assignment to write about hiking in the Bitterroot Mountains. After all, the Bitterroots are for real hiking, not the meandering nature strolls I take with my young children. But midway through the article I remembered that these geologic creations are amazing natural wonders that should be appreciated by all, not just the most adventurous among us. So whether you're into hiking in extreme environments, or prefer a less ambitious approach, you'll love the Bitterroot Mountains.

Related Articles


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