The Madison River is probably best known for its fishing. The trout draw fly-anglers from around the world and Bear Trap Canyon—a unit of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness administered by the Bureau of Land Management—is a particularly popular strech. While driving to the trailhead, I passed dozens upon dozens of families and fishermen camping along Bear Trap Road for the holiday weekend. There were so many people, the area more closely ressembled a music festival than a wilderness area. Memorial Day weekend wouldn’t ordinarily have been my choice for hiking in such a popular spot, but I’ll be leaving the country for a couple of months and wanted to enjoy at least one good day before returning to Montana in August.
There seems to be some mystery surrounding the actual length of the Bear Trap Canyon National Recreation Trail. The map at the trailhead bizarrely doesn’t list distances. Robert Stone’s Day Hikes Around Bozeman claims the trail spans 7 miles from the trailhead to the old power plant just north of the Madison Dam at Ennis Lake, while Bill and Russ Schneider’s Hiking Montana reports 9. As I has planned to make a day trip out of it, this meant I could expect either a 14 mile or an 18 mile out-and-back.
By my calculations, the trail actually spans around 7.5 miles (approximately 15 out-and-back, maybe a bit less). The map in Schneider’s guide makes it look as though it used to be possible to hike all the way to the old power plant. I’m not sure if this was once the case, but it certainly isn’t any longer, which might explain the discrepancy. When I reached the barbed wire fence marking the trail’s terminus, it wasn’t even possible to see the power plant through the foliage on the other side. It was also clear that very few people bother to hike the full length of the trail. I was forced to remove several trees from my path and because the trail is so steep and narrow at times, it wouldn’t have been possible to climb around. Moreover, anyone interested primarily in fishing would be discouraged by heights that tower 100+ feet above the river below for the last mile at least.
Until Bear Trap Creek at 3.5 miles, you can expect to encounter a number of people, especially on holidays and weekends. The trail winds easily along the bank of the river, past beaver dams and alongside meadows filled with wildflowers. An unchallenging trail delivering big scenic rewards will always be a favorite, but the numbers quickly diminish. Despite its popularity, the trail is a joy—absolutely beautiful from beginning to end, with more impressive scenery of austere cliffs and the Madison’s notorious rapids the deeper you go.
Beyond Bear Trap Creek, the trail begins to rise moderately over occassional fields of talus rock (watch your ankles) and into wet forests teeming with snakes. When I came through, the trail register indicated that some hikers had spotted Grizzly Bears in the area—but I wasn’t so fortunate. I did encounter a rattlesnake, however. They’re known to proliferate in the canyon and I had a fright when one suddenly began rattling at me from the tall grass as I approached. Carry a stick and watch your dog!
The canyon is named for Bear Trap Creek, but how the creek received its name is anyone’s guess. I wasn’t able to find out the exact story if there is one and the BLM’s 1984 Wilderness Management Plan doesn’t provide any clues. Barring the existence of any evidence to the contrary, I’m going to assume the creek’s name has something to do with a bear, a trap, or both. That, anyway, is my extremely informed conclusion.
Large swathes of charred trees are visible in the earliest section of the trail, serving as a painful reminder of human stupidity. A wildfire caused by an untended campfire and fueled by heavy winds back in 2012 consumed 15,500 acres in the area. The fire burned for over two weeks, cost $1.23 million to suppress, and caused up to $3.8 million in damage, including the deaths of eight horses and the destruction of crops, pastures, fences, transmission lines, and a family home.
According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Kyler Schmitz “accidentally ignited a small fire … from fireworks, ignored the dry and windy weather conditions and didn’t heed the warnings of his fellow campers.” Despite this, a jury generously found Schmitz not guilty of nine felony charges of arson. The whole sordid affair simply underscores my belief that people should be made to undergo a course in basic ecology and environmental conservation—perhaps even earning a license of sorts—before being allowed to run rampant in our dwindling wilderness areas.
By the time I made it back to the parking lot in the late afternoon, I was ravenous and decided to stop in at the wonderful Norris Bar and Grill at the intersection of the MT-84 and the US-287. I highly recommend the food here (served Friday-Sunday during the summer) if you find yourself in the area. The woman who runs the place is a jocular hippie adorned with peace sign earrings and a flair for cooking with fresh, local ingredients served up in massive portions. In short, it was a perfect end to the day.
More photos here.
0.0 miles: The trail begins in the Bear Trap Recreation Area at the end of a large parking lot.
0.15 miles: Trail register.
3.5 miles: Bear Trap Creek
7.5 miles: Arrive at a barbed wire fence with a “No Trespassing” sign, behind which lies the old powerhouse. There is no access beyond this point so you must retrace your footsteps from here.
15.0 miles: Return to the trailhead in the Bear Trap Recreation Area parking lot.
Trailhead GPS: 45°34’39.1″N 111°35’42.5″W
Elevation gain: 500 feet
Distance: 15 miles out-and-back
Maps: U.S.G.S. Bear Trap Creek; U.S.F.S. Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest Map: Central East; There’s a great retro visitors guide available at archive.org as well.
Ⓐ Hiked by the author, May 29, 2016