On a lonely mountainside, overlooking a particularly beautiful stretch of the Missouri River, lie a dozen concrete crosses.1 Fractured, sun-bleached, and barely visible through the dry grass, each of the tiny monuments is emblazoned with the name of a smokejumper who died here in the devastating Mann Gulch fire of 1949.
Even by Montana standards, Mann Gulch is a harsh and remote place. A steep ravine roughly two and half miles long, it spills out into the Missouri River 20 miles north of Helena in a section named the “gates of the rocky mountains” by Meriwether Lewis in 1805 after the immense limestone cliffs that line the river for several miles here:
this evening we entered much the most remarkable clifts that we have yet seen. these clifts rise from the waters edge on either side perpendicularly to the height of 1200 feet. … the river appears to have forced its way through this immense body of solid rock for the distance of 5-3/4 Miles … I called it the gates of the rocky mountains.
More than a century and a half later, in 1964, this place was formally designated the Gates of the Mountain Wilderness Area by an act of Congress and is now managed by the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest. At only 28,562 acres, it is Montana’s smallest wilderness area, but the sheer beauty it contains—from sweeping mountain vistas to views alongside and well above the Missouri River—is truly astonishing. The tragic history of this area adds an additional layer of significance to the site, which is still regarded by many as an open-air mausoleum.
Their crosses are quiet and a long way off, and from this remove their influence is quiet and seemingly distant. But quietly they are present on every fire-line, even though those whose lives they are helping to protect know only the order and not the fatality it represents. For those who crave immortality by name, clearly this is not enough, but for many of us it would mean a great deal to know that, by our dying, we were often to be present in times of catastrophe helping to save the living from our deaths.2
Norman Maclean’s beautiful book, Young Men and Fire (Chicago University Press, 1992) is almost certainly the most comprehensive account of the Mann Gulch fire. Of the sixteen men who jumped into Mann Gulch on August 5, 1949, only three cheated death. Two managed to reach the Northern ridge of Mann Gulch before the fire caught up with them, while foreman R. Wagner “Wag” Dodge spontaneously innovated the use of an escape fire to avoid the conflagration by depriving it of fuel in the area immediately around him. Of the unlucky others, eleven mercifully suffocated before the fire consumed their bodies, while another two succumbed to extreme burns before dawn the next day.
The Forest Service learned a great deal from the tragedy and, as forest fires go, Mann Gulch’s legacy seems to have been more consequential than most. Besides improving safety standards with respect to communication and chain-of-command, Dodge’s successful use of his escape fire guaranteed the tactic a firm place in the canon of firefighting maneuvers. The importance of this innovation, can scarcely be overstated. As Maclean writes, “The Mann Gulch Fire,” Maclean writes, “would never have attained its preeminence in the history of forest fires if foreman Wag Dodge had not set his escape fire.”3
For the hiker, this is a phenomenal trip, both stunningly beautiful and historically compelling. That said, it is an extremely strenuous route I chose, ascending relentlessly from the Missouri River Canyon Trailhead and then down to the Missouri River—more than 1100 feet in the first three miles. And this is all a mere prelude to the “fifteen-hundred foot precipice” ascending vertically from Meriwether Picnic Area up to the south slope of Mann Gulch. Fortunately the trail is very well maintained and the switchbacks ease the ascent tremendously. At the top of the ridge, there is an interpretive display detailing the Mann Gulch tragedy. From here the trail continues along the slope for another two miles to the north slope, where the tragic events unfolded and where the memorial now lies.
The complete out-and-back is about 20 very difficult miles and I would only recommend this route as a day trip to hikers in top physical condition. It is certainly possible to break the trip up by spending a night at Coulter Campground or Meriwether Picnic Area. Approaching overland from the North, as described in Bill and Russ Schneider’s Hiking Montana, is probably a much easier trip out to the crosses, but their route wouldn’t provide the unrivaled views of the Missouri River on the way.
Finally, there’s the climate to consider. The Gates of the Mountains Wilderness is extremely dry and hot. In his “fire report,” Norman Maclean describes Mann Gulch as “one of the hottest hillsides in … one of the roughest pieces of country east of the Continental Divide.”4 That’s an accurate assessment. Already when I was there in early June, the sun was scorching. I cannot imagine attempting this trip in the heat of July or August, let alone fighting a raging wildfire in such temperatures. Except for the short section along the Missouri, there is no water to be had.
0.0 miles: Begin at the Missouri River Canyon Trailhead (Trail 257) off American Bar Rd.
4.0 miles: Coulter Campground
5.0 miles: Meriwether Picnic Area. Ascend the near-vertical trail up to the top of the ridge.
6.0 miles: Devil’s Kitchen rock formation.
8.0 miles: Reach the top of the ridge, the south slope of Mann Gulch. There is a large interpretive display here detailing the tragedy.
10.0 miles: Smokejumpers memorial crosses. Henry Thol Jr.’s is the closest to the top of the ridge. This is the turn-around point unless you wish to explore the other memorials.
20 miles: Return to the Missouri River Canyon Trailhead.
Trailhead GPS: 46°49’06.0″N 111°53’53.3″W
Elevation gain: 1,500+ feet
Distance: 20 miles out-and-back
Maps: U.S.G.S. Upper Holter Lake, Beartooth Mountain; U.S.F.S. Helena National Forest Forest
Ⓐ Hiked by the author, June 6, 2018
2. Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2017), 246.↩
2. Maclean, 313.↩
4. Maclean, 224.↩