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Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area

Helena Montana

Listing Type: Wilderness Area
City: Helena Montana
Region: Southwest Montana

The Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area, covering 28,562 acres (38 mile stretch of river), is an administrated unit of Helena National Forest, located within or adjacent to that Forest.

When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark first entered the Rocky Mountains, it seemed as though the gigantic limestone cliffs along the Missouri River would block their passage. But then the river turned through a narrow gorge and the mountains appeared to open like a gate. Hence the name of the Wilderness core of a diverse 70,000-acres wildlands complex in the north end of the Big Belt Range. Lewis and his crew entered the vicinity of the Helena Forest on July 19, 1805. At this time Captain Clark and a few men struck away from the main party for overland exploration. Clark's own mapping of his route generally followed Ordway's Creek (known as Little Prickly Pear Creek), returned to the river near the Hilger Ranch, and then ascended Pryor's Creek (known as Prickly Pear Creek) into the Helena Valley. From July 18-20, 1805, the expedition established camps at present day Holter Dam, Gates of the Mountains, and near Lake Hauser, about 12 miles NE of Helena.

West of the Missouri, the Sleeping Giant-officially known as the Beartooth Mountain-resembles a giant lying on his back with his feet toward the Continental Divide and the distinctive profile of his craggy face toward the Gates of the Mountains. The 6792-foot giant's massive barrel chest is open grassland with slow-growing ponderosa pine, limber pine, and Douglas fir draping his sides and the lower ridges that form his arms. Nimble mountain goats climb the giant's huge nose and other facial features, which are the ""bear teeth"" of the vertical rock outcroppings.

Along the length of the corridor look for bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, great horned owls, river otters, peregrine falcons, and American white pelicans. Osprey are also common along the Missouri, as are the surefooted goats on sheer cliffs above the river. Bighorn sheep were successfully transplanted onto adjacent Beartooth Wildlife Management Area-an undeveloped expanse of winter range and deep canyons that was largely burned over the fall of 1990. There are numerous trails along the corridor that offer additional wildlife viewing opportunities (3 trails lead from the Meriwether Picnic Area, and 1 trail runs along the river from Hauser Dam to Beaver Creek Road). Tour boats leave from Upper Holter Lake and go north through the Gates of the Mountains.

Hunting for big game and grouse accounts for about half of the use of the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness, with hiking, backpacking, and horseback riding starting by mid- to late May. Most of the recreation occurs between June and November. Wildflowers, a star attraction, peak out by around mid-June. The rugged terrain confines most of the travel to designated trails, most of which are well maintained annually. Water and feed for horses are scarce, so most of the overnight horse use in concentrated next to the two major springs and four flowing creeks. Primitive camping is allowed with no public facilities. Call Helena National Forest for camping permit information.

Directions: From the north end of Helena head northeast on Montana Highway 280, past Hauser Lake, for the 18 mile drive to York. Turn north at York on FR 4 and drive 8 miles to Nelson on Beaver Creek, which flows along the south edge of the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness. Turn right on Beaver Creek Road 138 for the remaining 5 winding miles to the Refrigerator Canyon trailhead for Trail 259

.For river access go about 17 mile north of Helena on I-15. Take the Gates of the Mountains exit and drive 2 miles to the Gates of the Mountains Boat Club on the north end of Upper Holter Lake.

Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area
Helena National Forest, Helena, MT 59626

  • Hiking
  • Camping
  • Nature Area
  • Wildlife Viewing
  • Lewis and Clark

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