Bitterroot Trail Run Adventure: Bear Creek to Big Creek (and lessons learned)

A Trail Report by John Fiore

The Bitterroot Range and Bitterroot Wilderness are known for deep canyons, rugged ridge lines, and wildly empty spaces. One of my goals for 2014 was to run the Bear Creek to Big Creek loop in one day. The route is 31 miles, but summiting Sky Pilot Peak and trail uncertainty left the day open to adventure. July 5th was the day my trail partner in crime, Allison, and I chose to do the loop. Our confidence was high after traversing the Pioneer Mountains a week earlier from Coolidge Ghost Town to Birch Creek over a snow covered divide unscathed and on time. We chose to begin our Bitterroot run at the Big Creek trailhead. I had run to Big Creek Lake previously and knew the 9-mile trail well. I studied the route on Google Earth and my topo map app and felt confident and enthusiastic.

Big Creek Lake and Packbox Pass in the distance
Allison and I had no idea what was in store for us when we left the Big Creek trailhead at 11:00 am. We cruised up the Big Creek drainage, admiring cedar forests, waterfalls spilling into the deep pools of Big Creek, and soaked up the warm rays of the sun. Big Creek Lake was full to the brim, and fording the spillway led me to question the upcoming stream crossings. Nevertheless, the trek around the massive shoreline of Big Creek Lake was uneventful. We crossed three raging creeks without incident and soon found ourselves on the south end of Big Creek Lake staring at a solid snowpack. Big Creek Lake sits at 5,865 feet and the snowpack was solid at 6,000 feet. Bear Creek Pass (our route to the Bear Creek drainage) is at 8,000 feet, so we mutually accepted the ensuing snow travel. The heavy late spring snowfall and early season races had forced us to run in the Rattlesnake Mountains in the snow, so with trekking poles in hand (one pair between us so we each used one) we marched on….without the trail. On the slopes of Packbox Pass I was equally impressed by the gorgeous views and Allison’s ability to climb like a mountain goat up the snow-laden slopes.

Sky Pilot Peak, Pear Lake (frozen), South Fork Lake
We found the trail leading down Colt Killed Creek and after a few miles were fortunate to see the Bear Creek Pass trail sign posted on a tree twelve-feet off the ground (for riders on horseback perhaps?). The afternoon heat was sucking our energy at this point. One-mile from the top of the pass the trail vanished beneath four feet of snow once again. Onward and upward we climbed until we reached a precipice. “Holy %#@$ where’s the trail?” I exclaimed. The cirque below us was rocky, steep, and entirely snow covered. My Suunto watch read 20 miles and it was 7 pm. “So much for getting home by dark,” I thought to myself. We discussed our options: Retrace our steps back to Big Creek Lake and head out in the dark (we had one headlamp between us), or glissade down to the lake below from which a faint trail led out the Bear Creek Drainage. Packbox Pass was difficult enough to ascend and we both knew descending it in the dark would be foolish, so we chose to glissade and down climb to the lake. Once at the lake, we began following a roundabout trail which soon gave way to the thickest, most gnarly dead fall I have ever experienced. Three-miles of dead fall, multiple creek crossings, too many shin scratches to count, and two hours later we smelled freshly sawn logs and found a good trail. My Suunto battery died and it was now 11:00 pm. Our food was long gone but the excitement of finding the trail carried us onward.
Bitterroot Beauty
Reduced to hiking due to the single dim headlamp between us, we both began to experience a supernatural Deja-vu feeling. First we saw a bridge which looked “just like the bridge in Big Creek.” Then we saw a choice camping spot tucked beneath a fire scarred rock face and we simultaneously exclaimed: “There’s no way this is Big Creek.” “I looked twice when we hit the trail and saw the sign and it said SOUTH FORK OF BIG CREEK!” Our suspicions were settled when we reached the Big Creek Trailhead at 2:30 am and found the vehicle we left over fifteen hours earlier. Once home, I realized there was no way we could have found the Bear Creek trail due to snow. In fact, the Bear Creek drainage would be much more difficult to follow beneath snow due to the dense forest and its deceiving side canyons. We had glissaded down to South Fork Lake, entering the South Fork of the Big Creek drainage. We discovered first-hand that the South Fork trail had not been cleared in years.
Packbox Pass in October
Despite our mutual promises never to step foot in the Bitterroot again, fall arrived and after reflecting on our blunders we decided to finish what we started. On October 4th we departed the Bear Creek trailhead (after scouting out the route to Bear Creek Pass a week earlier) to do the loop from the opposite direction. The spectacular fall colors and runnable trails allowed us to squeeze in a climb up to Sky Pilot Peak (8,792 feet). The absence of snow made for smooth travel and a memorable day. Instead of following the ridge line from Sky Pilot Peak to Packbox Pass as planned (slow going but a decent route) we back tracked our route of three-months earlier. In the end, we travelled 34-miles in a leisurely ten hours and saw only three people in classic Bitterroot Wilderness style. On our second attempt, we had a map, two headlamps, more food than we needed, and enjoyed every mile. I will never take for granite the important work done by groups such as the Montana Trail Crew, Montana Conservation Corps, and the Forest Service in clearing the trails we rely on.
South Fork Big Creek & South Fork Lake

South Fork Big Creek 1, shins 0


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