Photo courtesy of Kathy Turner

Finding your own last best place

Beautiful wild places abound in Madison County. But how to get to them?

If you’re like me, your days of extreme hiking, rough climbing and sleeping on rocks may now be fond memories. Or maybe not so fond. If I never again carry a backpack for days, subsisting on dehydrated food, that will be OK. Done that. The aging process has slowed down my pace and made me protective of my kneecaps. I’d like to keep the originals for a bit longer.

It hasn’t, however, stymied the appeal of a walk in the woods where you can be alone with your thoughts, or not think at all. Just listen to the life of a forest and maybe if you’re diligent enjoy the reward of a view of the Gravellys, the Tobacco Roots or the grand Madison Range.

Where we live, Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Madison Ranger District, comprises approximately 750,000 acres that include the Gravelly Mountains, the Tobacco Roots, and the west face of the Madison Range which is part of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area. Within that area are approximately 842 miles of trails.

Here’s what I’ve found: it takes a while to get to these places. And it takes a commitment to exploring, learning to read maps, and then designing your own hiking program that will suit your capabilities, with safety always top of mind.

Our area is a combination of expansive public lands and a lot of private ownership. This means you can’t park your car in town and walk to a mountain trail. Instead you must plan, research and learn to read a topo map. Hunters will find this amusing but not everyone knows that the closer together the squiggly lines, the higher the elevation.

Don’t expect avid hikers to direct you to their favorite secluded trail. Won’t happen. They want it to stay their favorite trail. The best course of action is to prove your mettle by getting outside and learning what you can about our public lands, and meet people with the same aspiration.

Janet Sitts puts a lot of mileage on her hiking boots with WOW (Women of the Wilderness), a group of women who enjoy hiking together.

“I was on a trail today, five miles out and back, and it was nice and flat,” Sitts says.

WOW started as a way for women to hike in a group without worrying about bears, she explained.

“We use standard trails, maybe 18 to 20 trails,” Sitts said. “A lot of them are public access, like driving 87 to Idaho. When hunting season starts we go into Yellowstone.”

There’s nothing wrong with starting with an easy trail before you work your way up to bagging the peaks. Not. For my first trek, I walked the flat, paved trail that follows the boundaries of the Ennis Lions Club Park.

It was a slow walk on a hot summer day, but that didn’t stop kids from zooming along the trails on their bikes, hollering with the excitement of summer vacation. Located right in town, the park is open to the public year-round. It offers shady spots, old cottonwoods, and access to the Madison River.

“I come here all the time even in the winter,” said Mary Van Pelt who was enjoying a walk with her dog Finn. “During the pandemic this park saved me.”

Maps of hiking trails can be purchased online, at local sports shops and the Madison Ranger station on Forest Service Road in Ennis. The Forest Service also provides free motor vehicle use maps for the Gravelly Mountain Range and Tobacco Root Mountains. A number of hiking trail apps can also be downloaded.

Over the next few months we’ll explore hiking trails that are accessible for different abilities and interest, as well as some of the many other recreational opportunities here in our home county. Feedback and suggestions are encouraged!

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The Madisonian

65 N. MT Hwy 287
Ennis, MT 59729

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