Trail Day in the Bitterroot: Bass Creek Trail

First big face along Bass Creek
Recently I was able to take a Saturday morning exploring Bass Creek Trail in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. I originally wanted a long run with a gradual climb on the way out so I could get some turnover on the way back, with hopefully a few rocks thrown in. This is not the way my run panned out, but I couldn't be happier with it.

The trail begins about 30 minutes South of Missoula and climbs West into the heart of the Bitterroot Mountains. Judging by the green looking eastern slopes, I assumed most of the snow had melted out and I would just have to avoid a few white patches on my way up to Bass Lake. So I set out with my UltraAspire bladder, a few bars, and my Houdini jacket "just in case."

The first few miles the trail gradually climbs along the bottom of the Bass Creek drainage. Occasionally I caught glimpses of high rock faces, but that, and the uber-steep slopes of the canyon, were the only indications of the true rugged nature of the mountains. The trail itself was wide and pleasant. A smattering of rocks kept it interesting, but didn't force the pace to slow.

The trail got a little wet in spots
Around a 2.5 miles into the run I crossed into the official wilderness and suddenly there were bears and wolves and moose all over the place. Not actually, but that's sometimes what I hope for when I cross into a wilderness area. About a half mile farther a trail branched off to the right that I didn't remember from the map (shouldn't have left it in the car), but it was smaller than my current path and I liked being next to the rushing creek so I kept pressing onward.

A little farther the trail crossed the creek, which required a balancing act on a log, and started climbing more aggressively as it followed an old road bed up and away from the creek. The technical rating of the footing went through the roof as the road alternated between scree field and an active snowmelt creek bed. Now this was good fun.

First glimpse of the mountains beyond the mountains
Before long the trail rejoined the creek after what sounded like a couple big waterfalls and the boulders in the creek turned to stepped slabs creating beautiful sheets of cascading water. I also started to hit a few patches of snow, which was a couple miles earlier than I expected.

After another log balancing ballet to get back to the North side of the creek, I realized the path I had taken was no longer the active trail, but the original alternate. No wonder I stopped seeing people. It was also about this elevation that the snow drifts started getting bigger and appearing more frequently. I started spending less time on the dirt than the hard packed white stuff, but fortunately it was early enough in the day that I wasn't post-holing.

Wolf print half as big as my size 14's
Another couple miles or so (at maybe 5 now) brought me to an opening in the trees and what felt like the gates to the Bitterroot. This was my first venture into this mountain range so to have the trail open up into a snow covered bowl was like a big comforting welcome-home type hug. The trail at this point only rarely touched dirt, but I was still able to follow the "path" because it doubled as an old road bed and the cut was still discernible traversing the slopes. I spent a lot of time gazing at the granite faces and scanning the slopes for any sign of mountain goats.

Running slowed to an upward stumble as I kicked steps, but every step was worth it. My plans for a steady long run were long forgotten. Many memories from sketchy traverses (mostly near just north of Chalk Pass) while backpacking the CDT swirled in my mind, but it was much easier to traverse Bass Creek without the heavy CDT pack.

After a couple miles of kicking steps I popped out on the earthen dam that creates Bass Lake. The history major in me is still curious why the creek was dammed, and I have yet to research it (Update: possibly for irrigation, still researching though), but I'm guessing it has to do with either fire suppression, or a benefit to old logging and mining industries. Either way it provided a convenient snowless flat spot in the sun for a short break. Even with the houdini jacket, the wind forced me to get moving again before I was completely chilled, and I begrudgingly started back downhill

Bass Lake
If I had continued on the trail I would have climbed up to the ridgeline and been able to traverse peak to peak down the Bitterroots. I have my eye on a couple ridgeline loops for this summer, but it's probably a good idea to let some of the cornices melt that are overhanging the trail.

On the return trip I took the official trail and was rewarded with a bit more technical switchback running and a waterfall angry with snowmelt. I'm glad I mistakenly took the old route on the way up because each side of the creek was a different experience. Different rock formations were visible and the creek even sounded different. Plus now I know where both trails lead.

As an introduction to the Bitterroot Mountains the Bass Creek Trail is perfect. I was able to get back to beautiful, rugged terrain in not too many miles, and it isn't too far from Missoula. I'm sure this will be a staple Bitterroot run for me in the months to come.

Happy Trails,