Mission Mountains seen from the Flathead Valley floor

courtesy Montana Office of Tourism

Mission Mountains seen from the Flathead Valley floor

The Mission Mountains Wilderness complex is unique in the nation in being composed of two adjacent designated wildernesses, one federal and one tribal.

Congress designated the 73,877-acre Mission Mountain Wilderness in 1975. In 1979, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes set aside 89,500 acres of privately owned tribal land as the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness. Together, the areas span about 30 miles of the Flathead Valley almost midway between Missoula and Kalispell. The western, tribal side of the wilderness is accessed off U.S. Highway 93, which is much beautified by the "American Alps" rising suddenly from the valley floor. The area's eastern flank, managed by the Forest Service, is accessed off Montana Highway 83 north of Seeley Lake.

Be aware that the Tribal Wilderness has its own set of regulations. Visitors age 18 to 64 who are not tribal members will need to get a tribal recreation permit, available at outdoor stores in Missoula, Kalispell, Seeley Lake and Thompson Falls, as well as Flathead Valley communities like Ronan, Arlee, and St. Ignatius.

The tribes close 12,000 acres of the wilderness around 9,820-foot McDonald to public use from mid-July until October while grizzly bears congregate to eat ladybugs. Mountain goats, black bears, elk, mule deer, and white-tailed deer are also common in the Wilderness, along with the occasional mountain lion, marten, mink, bobcat, lynx, weasel and wolverine. About 50 species of bird roost in the Missions.

The Missions have an average elevation of 7,000 feet, and most of the wilderness is high and steep, with a dense collection of small alpine lakes and waterfalls, including the 1,000-foot drops of Elizabeth Falls and Mission Falls. Only about 45 miles of trails—not loops, and usually steep—cut into the wilderness, and camping is prohibited at popular fishing spots Lake Glacier and Upper or Lower Cold Lakes.

Because there are so few points of entry, and because Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness are so close by, the Mission Mountains Wilderness receives less foot traffic than its spectacular visage might otherwise attract. Still, ambitious hikers and adventurous backcountry skiers and climbers have made inroads into this postcard terrain. It was good country for Flathead and Pend Oreille vision quests long before the mountains were finally explored by whites in 1922, and it still is.

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