Spring blows in on a stiff March breeze. Horses shed their shaggy winter coats against available fence posts and in ecstatic leg-waving backrubs on the warming earth. It’s time to head for the tack room, grab a saddle and head for the hills.
Riding is one of the favorite pastimes of Bitterroot recreationists. Almost every five-acre ranchette has a barn, a haystack and a horse or two in the pasture—and with good reason. The valley offers unlimited riding opportunities for everyone from the rawest beginner to the most experienced horseman.
The valley offers several commercial arenas, such as Diamond A Arena and Wild-R Farms, where a new rider can take lessons, work with a new horse or ride on a year-round basis. Many commercial outfitters and lodges, such as Iron Horse Outfitters and Lost Horse Creek Lodge, offer half-day, one-day or up to week-long, spring and summer guided trail rides into the forests and wilderness areas that circle the valley. Horsemanship and packing clinics are available from professionals such as Brad Cameron of Corvallis.
Most Bitterroot equestrians have their own horses. Several riding groups, such as Backcountry Horsemen and Bitterroot Saddle Tramps, ride together on a weekly basis as a social activity that unites their love of horses and the outdoors with the companionship of others who share their passion.
But for riders like Mike Reardon of Stevensville, riding by himself or with one or two good friends is a daily addiction he’s more than willing to give in to. Since retiring from the U.S. Marine Corps and his second career as Chief Deputy Ravalli County Attorney, Reardon has parlayed his riding hobby into a third career, working for a local outfitter in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in the fall.
But as soon as the snow disappears in the spring, Reardon and one of his three horses are out on the North Valley hills each day. He rotates the horses depending on the intensity of the ride he has planned and the intensity of the trail he plans to climb. And the northern section of the Bitterroot Valley offers everything from a Sunday ramble to endurance ride conditions. It is possible to ride from Kootenai Creek north of Stevensville to Darby without ever riding on Highway 93. Many riders enjoy just riding along the valley’s back roads. Others want the more solitary experience of forest trails. And there are plenty of those within minutes of every town in the Bitterroot Valley.
“For an hour or two recreational ride you can’t beat the Charles Waters Recreation Area,” Reardon says. “Great trails lead out of the campground and the trail is wide and sandy along the creek. You can just zigzag around the lower face of the mountain.”
The Bass Creek Lake Trail leads out of the west end of the Charles Waters Recreation Area campground, which is just three miles from U.S. Highway 93 at the end of a well-marked forest road. The trail is a former jeep road—wide, smooth and gently sloped. Riders can expect to share the trail with hikers and fishermen. Two and a half miles up the trail lies a huge boulder that broke free of the cliff above and crashed more than 1,000 feet to the valley floor a few years ago. The track of its progress down the cliff face is still clearly visible.
Reardon suggests the now-closed logging roads on the face of St. Mary’s Mountain as the perfect place to spend a day in the saddle. Even roads that aren’t closed to vehicles seldom have much traffic on them. With 30-plus miles of closed roads on the mountain, connecting to twice that number of trail miles, St. Mary’s offers something for everyone.
“My favorite is the McCullough Ridge Road but it’s not for beginners,” Reardon says. “You can make a six or seven hour ride out of it, riding a loop. There are tremendous turnouts and overlooks along the trail.”
But just finding that trail can be a challenge, Reardon says. The trail isn’t easy to find. You must look closely for its entrance about 120 paces past the wilderness sign on McCullough Ridge. If you find it, you are on a trail created more than 100 years ago by sheepherders who summered their flocks on the mountain’s face. The well-defined game trail leads to a hog-back ridge and once a rider reaches the ridge, he can drift down it to two pothole lakes and the remains of two old sheepherder cabins on the mountain’s slope.
“In places it is extremely steep and you end up leading your horse in a spot or two,” Reardon says, “but the adventure is worth it.”
If that sounds too strenuous, take the McCullough Ridge Road and seek a trail on the uphill side of the road just past the second helicopter-landing zone. That ride offers awesome vistas of Big Creek and parallels the creek high on the ridge, ending near the divide at an old hunting camp, according to Reardon.
Both Bass Creek and St. Mary’s trails are open and being ridden now. Finding adequate parking for stock trucks and horse trailers can be a problem at the St. Mary’s trailhead where space is limited, but there is a spacious parking area at Charles Waters.
“Both trails require advanced riding and some leading, but you won’t regret having ridden them,” Reardon says. “You won’t forget them.”
More Happy Trails
Jack and Helen Eden of Hamilton combine their part time occupation of breaking and training riding mules and horses with trail riding all along the valley’s western face and southern reaches.
“The first three miles of every trail in the valley always have lots of people enjoying them,” says Helen Eden, “but after that three-mile mark, the use drops off dramatically. Chances are you won’t see another person all day. It’s wonderful.”
The Edens travel the Blodgett Creek Trail often. It has the advantage of being close to their Hamilton home and it offers spectacular scenery. More importantly, it is heavily used by hikers, mountain bikers, and fishermen. For riders working to school young animals, it offers a great variety of sights and sounds for stock to meet and become accustomed to.
“Trail etiquette is something we try to teach the horses and mules and we’re always educating people too,” Eden says. “A lot of people don’t realize that they need to move off a trail on the downhill side to allow stock to move by. We talk to whomever we meet and keep them talking to us the entire time we’re passing. A spooked animal on a narrow trail is no fun.”
The main disadvantage at Blodgett is a propensity for hikers and fishermen to block the horse-loading chute with their vehicles, making it impossible for riders to unload their animals. “It happens there a lot,” Eden says. “They probably don’t even think about the consequences of where they park, but it can be really frustrating for someone with a truckload of horses. I always leave a note explaining our problem. I’m tempted to leave some fresh horse manure too, but I haven’t done that yet.”
Blodgett climbs steadily toward the divide and the wilderness boundary. About four miles up the trail is the High Lake Trail. For those who don’t mind a steep and rocky, two-mile climb, High Lake with its spectacular scenery and trout fishing awaits.
In the springtime Blodgett offers sheets of water cascading from rocks beside the trail and wildflowers in every clearing and under every overhang. Snow retreats slowly from the mountains above and spring lingers here long after summer has taken hold of the valley floor.
As tempting as close-to-home trails can be, both the Edens and Reardon often load horses into trailers and set out for the valley’s southernmost reaches. The Rock Creek Trail at Lake Como is one of the most popular for day riders. The parking lot is large and has handicapped riders’ facilities. The four-mile trail leads into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.
The long-time personal favorite of the Thorning family has always been the Warmsprings Ridge Trail. It follows the meandering creek, which constantly coaxes the rider to stop and try for a few brookies for supper. The trail leads past the former Twogood Cow Camp cabin, which is now available as a rental from the U.S. Forest Service during the summer months. For a week-long taste of heaven, rent the cabin and spend each day exploring the network of trails that crisscross the divide near the cabin. From the challenge and thrill of climbing and descending steep Porcupine Saddle Trail to the thundering beauty of Overwich Falls, every day offers a new horseback adventure.
The Bitterroot National Forest has information about the riding trails surrounding the Bitterroot Valley. Most ranger districts can provide more specific information about which trails are open, what the underfoot conditions are, whether camping is available and what provisions there are for stock trucks and horse trailers.
All it takes for a season of adventure is the horse, the time and the desire to see what’s over the ridge and around the next bend in the trail. Enjoy. Happy trails.