click to enlarge Dense stands of lodgepole pine in the Welcome Creek Wilderness.

John David Stutts

Dense stands of lodgepole pine in the Welcome Creek Wilderness.

The 28,135-acre Welcome Creek Wilderness, just 25 miles east of Missoula, is one of the state's smallest and roughest wilderness areas. Only about 30 miles of trails—foot and horse access—traverse the typically steep, rocky forest at the head of the Rock Creek drainage. Ground flat enough to pitch a tent on is rare.

The wilderness, about 7 miles by 9 miles, is mostly low-elevation forest, timbered with pine, fir and larch. The 7-mile Welcome Creek Trail, the area's main access, follows Welcome Creek, flowing south and east. There are no lakes in the wilderness. Overnight campers are few and far between; the area is used mostly by hunters. Elk, bear, mountain lion, bobcat, pine marten, mink and weasel are common.

Welcome Creek also has a rich human history of miners and fugitives. One of the largest gold nuggets ever found in Montana—1.5 pounds—came out of the Welcome Creek area in the late 1880s, and the remains of a dozen or so decrepit miner cabins still survive in the wilderness. In 1904, outlaw Frank Brady was killed in a shootout at his Welcome Creek cabin.

Today, backcountry cross-country skiing is popular in some of the high basins in the wilderness' western portions. The terrain is steep; check avalanche reports before you go.

The Welcome Creek Wilderness was designated in 1978 to protect the headwaters of Rock Creek's famous trout fishery, flowing out of the northern Sapphire range, and is managed by the Lolo National Forest.

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