Trail Riding in the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area in Montana

Trail Riding in the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area in Montana with The Trail Rider Magazine contributors Kent and Charlene Krone

Springtime! The hesitant breaths of spring surround us. It’s time to get out the tack, put shoes on your horse, and hit the trail!

A number of great riding opportunities around our country are located in wildlife management areas. Check the wildlife areas in your region for such possible use. We chose to ride the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area, located 43 miles northeast of Missoula, Montana.

The first few days of riding, we’d explore the area on our own. Then we planned to join a Back Country Horsemen group that was hosting a ride across the range.

Our journey to the game range took us east from Missoula along State Highway 200, then north on Highway 83 to mile marker 3, where the range’s west entrance is located. We pulled through the entrance, up a small wooded valley, and out onto an open plain. We parked there to camp.

Instantly, we were taken with the variety of topography in the immediate area. Greeting us were large, open grassy fields, pockets of Ponderosa pines, and stands of aspen. This was coupled with hills rising to the north and long views out to the valley below.

From Ranch to Wild Lands
We’re fortunate that states have set aside areas for the dual purposes of wildlife protection and recreation. The Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Area was a working cattle ranch from the late 1800s until 1948.

Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks originally purchased the 10,936-acre ranch in 1948 to establish a wintering area for populations of elk, mule deer, and white-tailed deer. Over the years, additional acres have been added to the range. Today, at 67,000 acres, this wildlife area is Montana’s largest state-owned property dedicated to wildlife habitat, and is one of Montana’s first established Wildlife Management Areas.

The purchase of the range was part of a statewide and nationwide effort to restore wildlife populations that were decimated by market hunting and other factors around the turn of the century. At the time of the original purchase, about 200 elk used the range. Additional elk were brought in from Yellowstone National Park, increasing current numbers to around 1,000.

Reliable techniques exist for counting elk on the range, but deer are more difficult to count with accuracy in forested areas. Best estimates – aided by radio-collared and otherwise-marked animals – indicate that roughly 800 mule deer and 800 white-tailed deer live on this range. However, few of these animals will be seen in the warm summer months, as they migrate to cooler, higher elevations.

Across the Range
Early the next morning, we saddled up Buddy and Scout, our Missouri Fox Trotter geldings, ages 8 and 10, respectively. We included a lunch and rain gear, just in case.

We started riding east through the open valley below our pickup and camper. The horses snorted as they started out, excited for the day’s events. We smoothly cantered across the valley and up a small ridge embedded with a carpet of purple flowers.

The only animals we saw were a white-tailed deer, Columbian ground squirrels, and a coyote that stealthily hurried to its den. The large, open plain gave way to a narrow forested valley. Following this about a half mile, we picked up the East-West Rd. This rough dirt road crosses the center of the wildlife range.

After going east about 2.5 miles on the East-West Rd., we emerged into a large meadow that borders the east side of the wildlife range. We knew of a cabin on the far side of the meadow that begged exploring.

Off we rode, nearly two miles across the meadow to the cabin. First, we rode past pockets of 300-year-old Ponderosa pine trees, then through the open meadow under a glorious Montana sky. In a place like this, it is easy to see why Montana is called Big Sky Country.

The cabin was built in the 1890s and was used into the early 1900s. Cowboys stayed in the cabin during the winter months to tend cattle that spent the cold season in the meadow. To our surprise, some furniture remained: a stove, bed, and portions of a table. On the table was carved: “Wm IHDE March 20th 1936.” We could only ponder what William was thinking when he carved that on an early spring day more than 70 years ago.

The cabin area is a great place for lunch. We carefully set our lunches on a stump, hobbled the horses, and proceeded to take photos. Returning for lunch, we found everything scattered on the ground; my sandwich destroyed. Glancing up, I saw Buddy looking at me with peanut butter and jelly on his nose!

Be sure to visit the historic aqueduct located in the trees just north and west of the cabin. Ride westerly along the fence and tree line, and the aqueduct will come into view. You can tie up and walk through the fence for a closer view, or ride farther west to a gate.

Built in the 1890s, the aqueduct stands in mute testimony to early engineering efforts to irrigate the large meadow. Quite a structure at one time, today it lies in a state of arrested decay consisting of old, whitened, lichen-covered logs, and rusting metal sheets.

Near the aqueduct is a poignant reminder of the powers of nature. Look near the edge of the trees for a cross that’s almost six feet tall. This memorial marks the location where a hunter named Timothy Hilston was killed by a grizzly bear in 2001. There’s also a smaller cross on a road about a mile west of here commemorating the same event.

Hilston had shot an elk and packed a portion of it out to the nearby road. A grizzly claimed the rest of the elk carcass for itself. When Hilston returned for the remainder of the elk, he was killed by the grizzly. Silently, we rode our horses away, feeling a bit sad. At the same time, we nervously glanced into the dark forest, imagining what resided within.

Our return trip started out on the East-West Rd. After about two miles, we took a second right, then a hard-to-see left. This last trail is indicated by dots on the game range map.

(For a map of the game range, contact Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks; ask for “Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area hunting district 282.” This is a good topo map of the game range, complete with history and regulations.)

The return ride took us to higher elevations up a mountainside and then onto a large, forest-covered bench land. We passed several ponds surrounded by open pine forests dotted with patches of aspen. A number of other trails and old roads go off in different directions offering other riding opportunities.

We took a guess at where we were and started riding directly south cross-country through timber and onto an open bench that overlooked the valley we started from. Not far in the distance was our pickup-camper. When we pulled up to the horse trailer, we thought, What a lovely and varied 12 to 13 mile loop. Buddy and Scout thought, Great! Hay and grain!

Night Riding
Our camp was located in the open, looking out across an expansive valley. After dinner, we relaxed by the campfire and watched day turn to night as the horses munched hay.

A huge, luminous bulb started to rise over the mountains in the distance. It was the night of a full moon. We watched as the darkened landscape became bathed in a blanket of moonlight. Moon shadows from the horses grazing in the electric corral danced in front of us.

We decided to do a full-moon ride. Much to Buddy and Scout’s dismay, they had to leave their dinner to be saddled. We rode back over the East-West Rd. for a couple miles.

The valley, trees, and bushes were all dressed in a silvery glaze. We could see mountain shapes and even lights from a ranch in the far distance. Inspired by her surroundings, Charlene began reciting from memory Alfred Noyes’ poem, “The Highwayman”: “The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas…the road was a ribbon of moonlight…..” We had a magical, memorable ride.

Horses have a unique ability to see quite well in dark. In fact, they have better night vision than humans. Horses have one of the largest eyes of any land animal. Their large retinas are capable of magnifying images twice as much as people’s eyes do. The horse retina also has a large reflective panel that helps gather all available night light.

While night riding, it’s a good idea to check the riding route ahead of time. Look for holes, cattle guards, and wire fencing on the road or trail. (We’d done this earlier in riding the East-West Rd.) Then ride and enjoy.

A Special Group
Back Country Horsemen groups are wonderful sources for trail-riding information, group rides, and get-togethers. These groups are now located in 22 states. In fact, the first Back Country Horsemen group in the world was founded in Montana in the early 1970s.

The next day, the Missoula chapter of the Back Country Horsemen of Montana hosted a group ride. We were graciously greeted by Connie Long, president of the Missoula chapter. She explained the ride would be across the game range to a steak cookout and back.

Waiting for the ride to start, we glanced at the vendor section and articles for sale. Several items were offered, including sweatshirts with a beautifully designed picture of a horseback rider in the mountains, designed by artist Rick Sherman. The design is an artistic rendition of the Danaher Meadows in the nearby famous Bob Marshall Wilderness Area.

The ride followed a combination of old roads, trails, and cross-country traveling. We were guided by Jake Kolbe, wildlife manager for the range. Almost 100 riders strong, our first test was to ride over a metal bridge (clanking sounds!) that crossed a creek. Then it was through a flat to where we began working earnestly uphill.

The uphill pull took a lot of antsy-ness out of the horses. Circling a bend, we could get views back to the start of the ride and out across the valley looking east toward the Scapegoat Wilderness. Clouds were rolling in, rain threatened, and the wind whipped up, tugging at our coattails for attention.

Near the top of the pull, the lead riders spotted a grizzly bear. By the time the riders near the end of our long line got to that location, the bear had lumbered away into underbrush and out of sight. We did see several elk at the top of the hill. They were bedded down, trying to avoid the sharp wind that swirled across the mountaintop.

Descending the other side, an accident occurred. A loose saddle slipped forward onto a horse’s neck, causing him to buck off his rider. Luckily, the woman wasn’t seriously hurt. We waited while folks helped the rider get going again.

Following the descent, ride leaders took us across open fields that contained a recipe of delight: flowers, grasses, patches of timber, and terrific views!

We rode into the steak cookout area, where organizers had arranged highlines for all the horses. These folks had also parked all the vehicles over the hill and out of sight, thus providing a rustic, backcountry feel to the cookout.

We relaxed and enjoyed a sumptuous steak meal and camaraderie of folks who all relished the same elements in life: horses, riding, nature, and sharing time together. We often marvel about what sights we see and what experiences we have that result directly from our relationship with horses. We feel that we’re extremely fortunate.

Check Back Country Horsemen groups in your area, nearby states, or in your travels. Generally, each chapter’s website lists group rides and events. Then join people and horses who come together to enjoy one another and nature.