What Do You Do When People Infiltrate your Favorite Outdoors Spot in Montana?

Several years ago, I was hiking with a friend near Breckinridge, Colorado.  We were only a couple hours outside of the Denver area and figured we would see quite a few people.

Rising early, around 5:30 in the morning, we headed up toward Mohawk Lake.  It was a relatively easy four-mile hike, but we wanted to get there to spend a lazy afternoon fishing without worrying about ending the trip sooner rather than later due to an afternoon thunderstorm.

We passed one group of three on our way to the lake.

Mountain in Colorado
Credit: Scott Sery, Townsquare Media

Around noon I noticed many more people showing up at the lake, so I decided to watch. 

Mohawk Lake was just the first stop on a lengthier hike, and I wondered how many people were stopping for a quick break before carrying on.  Dozens of people passed by.  It was the most crowded I have ever seen in a wilderness area.

What does this have to do with our wilderness here in Montana?  As our population grows, we’re progressing toward the same issues. 

And those of us who retreat to the wilderness to escape the crowds are left wondering, “what do you do when the wilderness gets too crowded?”

There Are Too Many People in the Montana Mountains!

My first backpacking trip was along the start of the Beaten Path when I was eight years old.  We didn’t do the entire thing but diverted to Rock Island Lake, just three miles from the trailhead.

When I first started hunting, we would hit up BMA (block management) land and public lands in the Snowy Mountains. 

I don’t ever remember seeing another hunter out and about.

Today, however, the Beaten Path gets hundreds of visitors every summer (when the East Rosebud road isn’t swept away in floods, of course).  Hunting on public lands is still my preferred choice, but those closer to town are a bit more crowded.  So don’t even think of trying to get a BMA spot on opening day without plenty of other folks around.

So, what are you to do when it seems we are rapidly progressing toward an overcrowded wilderness?

Three Methods to Find Your Solitude in Montana's Outdoors

Fortunately, we are nowhere near the crowds that accumulate outside bigger cities.  If you want to hit up the mountains near Seattle and just about anywhere in California, you must pre-register and get a permit. 

Most places like Salt Lake and Denver are just about to that point.

With barely a million people across our entire state, we have many options to find solitude, find that big game you want to hunt, and ultimately see nary a soul while experiencing the great outdoors.

To do so, you have to:

1. Go Deeper into the Montana Wilderness

The sad reality is that most people are a bit lazy. 

They don’t want to delve deep into the wilderness of Montana to explore nature’s beauty.  Instead, they opt for the drive-up photo shoot with mountain goats on top of the pass.

Good news for you, though. 

As an adventurer, it’s all about getting to that lake where others won’t go.

Go Deeper
Credit: Scott Sery, Townsquare Media

Take, for instance, the Tom Miner area outside of Gardiner.  This was once a huge hot spot for elk hunters as it provided access to prime hunting grounds. 

Bull Elk in Tom Miner
Credit: Scott Sery, Townsquare Media

When a nearby ranch closed off a section, and hunters now have to trek 2-3 miles over the mountain just to get to where the elk are, the place doesn’t see a fraction of the traffic it used to.

Be willing to put in the miles, and you’ll leave the crowds far behind.

2. Go Outdoors in Montana Later in the Season

Prime adventuring season is from Memorial Day to Labor Day.  That’s the unofficial start and end of summer.  Go within that 14-week window is when the vast majority of people will load up the trailer, pack their bags, and get off the grid.

Some of the best trips I have had into the wilderness are outside that time frame.

October backpacking trips to Rimrock Lake up the East Rosebud Valley were met with just a couple of other hikers if any.  January treks to Mystic Lake are met with an eerily peaceful expanse of frozen water and no other humans.  February in the Pryor Mountains means the Little People will be your only company.

Brave the cold when others won't
Credit: Scott Sery, Townsquare Media

Don’t be afraid of the cold; just plan accordingly.

3. Go Elsewhere in Montana Wilderness

Just like most people don’t care to hike more than a handful of miles into the woods, most people also don’t like to drive more than a handful of hours to their favorite spot.

But did you know there are mountains within two hours of Billings, no matter which direction you go?

Montana wilderness
Credit: Scott Sery, Townsquare Media

Locals instinctively head to the Beartooths because we can look out our windows and see them.  But you can also head north into the Snowies, the Belts, or the Bulls.  You can head east to the Bighorns.  You can go west to the Crazies – or really the entire western half of the state.  You can go south to the Pryor Mountains… there are a ton of adventure and hunting spots devoid of people if you just venture elsewhere.

Which Mountains Near Billings are Your Favorite Mountains?

I grew up visiting the Beartooths.  But now, with the help of GPS and trail map technology, I realize that there are hundreds of thousands of acres that hardly anyone visits.

So, as Billings-ites flock to the Beartooths like the salmon of Capistrano, turn around and see what other mountain ranges have in store for you.  Leave the crowds with the crowds, and find a new adventure.

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