SUNRISE GLACIER AT SUNRISE. This photo looks west across Turquoise Lake and spies the Sunrise Crags and
Lone Tree Pass, on the spine of the Mission Mountains. We spent four glorious nights at this campsite, which was
only about two miles east of the McDonald Peak Grizzly Bear Conservation Zone. We hiked up to the spine and
boundary of the zone, where we were overtaken by armies of cutworm moths--the main diet of the grizzly bear.
It is the Mission Mountains.
This abrupt skyward reach -- a 6,941-foot vertical rise from the town of St. Ignatius to the top of 9,880-foot McDonald Peak -- is one of Montana greatest. In terms of relief (ascension from the valley floor to the highest pinnacle) is about 10 miles.
Because of this immediate climb, the west slope of the Missions for at least 30 miles north from St. Ignatius through the Mission Valley with its continuous upward gradient of 6,000 feet and more, presents one of Montana's most impressive mountain panoramas.
On the north, at Bigfork, these Missions begin their gradual ascent as forested hills, looking much the same as many of the other lower mountains of the western part of the state. But as they surge south, the elevation increases dramatically. Here, the summits soar far above timberline, culminating in spectacular jagged peaks, some cradling glaciers.
THIS ARIAL VIEW LOOKS EAST toward the entire Mission Mountain Range. Flathead Lake (left) is to the north with the bigger peaks to the south (right). This picture spans about 80 miles (left to right) north to south.
From the Swan Valley side of the range, heavily timbered, gradually rising foothills allow only occasional glimpses of the tallest peaks.
The topography of the Missions is a compact version of Glacier National Park. At least 13 summits exceed 9,000 feet and the high country landscape is a mix of nearly 200 aqua blue lakes, cascading waterfalls, glacial fed streams, perennial snowfields, ice carved ridges and peaks and colorful sedimentary rocks. This collection of tarns, or glacial scoured lakes, represents the highest density of alpine lakes in Montana. One of the range's waterfalls Mission Falls, east of St. Ignatius, plunges 1,000 feet.
Most of Montana's large animals - mountain lions, lynx, goats, elk, deer and moose, as well as the grizzly - call this alpine country home. Marmots, pikas, ptarmigans, wolverines, eagles, hawks and an array of other small critters share it with them.
As on many of western Montana's mountains, larch, or tamarack, is a dominant tree. In autumn, they splash the slopes with patches of yellow and gold then lose their needles by winter. In spring, the new growth creates a lacy light green contrast with the darker conifers.
Place names fit the beauty of the terrain: Daughter of the Sun Mountain, Pass of the Winds, Angels Bathing Pool, Lake of the Stars, Grey Wolf Peak, Turquoise Lake, Mountaineer Peak and Sunrise Crags, to name a few.
The southern half of this spectacular mountain chain enjoys elected wild lands status - the 73,877-acre Mission Mountain Wilderness designated in 1975 and the contiguous west slope 89,500-acre Mission Mountain Tribal Wilderness (the first Indian preserve in the nation) created in 1979.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have also assigned a portion of their wilderness as The McDonald Peak Grizzly Bear Conservation Zone. It is off limits to human use from July 15 until Oct. 1. This 12,000-acre seasonal closure allows the big bears to remain undisturbed in these higher elevations in order to gain weight prior to winter denning. During the summer, they feast on army cutworm moths that concentrate in large numbers on the talus slopes throughout the region, and on ladybugs found on the summit environs of McDonald Peak.
The Tribal wildlife wardens, as well as Forest Service backcountry rangers take enforcing the no-people use seriously. Their conscientious protection of this small area has allowed the grizzly population to remain stable. From 12 to 17 bears, including females with cubs, are observed each year.
As is the case in many other Montana mountain ranges, the Missions are crossed by well-used Native American trails - routes traversed for hundreds of years by the tribes of western Montana, especially the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d'Oreille people. They have employed this country for fishing, hunting, berry gathering and cultural events and passed through it on the way to hunt bison on the prairies well to the east.
Heavy snows and avalanche danger owing to precipitous slopes makes foot and ski travel impractical from mid-October through June. Access to the range is tough from the west; few trails exist and the going is very steep. On the east, roads lead to several trailheads. The lofty areas are somewhat farther in through these eastern drainages than they are from the west side, but the walking is easier, although hiking anywhere in these mountains is rugged.
For motorized visitors, the best view of the Mission Mountains is to follow the Hwy 93 from St. Ignatius to Polson, then Hwy 35 to Bigfork via the east side of Flathead Lake. Circle the range by heading east from Bigfork to the Swan Valley, then point south on Hwy 83 to Clearwater Junction.
The Forest Service publishes a topographical Mission Mountain map (it delineates the Grizzly Conservation Zone) and lists the USGS 7.5 minute maps you'll need for trekking. If you can't find it, call the Flathead National Forest. A tribal counsel conservation permit (available at most Mission Valley local stores) is required for any hiking and camping in the Tribal Wilderness area.