Wild Rivers, Wilderness Areas and Refuges in the North Central Rockies Forests

North Central Rockies Forests, Part F—Wild and Scenic Rivers, Wilderness Areas, and Refuges

Wild and Scenic River System in North Central Rockies Forests (NA 518)

There are three units of the national wild and scenic river system in the North Central Rockies forest ecoregion, including six segments of rivers.

The wild and scenic river designation for the Middle Fork Clearwater River, Idaho, includes two tributaries of the Clearwater, the Selway and Lochsa.  The Selway River, Nez Perce National Forest (NF) and Bitterroot NF, Idaho, is a wild and scenic river from its origin (N45˚30’ W114˚45’) almost 200 miles downstream to Lowell (N46˚9’ W115˚36’) on US Route 12. The Lochsa River, Clearwater National Forest, Idaho, is a designated recreational from its confluence with the Selway (N46˚9’ W115˚36’) at Lowell upstream to Powell Ranger Station (N46˚31’ W114˚42’). The upper Lochsa River, Idaho is an IBA for breeding harlequin ducks. The Middle Fork Clearwater is a designated recreational river from Lowell (N46˚9’ W115˚36’) downstream to Kooskia (N46˚8’ W115˚58’).

Flathead River, Montana, designation includes portions of the Middle Fork, North Fork, and South Fork of the Flathead River, within the boundaries of Flathead NF and Glacier NP. The North Fork designation extends from the Canadian border (N49˚0’ W114˚29’) to the confluence with the Middle Fork (N48˚28’ W114˚4’). The Middle Fork designation extends from its origin at Gooseberry Park (N48˚0’ W113˚4’) in the Bob Marshall Wilderness to the confluence with the South Fork at the city of Hungry Horse (N48˚23’ W114˚5’). The South Fork designation extends from its origin at Youngs Creek Ford in the Bob Marshall Wilderness (N47˚27’ W113˚11’) north to Hungry Horse Reservoir (N48˚0’ W113˚32’). Along Forest Road  2826, a trail leads to Meadow Creek Gorge (N47˚0’ W113˚25’), a 60-foot-wide, 100-foot-deep narrows.

St. Joe River, St. Joe National Forest, Idaho, includes a 42-mile recreational section from the junction with the North Fork at Avery (N47˚15’ W115˚48’) upstream along Forest Highways 50 and 218 to Spruce Tree Campground (N47˚2’ W115˚21’). From Spruce Tree, trails follow a 29-mile wild river section to Rambikur Falls and St. Joe Lake (N47˚1’ W115˚5’) on the Montana state Line. The river is noted for scenic, crystal clear water, pools, riffles, waterfalls, and moss and fern-covered cliffs extending to the water’s edge.

National Wilderness Areas in  the North Central Rockies Forests

There are eight units of the national wilderness preservation system in the North Central Rockies forests, including the third largest contiguous wilderness area in the US made up by combining the Great Bear, Bob Marshall, and Scapegoat Wildernesses.

Great Bear Wilderness, Flathead NF, Montana, extends from near West Glacier (N48˚30’ W113˚56’) southeast to the Spotted Bear River (N47˚54’ W113˚15’), encompassing 286,700 acres and including 50 miles of the Middle Fork Flathead wild river. The ridge running the length of the wilderness from Pyramid Peak (N48˚27’ W113˚53’) to Beacon Mountain (N47˚59’ W113˚32’) has a continuous alpine zone, while at lower elevations the forests are subalpine fir, grand fir, and Douglas-fir. Other alpine zones are along Vinegar Mountain (N48˚11’ W113˚31’). On Great Northern Mountain (N48˚20’ W113˚47’) is Stanton Glacier. The Bear Creek Trailhead on US Route 2 (N48˚14’ W113˚34’) provides access to a trail that follows the Middle Fork to the Bob Marshall Wilderness boundary (N48˚4’ W113˚10’). The eastern part of the wilderness is in the Lewis and Clark Range and includes Tent Mountain (N48˚9’ W113˚12’). The Spotted Bear River along the southern wilderness boundary is eligible for the national wild and scenic rivers system.

To the south and east of the Great Bear Wilderness is the immense Bob Marshall Wilderness, Flathead NF and Lewis and Clark NF, Montana, encompassing 1,009,000 acres and including the Sawtooth, Chinese Wall, and Swan Ranges. The Chinese Wall (N47˚42’ W113˚9’), a 22-mile-long, 1,000-foot-high escarpment, is a major feature. The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail traverses the wilderness and runs along the base of the Chinese Wall for part of its traverse between Muskrat Pass (N48˚9’ W113˚5’) south to the West Fork South Fork Sun River (N47˚33’ W112˚57’). Rocky Mountain at 9,392 feet (N47˚49’ W112˚48’) is the highest point and is at the headwaters of the South Fork Teton River on the eastern boundary within the Lewis and Clark NF. Fossils of seashells, corals, and tubeworms are evident in the limestone rocks which are 70 to 100 million years in age (Howe 2013). The north end of the wilderness is at Birch Creek (N48˚10’ W112˚54’) near Swift Reservoir on the Blackfoot Reservation, the south end is near Limestone Pass (N47˚17’ W113˚7’), and the southwest end near Pyramid Pass (N47˚16’ W113˚22’). The south and southwest areas are accessible from trailheads in the Lolo NF. The wilderness has extensive areas of alpine vegetation including the Trilobite Range (N47˚57’ W113˚8’), Three Sisters (N47˚46’ W113˚5’), Chinese Wall, Flathead Alps (N47˚31’ W113˚9’), Picture Ridge (N47˚44’ W113˚28’), and Albino Basin (N47˚38’ W113˚38’). The South Fork Flathead wild and scenic river traverses the center of the wilderness from north to south. In the north, the Middle Fork Flathead wild and scenic river also enters the wilderness. Along the South Fork Flathead and to the east, the wilderness is underlain by limestone and carbonate rocks, but these areas are drier than areas to the west and the forest is sparser. To the west of a line created by the alpine peaks Picture Ridge, Scarface, Gordon, and Apex, the forest is moister. Walling Reef Research Natural Area (RNA) (N48˚6’ W112˚47’) contains limestone cliffs south of Swift Reservoir on the Rocky Mountain Front. It also features wind-deformed limber pine and Douglas fir. The Spotted Bear River from its headwaters near Spotted Bear Pass (N47˚45’ W113˚’) north to the wilderness boundary (N47˚54’ W113˚14’) is eligible for the national wild and scenic river system. Gateway Creek (N48˚3’ W113˚0’), a tributary to the Middle Fork Flathead River, flows through a narrow gorge bisecting two large monoliths several hundred feet high and is considered eligible for the national wild and scenic river system. Other streams in the wilderness which are eligible for the national wild and scenic river system are Big Salmon Creek (N47˚34’ W113˚30’), Little Salmon Creek (N47˚39’ W113˚31’), White River (N47˚37’ W113˚12’), and Danaher Creek (N47˚24’ W113˚6’).

Scapegoat Wilderness, Helena, Lewis and Clark, and Lolo NFs, Montana, is 240,000 acres, forested with subalpine fir, Douglas fir, and ponderosa pine; and extending between Deadman Hill (47˚29’ W112˚55’) in the north, Arrastra Mountain (N47˚10’ W112˚3’) in the south and Omar Mountain (N47˚13’ W113˚6’) in the west. Limestone cliffs surround Scapegoat Mountain, creating the south end of the Chinese wall. The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail traverses the wilderness, entering the north end at the South Fork Sun River (N47˚29’ W112˚55’) and following the Dearborn River before exiting at the south end (N47˚10’ W112˚55’). Alpine areas are at Scapegoat Mountain (N47˚19’ W112˚50’) and Olson Peak (N47˚13’ W112˚46’). The wilderness also includes the headwaters of the North Fork Blackfoot River (N47˚11’ W112˚55’). Red Mountain RNA (N47˚7’ W112˚44’) contains alpine tundra and lodgepole pinewith fellfields and stone strip patterning.

In the Mission Range, Mission Mountains Wilderness, Flathead NF, Montana, is 74,000 acres and is noted for alpine lakes. The northern edge of the wilderness is at Fatty Lake (N47˚42’ W113˚56’) and the southern edge is at Gray Wolf Lake (N47˚17’ W113˚49’). The wilderness features peaks that rise 7,000 feet above the valley floors. Turquoise Lake (N47˚21’ W113˚51’) is a mile-long lake at the base of glacial cirques, accessible from a trailhead (N47˚23’ W113˚48’) on Forest Route 561 west of State Route 83 north of Missoula (Howe 2013). An alpine area is at Gray Wolf Peak (N47˚17’ W113˚32’). Adjacent and to the west is Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The northern edge of the tribal wilderness is at Hellroaring Pass (N47˚41’ W113˚58’) and the southern edge is at Lower Jocko Lake (N47˚12’ W113˚46’). Alpine areas are at Goat Peak (N47˚36’ W113˚59’) in the north and at Gray Wolf Peak in the south. Access to the tribal wilderness is by permit only. The tribal wilderness is closed when grizzlies congregate.

Rattlesnake Wilderness, Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, Lolo NF, Montana, is 28,000 acres and includes the northern reaches of the Rattlesnake Creek watershed. Features are Boulder Lake (N47˚4’ W113˚50’), Grant Creek Basin (N47˚3’ W113˚58’) and Farmers Lakes (47˚0’ W113˚54’) areas.

In western Montana, Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, Kaniksu and Kootenai NFs, Montana, is 94,300 acres in a range of glaciated peaks named for rock formations that look` like boxes or cabinets. There are groves of huge cedars and 94 miles of trails. Snowshoe Peak (N48˚13’ W115˚41’) at 8,736 feet, is the highest point. The wilderness extends 35 miles from north to south, with Grambauer Mountain dominating the north (N48˚24’ W115˚45’) and Goat Peak dominating the south (N48˚0’ W115˚36’). Falls Creek Scenic/Geologic Area (N48˚25’ W115˚47’) includes high falls visible from U.S. Route 2 at the northwestern edge of the wilderness. The northern Cabinets through-hike crosses the wilderness for 31 miles, beginning on U.S. Route 2 west of Libby (N48˚25’ W115˚40’) and extending past Upper Cedar Lake, Minor Lake, Sky Lake, and North Fork Bull River to a trailhead on the Bull River (N48˚13’ W115˚48’).  There is an off-trail section along Pine Ridge south of Sky Lake (Howe 2013). The Bull River tributaries North Fork (N48˚14’ W115˚46’), Middle Fork (N48˚13’ W115˚46’), East Fork (N48˚7’ W115˚44’), and North Fork of the East Fork (N48˚8’ W115˚42’) are eligible for the wild and scenic river system.

Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, Bitterroot, Clearwater, and Nez Perce, NFs, is to the south in Idaho and Montana. Bitterroot NF accesses include Fales Flat (N45˚45’ W114˚27’) and Sam T. Billings-Boulder Creek (N45˚50’ W114˚15’), both on the West Fork Bitterroot River. Boulder Creek Falls (N45˚52’ W114˚18’) in the wilderness is nine miles from the Sam T. Billings Campground. St. Marys Peak (N46˚31’ W114˚15’) is accessible via a 4.5-mile trail which starts at the end of Forest Road 739 west of Stevensville, Montana. The Blodgett Fire Important Bird Area (IBA) (N46˚17’ W114˚16’) is along Blodgett Creek west of Hamilton. In 2000, a stand replacement fire burned through the area between Canyon Creek and Sheafman Creek, creating standing dead trees which now house a concentration of Lewis’s woodpeckers. Colt Killed Creek is eligible for the national wild and scenic river system from its confluence with the Lochsa River (N46˚30’ W114˚41’) upstream to its headwaters at White Sand Lake in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness (N46˚27’ W114˚25’). West Fork Gedney Creek in the wilderness up to its headwaters at Cove Lakes (N46˚9’ W115˚14’) is eligible for the national wild and scenic rivers system. Running Creek is eligible for the national wild and scenic river system from its confluence with the Selway River at Running Creek Ranch in the wilderness (N45˚55’ W114˚50’) upstream to Running Lake (N45˚55’ W115˚3’) in the Nez Perce National Forest. Moose Creek (N46˚7’ W114˚56’) and its tributaries East Fork Moose from its confluence with Moose Creek (N46˚10’ W114˚56’) to its headwaters at Lost Horse  Pass (N46˚11’ W114˚30’), North Fork Moose from its confluence with Moose Creek to its headwaters (N46˚20’ W114˚51’), Rhoda Creek (N46˚14’ W115˚0’), Lone Creek (N46˚14’ W115˚10’), and West Moose Creek (N46˚19’ W115˚0’) are all eligible for the national wild and scenic rivers system.

Clearwater National Forest access to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness is at Elk Summit (N46˚20’ W114˚39’), south of US Route 12 on Forest Highway 360, and Kookooskia Meadows, west of Forest Highway 360 on Forest Road 358. Wind Lakes Trail from Kokooskia Meadows is one of the more scenic short wilderness trails. The Grave Peak RNA (N46˚24’ W114˚43’) is a glacier-carved cirque basin with five lakes, barren rock, sedge meadows and early successional forest at the north-central wilderness boundary near Elk Summit. Downsteam on the Lochsa River along US Route 12, other wilderness access is at Split Creek (N46˚14’ W115˚25’), Wilderness Gateway (N46˚20’ W115˚19’), Eagle Mountain (N46˚26’ W115˚8’), Mocus Point (N46˚28’ W115˚1’), and Warm Springs (N46˚28’ W114˚53’), where trails head south into the wilderness.

In the Selkirk Mountains of Washington, Salmo Priest Wilderness, Kaniksu and Colville NFs, is an inverted U-shaped area centered on 6,828-foot Salmo Mountain (N48˚58’ W117˚6’) at the northeastern corner of Washington. It contains the largest old growth forest in eastern Washington. Forests are of western red cedar, western hemlock, and Douglas-fir. Round Top Mountain RNA (N48˚49’ W117˚7’) is an area of green fescue subalpine parklands, old growth subalpine fir, and whitebark pine Krummholz on a 6,000-foot mountain. Salmo RNA (N48˚58’ W117˚5’) is a north-facing slope with a subalpine fir-Cascades azalea-fools huckleberry plant association. The Shedroof Divide National Recreation Trail extends 22 miles along the ridge in the eastern portion of the wilderness. The Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail crosses the wilderness at Shedroof Mountain and Crowell Ridge. Within the wilderness the South Salmo River (N48˚59’ W117˚5’) is considered eligible for the national wild and scenic river system.

National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) system in the North Central Rockies forests

In the Flathead Lake area, Batavia Waterfowl Production Area (WPA), Northwest Montana Wetland Management District, Montana (N48˚10’ W114˚25’) is a 510-acre wetland area on US Route 2 along Ashley Creek west of Kalispell. Creston National Fish Hatchery, Montana (N48˚12’ W114˚6’), provides rainbow trout for fish stocking and mitigation for the Hungry Horse Reservoir. There is a nature trail on the hatchery grounds, which are off State Route 35 east of Kalispell. Lazy N Ranch WPA (Flathead WPA), Northwest Montana Wetland Management District, Montana (N48˚5’ W114˚10’) contains 2,000 acres and seven miles of lakeshore on Flathead Lake off of State Route 82. It is an IBA for waterfowl and grassland species. Trust for Public Land WPA, Northwest Montana Wetland Management District, Montana (N48˚7’ W114˚12’) is southeast of the junction of Somers Road and Wiley Dike Road in the Flathead River delta.

In the Swan Valley, Swan River NWR, Montana (N47˚55’ W113˚51’), is 1,500 acres along State Route 83 south of Swan Lake and contains sloughs in floodplains.  Species protected include yellow perch, marsh wren, and grizzly bear. Swan Valley Conservation Area, Montana, extends south from Swan River NWR  to Pierce Lake (N47˚23’ W113˚38’) and is a conservation easement refuge with up to 10,000 acres of easements and 1,000 acres of fee title land. It is considered the last low elevation coniferous ecosystem in the area and is noted for breeding common loons, grizzly bear, wolf, and wolverine.

Along the Blackfoot Valley east of Missoula, Blackfoot Valley Conservation Area is a conservation easement area of up to 103,000 acres including wetland complexes along State Route 200 from Bonner (N46˚52’ W113˚52’) east over 100 miles to Rogers Pass (N47˚5’ W112˚22’). It also extends along Route 141 in the Nevada Creek watershed (N46˚42’ W112˚40’), and Route 83 in the Clearwater River valley (N47˚23’ W113˚38’). Rogers Pass and the Clearwater River valley are in the North Central Rockies forest ecoregion. Upsata Lake Waterfowl Production Area, Montana (N47˚4’ W113˚14’) is a wetland and grassland area of kettle lakes left by a glacier at the south end of the Swan Range.

To the west in the Salish Mountains, Lost Trail NWR, Montana (N48˚11’ W114˚52’) is located on Pleasant Valley Road northwest of Marion and consists of 8,000 acres.  The refuge was established for waterfowl, upland birds, and raptors. McGregor Meadows WPA, Northwest Montana Wetland Management District, Montana (N48˚2’ W114˚47’) is an extensive meadow on the east side of McGregor Lake along US Route 2. Smith Lake WPA, Northwest Montana Wetland Management District, Montana (N48˚6’ W114˚27’) is 985 acres on US 2 west of Kalispell within an extensive wetland area in the Smith Valley.

Along the Clearwater River, Dworshak National Fish Hatchery, Idaho (N46˚30’ W116˚19’), is the largest steelhead trout hatchery in the world. Spawning of steelhead trout, Chinnok salmon, and Coho salmon may be viewed in season. It is accessed from State Route 7 north of Orofino. Kooskia National Fish Hatchery, operated by the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho (N46˚8’ W115˚57’), is on Clear Creek east of Kooskia and is operated to support the Chinook salmon fishery on the Clearwater River. It is the site of Looking Glass’ 1877 Campsite, a site of the Nez Perce National Historical Park.

In northern Idaho, Kootenai NWR, Idaho (N48˚43’ W116˚24’) is 2,800 acres west of Bonners Ferry on a bend of the Kootenai River. This is the largest complex of wetlands and floodplain forests in Idaho. Trails and an auto tour route pass by ponds used by 10,000 ducks, geese, and swans. The area is designated an IBA.  Libby Dam altered natural flooding due to June snowmelt, so the refuge is managed to mimic natural water cycles.

In northeastern Washington, Little Pend Oreille NWR, Washington (N48˚28’ W117˚44’) is 41,500 acres of mixed conifer forest providing late successional forest habitat and riparian habitat. Hiking is available on the Mill Butte Trail and through a boardwalk at McDowell Marsh. There is also an auto tour route. The Baird Basin RNA (N48˚28’ W117˚38’) provides examples of larch-Douglas fir-ponderosa pine cover types, and the Varline Grove-Flodelle Creek RNA (N48˚32’ W117˚34’) was established for research on lodgepole pine cover type. Crystal Falls (N48˚31’ W117˚39’) is on State Route 20 east of Colville. The Cusick Flats Unit of Little Pend Oreille NWR (N48˚23’ W117˚20’) is 254 acres in the Pend Oreille River floodplain at the mouth of Tacoma and Trimble Creeks off State Route 20. The Kaniksu Unit of Little Pend Oreille NWR (N48˚8’ W117˚33’) is a floodplain area and wetland upstream from Deer Lake off US Route 395.

Other federal sites in the North Central Rockies forests

Boundary-Smith Creek Wildlife Management Area, Idaho (N48˚59’ W116˚33’), is on the international boundary at the north end of Westside Road in the Kootenai River valley is an IBA for ruffed grouse, waterfowl, and shorebirds. It was purchased with state and Bonneville Power Administration funds.

Ear Mountain, Bureau of Land Mangement (BLM) Lewiston Field Office and Lewis and Clark NF, Montana (N47˚52’ W112˚39’), is a natural area and two-mile trail on the Rocky Mountain front in the Teton River area.  It is accessed from Forest Road 109 west of Chouteau.

Elkhorn Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) includes areas surrounding the Helena NF south of Helena, including areas between Radersburg and Boulder (N46˚12’ W111˚53’) and northeast of Boulder (N46˚20’ W112˚0’). It is an elk herd area and protects cultural resource sites.

Hideaway Islands Research Natural Area, BLM, Idaho (N48˚42’ W116˚13’), provides 75 acres of waterfowl habitat on the Kootenai River five miles east of Bonner’s Ferry.

Humbug Spires ACEC and Special Recreation Management Area (SRMA), BLM, Montana (N45˚45’ W112˚39’), is 8,000 acres accessible from the Moose Creek Exit (Exit 99) on I-15. The rolling foothills contains an outcropping of quartz monocyte. Spires rise from 300 to 600 feet above the mountains. The main trail leads to The Wedge.

Marysville Historic Site, BLM, Montana (N46˚45’ W112˚18’) is a former gold mining town northwest of Helena near the Continental Divide.

Pipestone SRMA and Ringing Rocks ACEC, BLM, Montana (N45˚57’ W112˚14’) are along I-90 at exit 241. It is a hiking and off-highway vehicle (OHV) area, with unique geologic features.  There are 75 miles of OHV trails. At Ringing Rocks, the rocks chime when tapped with a hammer. The area adjoins the Deerlodge NF.

Sheep Mountain SRMA and Clancy OHV Area, BLM Butte Field Office, Montana (N46˚30’ W112˚2’) is south of Helena.

Wolf Lodge Bay, Beauty Bay, and Blue Creek Bay, BLM, Idaho (N47˚37’ W116˚41’) are forested shorelines along Lake Coeur d’Alene providing a large concentration of wintering waterfowl and bald eagles, making it an IBA.


Websites: wilderness.net, rivers.gov, fws.gov,and http://web4.audubon.org/bird/iba/

Howe, Steve.  2013.  Hidden Montana.  Backpacker, August 2013, pp. 75-81.