The Pioneer Mountains are some of the most majestic mountains in all of Montana. This relatively small mountain range is located in the southwest part of the state, along the Idaho border.
The Pioneer range is split into two distinctive subranges: the East Pioneer Range and the West Pioneer Range. These two subranges are divided by the Wise River Road, and each side has very different and distinctive traits.
The East Pioneer Range is the most dramatic and has some of the taller mountains in Montana. Much of the East Pioneer subrange is roadless, accessible only by hiking trails or by trailblazing.
The East Pioneer Range is home to the tallest peak in the Pioneer Range, along with 30 high-elevation lakes.
Grayling Lake in the East Pioneer Mountains is one of the few lakes in the United States that is home to the Arctic grayling, a unique fish species that belongs to the same family as salmon.
The West Pioneer Range is quite the opposite of the East Pioneer Range. While the East Pioneer Range is defined by high rugged peaks, alpine lakes, and rocky slopes, the West Pioneer Range is filled with rounded, less distinctive mountains.
The West Pioneer Range has expansive meadows that are home to elk, deer, antelope, and other game species.
One of the most popular scenic drives in Montana passes through the Pioneer Range. The Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway was designated in 1989. The Byway begins in Wise River, MT, and travels south along the Wise River to the Grasshopper Creek Valley.
While much of the Pioneer Mountains are considered wilderness, with few roads or trails, the range does have one unique feature. Crystal Park, located in the Pioneer Mountains is one of the few places in the United States where visitors can mine their own quartz crystals.
Pioneer Mountains Statistics
- Highest Elevation (ft/m) – 11,154 feet (3,400 meters)
- Most Recognizable Peak – Tweedy Mountain
- Season (when can it be accessed) – All Year
Pioneer Mountains Recreation Activities
The Pioneer Mountains may be some of the most remote in Montana, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have some great recreational activities. The diversity of the Pioneer Mountains offers visitors a range of great activities throughout the year.
Hiking is a popular recreational activity in the Pioneer Mountains. Many people come to this range because it is fairly remote, and much of the range is considered a wilderness area.
The Pioneer Range has numerous hiking trails. The East Pioneer Range offers hikers opportunities to travel to some of the higher peaks in Montana, while the West Pioneer Range has plenty of moderate, easy-to-hike trails that have views of meadows and the towering peaks of the East Pioneers.
The Pioneer Range is highly popular with backpackers who enjoy the opportunity to spend two or more days exploring the range.
The Forest Service has a number of backcountry camping spots that are popular with backpackers. Some of these camping sites are along some of the most beautiful lakes in Montana.
Many hikers enjoy the opportunity to blaze their own trails to some of the more than 30 high mountain lakes that dot the Pioneer Range.
Many of these lakes are only accessible on foot, and some have amazing populations of native fish that you’ll not find in many other places in Montana.
The Pioneer Mountains are situated within the Beaverhead district of the Beaverhead-DeerLodge National Forest, so there are plenty of great camping opportunities. The East and West Pioneer Ranges have numerous Forest Service campgrounds, offering a range of amenities.
Backcountry hikers will enjoy access to a number of remote camping spots that are fairly well maintained by the forest service. These sites are tent only and many require a day or more of hiking to access.
And of course, dispersed camping is always a popular option on Forest Service land. Just make sure that you are aware of current Forest Service regulations.
Fishing is one of the most popular recreational activities in the Pioneer Mountains. Not only does this range have numerous high-altitude lakes stocked with trout and other native species, but the Big Hole River passes through this range.
The Big Hole River is one of Montana’s Blue-Ribbon trout streams. Anglers love to try their hand at catching brook, rainbow, and cutthroat trout along the Big Hole River.
The Wise River also has plenty of great fly-fishing opportunities and offers a more peaceful fishing experience. Fishing in the Pioneer Range is open to locals and visitors.
A Montana fishing license is required for all individuals wanting to fish in Montana. Fishing licenses can be purchased on the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks website.
Pioneer Mountains Trail Routes
Despite being fairly remote, and with plenty of rugged places, the Pioneer Mountains have plenty of great trails that are accessible to hikers and backpackers of all experience levels.
Many of the most popular trails lead to some of the beautiful lakes within the Pioneer Range.
The Rainbow Lake Trail is a relatively easy hike. This short hike is either 4.4 miles or 7.6 miles round trip, depending on where you start your hike. The trail has two trailheads, one on Willow Creek Road and the other on Rock Creek Road.
If you are looking for a more challenging hike, you’ll want to start at Rock Creek Road. From here the trail is 7.6 miles with 1320 feet of elevation gain.
For an easier hike, use the trailhead at Willow Creek Road. This trail is particularly popular with families that have children that are experienced hikers.
Lake Abundance/Crescent Lake/ Canyon Lake Loop
This relatively popular hike offers you all of the best parts of the Pioneer Range. Great mountain vistas, wildflower-filled meadows, and beautiful lakes that are perfect for fishing.
This loop trail is moderately difficult 12.5 miles long. Most of the hike is relatively steady when it comes to the climb, so you hardly realize that you’ve ascended 2,300 feet in elevation.
The bulk of the challenge on this trail comes from the pretty steep hike out from Canyon Lake.
Bobcat/Grassy/Schwinegar Lakes Loop
This 14.4-mile, loop trail takes you past three of the Pioneer Mountains’ most beautiful lakes.
This trail is considered to be relatively difficult, thanks to nearly 3,100 feet in elevation gain. This trail is fairly popular, despite being a bit more challenging.
The trailhead is located off of the Pioneer Mountain Scenic Byway and is very easy to access. This trail wanders through grassy meadows and Lodgepole Pine forests. The three lakes offer nice places to picnic and all great fishing lakes.
The hike to Sawtooth Lake has some of the best mountain views in the Pioneer Range. This moderately difficult hike is 7.5-miles out and back and is a perfect day hike.
There are 1,575 feet of elevation gain over the course of the hike, which is manageable for most hikers. This trail is pretty popular for summertime hikes, so for more peace and quiet, hike this trail on shoulder months.
Highlights of the trail include the dramatic cliffs that rise above the trail, the new growth forest at the beginning of the trail, and Sawtooth Lake where the trail ends.
Torrey Lake is one of the most beautiful lakes on the Pioneer Range. With dramatic cliffs rising up around the lake, and crystal-clear waters this hike gives the experienced hiker a great reward at the end.
The Torrey Lake Trail is a 20-mile out and back hike. It is best done as a two-day backpacking trip. This trail is considered to be fairly difficult and has a decent amount of elevation gain at 2,955 feet over the 20 miles.
This trail also has access to Tahepia and Schulz Lakes if you are looking for a bit of extra hiking.
Grayling Lake is one of the few lakes in the lower United States where native populations of Arctic grayling fish can be found.
The hike to Grayling Lake is a moderate one, at just 11 miles out and back. The backdrop to Grayling Lake is the rugged peaks of the Pioneer Range. The lake itself is quite beautiful with clear turquoise waters.
While this hike is popular with anglers, it is a nice hike even if you don’t want to fish.