Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, Montana

 The Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex is found in Montana’s north-western regions, flanking the Continental Divide.

The reason this huge wilderness is known as a complex is that it does in fact comprise three Wilderness areas in all by way of the Great Bear, the Scapegoat, and the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

The complex covers more than a million acres, making it the third largest such area in the lower 48 states. The wilderness area is split by the Continental Divide as it separates the Flathead and Sun River drainages with elevations between 4,000 and 9,000 feet.

The wilderness area was named for an early wilderness explorer and conservationist known as Bob Marshall. His main ideas were focused around the development of effective and practical wilderness management systems.

Since its designation in 1964, the Bob Marshall Wilderness has become both the oldest and the largest of the three wilderness areas comprising the BMWC, which covers the Flathead Spotted Bear Ranger District, the Helena-Lewis and Clark and the Rocky Mountain Ranger District in their respective national forests.

In terms of wildlife, you can expect to catch glimpses of virtually anything from grizzly bears—this area being home to the largest population—to black bears, lynx, wolverine, and the increasingly endangered gray wolf—a species for which this habitat is critical.

Then there are deer, elk, moose, mountain lions, mountain goats, and mountain sheep wandering around the craggy tops of the ridges and alpine meadows.  

The landscape is wide open and diverse, containing open grass parks and forested slopes over 1700 miles of trail that provide various challenges.

A lot of what is now known as the Bob Marshall Wilderness area already had protected areas in the early 1930s like the South Fork, the Pentagon, and the Sun River Primitive Areas.

In the late 1970s though, additional land in an area known as Birch Creek was also designated as part of the complex, then again in 2014, yet more land along the Rocky Mountain Front was added, bringing the Bob Marshall Wilderness to its current huge size.

The free-flowing and picturesque South Fork of the Flathead River runs through the complex, as do various lakes, including the 970-acre Big Salmon Lake—the largest in the BMWC.

The Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex is accessible from various surrounding communities, depending on the direction.

The main examples are Seeley Lake and Swan lake, as well as Kalispell, Hungry Horse, and Lincoln to the West, while on the eastern side it can be accessed from Choteau, Bynum, and Browning, to name but a few.

bob marshall wilderness
Image: Troy Smith

Bob Marshall Wilderness–State Park Stats

  • 5 million acres
  • Open year-round
  • Multiple campsites
  • Standard fees apply for non-residents

Main Attractions and Recreation Activities

With no roads to speak of running through the area and a total ban on anything even looking motorized, The Wilderness Act rules here, ensuring that the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex remains one of the best-preserved existing mountain ecosystems there is.

It is indeed wild, and one of the most amazing features of the landscape is a huge, 1,000-foot escarpment known as the Chinese Wall, which extends for more than 20 miles.

Over on the east of the Divide elevations range between 2,000 and 8,000 feet by way of the Rocky Mountain Front that juts from the plains and extends for 60 miles or more.

Just imagine—no cars, no noise, no shops—just you and the wilderness…


Image: Victor Grigas

The Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex is something wonderful when it comes to natural fisheries. Whether by way of the wild and scenic rivers or the stunning, high alpine lakes, anyone looking to do some fishing won’t be short of options or fish.

A Montana fishing license is necessary for all anglers aged 12 and above, and you can pick one up from many local sports stores locally, or online from the FWP.

It is also worth noting that the South Fork of the Flathead River, as well as the North and South Forks of the Sun River, all start out within the heart of the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

These waterways flow for 40 miles or more before exiting the boundaries downstream. So these are remote sections not necessarily the easiest to get to. But plenty of dedicated anglers pack their rod and flies and set off with the idea of doing just that.


Image: Forest Service Northern Region

Despite the fact that this is a wilderness area, the FWP-operated forest service does permit hunting in some areas. Most of the hunters coming into the designated zones of the wilderness will likely be after elk.

There are plenty of local outfitters skilled and experienced enough to guide you deep into elk and deer country for a taste of this authentic and somewhat unique hunting experience.


Camping in the remote wilderness regions provides an unforgettable experience for many—especially first-timers—mainly due to its sheer natural, undeveloped wilderness.

A real opportunity to re-attune to nature’s wonders, hearing and seeing the sights and sounds of the outdoors. Fires are allowed here, but this is a bear area so strict storage guidelines must be followed.

It is worth checking out this map and commentary on campsite conditions in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area.

The South Fork Campground is a typical example of what to expect in the area. This is a 9-acre facility located at a Bob Marshall Trailhead within the Lewis and Clark National Forest at elevations over 5,500 feet.

This is a 7-site campground with restrooms, drinking water, and nearby fishing access as well as hiking and horse trails.

South Fork Campground features a wildlife viewing area, and fees apply to non-residents. The maximum recommended trailer length is 35 feet, and stays are limited to 14 days.

Trail Routes

trail routes
Image: Apple646398

There are well over 1,000 miles of trail in this wilderness complex. This obviously makes many serious hikers feel they may have stumbled into heaven.

Here you’ll encounter dense forest trails positively teeming with wildlife, and impressive features like cascading waterfalls, rugged yet scenic peaks, and rolling hills and valleys.

With this many miles of trails, you can see why some groups come for multi-day visits, but of course, there are plenty of ideal day hike routes.

The Chinese Wall Trail

If you are one for super challenges why not head out on this 53-mile point-to-point trail near the small Montana town of Augusta.

Obviously, this is a little bit stronger than a simple day hike, and most explorers who undertake either some or all of it, know they are in for some teeth-greeting at times. Average times for completion usually come in over and above the 24-hour mark.

This trail and various others around it are used for a range of purposes like backpacking and camping. July through September is when the trail is in its best condition for use, and dogs on a leash are permitted.

George Lake Trail

Head out on this 12-mile out-and-back trail in the vicinity of the small town of Condon. Considered by most to be a challenging route, the entire trail takes 7 or 8 hours to complete.

The hike heads off from the parking location—-at the intersection of Morrell Clearwater Road and Rice Ridge Road.

After a few initial steep ascents, you may then find yourself covering a few thousand feet or so in what seems a short time—and this is where having good boots is so essential.

Once you make it to the top of the trail under the Sunday Mountain peak, you catch some impressive views of Grizzly Basin. 

At about the 5-mile stage, the footing can become a bit sketchy on some patches so extra care needs to be taken with footing here. There are generally plenty of opportunities along this trail to glimpse wildlife at the right time of year.

The trail is popular for backpacking and camping, and the best times to see and use this trail are June through October. Your dogs will also doubtless be delighted when they realize they may be off-leash in some areas.


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