The Gates of the Mountains Wilderness is one of the most impressive areas along the Lewis and Clark Trail. The landmark was named by Meriwether Lewis as the expedition traveled along the Missouri River.
The canyon is formed by limestone cliffs that rise approximately 1,200 feet above the canyon floor. These towering cliffs are what inspired Meriwether Lewis to name the area the Gates of the Mountains.
Prior to its designation as federal wilderness, the area was heavily used for mining and logging. In 1918 Holder Dam was constructed on the Missouri, creating Holter Lake.
The dam raised the level of water through the canyon by about 14 feet, but the area still looks much like it did in 1805 when Lewis and Clark passed through the area.
The Gates of the Mountains Wilderness was established by Congress in 1964. The area is managed by the Helena National Forest, and is one of a number of designated wilderness areas in the state of Montana.
Today the wilderness area prohibits motorized vehicles, including bicycles. Access to the Gates of the Mountains is on foot or by boat only.
Despite limited access, this area is very popular with visitors, especially those that are looking to travel a bit of the Lewis and Clark Trail.
Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area Stats
- Size – 28,562 acres (115.59 km2)
- Season – Year Around
- Largest Lake/Forest – Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest
- Number of campsites – 7 (boat-in only)
The main attractions in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area include:
Refrigerator Canyon is a unique point within the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness area. This deep and narrow canyon is protected from sunlight and works as a sort of funnel for the wind.
This shady, windy condition causes the temperatures in the canyon to be substantially lower than in the surrounding areas. Refrigerator Canyon is a popular place for visitors to hike, and during the summer the canyon can be a refreshing place to explore and get out of the heat.
Holter Lake was formed after the construction of the Holter Dam in 1918. The 24-mile-long reservoir on the Missouri River is a very popular place for recreation in the summer. The Lake is open to watersports and has a number of campgrounds that dot the shores of the Lake.
While some of Holter Lake does not reside in the Wilderness Area, some of the lake does. The Missouri River that flows through the Gates of the Wilderness area has slow, consistent flows that are perfect for kayaking, canoeing, and paddle boarding.
Meriwether Picnic Area
Along with Coulter Campground, Meriwether Picnic Area are the only two maintained spots in the Wilderness where visitors can camp or set up a spot for the day. Meriwether Picnic Area is accessible only by boat.
It is a great day-use location in the Wilderness Area. It features a picnic shelter that was once a ranger station and well-maintained boat slips. Some of the most popular trails for hiking start at the Meriwether Picnic area as well.
Boat tours are a really great way to enjoy the Missouri River as it passes through the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area.
During the summer there are a couple of boat tours that will show you the sites, and give you some of the histories of the area, including the Lewis and Clark Expedition, natural history, and geology.
Gates of the Mountains Wilderness provides plenty of opportunities for recreation. While the area does not allow for motorized vehicles or bicycles, there are plenty of other ways to enjoy a bit of recreation in the area.
Hiking is one of the few allowed recreational activities in the Gates of the Mountain Wilderness. The area has approximately 53 miles of trails that wind through the Wilderness.
Most of the trails are located in the Beaver Creek drainage, and most are accessible from a couple of locations, including below and above what remains of the town of Nelson.
The wilderness area, though along the Missouri River does not have plentiful water once you leave the shores of the river. Hikers need to bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and provisions necessary for safe hiking.
For those interested in searching for wildlife while on their visit to the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness, there are plenty of animals to watch for.
Wilderness areas are intended to provide a protected environment for wild animals, so this is a great place to see animals that are really tied to nature and not acclimated to humans.
Common animals in the canyon include deer, otter, beaver, mountain lions, black bears, mountain goats, and elk. You’ll also see birds of prey including bald and golden eagles, vultures, osprey, and prairie and peregrine falcons.
Within the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness, you’ll find only one campground. Coulter Campground has 7 campsites that are accessible only by boat. The campground is located on Upper Holter Lake along the eastern shore.
This campground is first-come, first-served, and there is no fee to camp. Coulter Campground is relatively primitive but is well-maintained. Because of its location, only tents are allowed at Coulter Campground.
If you are looking for camping that is more easily accessible there are a number of other campgrounds around Holter Lake, most are run by the Bureau of Land Management or the Bureau of Reclamation. These free campgrounds have sites for tents and RVs.
Watersports are perhaps the most popular recreational activity in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness area. The Missouri River provides plenty of space for motorized boating, canoeing, kayaking, rafting, and stand-up paddle boarding.
Through Upper Holter Lake in the Wilderness area towing sports (waterskiing, wakeboarding, kneeboarding, etc.) are not allowed. However, these sports are allowed in the lower portions of Holter Lake.
Because there are motorized boats on Upper Holter Lake, if you are on a non-motorized watercraft such as a canoe or kayak, make sure that you are aware of your surroundings and are staying clear of motorized boats.
Portions of Holter Lake and Upper Holter Lake can be quite windy, so be cautious when boating on windy days.
While there are around 53-miles of trails in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness, not all are well maintained or good for most visitors.
We’ve provided a few of the best trails that allow easy access to some of the most spectacular parts of the Wilderness Area.
The trail to Mann Gulch begins at the Meriweather Picnic Area. This is a popular location for Lewis and Clark enthusiasts as it is located at one of the expeditions’ camping spots.
The trail is well marked as it leaves the picnic area. It is a fairly challenging 4-mile round trip hike that climbs 1,200 feet in elevation to the top of the trail.
At the top of the ridge, take a moment to read the informational signs about the Mann Gulch Fire and the 13 firefighters that died in that location.
Views from the ridge look into the Wilderness Area which looks today, much as it did when Lewis and Clark passed through the area.
This 13-mile round trip hike is a fairly difficult hike, with 3,483 feet of elevation gain. Along the trail, you’ll have great views of Sacagawea Mountain, and the surrounding valleys.
This is one of the most popular trails in the Wilderness Area, thanks to the unique geologic feature of Refrigerator Canyon. This 16-mile round trip hike has everything you can ask for in a hike; mountain views, wildflower meadows, a cool canyon, and vast mountain views.
This trail is moderately difficult, with approximately 3,100 feet of elevation gain. However, it’s not the elevation that makes this trail difficult, it’s the numerous downed trees that you’ll have to cross along the way.