Chief Joseph and Gibbons Pass Area (Cross-country skiing)
Bitterroot and Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forests
February 14-16, 2015
[This trip report was published in the March 2015 newsletter of the Bitterroot Cross-country Ski Club: http://bitterrootxcskiclub.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/March-2015-Newsletter.pdf ]
Known for its classic cross-country ski trails and charming warming hut, the Chief Joseph Pass area is also an ideal destination for multi-day cross-country ski tours. After looking at maps and getting advice from people familiar with the area, I decided to attempt an ambitious loop using a combination of the groomed and ungroomed roads and trails. On a sunny Saturday afternoon in mid-February I skied out Broadway with my winter backpacking gear, food for three days and a camera on my hip.
The skiing out to Gibbons Pass was nothing short of outstanding as the road had been groomed only a few days prior. The gentle descent for most of the route, perfect weather and magnificent views from the Overlook Trail were an excellent beginning to the trip. Gibbons Pass was an ideal destination for the first night, especially given my afternoon start and the added effort of skiing with a pack.
I set my tent up in a small clearing in the pines a few hundred feet off the road just as the cloud cover and dimness of dusk began to replace the blue skies and sunshine that had been present for most of the afternoon. Shortly after dark the silence of the forest was interrupted by the dull roar of my stove as I melted snow and cooked dinner. Stars appeared, twinkled and disappeared as the clouds drifted along through the night sky; meanwhile the hearty meal of pasta, spinach, mushrooms and tuna in my pot simply disappeared. After sipping some hot chocolate and reading a Jack London short-story (“Love of Life”), I prepped camp for the night and skied from the “kitchen” over to my tent for bed. A few snowflakes fluttered purposelessly through the silent air as I zipped up the door and slid into my sleeping bag.
I awoke shortly after sunrise, acutely aware that my only obligations were to pack up camp, ski all day, and then set up camp wherever I ended up. Not a bad list of “chores” to base a day around. While sipping coffee and packing up camp I had the incredible good fortune of hearing wolves howl for the first time in my life, which was one of the singularly most enchanting and exhilarating experiences I’ve ever had. Needless to say, my day was off to a good start. Blue skies and sun, snow and conifers; each helped to distract me from the noticeable but not nagging weight of my pack as I glided down Trail Creek Road toward Hogan Cabin.
The meadow around the picturesque cabin was sublime as I skied across it shortly before noon. I took an extended lunch break — made some tea, strung my sleeping bag between my skis so it could catch the sun and dry out any condensation, chatted with a skate skier and two snowmobilers — before attempting what would be one of the more difficult sections of my intended route. Shoofly Trail, an ungroomed trail that would take me to Hwy. 43 and allow me to connect with Cabinet Creek Trail, had been described to me as difficult to find and as I skied through the meadow to the forest’s edge I kept my eyes open for any indication of a trail. Other than a sign noting that the area was closed to snowmobiles I was unable to locate any clues or ski tracks to follow.
I took a deep breath, a compass bearing, and once I felt I was properly oriented I skied through the forest on a just-supportive-enough crust with tentative hope that I would hit the trail. After an hour of slow-paced but methodical effort, I was lucky enough to stumble onto a narrow road that I followed to Hogan Run. Recognizing the limits of my navigational and physical abilities, I decided to re-route and head back toward Gibbons Pass and camp at the first spot off the trail with room for my tent and a decent view. I’d seen several places that fit my not overly discerning criteria on the way in the previous day and began the climb up Hogan Run feeling inspired rather than defeated. By the time I arrived at a likely campsite I was tired. Spent. Exhausted. Worn-out. But as I looked toward the sun setting over the mountains adjacent to Lost Trail and breathed in the crisp air at 7,000 feet, I felt refreshed.
With my tent pitched, ski boots exchanged for down booties, sleeping pad aired up and sleeping bag spread out, my evening was free to spend on dinner, reading and stargazing. Out of those three, I looked forward to stargazing the most — which is saying something, as I tend to devour books and food with equal voracity. Eager to enjoy the stars for as long as possible, I put on all my insulating layers and sipped hot chocolate to stay warm as the temperature dropped.
The brilliantly bright dots punctuated the dark canvas of the sky and my eyes transmitted a scene to my brain that was so vast and magnificent it almost made my head hurt. As much as I wanted to soak up the sensory feast of a starlit winter’s night in the mountains, my tired body and the chilly air conspired to drive me into my sleeping bag much earlier than I would have liked and I was asleep by 10 p.m., feeling like a child who wasn’t able to stay up long enough to watch a much-anticipated TV show.
About three to four inches of snow fell overnight, clinging to the trees and banking against the windward walls of the tent. Eager to ski on this fresh snow, I packed up camp quickly and set out shortly after 9 a.m. on my route back to the Chief Joseph parking area. Skiing through the forest for the third day in a row was a great feeling, especially on a crisp morning with fresh snow. I made good time on my way back to the parking lot, only seeing a few others skiers who had gotten early starts on my way in.
As usual with outdoor adventures, I arrived back at my car feeling like I’d been enriched much more than I’d expected. I’d encourage anyone with the proper gear and experience to consider a multi-day tour of the Chief Joseph area; various loops for all skill levels are possible in this excellently maintained winter wonderland of Montana.