Welcome Creek Trail
Welcome Creek Wilderness
Lolo National Forest, Montana
March 27-29, 2015
When a guidebook describes an area as “a little-used mountain gem” and the Forest Service website states that “overnight backpackers are few and far between” it piques my interest. Add in a captivating cultural history of Native American habitation, gold mining and outlaws, and the appeal grows. Combine that with easy access via a low elevation road and it becomes irresistible to an eager backpacker who is only a 90-minute drive away. A dayhike with a friend in the Welcome Creek Wilderness the previous weekend whetted my appetite for the area and its rushing creeks and rugged canyons, so I planned a two-night backpacking trip to the area in an attempt to satiate it.
My plan was to hike up the Welcome Creek Trail approximately five miles to an abandoned miner’s cabin dating back to the gold rush in the area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I’d camp there for two nights and depending on terrain, weather and my ambition I would explore further up the Welcome Creek drainage. I’d gained some crucial information about the area from the US Forest Service office which answered several puzzling questions that arose during the dayhike. The Cinnabar Cabin that was mentioned in a guidebook as being located two and a half miles down the trail had burned in 2007, leaving Carron Cabin as the only semi-intact structure in the wilderness. Also, the Welcome Creek Trail continues past the old Cinnabar Cabin site (where we turned around on the dayhike) a hundred feet or so upslope from the creek, rather than along the creek bottom. My friend and I had been unable to locate the trail past the crossing of Cinnabar Creek; turned out we were within 15 feet of it but were looking for it down low rather than up high and were misled by the mix of false trails and game trails that wove in and out of the creek bottom and away from the Welcome Creek Trail. Equipped with ample information regarding the trail, a detailed map of Welcome Creek Wilderness (produced in 1995, it was the most up-to-date resource available) and my backpack, I stepped onto the swinging bridge that crosses Rock Creek and provides access to the Welcome Creek Trail on a sunny, warmer-than-average spring afternoon. I covered the 2.5 miles to the Welcome Creek and Cinnabar Creek confluence in an hour and found the previously elusive trail without any undue difficulty. I hiked a few hundred feet down the trail before pausing for a water and snack break while soaking up the view of the canyon.
Since I was making good time and was unlikely to experience any significant routefinding issues on the way to the cabin, I decided to cut out as much deadfall as I could over the next few miles using a small folding saw. This was out of self-interest as well as community service; I’d be doing an out-and-back hike rather than a loop so it made sense to simply cut the obstacles out rather than stumble, over, under or around them twice. In the remaining two miles I cut out perhaps ten limbs or trees, and although pace my pace slowed as a result, I arrived at the cabin well before dark.
Dilapidated but still retaining its basic structural elements, the Carron Cabin has an intriguing presence. Built during the mining days, the cabin seems to embody a simultaneously charming and haunting corner of Americana that is worthy of a more eloquent and thoughtful description than I can provide in this humble trip report. While not exceedingly well-documented, a collection of papers at the University of Montana Archives (the Bud Moore Papers; Moore was a trapper, forester and general outdoorsman in Montana for much of the second half of the 20th century) contains several journals from a person who spent a significant amount of time trapping, hunting and hiking in the area – with the permission of mining claimant Lucky Hancock – prior to it becoming a designated wilderness area. Additionally, there are several digitized photographs of the cabin from the 1970s available online as part of the Montana Memory Project: http://mtmemory.org/cdm/search/searchterm/bud%20moore%20papers!carron%20cabin/field/all!all/mode/exact!exact/conn/and!and/order/title/ad/asc
Trying to keep up my momentum, I carefully and cheerfully headed down the steep hillside to tumbling and snowbanked Welcome Creek to filter water. The view downstream was perfectly picturesque – a steep talus slope hemmed in the creek on one side and a densely forested slope rose up from the opposite side. In between rushed a cold, clear, dictionary-definition mountain stream. Within a few minutes I’d filtered nearly four liters of water and headed back up to the cabin, making my around various piles of rusting tin cans and other assorted detritus cast down from the cabin over the past century. While I was enamored by the cabin itself, I was less enthused about the immediately visible camping options. Camping right next to the fire ring on bare dirt thoughtfully sprinkled with a few bits of broken glass and rusty bits of metal didn’t exactly hold any appeal. Fortunately, a perfect tent site was located directly behind the cabin. A large pine was surrounded by enough flat ground for two tents (although I just needed enough space for a solo tent) and no “hazard trees” appeared to be within range of the site. Given the forecast for high winds over the weekend, this was an even more prescient consideration than usual. Love at first sight would be an accurate description of my first impression of this campsite. It was a love that didn’t wane during my two nights there.
By sundown my tent was pitched, water collected, bear-bag line hung, firewood gathered and campfire prepped to light, and I felt rather efficient. After cooking and consuming dinner and lighting the campfire, I decided to celebrate my first night in the Welcome Creek Wilderness with a few sips of Kentucky bourbon and read a most appropriate short story by Jack London. Set in the Sierra Nevadas, “All Gold Canyon” describes a miner’s frenzied and successful hunt for a pure deposit of gold in a beautiful and remote canyon – and his near loss of it in an ambush by another prospector. The landscape descriptions are simply superb and the story is suspenseful and well-told. Reading this tale under a half-full moon, while sitting beside a campfire outside of a prospector’s cabin built at approximately the same time the story was written, allowed for a degree of immersion in the narrative and the setting that can only be achieved in certain instances. The literature perfectly complemented the landscape. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that being tired is a byproduct of being efficient, so I headed to bed as soon as the small fire could be extinguished with a few handfuls of snow from nearby snowbanks. The forecast called for lows in the upper 30s the first night and low 30s the second night. I optimistically opted for my 30-degree bag rather than my 15-degree bag given the forecast. I went to sleep in mid-weight wool baselayers and was warm, but during the night I added a fleece pullover to stay comfortable. A steady rain woke me up an hour or so before dawn, encouraging me to sleep in. It wasn’t until well past first daylight I emerged from my sleeping bag, acrobatically changed into my hiking clothes and rain gear within the confines of my tent, and ventured out of the tent and toward the cabin to retrieve my food bag and cook breakfast.
Despite its considerable state of decay, the cabin provided me with more than enough shelter in which to cook and enjoy a cup of coffee, followed by oatmeal and handfuls of trail mix, followed by another cup of coffee, all while perusing the map of the area and planning my day. As I sipped coffee I watched the rain transition to snow, which was somewhat of a relief. I set out from camp late in the morning, heading up Welcome Creek Trail in no particular hurry and with no particular destination. I would as far as I wanted to or as far as conditions allowed, whichever came first. The first mile or so past the cabin was excellent – an easy creek crossing on a log, pleasantly graded single-track winding through forest and across talus slopes, occasional views down the canyon when looking over your shoulder. After about a mile or so, the snow went from being present in intermittent and easily navigable patches to full blown three-foot deep snow drifts. Needless to say, this slowed my progress considerably. I cautiously pressed on. The going was slow, but the scenery and changing weather had me spellbound. Borderline whiteout conditions and stiff winds would be replaced by blue skies and a light breeze, only to return to the former conditions within fifteen minutes. The rest of the day would be marked by the inconsistency of the weather. Appropriate clothing and a curious attitude made this situation more interesting than inconvenient. The map indicated an abandoned mine at the mouth of Spartan Creek and that seemed to be a reasonable destination given the conditions. It took me far too long to realize that many of the relics and manmade features would be covered by the snow – it made about as much sense as trying to stargaze on a cloudy night. As best as I can tell, I did make it to the mouth of Spartan Creek but the arrival was somewhat anti-climactic. I wasn’t exactly expecting King Solomon’s Mine, but I didn’t find any distinguishing features. Continuing on under the conditions would’ve been pure buffoonery. I took a short break, decided to come back after the snow had melted, and then headed back to camp.
I filtered water where the trail crossed Welcome Creek and arrived at camp in mid-afternoon during an hour-long respite from the various forms of precipitation. After changing into dry socks, warmed from a few minutes spent next to my skin, I stretched and then reclined onto my foam sleeping pad and spent the next few hours reading several of Jack London’s Klondike stories and meditating on the beauty of the landscape and the charm of the vagaries of the weather. Watching the wind whip various forms up precipitation through the sky and into the canyon was entertaining, but I pleaded for the sun to stay when it did appear. For the last few hours of the afternoon the precipitation declined and then eventually disappeared, while the sun peeked through the clouds more often than not. Hoping to take advantage of this, I strung socks and bandanas along the bear-bag line where they fluttered and made it look like I’d decided to decorate the campsite with Tibetan prayer flags. Maybe I’ll pack in some beaded curtains to hang over the cabin door on the next trip. While reading, I made an amusing literary discovery that had me laughing out loud – Jack London vividly but succinctly described an early version of the game of “Where’s my [headlamp, bandana, lighter, spork, Clif bar, etc.]?” that every backpacker eventually plays. London described it thusly, “ . . . a search to be made through the outfit for some suddenly indispensable article.” Sounds about right to me.
As twilight settled into the canyon I did some of my final stretches for the evening and cooked dinner, enjoying red curry noodles with jerky. I didn’t feel like struggling to start a fire, or struggling in general, so I instead wound the evening down with a few sips of bourbon and some music. The photocopied pages of the guidebook I brought along contained a few paragraphs titled “Lawlessness on Welcome Creek” which described the bust of the nearby gold boomtown of Quigley, the resulting horse thievery, and an outlaw named Frank Brady who was killed by sheriffs near Welcome Creek in 1904. Watching the gray clouds float through the dark sky while “Jack Straw” by the Grateful Dead drifted through my ears allowed me to ponder how the song paired perfectly with the history of the area. The lyrics about crime and desperation in the West seemed to almost come from the mouths of the ghosts of the men who had lived, worked, thieved, and died in the thousands of places in the West with rugged landscapes and rugged histories, of which Welcome Creek Wilderness was just one:
We used to play for silver, now we play for life
One’s for sport and one’s for blood at the point of a knife
Now the die is shaken, now the die must fall . . .
Leaving Texas, fourth day of July
Sun so hot, clouds so low
The eagles filled the sky
Catch the Detroit Lightning out of Santa Fe
Great Northern out of Cheyenne, from sea to shining sea
Gotta get to Tulsa, first train we can ride
Got to settle one old score, and one small point of pride . . .
Jack Straw from Wichita cut his buddy down
Dug for him a shallow grave and laid his body down
Half a mile from Tucson by the morning light
One man gone and another to go, my old buddy you’re moving much too slow
Almost as soon as the darkness made a headlamp necessary I headed to my tent. Since tonight was forecast to be cooler than the previous night, I went to sleep with my baselayers and a fleece pullover on as Welcome Creek sounded its liquid lullaby. The draft collar and hood on the bag were cinched tight and all seemed right with the world. A distinct chill awoke me in the early morning hours, so I pulled on my down jacket, which allowed me to comfortably get a few more hours sleep. I awoke to songbirds and the faintest rays of sunlight peeking through the clouds and penetrating the sil-nylon walls of the tent. Frost coated the inside of the rainfly and tiny bits of ice had formed in my water bottles. Perhaps the 15-degree bag would’ve been a more prudent choice. However, after drinking two cups of coffee while packing up and a few minutes spent standing in the sun sleeping bags were the last thing on my mind. After reluctantly stepping out of my Crocs and into my boots, I bid farewell to the cabin and headed down the trail, able to admire my handiwork from two days prior and enjoy relatively obstacle-free hiking on the way back to the trailhead.
The Welcome Creek Wilderness is certainly a challenging landscape for casual hiking, and is particularly challenging for backpacking, but either in spite of or because of this, it has a distinct charm and I intend to go on several more hikes in the area. The rugged beauty of the landscape, combined with being able to walk in the footsteps of miners and trappers and witness tangible evidence of the human history of an extractive industry, make it more than just a simple walk-in-the-woods hike. Fortunately, there is no extra charge for this premium dose of cultural geography and natural beauty. As the old saying goes, “everything good is free” and the Welcome Creek Wilderness is a perfect example.