Bitterroot National Forest, Montana
April 17-19, 2015
Although it received only the briefest of mentions in “Hiking the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness”, Sevenmile Meadow in Blodgett Canyon proved to be an exceptionally scenic destination for a relaxed two-night backpacking trip in the Bitterroot Mountains. With the high country still snowbound and creeks swollen with snowmelt from the middle elevations — but our eagerness for backpacking bordering on madness — it took some careful planning for my friend Chris and I to plan a trip that would be achievable and enjoyable. Certain criteria had to be met. No unbridged stream crossings, no elevations above 5,500 feet or so, no shaded canyons with limited sunlight, and so on and so forth.
We consulted maps, guidebooks, and sought advice from experienced Bitterroot hikers. After considerable intellectual effort, we came to the conclusion that heading up Blodgett Canyon and camping at “the toe of a large avalanche chute known informally as Sevenmile Meadow” seemed to be the best option. It came highly recommended from a connoisseur of Bitterroot backpacking destinations, who coincidentally had been in the area a few weeks prior. He passed along first-hand information about the snow conditions (patchy after six miles or so, but snowshoes not needed and plenty of open space to camp) as well as a glowing endorsement of the meadow as a destination in its own right for a leisurely backpacking trip.
After last minute gear checks, with some additions and subtractions to our packs, although mostly additions — Crocs, a small fleece blanket, a frisbee, a few more ounces of bourbon — we made the short drive from my apartment to the trailhead on an unimaginably perfect Friday morning. Sunny, not a cloud in the sky, temperatures forecast to peak in the low 70s and drop to around freezing at night. Chris and I had gone on several dayhikes earlier in the year (including one in the Welcome Creek Wilderness), but this would be her first backpacking trip of the year. Blodgett Canyon Trail is superb from the start. Within the first five miles, a ridgetop arch and two waterfalls are encountered, with views of massive cliffs and a wide mountain stream being almost constant. The trail receives substantial traffic to a pack bridge at the three-mile mark, significant use to the two waterfalls, and then use drops off substantially after that; mostly being backpackers or trail runners or hardy dayhikers from that point forward.
Once past the second waterfall, an impressive cascade with great spots to sit and relax and watch the water rush by, the trail becomes more immersed in the forest. Views of the mountains and the creek become seldom, but the wildness and charm of the forest becomes more palpable. Although the trail was in good condition, we stopped over a dozen times to clear deadfall from the path using a small folding handsaw. Aside from these interruptions, we were able to keep a steady pace on the trail and climbed further into the canyon on a nearly imperceptible uphill grade. For the most part the deadfall we cleared was small in stature but large in inconvenience to hikers. If the trees had fallen at a height that required us to break our stride to go over, under or around them (see “prepositioning” in the backpacker’s glossary) we stopped, got out the saw, and solved the problem.
Since we were doing an out-and-back hike it only made sense to remove the obstacles we encountered rather than leave them to enjoy on our way out, or for others to enjoy on their way in. Self-interest with a side effect of community service. We were a bit shy of the six-mile mark when we began to hit drifts of snow on the trail, which were more of an inconvenience than the majority of the deadfall. We’d be able to walk on top of the snow for a few steps, then posthole for a few steps, then be back on dirt for a few hundred feet before encountering another snowy section.
Fortunately, we only had to repeat that artless and uninspiring process a few times before we made it to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness boundary. At 1.3 million acres, the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness is one of the largest wild areas in the Lower 48. For the next two days, we would soaking up the scenery of the few acres known as Sevenmile Meadow, leaving plenty of acreage to explore on future trips. No need to be greedy. Shortly before the meadow proper we reached a beautiful grove of pine trees that was interspersed with several fire rings, a few makeshift benches, and obvious spots favored for tents. We set down our packs and headed to the creek to filter water before exploring the forest and meadow for the spot where we would set up camp. While the pine grove had several redeeming qualities, after strolling through the meadow and deliberating the merits of various camping locales, we ultimately settled on what turned out to be The Perfect Spot.
In the middle of the meadow and on the lee side of a small line of trees were two adequately flat yet pleasantly sloped spots for our tents. Oriented to receive the warming rays of the morning sun, with jaw-dropping views of mountains on three sides and a reasonable degree of shelter from the wind, calling it a great place to camp would perhaps be an understatement. Adding to the ambience was a small but powerful waterfall a few hundred feet to the north. Gushing with snow melt, to refer to the joyful sounds of this natural feature as mere “background noise” would be too close to the pejorative, almost an insult. Perhaps the best description I can attribute to it would be to call the constant, calming sound an audible and refreshing reminder of the season.
With tents pitched and water procured, only food and fire building were left on the to-do list. On cool-weather trips with relatively short hikes to camp, I tend to bring fresher food and enjoy a nice meal in the woods, especially if there is someone else to appreciate the effort and join in the pleasure of mixing good food with great scenery (the scenery is always better than the food, in my experience). While Chris gathered firewood and prepped the fire to light, I set up the kitchen on the lee side of a flat, just-about-the-right height boulder that was conveniently located a few hundred feet from our tents.
Spinach, mushroom, red pepper, green onion and jalapeno quesadillas are good anywhere, but were particularly delicious in Sevenmile Meadow. We watched sunlight and shadows creep across the landscape as twilight approached, which was almost as entertaining as reality TV. As darkness became the defining characteristic of our surroundings the fire was lit and we enjoyed the warmth, light, sounds and smells of burning wood for a few hours. Once the fire had ceased to provide its benefits we stretched for a few moments before walking over to our respective tents under a star-filled sky. After becoming situated in my sleeping bag I found myself focused on how beautiful the meadow would be in the morning rather than on sleep. Fortunately, within a few minutes of cinching down the hood on my bag and closing my eyes my body decided that sleep was indeed important; I only woke a few times before morning.
The morning had a distinct chill to it, but was not cold, even though light frost coated the grass and the tent. I awoke right around sunrise, but lay in my sleeping bag for a bit to enjoy the warmth and simple comfort it provided. When the glow of morning light outside the tent became too much to resist, I changed into my hiking clothes, pulled on my down jacket, unzipped the tent door, and filled my eyes with the breathtaking beauty of the meadow. It was a scene awe-inspiring enough to make one wonder if they were dreaming. The mountains, meadow, trees, stream, and waterfall were all bathed in the innocent luminescence of morning light. I walked around the meadow with a delicate and almost deferential regard for the landscape, feeling pangs of guilt as I took pictures to try and “capture” the scene.
After my morning stroll through the surroundings, I retrieved the food bag and stove from the tree where it had been functionally but formlessly hung the night before. Wishing to enjoy a cup of coffee and the scenery, I decided to slip back into my sleeping bag after removing the fly from my tent and brew up a quick cup while waiting for Chris to emerge from her tent. I’d barely taken a sip before I heard the zipper of her tent and footsteps approaching. She sat down on a sleeping pad outside the tent and we enjoyed a few unhurried pre-breakfast cups of coffee and snacks as the sunlight filled the meadow and warmed the air; our focal point for the morning was the steep, snow-covered slope and craggy peak directly south of the meadow.
By mid-morning our hunger compelled us to move over to the kitchen area of the sprawling campsite we occupied. The morning’s menu was one of my backpacking favorites: breakfast quesadillas. It takes a bit of prep time, but biting into a tortilla filled with scrambled eggs, green onions, jalapenos, salsa, and cheese is worth the extra effort when compared to oatmeal. Once the meal had been consumed, which took a much shorter time than preparing it, we cleaned the dishes and discussed our tentative plans for the day as the sun shone brighter and the clock began to approach noon.
Across the meadow we saw a hiker who, coincidentally, was the person who had recommended the meadow to me as a great spring backpacking destination. He had been passed by two trailrunners on his way in and said that the parking lot was as crowded as he had ever seen it, but being seven miles away from the trailhead limited the number of people who journeyed up to the meadow on casual dayhikes. We enthusiastically thanked him for his excellent suggestion and chatted for nearly an hour before he began his hike back to the trailhead.
At this point in the day, what could fairly be considered early afternoon, Chris and I had yet to put on our hiking boots. It was unsettlingly apparent that we had entered the Croc Zone at some point that morning and had yet to exit. While not as dangerous or “epic” as the Death Zone on Mount Everest, the Croc Zone does have certain consequences, including but not limited to lethargy, lack of motivation, increased use of hammocks, and a general tendency to just hang out around camp all day. Fortunately, after recognizing our situation we took the necessary steps to remedy our condition, namely putting on hiking boots, hanging our food bag, and leaving the meadow to explore up the rocky northern side of the meadow where a watercourse tumbled with a fascinating mix of grace and power.
We slowly and carefully zigzagged our way up the slope, past the lower falls, through thick brush, and ultimately on exposed rock. The melting snow slid down the rock in sheets in many spots and patches of blooming glacier lilies made for beautiful and intimate scenes to admire, with sweeping vistas of mountains adding a contrast of majesty to the minutia that captured our attention. We explored up and down the waterfall for a few hours, with a good bit of time spent basking in the sun on a perfect ledge a few hundred feet above our camp, before heading back down to camp once afternoon began to shift into evening.
From our vantage point above the meadow, we’d seen a few trail runners and dayhikers pass through, but only a trio of backpackers and their two dogs would spend the night. Chris gathered wood and prepped an evening campfire while I filtered a few liters of water for dinner, breakfast and general consumption. After dinner, we warmed ourselves by the fire and admired the stars until nearly midnight.
Although it was chillier that night than the previous one, I still slept soundly and awoke feeling refreshed. A thin layer of ice had formed in my water bottle overnight; enough to cause me to ponder the consequences of temperature for a moment before taking a sip. Retrieved the food bag, made coffee, and enjoyed the last few minutes of peaceful morning reverie before packing up. Chis and I had another leisurely morning in the meadow, drinking coffee, throwing Frisbee, and enjoying the scenery, before packing up and hitting the trail.
The hike back to the trailhead was relatively uneventful but thoroughly enjoyable. Great weather and great scenery were the norm. However, it was nice to not have to stop to scramble over or saw out as much deadfall. Reaping the benefits of our work was a nice way to wind down the trip. We made it back to the trailhead at approximately 5 o’clock. We set our packs down and stretched for a solid ten minutes or so, which my muscles were grateful for in the subsequent days, before climbing in the car and leaving the beautiful granite cliffs of Blodgett Canyon in the rearview mirror.