Continental Divide Trail, Big Sky Variant
This road crossing at MT Route 200 marks the end of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and the beginning of the Big Sky Variant. The Official Continental Divide Trail doesn’t diverge until after Helena but after crossing the road, your decision to take the variant will most likely be made.
Hitching Into Lincoln
It’s only about 18 miles into town and traffic is frequent enough to provide an easy hitch. The popularity of the trail makes hikers a common phenomenon in this part of Montana.
Ridgeline Into Helena
The next ridgeline into Helena is exposed, hot, and dry. There are sections of 20+ miles without available water. Luckily, the trail maintenance is excellent and it’s easy to make miles. Newly added CDT blazes make navigation a breeze.
From Highway 12, it is about a 17-mile hitch into Helena. Heavy traffic along the highway means getting a hitch is a guarantee. Helena has everything a large town should, post office, hotels, and a Mcdonalds.
The Big Sky Variant Diverges
South of Helena, the Official Continental Divide Trail meanders west while the Big Sky Variant continues south, through Leadville – an old mine. The trail follows mainly 4×4 roads and keeps to the mountains. Sandy soils and mild slopes make the hiking pleasant.
Crossing I-15 leads into boulder-strewn mountains. Trail maintenance breaks down slightly but the outdoor trail culture of Montana keeps the trail clear. These mountains are beautiful and surprising, full of water and large trees. Delmoe Lake can be seen from the trail. From here, the hike leads downhill, out of the mountains.
The landscape changes from forest to rangeland. From Forest Service roads to BLM roads. This section is sandy, and hot, with no trees for shade.
Road Walk Into Whitehall
There is a 9-mile road walk – paved – into the town of Whitehall. This section is hot and desolate but the pastoral scenes of rural Montana are memorable.
Resupply At The Jefferson IGA
- A small but well-stocked grocery store. Here you can find just about anything at regular prices.
The trail continues to follow roads as it crosses the Jefferson River. The river valley is beautiful and there are ample camping opportunities along her banks. Boat launches also have pit-toilets, which makes the morning routine that much better.
Tobacco Root Mountains
Stretching over 10,000′ into the air, these treeless and snow-capped peaks provide some high alpine hiking opportunities. Climb over 9,000 feet in elevation and breathe in fresh Montana air. After climbing up and over this range, the jaunt into McAllister is mild in comparison. Dirt roads lead to the pavement, which leads into town. A post office is located nearly on the trail, making resupply easy.
Wild West Trail Notes
Most of the Big Sky Variant follow well-maintained trails and dirt roads. The largest obstacle is the Tobacco Root Mountains. Their popularity with the locals makes for easy hiking and spectacular views. Enjoy this section as much as possible!