December 14, 2014
The Not-So-Welcome Creek Wilderness
Back on May 24th, my friend Jimmy Grant and I headed up to the well known Rock Creek drainage. Our goal for the day was to start at the Welcome Creek trailhead and run up to the top of Mt. Cleveland. To do that we had to enter the Welcome Creek Wilderness area, a heavily timbered 28,000 acre area with steep, rocky slopes. Welcome creek cuts through the northern Sapphire mountain range just south of Missoula. Unfortunately Jimmy's sister needed his car, so we were stuck with her open top Jeep Wrangler. May in Montana is not like May in the rest of the country. It historically involves freezing rain, clouds and snow melt from higher elevations which cause the rivers to 'blow out'.
The ride from Missoula to the Welcome Creek trail was horrific. It wasn't that cold outside, for Montana standards, but the wind and rain with the open top Jeep was bone chilling. I had a blanket draped over me and I still couldn't feel any part of my body. By the time we made it to the trail head we both had to do push ups and jumping jacks just to get blood flowing to our extremities again!
The run started off with a really cool suspension bridge over Rock Creek. Why is there always a group of kids jumping up and down in the middle of the bridge trying to break it? Once we made it past the madness we hit a nice section of dirt single track. This seemed to be a good start to our day..
After the first section of beautiful single track, the trail cut into the side slope of the mountains. The trail consisted of uneven, wet and icy rocks. On one side you had a large boulder field and the other was overgrown with pricker bushes hanging over the creek. The trail closely shadowed the meandering creek and at several points the trail literally was the creek!
This is where things to a turn for the worse. We had run only a mile or so and then we crossed the creek via a nicely crafted log bridge but then all of a sudden the trail disappeared. After shredding ourselves with pricker bush after pricker bush we finally just stopped and looked around. All we could find were old rusted machine parts and beer cans. We couldn't tell if the trail was covered by the rising creek or if we were just lost. Jimmy hopped the creek and found a trail on the other side. We were never supposed to cross the creek. Oh well, so we continued along the rocky trail until we came up on this really old cabin.
The Welcome Creek Wilderness area was once well known for mining. In 1888 the largest gold nugget (1.5 pounds) in Montana's history was found in the Welcome Creek Wilderness. It later became a hideout for outlaws who took residence in the old abandoned mining cabins. There are only two cabins left that are still in decent condition. We came upon the Carron cabin the Cinnabar creek drainage converges with the Welcome creek drainage. This cabin was way out in the middle of nowhere. It was interesting to learn that this isolated and unforgiving place had such history. After we inspected the cabin we continued on what looked to be the trail. Who ever had lived here must have created several trails to set traps, gather wood and collect water from the creek. We went down every trail and none of them went further than a hundred yards. At one point we ended up bottoming out at the creek and found several bear prints in the snow. There was no where else to go so we just climbed straight up the mountain. We stopped in a clearing somewhere near the top of this unnamed mountain with the cold Montana landscape stretching for miles in front of our eyes.
Jimmy and I took some time to eat a few gels and enjoy the solitude one can only find in the Montana wilderness! Then we trudged back down the loose mountain slope and found our way back to the cabin. The way back didn't take us that long. We had only made it a few miles into the wilderness area even though it took us a few hours to get there!
Many of my friends fish on the infamous Rock Creek drainage and they always recommended I check out the trails. The trip was eventful and the running wasn't that great but this area was beautiful. In Montana we are spoiled with beautiful backcountry areas and its hard to keep that appreciation year after year. I'm happy that I went out and explored the Welcome Creek wilderness because it reminded me just how amazing this place is. If you head out here make sure you do it in late summer or early fall when the creek is low. Maybe one day I'll find the trail past Carron Cabin up to Mt Cleveland!