Big Sand Lake to Blodgett Canyon


Forest Service Trails #4 and #19

Why? Scenery, rocks, moose, and a bit of history.

Season: Mid-July through September

Ease: Difficult because it’s a long hike.

If you’ve read Norman McLean’s book, “A River Runs Through it,” then you’ve read his story, “The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky.” In it he told of his one day, 28-mile hike from Elk Summit, Idaho, to Hamilton, Montana. He probably missed a lot by going so fast, especially since by the time he got to Blodgett Canyon, he was suffering from the effects of dehydration. He probably also didn’t appreciate Duck Creek, Big Sand Lake, or the delights of Blodgett Pass, either.

The hike is a relatively easy one when spread over a few days, and the delights start at the Elk Summit trailhead. When we drove up to Elk Summit to drop off some of the hikers before taking a car to Hamilton, there were moose. When we returned a few hours later, there were moose. A good omen, both.

The trail from Elk Summit heads up a bit at first, then down. It’s spends a lot of time in woods of Englemann spruce, pine, and sub alpine fir. There’s a fine resting spot about 4 miles in at Duck Creek, a place well supplied with sitting rocks and cool water. On the way down to it, there are glimpses of the Bitterroot Divide and of the big curve Big Sand Creek and the trail take as they near Blodgett Pass.

Big Sand Lake is essentially a big swelling in Big Sand Creek, but a particularly picturesque one, especially with a bull moose at one end. In August, the huckleberries in the woods between it and the pass should be ripe, something you might need to allow for in your planning of hike time. They slowed us down considerably.

The last couple miles up to Blodgett Pass were well switch backed and relatively easy, and the pass itself is well worth a long rest. The views are fine, the rocks superb. I particularly liked Blodgett and Shattuck Mountains and the ridge between them, their light colored rock striped and streaked with darker rocks and linear plantings of trees, their tops sporting a few jagged outcrops.

The trail switchbacks down from the pass to Blodgett Creek, then follows the creek through Blodgett Canyon to the trailhead near Hamilton. This part of the hike is relatively level, alternating between woods and meadows. There are small falls and pools along this exceptionally fine-looking and very clear stream.

Blodgett Canyon has some of the finest rocks I’ve ever seen. In places its walls rise 4,000 feet above the valley floor. They are sheer, slabby, and grey, arranged in peaks and ridges, and looking stark, remote, and cold. Some are streaked in tones from white to black, just like those at the pass. Most all are jagged on top, for these are new rocks, as things go. There are few trees because of the steep slopes, I think, rather than because of the elevation.

If you don’t have time or energy for the backpack, the trip into the canyon from Hamilton comes highly recommended. It’ll take only a few minutes for you to realize why this is the most popular hike in the Bitterroots.

But no matter which hike you do, head into town when you’re done and visit the old fashioned ice cream parlor. It’s probably not the same one McLean mentioned in his story, but it serves a fine ice cream soda.

Trail Notes: Finding places to camp between Duck Lake and Blodgett Creek can be a bit of an issue except for Big Sand Lake, so keep that in mind on that stretch.

Directions: Take the road to Elk Summit, a right off Highway 12 about 1 mile past Powell, Idaho. Drive until it ends at the lake. The trailhead is on the left before the end of the road, near a small cabin. We parked in the lot above the lake and near the end of the road.

To find the Hamilton trailhead, take Highway 93 south from Missoula or Lolo, until you reach Hamilton. Turn right at the light on Main Street. This road winds this way and that for about 5 miles until you come to a sign that directs you to the Blodgett trailhead straight ahead or the Canyon Creek trailhead to your left. There’s parking at both.

Note: The car shuttle for this hike is time consuming. We used 2 cars for 6 people, one of the cars a van. We dropped people at Elk Summit (2 hours of side trip, give or take), and drove the van to the Blodgett Canyon trailhead. By the time we were back at Elk Summit, we’d been on the road for 11 hours. We spent that night at the summit, as well as our last night after the ice cream sodas and dinner. That last night there also were moose, and a bunch of hoofed creatures stomping around in the dark. Because we were sleeping out rather than in a tent, I mostly wished for a hard hat.

Information: Stevensville Ranger District, Bitterroot National Forest (406) 777-5461; Powell Ranger District, CWNF, (208) 476-0129

Maps: USGS Cedar Ridge and Jeanette Mountain, Idaho; Blodgett Mountain, Idaho-Montana; and Prinz Ridge, Montana

Connections: Blodgett Lake is just 1 ½ miles farther up the canyon from the trail down from Blodgett Pass. It sits in a basin surrounded by huge granite in the form of boulders, boulder slides and boulders-to-be that still remain up on the mountains. It’s different rock than the shiny beige granite in vertical slabs that characterize lower Blodgett Canyon. Here, it’s mostly light grey rock with dark highlights, the same stuff that’s at nearby Blodgett Pass. Clumps of sub alpine fir decorate the entire area and provide shade at lakeside. There are views down canyon of the Blodgett Pass area and of the tip of Blodgett Peak.