Rocky Mountain Highs
Published: June 2009
By Jeff Wise
10 wild adventures in the rugged terrain of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming
Last summer, the Rockies burned to the ground. At least, that was the impression the newspaper headlines gave. Truth be told, wildfires did wreak devastation on a nearly unprecedented scale. In the northern Rocky states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, some 2.5 million acres of trees were reduced to ash.
But as severe as the damage was, only a tiny fraction of these vast states was affected — just 1 percent, in fact. And burning a forest is not the same as destroying it. "Fire is part of the ecology of the land," says naturalist Ken Sinay, who runs safaris in and around Yellowstone (see "Wildlife," below). "It opens up the ground to more types of plants, and that in turn increases the diversity of the animals that can live there."
Even after a firestorm, the northern Rockies are one of the most spectacularly scenic regions of the United States, offering a slew of summertime adventures. We surveyed experts throughout the area and came up with 10 of the top guides and outfitters for high-altitude, high-latitude fun. Here's what we found.
In the center of Idaho the alpine peaks of the Sawtooth Range give rise to the headwaters of the Salmon River—the longest-running river within any of the Lower 48 states. As a relatively undiscovered wilderness area, it's a quiet place where you can slip away and find some solitude.
"There's a lot of great off-trail hiking," says Kirk Bachman of Sawtooth Mountain Guides. "Hop a ridge and you're almost guaranteed to be all by yourself." Out in the backcountry, an adventurer can do whatever he or she wants. If you prefer some company in your seclusion, sign up for Bachman's four-day trek: two days spent hiking in and out of camp and two devoted to fishing, scrambling up nearby peaks, and watching mountain goats.
SAWTOOTH MOUNTAIN GUIDES, 208/774-3324, fax 208/774-3729; www.sawtoothguides.com; guided trek $350 per day, double.
For three generations, the Helfrich family has been boating Oregon and Idaho rivers the old-fashioned way, in high-prowed McKenzie drift boats. Looking like some-thing out of a Winslow Homer painting, these 16-foot rowboats are drier and more stable than rubber rafts (and roomy enough for luxury gear, including Dutch ovens for baking fresh bread). They're perfect for exploring wild rivers like Idaho's Middle Fork of the Salmon, which flows 100 miles north through the River of No Return Wilderness before entering the Impassable Canyon, where cliffs loom 1,000 feet overhead. Besides having gorgeous scenery, the river teems with native rainbow and cutthroat trout, making it a paradise for anglers.
DAVE HELFRICH RIVER OUTFITTER, 541/896-3786, fax 541/896-3779; www.efn.org/~helfrich; six-day trip from $1,500 per person, double.
You're right, there is no sea in the northern Rockies. But there is Jackson Lake, a 20-mile-long swath of sky blue in the shadow of the Grand Tetons. Outdoors Adventure River Specialists (O.A.R.S.), which puts together rafting and paddling trips all over the western United States, is the only outfitter with a concession to provide overnight trips on the lake. From a private camp on Grassy Island, on the southern end of the lake, kayakers snake through shoreline canyons, investigate waterfalls, watch for moose, and listen for the rustle of a blue heron's wings. Come nightfall, they gather for hearty meals by the campfire and hard-earned slumber under the wide Wyoming sky. No need to worry about being a skilled paddler on these calm waters—most clients have never been in a kayak before.
O.A.R.S., 209/736-4677, fax 209/736-2902; www.oars.com; five-day trip $680 per person, double.
For the past 11 years, Ken Sinay, a wildlife ecologist with 28 years' experience, has run interpretive wildlife tours under the banner of his company, Yellowstone Safari Co. Trips are tailored to the desires and experience of the clients, which means Sinay spends as much time pointing out elk and bison from the roadside in Yellowstone as he does leading treks into remote wilderness. It's out in the backcountry that he really shows his stuff, steadily bushwhacking through forest and meadow, identifying spoor such as hoofprints and strands of fur, hoping for a glimpse of a wild animal in the full splendor of its natural environment.
Like most guides in the region, Sinay took a slight hit from last year's wildfires. But business should bounce back, right along with the wildlife. "If you're going to have forest, you're going to have fire," he says with a shrug.
YELLOWSTONE SAFARI CO., phone and fax 406/586-1155; www.yellowstonesafari.com; private safari $495 per day for up to three people.
Come 2003, the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition will be in full swing. Montanans, of course, are already gearing up to celebrate. Off the Beaten Path, which offers a wide variety of outdoor adventures in the northern Rockies, has put together a nine-day tour that retraces the expedition's route from the Missouri River's Great Falls, where travelers meet re-enactors dressed as the Corps of Discovery, to Lemhi Pass, where the explorers first flew the Stars and Stripes on the Pacific side of North America. But this trip provides more than a history lesson. Each day is rounded out with either river rafting, canoeing, or walking. And, unlike Lewis and Clark, modern trekkers won't have to eat their dogs or go three years without changing their socks.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH, 800/445-2995 or 406/586-1311, fax 406/587-4147; www.offthebeatenpath.com; $2,195 per person, double.
In the climbing world, there's only one achievement more exalted than reaching the summit of Everest: becoming an Exum guide. Past and present Exum notables include Chuck Pratt, an internationally famous crack-climber; Kim Csizmazia, the top woman ice-climber in the world; and Alex Lowe, a prestigious mountaineer who pioneered group trips to the Everest peak.
While Exum is best known for guiding climbing expeditions in the Grand Tetons, buzz is building about the company's program in City of Rocks, Idaho. A patch of wilderness that looks as if the gods made it just for rock climbers, City of Rocks consists of hundreds of sturdy granite boulders shooting out of the ground, all pockmarked with mouthwatering fissures, cracks, edges, and knobs. The ascents range from easy to damned near impossible, but Exum claims that clients don't need any training at all: even if you're an out-and-out novice, they'll show you the ropes, as it were.
EXUM MOUNTAIN GUIDES, 307/733-2297, fax 307/733-9613; www.exumguides.com; $240 per person, per day, plus $125 guide fees.
Move 'em on! Head 'em up! What better way to play cowboy than by saddling up Old Paint and riding off into the sunset?TP Outfitters' Tim and Judy Peters lead cowpoke-wannabes on horseback trips into the ruggedly dramatic Wind River Range southeast of Jackson Hole. After a day-long ride into the mountains, guests arrive at a base camp kitted out with all the amenities to make a sore-assed greenhorn feel at home: wall tents equipped with cots and woodstoves, and even a solar-powered shower. Each day, city slickers can head off on a day ride, take a hike, go fishing, or just hang around camp. Jack Palance not included.
TP OUTFITTERS, 888/733-5740 or phone/fax 307/733-5740; four-day trip $700 per person.
The Going-to-the-Sun Road, which wends west to east through the bare rock spires and broad-scooped glacial valleys of Montana's Glacier National Park, could be the most dramatic 50 miles of pavement in the continental United States. Its sheer plummets are heart-stopping enough in a car, but on a bicycle—well, that's an experience and a half. It's just one day's adventure when you're riding with Backroads, which conducts six-day bike tours of Glacier that cover altogether some 250 miles of challenging mountain terrain. One word of caution: Backroads is more gung-ho than some other luxury outfitters in the area, so even a trip that's rated only "moderately easy to challenging"—as this one is—might make you feel the burn.
BACKROADS, 800/462-2848 or 510/527-1555, fax 510/527-1444; www.backroads.com; six-day inn-stay trip $1,798 per person, double.
If the prospect of choosing your own adventure puts your head in a tailspin, try the Whitman Sampler approach. Austin-Lehman Adventures, founded 15 years ago, specializes in action-packed combos of get-your-blood-pumping activities—such as a weeklong package in the Gallatin Mountains of southwestern Montana. Sunday is for hiking and biking, Monday is for more hiking and biking, Tuesday is for hiking and white-water rafting, Wednesday is for horseback riding, fishing, and biking, Thursday is for hiking and barbecuing, Friday is for relaxing in the hot tub. Sure, you'll have some sore muscles—but with nightly lodgings in comfortable inns and guest ranches, and no more than seven guests to each guide, you'll feel well looked after.
AUSTIN-LEHMAN ADVENTURES, 800/575-1540 or 406/655-4591, fax 406/651-9236; www.austinlehman.com; $1,948 per person, double.
What is luxury about, really, if not scarcity?By that measure alone, rafting down the Selway River in Idaho's Bitterroot Wilderness Area is a deluxe experience: the Forest Service maintains the area in such a pristine condition by allowing only one group, consisting of no more than 16 people, to launch on the river each day. The American River Touring Association (ARTA) runs four trips a year on the Selway. The route covers 47 miles of steep, fast-flowing water, with rapids that vary from peaceful rock gardens to thundering wave trains. Even the tough spots aren't all Maytag-style action, though. In between stretches of white water, the river slows into crystalline pools filled with Dolly Varden, cutthroat, and rainbow trout.
ARTA RIVER TRIPS, 800/323-2782 or 209/962-7873, fax 209/962-4819; www.arta.org; five-day trip $1,450 per person.