Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness: An Excellent Choice for Adventure


The Maloney Basin in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness (Photo by Rick and Susie Graetz)

Butte and Anaconda folks consider this wilderness mountain range and the surrounding forestlands straddling the Great Divide to be their own. They hunt, fish, hike, climb, horse pack and enjoy the numerous roads and trails that reach the area. The Pintlers, as they are often called, are visible on all sides from lower elevations such as Georgetown Lake not far from Anaconda. The biggest peaks are most evident heading northeast out of Wisdom along the Big Hole River.

While not as popular as many of the other wilderness areas in Montana, the Anaconda-Pintler is every bit as rugged and beautiful as the rest. Fifty miles of the Continental Divide bisect it, and summits rising to more than 10,000 feet define its upper reaches.

The 157,874-acre Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness is part of a much larger undeveloped complex of approximately 368,000 acres. Unprotected National Forest roadless lands encircle the designated wilderness and are an integral part of the overall ecosystem. Included in this yet-to-be safeguarded domain is a northern spur off of the Continental Divide in the Pintlers, which connects to the crest of the Sapphire Range. As such, it is a key biological corridor for wildlife migration, including elk, moose, bears, bighorn sheep and mountain goats.

The Anaconda-Pintlers, coupled with 117,000 acres of unroaded country in the Sapphires (part of a wilderness study area), comprise a vast, unbroken landscape that remains wild and free, from the Skalkaho Road on the north to the Big Hole Valley along the southern perimeter. And many of Montana’s big critters call this terrain home.

Two of the nation’s legendary trout streams, Rock Creek and the Big Hole River, gather some of their headwaters from the Pintler high country. Cutthroat and rainbow trout are found in most of the lakes and streams.

Crisscrossed with many good trails that ascend into the cirques, hanging valleys and numerous, beautiful high lakes, this area is an excellent choice for adventure.

In many places in Montana, the Continental Divide Trail actually approximates the Divide. Not so in the Anaconda Range where the mountains are far too rugged. When encountering this segment, hikers need to walk well below the continental watershed. Some trails, such as the Hi-line path out of Maloney Basin, have a semblance of following the Divide, but not for long.

West Goat Peak, at 10,793 feet, is the highest point in the range. Its twin, 10,399-foot East Goat Peak, rises just east of the Divide. The Lost Lakes are cradled in glacial cirques on the northeast facing slopes of the two mountains.

These summits and the surrounding high country are best reached via a trail up La Marche Creek, on the east side of the range and just off of the Big Hole River bottom. The route splits when it reaches the alpine zone and will take a hiker over the Continental Divide through Cutaway Pass. Here also is a chance to trek cross-country along some of the ridgelines into Maloney Basin on the west side of the Divide. Black Bear Meadows and 10,463-foot Warren Peak are at the head of this basin.

Perhaps the greatest concentration of high lakes is in an east-west alignment just below the Continental Divide and centered around 9,498-foot West Pintler and 9,329-foot East Pintler peaks. A road to Pintler Lake from the Big Hole Valley ends at a trailhead pointing into this area.

High country lakes stay frozen into July, and streams can remain bank-full and fast moving before then. Summer is the best time to visit, but the upper reaches of the Anaconda-Pintlers put on a beautiful show in the fall, when the larch trees begin to turn orange. Snow comes early, and approach roads allow for a long backcountry skiing season.

You need not be a hiker, climber or horseback rider to enjoy this landscape, and there is something for everyone here. U.S. Forest Service roads meander into many areas, and campgrounds abound along the perimeter of this wild country. An interagency visitors/travel map, available at ranger stations, especially those in southwest Montana, is an invaluable tool for road travel in the area. A very good Forest Service Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness map outlines the trail system. The Pintlers are on the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest headquartered in Dillon. The most popular access towns are Anaconda, Philipsburg, Wisdom and Wise River.

Rick and Susie Graetz | University of Montana | Department of Geography