Montana, Day 5: Beehive Basin

Distance: 6.4
Elevation Gained: 1,400′
Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
Time: 3:15
Critters: Marmots, Great Danes


Pros:
– Alpine scenery
– Alpine lake
– Mountains surrounding the alpine lake
– Wildflowers galore

Cons:
– Lots of dead pine trees that fell victim to pine beetles

Details:

Beehive Basin was the last of the hikes I had planned to do in the Big Sky area. I tagged it on almost as an afterthought because it offered neither a remarkable lake or a mountaintop as a destination. That it turned out to be the best hike on the trip outside of Yellowstone (and perhaps even still) is a testament to the notion that the destination is not the point.

However, the destination on this hike is quite stunning. After a series of inclines and flat stretches created by glacial progressions over the course of millions of years, the trail reaches a basin in which a small glacial lake lay surrounded by mountain peaks. Beehive Basin sits at an altitude over 9,200 feet, and the scenery resembles the High Sierra scene of a glacier lake surrounded by stunted trees and craggy peaks.

We had been told and had read that Beehive Basin is the favorite hike in the area. It’s easy to see why; the trail begins with a view of the Big Sky valley and then climbs alongside a trickling creek that drains a glacial valley. The slopes of that valley are carpeted with wildflowers, which, in this particularly slim season, represented the most gorgeous display we had seen yet.

Whenever the sun got too hot, there always seemed to be a nice shady copse of trees under which to rest. The inclines were vigorous, but never overly strenuous. Furthermore, this felt like backcountry hiking into hard-to-reach alpine landscapes that usually require a backpacking trip and several days of hiking to reach. At 6.4 miles, this is still a respectable hike, but it is by no means overly difficult. On this day, we saw a father pulling along three kids, a tough old Montana broad grandmother bringing her grandchildren up the mountain, and an immensely fat dog that somehow managed to make it up the hill.

So, it’s easy to see why this is such a popular hike. The trail follows a staircase pattern, probably created by glacial recession over many thousands of years. The trail would climb or switch-back up a hill, and then there would be a flat stretch that would allow our legs to reset. This pattern would continue until Kelly and I finally reached the basin.

At the basin, there was a small lake. Families sat enjoying the day by fishing or tossing sticks into the lake for dogs to fetch. Backcountry campers occupied hidden nooks. Puffy white cumulus clouds floated lazily overhead, drawing broad, dark shadows on the surrounding peaks. Behind us, the endless mountain country of southern Montana stretched on in the distance, while immediately bellow us, yellow lillies and granite boulders dotted long, gently sloping meadows. It’s a tranquil, yet inspiring scene.

After enjoying the basin for a half an hour, Kelly and I set off in order to meet our tee time. Kelly and I had decided to try golf, at which we were both spectacularly bad until we started to get our act together. We could have easily spent the day up here with a picnic lunch, a few blankets, an umbrella to block out the alpine sun, and a good book. In fact, if you ever make it to Beehive Basin, I recommend you bring all of those and do just that – picnic away.

I end here on the discussion of Gallatin National Forest/Big Sky area by leaving my impressions of it. I’ve spent a lot of time in the dry Sierra Nevadas and some time in the even dryer San Gabriels/San Bernadinos/San Jacintos. My frame of reference for mountains begins with dry, but dramatic slopes covered with tall, but open forests, dotted with granite boulders, and sprinkled with fleeting wildflower cover. The Sierras remain the typical and favored mountain ranges, but mostly due to familiarity.

This section of Montana, which follows the Rocky Mountain forest pattern, has its own distinct characteristics. The tree cover is denser, but due to the shorter growing season, lower. The mountains are equally craggy, but less dramatic. There is much more moisture available, and so there are more meadows and wildflowers. Yet somehow, the meadows don’t seem to match the Sierran meadows, possibly because the taller Sierran trees draw a starker contrast against the open spaces.

However, that’s not to say that Montana does not compare unfavorably. Mountains are mountains, and any experience there is bound to be good. I probably prefer the Sierras out of familiarity and deeper relationship. I would still come to Montana any time to enjoy the rich, picturesque country, covered in deep, primeval forests, yet dazzling in its wildflowers shows. It’s a beautiful place.

July: 28.5 Miles
Year-to-Date: 782.9 Miles

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