Take a Walk Through Time “The old Lakota was wise. He knew that man’s heart away from nature becomes hard: he knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to lack of respect for humans, too. So he kept his youth close to its softening influence.” —Chief Luther Standing Bear, Oglala Sioux
Few places in Montana offer the adventurous and observant hiker a better opportunity to walk through time than do the Bridger Mountains. Pay close attention and you can experience the natural world much like the Native Americans and early explorers who traveled through these mountains in the past. Like them, you will discover that wildflowers still grow in profusion along the trails. Hawks and eagles still circle and soar overhead as they migrate home. Mountain goats, ground squirrels, pikas, and marmots still skitter along the rocks and if you look closely, you’ll discover that even the rocks themselves have a story to tell.
Stop, look, and listen as you walk along this spectacular ridge, and enjoy your walk through time.
Follow the Footsteps Of Early Explorers
Many of the early mountain tribes, including the Salish, the Pend d’Oreille, and the Kootenai, crossed Bridger Ridge to hunt buffalo in the Shields and Yellowstone valleys. Sacajawea, the Shoshone interpreter who traveled with Lewis and Clark, knew this area well. on their journey home, the two explorers separated. Lewis traveled a northern route while Clark headed south. When Clark entered the Gallatin Valley, two major routes across the mountains were visible to him. One was the Flathead Pass, north of here. The other was the Rocky Canyon, now known as the Bozeman Pass. On the advice of Sacajawea, Clark chose the Rocky Canyon route which brought him directly to the Yellowstone River near what is now Livingston, Montana. This route was also preferred by John Bozeman and became part of the Bozeman Trail.
Jim Bridger preferred Sacajawea’s other route. The Bridger Range was named in honor of Jim Bridger, the famous trailblazer who scouted a trail that passed through this mountain range.
Discover the Geological Past
The Bridger mountain range is the result of over 1.5 billion years of mountain building, a process which has included faulting, thrusting, and fold- ing. These so-called “tectonic” events are responsible for most of the mountain ranges in Western Montana. As recently as 10,000 years ago, large glaciers pushed their way through the area, carving the wide-open valleys and cirque basins we see today.
But there’s more to look for as you explore these ancient geological wonders. Sedimentary rocks such as the sandstone and limestone you see at the top of the Sacajawea Trail were once deposited at the bottom of ancient seas. These rocks have since been uplifted and fold- ed to form many of the ridges along which the trail follows. Look closely, and you will see signs of the sea, including bits of coral, shells, and other small aquatic animals and plants embedded in the rock.
Be Prepared for Weather
Because the Bridger Mountains trend north and south, weather often moves in from the west. So while the west side of the Bridgers receives more sun and wind (creating the thermals on which the raptors ride), it is cooler with more snow on the east side of the range. As you hike up the ridge, notice where the wind funnels the snow between Sacajawea and Hardscrabble Peaks above Fairy Lake. As the snow melts in the late spring and into the summer, you can still see bedrock scratched and smoothed by an ancient glacier that carved those open bowls and left behind stacks of tumbled rocks. Bring plenty of water for yourself and your four-legged family members you hike with. Water isn’t available along the hike!
Watch for signs of how the wind and weather have created different growing environments as you proceed up the mountain. Above Fairy Lake, there is less soil and smaller, more dwarfed, and twisted trees known as krummholz. Notice, too, how little, sheltered growing environments are created on the downward side of many of these wind-twisted trees. Here, only the hardiest alpine plants are able to survive in this harsh environment.
But pay close attention: these same windswept conditions can contribute to fast-moving changes of weather year-round. As you hike on the east side of the mountain, rain, hail, wind and lightning can move in suddenly from the west and put hikers at real risk. Always be prepared for a variety of conditions, and if the weather is questionable, plan your outing for earlier in the day.
Enjoy the Flowers
In the late spring and summer, the Bridger Mountains are awash with the bright colors of wildflowers. Depending on the time of year and where you are in the Bridgers, look for glacier lilies pushing through the lingering snow, followed by buttercups, alpine bluebells, columbine, and sandwort.
Even those knowledgeable in alpine wildflowers can have difficulty distinguishing one species from another, so bring along a field guide to identify each flower by name. Your world will be richer for knowing them. Please remember, though, that wildflowers are delicate and often struggle to survive, particularly in these higher elevations. Stay on the trails so you do not disturb them and their habitat.
Scan the Sky for Raptors
Bridger Ridge is one of the best places in the country to view migrating golden eagles. During the peak migration period, early to mid-October, hikers might see more than 100 eagles in a day as well as up to sixteen other species of raptors, including hawks, ospreys, and falcons as they migrate home.
You know how skiers get to the top of the mountain, but did you know those raptors also catch a “lift” up to the ridge? The sun heats the ground and the warm air rises, drawing cooler air underneath. Raptors simply spread their wings and catch these rising “thermals,” some- times traveling thousands of feet into the air. They then glide for miles without even flapping their wings.
Although fall is the best time to view the largest number and variety of raptors along Bridger Ridge, look for these magnificent birds soaring overhead no matter what time of the year.
Look & Listen for Wildlife
If you’re walking along the trail above Fairy Lake and hear a high-pitched call, it could be the sound of a pika warning of your arrival. These small mammals keep busy in the summer storing up “haystacks” of grasses upon which they feed all winter long.
You might encounter a number of other animals as they, too, forage for food. Watch for yellow-bellied marmots, snowshoe hares, and weasels. You may even see a mountain goat or two, scrambling along the ridge. Moose and an occasional black bear have also been viewed along both the Bridger and Fairy Lake trails.
Remember, all of these animals are wild and should never be approached.
Listen too for the songs of birds in the forest and sub-alpine meadows. You might hear the calls of pine siskins, white-crowned sparrows, mountain bluebirds, American robins, and rosy-finches, to name a few. You may also hear the drumming of various woodpeckers as they communicate or search out insects in the trunks of trees. if you hear a strange call that you can’t identify, it could very well be that of one of the jay species, which are noted for their ability to mimic a variety of sounds.
Have a Great Hike
The Bridger Bowl and Sacajawea trails will transport you through some of the most beautiful countries in Montana. Stop, look, listen and enjoy the rich diversity of biology, geology, botany, and history you encounter along the way. Like the earliest travelers who passed along this ridge before, explore it—and enjoy it.
Reprinted from National Forest Service brochure