Headquarters Pass Trail Guide | Bob Marshall Wilderness
Hike to Headquarters Pass, the gateway to Montana’s 1,009,356 acre Bob Marshall Wilderness. Discover one of Earth’s most preserved mountain ecosystems.

It’s a hot, sunny July day in 2015, and much of the state is on fire as Cuiksa maneuvers my Subaru Forester over one of the Big Sky Country’s winding mountain highways at 80 mph. We’re headed for the rugged limestone mountains of the 1,009,356 acre Bob Marshall Wilderness in search of new memories to add to our Rocky Mountain collection. The Bob is one of our nation’s wildest ecological treasures and surely one of the state’s most remote regions Gripping my seat, the way my mom used to when I first started driving, I considered my decision to put Cuiksa behind the wheel. She had just returned from two years in Thailand where the most recent of her (limited) driving experiences nearly included a stint in Thai prison. Forgetting to check the side view mirror, she opened her car door into an oncoming motorbike containing a family of five, knocking the whole unhappy lot of them onto the pavement. ‘It’s like riding a bike, right?’ I thought, relaxing my grip on the seat as the road straightened and the threat of falling off the edge was behind us. An image of trees on a mountainside in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Our destination, Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, is one of the last places where grizzlies still poop onto the open prairie. An area that marks the breathtaking convergence of the Great Plains folding into the northern Rockies, it is ranked among the top one percent of wildlife habitat remaining in the lower 48 states, and represents a repository of unparalleled biological diversity. Though Cuiksa and I are, by now, seasoned travelers, one would not say that we excel at navigation. As a result, we find ourselves on a dirt road, which turned out to be rather far from our intended destination. Several miles later, realizing our error, Cuiksa stops the vehicle and we exit the Subaru to orient ourselves. In a stroke of luck, that throughout the years has come to characterize many of our mistakes, Cuiksa spots something on the side of the road. Wild raspberries. As our mouths relish in the flavorful ecstasy of these candy-like forest fruits, we pat ourselves on the back in appreciation of our subpar wayfinding abilities and feast. Satisfied, we return to the car and reverse our tracks. Passing by the Old North Trail sign, we stop to read. “What a well-written sign,” Cuiksa exclaims. About an hour later, we finally find our camp, unpack our hiking gear, cook dinner, and dream. Picture of a woman named Cuiksa holding her hiking boots against a mountain backdrop The following morning we begin our hike at the Headquarters Pass trail, the high and rugged main gateway to the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The fifth-largest wilderness in the contiguous United States, the Bob comprises more than 1,700 miles of trails and is considered to be one of the most completely preserved mountain ecosystems in the world. It is named after one of the principal founders of the Wilderness Society, Robert ‘Bob’ Marshall, a forester, conservationist, writer, and wilderness activist celebrated for his voracious drive to explore, chart, and preserve. Marshall is remembered for being different than the other founders of the Wilderness Society, who were known to sit around theorizing about the importance and threats to the wilderness. He had an unquenchable appetite for roaming untamed lands. Seeing the wilderness as a place of masculine physicality and direct engagement with the natural world, Marshall was more intimately familiar with the nation’s remaining wild lands than anyone of his generation. As a result, he fought for the protection of primeval land, and 25 years after his death, Congress passed the Wilderness Act of 1964, which protected nine million acres of federal land and included the Bob among the original areas set aside for preservation. The Bob Marshall is home to the greatest population density of species found anywhere in the United States (outside of Alaska), and though we did not see any on our excursion, its inhabitants include grizzlies, moose, elk, pika, black bear, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, wolverines, mountain lions, lynx, gray wolves, bald eagles, osprey, pelicans, trumpeter swans, and ground squirrels. Headquarters Pass looms beneath the 9,392 foot Rocky Mountain, the highpoint of both the Sawtooth Range and the entire Bob Marshall Wilderness. Hiking through grassy meadows and pristine forests, we pass over a waterfall. We ascend further up the zig-zagging trail to Headquarters Pass and towering limestone caves come into view. Montana is a mecca for cavers and the Bob Marshall contains the highest concentration of caves in the state, including the deepest known limestone cave in the continental United States. A panoramic picture of the Bob Marshall Wilderness with rocks in the foreground The Bob’s thick limestone reefs, sedimentary rock created from the compressed shells of ancient marine life, were formed more than 500 million years ago during the Cambrian period and are riddled with breathtaking caves. Limestone can be dissolved by rainwater, resulting in caves decorated with iconic features such as stalactites, stalagmites, columns, crystals and flowstone. Arriving at our destination we consume the magnificent view that stretches before us – wilderness as far as the eyes can see.

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