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Helena, Montana

Four Wheel Drive and then Hike to Historic Mann Gulch

2.4 Miles Total - 1535 ft gain - Out-and-Back Trail

Originally added by Christina Adele Warburg-Hon

A hike to the location where the Man Gulch fire claimed the lives of 13 firefighters in 1949. ​This incident changed that way that fires are fought and is an important part of firefighting history. Not only will you get a better understanding of the incident by visiting here, but the drive and then hike to get here is an adventure in and of itself.

In 1949, a fire started in a remote area of the Gates of the Mountains wilderness, a gulch east of the Upper Missouri River. Fifteen smokejumpers were dropped in to fight it. Thirteen died. The United States Forest Service drew lessons from the tragedy of the Mann Gulch fire by designing new training techniques and safety measures that developed how the agency approached wildfire suppression. The agency also increased emphasis on fire research and the science of fire. I would recommend reading Norman MacLean's (Author of a River Runs Through It) book "Of Young Men and Fire" to give you a good background on this spot before visiting.

If you are a history buff like I am, then this is a spot you will definitely want to see as an added plus it is scenic too. However, it is not easy to get here. You should have a map and be familiar with both four-wheel drive and route finding. This is not a spot for beginners. Part of the reason this spot was so dangerous for those firefighters back then were how remote it was, and it remains that way today.

To get to the starting point of the hike (it's not really a trailhead), follow these directions from Helena. 

  1. Head north on I 15. 
  2. Take Exit 226 MT434 wolf creek .2mi. 
  3. Turn Right onto Walsh St 325ft. 
  4. Then turn left onto Recreation Rd 1.1 mi. 
  5. Continue on Craig Frontage Rd, 2.2 mi. 
  6. Turn right onto Beartooth Rd, follow for 11.8 mi. 
  7. Turn left unto the unmarked road that follows Willow Creek and go 2.8 mi. 
  8. Park to the area on the right. 

These roads are not necessarily signed well, so make sure to have a detailed top map with you and keep track of the mileage. I included a satellite image of where the trail begins (note the looped tire tracks), to aid you in finding it. The GPS Coordinates are 46.910760, -111.862535.

From here, you will begin your hike. It is uphill and mostly exposed in the sun. Make sure to bring your sunscreen. It is 2.4 miles each way and has an elevation gain of 1535 feet. Once you descend in the gulch, you will see crosses to mark the locations where each firefighter passed. 

There is an alternate way to get here as well. You can boat to the Meriweather Picnic Area on the Missouri River and follow the trail 3.4 miles each way with 1600 ft elevation gain. So if four-wheel driving isn't your thing, know that there is another way to get here. We didn't go that way, so we can't offer much information about that approach. Only to say that it does exist.

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