The email from my manager, stern but instructive, arrived Wednesday afternoon. I had too many vacation days, and I had to use ’em or lose ’em. Did I understand? Yes, quite, and I would not be losing them. I set to planning.
Three hours later, my lover and adventure partner Kara McMahon flipped open the gazetteer and asked, “Where should we go? And what should we do?”
The answer was: anywhere, and whatever we wanted. We could go north. Or south or east or west. We felt free and ready.
Our first requirements: explorable terrain, above the tree line and unknown to us. Alpine exploration has long fed our souls, and too much time in the valley causes our relationship to suffer until we get our next fix. The second requirement was water—a clean remote lake for skinny-dipping. Lastly, we wanted to see elk in a season other than autumn. We regularly chase them on fall days, trying to get one in the freezer. But outside of hunting season, our adventures tend toward summits and ridges, where elk are only occasional. We hoped to observe these social creatures without a rifle in hand, without killing in mind.
To satisfy the “new to us” component, we decided on the high ranges of south-central Montana—the Madison, Gallatin and Beartooth ranges. The hunting season prior I had tromped through a drainage in the Madisons, finding lots of elk and grizzly sign and thoroughly enjoying the raw, rugged country. We had shooting opportunities every day, and two in our party harvested fine animals deep in the range, but well below their soaring summits. These mountains are high by western Montana standards (over 10,000 feet) and met all our requirements. We had our destination.
Kara has a past in the area as well. In 1855, her great-great-grandfather George Thexton moved to the states from England. He settled near Ennis, working as a blacksmith and gold miner and raising horses and cattle on a ranch that’s now on the National Register of Historic Places. His name can still be seen where he etched it onto a wooden sign at the Star Livery in Virginia City. The ranch occupied broad, dry flats on the valley’s west side, above the Madison River a few miles south of Ennis.
Across the valley and east of Thexton’s old homestead lies Cedar Mountain. This towering mass appears from the valley as a jumble of peaks separating Fan Mountain from The Sphinx, an unmistakable summit. Viewed from the valley, Cedar is hardly dramatic, but the map revealed a consistent three-mile ridgeline horseshoeing around Cedar Lake. The summit tops out at 10,768 feet, and the lowest saddle lies less than 400 feet below. It appeared to be a perfect destination for an alpine stroll. We’d just have to get there. A nearby trail led to a small tarn known as Lake Cameron (8,947 feet), just four or so miles from the North Fork Bear Creek Trailhead. This meant we’d be able to log trail miles for the first part of the trip, then go off-trail for the alpine segment. In other words: ideal. Early the next morning we threw packs in the rig, coffeed-up at Bernice’s Bakery, and before we knew it we were pulling into the dusty trailhead. After a quick repacking of bags, we headed up the trail.
The trail’s first half-mile follows Bear Creek's swift-flowing north fork east into the Madisons. Then it turns north, climbing 2,400 vertical feet up a sun-baked, south-facing slope, through wildflower meadows and towering old-growth conifers. After four miles the trail drops into the lake basin, nestled among forested ridgetops, magazine-quality campsites and incredible wildlife habitat.
We took our time on the ascent, frequently stalling to watch the late-afternoon light dance across the far-as-you-can-see landscape. Cresting the last steep section, my eye caught the unmistakable brown of animal. I froze mid-stride, Kara bumping into me. Two elk calves bounced about a meadow 30 yards away, stopping when they saw us. Deeper in the woods more brown moved, slowly grazing across the trail. The 20-animal herd was composed of cows and calves, but only the two calves could see us. We didn’t think they knew what we were.