Friends of Lolo Peak is a citizens’ group of local residents and businesses, hikers, hunters, anglers and skiers dedicated to permanently protecting the outstanding natural integrity, scenic values, and traditional uses of public lands in the Lolo Peak area for future generations. Further, we support expansion of the Carlton Ridge Research Natural Area (RNA) in order to further protect its unique character.
Imagine a wild, high elevation landscape of forested mountains, alpine lakes, and towering peaks, high ridges, and a bio-diverse eco system. A unique setting in the far backcountry? Not really! With a trailhead less than one hour from Missoula, you can find all these natural features along Carlton Ridge, Lolo Peak, and the Carlton Lake basin. These lands, traditionally inhabited by and still used by the Se’liš (Salish), Qĺispe’ (Pend d’ Oreille or Kalispel), Ktunaxa (Kootenai), and Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) Tribes, are now public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
Access by the public involves a short drive to the Mormon Peak trailhead 8 miles up Forest Service Road 612, just west of Lolo along US highway 12. As Lolo Peak and Carlton Lake become increasingly popular to western Montana’s outdoor recreationists the area continues to retain many natural features. These should be preserved and protected by the Forest Service through expansion of the current Carlton Ridge Research Natural Area and Wilderness protection for the north peak and surrounding lake basin.
Some of the natural features and attractions this land include:
Numerous game and non-game species are present in the Lolo Peak area, as attested to by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks: “From summer range that reaches high into subalpine basins on the mountain’s forested shoulders, to winter haunts where timber crowds the low valley grassland, Lolo Peak is home to deer and elk. Black bear, mountain lion, coyote and wolf roam the slopes, as do wolverine, lynx, and fisher. Among the rocks and scree in the high country live hoary marmots, a species that is currently considered a special concern in Montana.” Other important species in this area include moose, pileated woodpecker, goshawk, golden eagle, grouse, pine marten, mountain goat, and wolf. Local streams support cutthroat trout and threatened bull trout. The entire area currently serves as summer, winter, and crucial winter elk habitat for one of the biggest elk herds north of Hamilton on the west side of the Bitterroot valley. The lower elevation lands provide important winter habitat for elk.
High elevation backcountry surrounding Lolo Peak including the South Fork Lolo Creek Recommended Wilderness provides wildlife connectivity to diverse ecosystems stretching north to the Mission Mountains-Swan Valley area, to the west on the Montana-Idaho Bitterroot divide and south through the adjoining Selway Bitterroot Wilderness Area’s 1.3 million acres reaching across and down into north central Idaho.
Forestry Science and Climate Change
The current Research Natural Area (RNA) includes only about half of the ecologically unique alpine larch zone. Forestry science luminaries like Stephen Arno, Ph.D., Clinton Carlson, Ph.D., and James Habeck, Ph.D. who studied and published extensive findings from the Carlton Ridge RNA have described the forest ecology:
“Alpine larch is an exceptionally cold-hardy tree that grows only in a few high mountain ranges of the inland, northwestern United States and southwestern Canada. On north-facing slopes and other moist sites, it forms groves of erect trees above the elevational limits of other trees. All alpine larch-dominated sites are heavily glaciated rock lands, where scarcity of soil impedes vegetation development. In contrast, the two-mile-long upper slope of Carlton Ridge – in the existing Research Natural Area and its proposed western addition – is unique in having a well-developed soil mantle at high elevation (about 8,000 feet) that supports a continuous forest of alpine larch. This forest represents a “climatic climax” community of great interest to ecological science.”
Climate change and the 2017 Lolo Peak fire have affected and are still affecting this ecosystem yet provide immediate additional important opportunities for studying the area’s response to major environmental disruptions. Collaborative studies by the Lolo National Forest and Rocky Mountain Research Station will provide information of ecological and managerial benefit by monitoring regrowth and revegetation in the RNA in the aftermath of the Lolo Peak Fire which burned 54,000 acres from July through September of 2017. Ongoing surveys of western hoary marmot, pika, and northern bog lemmings in the Carlton Lake basin will provide valuable information on species adaptation to warmer and drier climate regimes in high elevation landscapes.
Quiet trails and solitude
Lolo Peak and adjoining public lands offer an escape from an increasingly crowded world and the daily distractions of modern life. A landscape of natural, rugged beauty with magnificent views of mountains, ridges, lakes, and valleys awaits hikers, skiers, and outdoor enthusiasts recreating in this area.
Hiking through the Carlton Lake basin, surrounded by rugged, forested and boulder strewn ridges, capped by the towering wall of Lolo Peak one feels the vastness, sheer beauty, and mystery of Nature’s mountain setting. A continuous line of snowcapped peaks along the Bitterroot Divide inspires the hiker’s imagination from atop Lolo Peak’s 9,096-foot north summit, a vista of mountainous terrain that stretches south into the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. Ridges and mountains surrounding Missoula, the Bitterroot Valley, and the Lolo Pass and Great Burn Recommended Wilderness to the west present images of vast landscapes unfolding from the heights of Lolo Peak.
Currently, traditional recreation activities like backcountry skiing, winter mountaineering, hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, environmental education, and horseback riding are free and open to the public. Locals and visitors alike flock to the popular Mormon Peak Trailhead destined for Lolo Peak summit, to fish at Carlton Lake, or to view the awe-inspiring scenery from Carlton Ridge overlook at Vista Point.
Lolo Peak & Carlton Ridge
Daphne Herling and I hiked up the Carlton Ridge Trail to check out plant regrowth since the 2017 Lolo Peak Fire. We also wanted to check out conditions around the Carlton Lake Basin and the sphagnum moss meadow on top of the headwall above the lake’s west end.
We observed a multitude of lodgepole saplings off trail within the first mile with gray alder regrowth a bit further up the trail. Much of this first trail section regrowth was interspersed with plentiful fireweed in late season, purple colored ‘cotton’ blooms. We transitioned into a green zone of trees and plants that survived the 2017 fire for about the next mile. The trail then re-enters a burned landscape of charred trees and stumps with alpine larch regrowth in scattered clusters punctuating the otherwise fire scarred mountain side.
Lodge Pole saplings in the first section of Carlton Ridge Trail
Grey Alder in the first section of Carlton Ridge Trail
Alpine Larch Regrowth Upper Section Carlton Ridge
White Bark Pine Upper Section Carlton Ridge Trail
Alpine larch and understory regrowth occurring on both sides of the trail at the 7,000-foot level is a strong argument for extending the Carlton Ridge Research Natural Area westward to Section 23. White bark pine regrowth was apparent along the upper trail level on our approach to Carlton Ridge at 8,200 feet. This ongoing regrowth serves as an important food source for many types of wildlife and contributes to a biodiverse ecosystem.
Panoramic View of Meadow with Lolo Peak to Southwest
Our view from Vista Point about 4 miles up the trail revealed forested mountain sides and ridges to the south and southwest sides of Carlton Lake, survivors of the 2017 fire. Carlton Lake, surrounding ridges, and a majestic Lolo Peak came together at the lake’s west-end headwall leading up and onto a large meadow of lush green moss bordered by fir and larch trees. This sphagnum moss meadow is fed by meandering streams crisscrossing the landscape providing a bountiful display of green fen set against huge boulders along Lantern Ridge and the rock-strewn ridge to the lake basin’s north and northwest sides.
Sphagnum Moss Meadow above Carlton Lake
We did not observe signs of the elusive Northern Bog Lemming although this moss-covered fen ecosystem plays a critical role for small and large mammal wildlife. A green, mossy fen meadow amidst a vast, wild rugged landscape anchored by a towering Lolo Peak was a dramatic scenic feast symbolizing the diversity within the Lolo National Forest.
View to the east atop headwall above Carlton Lake
Carlton Lake, now at its lower late summer level, is fed by inflows from a brisk, small stream tumbling down the headwall, spilling over moss covered boulders down into the lake. Our lunch break on the headwall’s broad rock outcroppings offered unsurpassed panoramic views of Lolo Peak, Carlton Lake, and, far off to the east, the Bitterroot Valley. Such an inspiring, all-encompassing view within wonderful solitude argues more forcefully why this magnificent, high alpine refugia should be protected by recommended Wilderness status. The Lolo Peak-Carlton Lake basin is one of a diminishing number of high alpine ecosystem in western Montana providing wildlife connectivity between the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness and recommended South Fork Lolo Creek Wilderness both of which share common boundaries with Lolo Peak. Such a dramatic landscape also speaks to Lolo Peak’s significance as an important landscape for native people over millennia and as an iconic mountain symbolizing the Wild in our modern age for peoples in the Bitterroot-Missoula Valleys and western Montana.
Winter View of Lolo Peak from the East
You are the voice for Lolo Peak, the ridges, peaks, lakes, wild animals, birds, fish, and surrounding wild lands! You can be a voice for all these wonderous natural features.
To provide a voice and defend these natural resources attend Lolo National Forest Land Management plan meetings and be a vocal proponent and advocate.
1) Attend 2023 Lolo and Bitterroot National Forest Land Management plan meetings and be a pro-active vocal proponent and advocate. Meeting notices will be posted at Lolo National Forest - Planning (usda.gov) and https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/bitterroot/landmanagement/planning/?cid=stelprdb5292354
2) Letters to the Editor and Guest Opinions:
The Missoulian Opinion editor can be reached at email@example.com.
Missoula Currents, Letters to the editor can be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org
3) City Council and Missoula County Commissioners
4) Montana’s Congressional Delegation (email links are on their pages.
Washington, DC Office
1037 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
Washington, DC Office
320 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510-2604
Washington, DC Office
311 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510-2604