The spring snowmelt brings the opportunity to venture deeper into Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front for some incredible hikes. As soon as the warmer weather arrived, we ventured out to hike Clary Coulee. Like many of the hikes in the Rocky Mountain Front, this trail offers amazing views of rugged peaks and the chance to see a variety of wildlife. This was one of our favorite hikes in the area so far, so if you’d like more trail details, read on!
Getting to the Clary Coulee Trailhead
The Clary Coulee Trailhead lies in the Rocky Mountain Front not too far from the town of Choteau. From Choteau, head north a short ways on the 89. Turn left onto Teton Canyon Road and follow it past Eureka Reservoir and Ear Mountain Refuge. The road will leave the plains and enter the Rocky Mountain Front, soon becoming a well-maintained dirt road.
The turnoff for the trailhead lies off to the right about 21 miles and 25 minutes from where you turn onto Teton Canyon Road. The turnoff is marked and there is a small dirt parking area with some informational signs. There are no restrooms at the trailhead. We wanted to note that when we visited there was a bit of a rut in the road just below the parking area that we think may be difficult for low-clearance vehicles to cross. If you can’t make it to the parking area, make sure to park well off the side of the road below it.
The Clary Coulee trail sits in Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest. There are no fees or passes required to park at and hike this trail.
Hiking the Clary Coulee Trail
Hike Type: Moderately challenging out-and-back trail
Distance: 6.9 miles to the junction of the Mt. Frazier Trail (trail 153) – 13.8 miles roundtrip
Duration: 5-7 hours
Regulations: Camping at the trailhead is not permitted. Pets are permitted on the trail.
When we arrived at the Clary Coulee trailhead, we were the only ones there. From the trailhead, there were multiple trails branching in different directions. We headed to the left and began the switchbacks up the hillside. We were already in awe of the beautiful peaks surrounding us. Much of the beginning of the hike wound in and out of wooded areas.
The path was consistently uphill with some somewhat steep sections. Since we were there in early May, it was covered in snow through the wooded sections higher up on the peak. Luckily, there were a set of footprints to follow on the trail and much of the snow had hardened so we could walk on top without sinking deep into it.
Eventually, the trail entered a large valley with cliffs towering around it. Behind us was an absolutely stunning view of the rugged peaks still covered with snow. We continued making our way up through the meadow and finally reached the saddle between the peaks where the trail flattened a bit.
At this point, the trail was covered in soft, deep snow, so the going was slow without snowshoes. As we wound around the hillside, there was a great view of Bynum Reservoir way down in the plains below. After a short ways of trudging and no end to the snow patch in sight, we decided to turn around. From the trailhead to the point where we turned around on the saddle and back down to the lot, it was just over 5 miles roundtrip.
Extra Notes on Hiking the Clary Coulee Trail
Season: The Clary Coulee trail is open to hiking year round, but heavy snow cover may exist for much of the winter and spring. If you plan to visit in the winter or shoulder seasons, consider bringing snowshoes or spikes for snowy conditions. Also be aware of avalanche dangers and understand avalanche safety if you choose to visit during this time.
Wildlife: This is bear country! Keep an eye on your pets and know what to do in case of a bear encounter. Consider carrying bear spray.
Maps: We did not make it to the end of the trail where it meets trail 153. We didn’t have any issues following the path; however, we read that it can be harder to follow the further you go. We also encountered some snow-covered spots that would have made following the trail a bit more difficult if there had not been footprints. Downloading a map of the area may be helpful just in case.
What to Bring
Sturdy Shoes: The trail is steep, rocky, and can be muddy and icy, so wear shoes with good tread.
Mini First Aid Kit: Another item we always like to have just in case.
Camera: To capture the stunning views or wildlife you may see.
Water: A hiking essential.
Food: If you bring trail snacks, be aware that there are bears in the area and clean up after yourself as to not attract them to the trail.
Bear Spray: Bears have been spotted in the area, so bring along your bear spray and know how to use it.
Extra Gear: As mentioned above, you may need extra gear (such as snowshoes) if you visit while conditions are snowy.
Layers: Even in the summer it can be chilly, especially with wind. We recommend bringing light layers and/or a wind breaker. You may need to shed some layers as you work your way up steeper sections of trail. Outside of summer, heavier jackets, gloves, etc. may be necessary.
Sun Protection: Some portions of the trail have no shade, so bring a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen.