When I knew I’d be spending a day or two in Montana on at least one solo hiking adventure before my friends got to town I was only nervous about one thing: bears. Every trailhead sign in Montana warns of both black bears AND grizzlies.
I rolled into Big Sky Thursday evening and stopped at the fittingly named Grizzly Outfitters in town to ask about some local trails I had researched. They told me that sticking to popular trails when alone was well advised, as was hiking with bear spray. The local clerk told me “I hike with two things in Montana: bear spray and a gun”.
I love Montana.
Well, I was too cheap to buy $50 bear spray for one hike and arriving via a TSA checkpoint ruled out a gun so I decided to live life dangerously.
My Big Sky trail research kept turning up Beehive Basin as one of the best day hikes in the area. Located in the Spanish Peaks area of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, this hike gained some notoriety recently and was named one of the top 10 hikes in the country. It gets you high over 9k feet and it only took a few pictures of a large alpine lake, spectacular basin, and surrounding mountains to push it to my number 1 “must-do”.
Access to the Beehive Basin trail is from high up the Lone Mountain Road in Big Sky at the Upper Beehive Basin Trailhead (~7900′). Friday late morning I rolled up to the trailhead and though this was described as a popular hike, I only saw 3 cars and no one in sight. I decided to wait a bit, hoping some other hikers would pull in soon and I wouldn’t be completely alone in a bear-filled wilderness. Luckily I didn’t wait long. 2 women pulled in within 10 minutes of me and I briefly talked with them. They said a bear mauling was unlikely with the steady amount of hiker traffic on the trail.
“You do have bear spray?” one of the women asked me.
Ok, maybe not spending $50 to potentially save my life was a very bad idea.
I hiked with them a bit before parting ways and since THEY had bear spray, I made a conscious effort not to get too far ahead. Most of the trail wound upwards through an open basin but every once in a while it would duck into woods. I clapped my hands, hummed, sang, whistled, and made all sorts of stupid noise to alert any potential bears to my presence. I’m sure I sounded like an idiot, but at least I was a vigilant idiot!
By now I was way ahead of the women so I stopped for a bit to enjoy the views and take some pictures of the Sierra-like craggy peaks. So beautiful!
I noticed a party of 3 hiking back down the trail towards me, maybe 30 feet away, pointing into the woods just off the trail. Before I could register what was happening I heard the sounds of a freight train crashing through the trees. The guy in the party yelled “Look out!!!!!”.
Immediately I played out a movie in my head where a massive grizzly flattened all the trees, charged straight for us, and ate us all alive.
Instead I saw an enormous bull moose, somehow clumsy and graceful at the same time, charging right for the 3 people on the trail ahead of me. The guy took a step backwards and fell on his ass. The woman screamed and the child just stood there, not sure what to do. I froze. I had researched what to do in case of a bear encounter but moose? My brain was blank.
The moose charged within a few feet, then stopped. As quick as he charged he turned around, prancing towards the woods and disappearing. He sat down in the woods and promptly took a nap.
It seemed like an hour passed before anyone moved or even breathed but I’m sure it was only 60 seconds. We slowly regained our heart beat and checked our pants. The moose was likely laughing himself to sleep. I can imagine him telling his friends that night “Oh man, I got these hikers real good today! You should have seen their faces!!”
The party of 3 were relative locals and said that was a first time experience for them. We chatted for a while, first shaking with adrenaline then eventually laughing. I told them I thought I managed to get a picture of the moose. When we finally checked my phone all I had was a ridiculously blurry photo of the ground and a weird shadow that was probably me.
When the two women behind me finally caught up with us they couldn’t believe our story. “Moose are testy this time of year” one said. Yep, it’s the fall breeding season, commonly called the rut.
A little moose education sidebar…
After reading more about moose I was surprised to find out that in the Americas moose injure more people than any other wild mammal. Though they don’t tend towards natural aggression, moose are commonly more dangerous than bears because people don’t take them seriously and give them enough space, especially during breeding season.
Running doesn’t trigger a predatory instinct in moose, so if you’re ever charged by one, the appropriate behavior is to run for cover as fast as you can and give the moose as much space as possible. Climbing trees works. If it attacks, you roll into a ball and protect yourself with a backpack or other item. Do not get up until the moose is well out of sight as it could further antagonize the animal.
…and back to Beehive Basin!
Once I regained my composure (and heart rate) enough to continue on, the rest of the hike was exciting in only the ways you want a hike to be exciting: lots of views, amazing trail, some really nice fellow hikers, and big sky!
When you reach the upper end of Beehive Basin you’re greeted by what I can only describe as a type of nature’s infinity pool: a beautiful alpine lake that from one angle seems to disappear into the horizon.
Other hikers stopped here, dropped their packs, and scattered out through the rocks to relax. I lingered to enjoy the views and chatted up several friendly hikers from all sorts of places: Australia, Montana, Utah, and Scotland. I spied a boot track continuing around the lake, then upwards toward a high saddle near Beehive Peak. Naturally, I couldn’t stop myself from investigating. I followed the boot track about another half mile from the lake to a boulder field just below the buttress of Beehive Peak. I topped out here around 9700′ and sat down a bit to enjoy the amazing views.
No one followed me so I enjoyed solitude without being far from other hikers below. It was hard to pack up and leave but after a long break I reluctantly did so and headed back down the mountain. The hike down went quickly and despite passing several hiking groups the trail didn’t seem overly crowded. For me as a solo hiker it was a great trek. I was never too far from others but still able to enjoy short stretches of quiet trail. I exercised some extra caution when I approached the “moose zone” but I’m happy to say he was nowhere in sight and had probably moved on to scare hikers elsewhere.
If you find yourself in Big Sky, Beehive Basin is a must do! Be prepared for the high altitude and potentially grumpy moose, though the amazing scenery and Lone Peak Brewery down the road make it all worthwhile. And thanks to Montana for the extra moose education!
Round Trip: 7. 5 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,800′
High Point: 9,700′
Hiking Time: 3:00
GPS track of the ascent. I got another few hundred feet higher than the GPS track – forgot to restart my watch on the scramble!