Trail of wonders - Bear Creek's boulders, waterfalls and wildlife offer plenty of fun for young ones
Trail of wonders - Bear Creek's boulders, waterfalls and wildlife offer plenty of fun for young ones

Bear Creek Trail -

The hike: a creekside hike in the Bitterroot National Forest through a canyon below towering granite peaks. The scenic hike climbs gradually uphill through dense, ancient larch forest to a small waterfall - ripping this time of year but perfect for a cooling-off dip later in the summer - and a virtual outdoor playground. You'll see birds, garter snakes, boulder outcroppings and the wildflowers are in full bloom.

Distance: 3 miles round trip

Elevation gain: 400 feet

Facilities: There is a vault toilet, refuse containers and picnic tables at the trailhead.

Directions: From Victor, continue south on Highway 93 to Tucker Crossing. Turn right on Bear Creek Road. Drive 2.4 miles to Red Crow Road and turn right. Drive 1 mile and turn left, and continue 3 miles to the trailhead parking lot.

Rating: - Perfect for kids.

Ten steps into the first Hikes With Tykes outing, our daughter, Ellie, gave her mom her Mother's Day present.

Ellie, almost 3, pitched a fit and wouldn't hike or be carried on anyone's back but mom's.

Hey, mom, Happy Mother's Day! Here's 30 pounds on your back!

Good thing dad came through with that Sorella's massage.

And good thing we were hiking Bear Creek.

If there's ever a place fit for Sherpa parents, or for pulling a child out of a funk for that matter, it's on the Bear Creek Trail in the Bitterroot National Forest - an easy day hike to a scenic waterfall and a virtual outdoor playground.

The three-mile round-trip hike is a short enough distance to pack in a small child, and it boasts plenty of enticing natural wonders to have a child scrambling back down to the trail in no time.

The drive from Missoula takes roughly an hour, falling in line with the 1 1/2-hour rule - we'll hike no trail farther than a 90-minute drive from Missoula.

Just south of Victor, Bear Creek flows out of the Bitterroots, spilling into the Bitterroot River after branching off into two forks and eventually five splinters.

Bear Creek Trail begins at a well-established trailhead parking lot with a small campground and bathroom facilities.

Most of the hike needles through dense, ancient larch forests, climbing gradually alongside Bear Creek through one of the many impressive Bitterroot canyons. Jagged granite cathedrals tower to the north and are visible at most junctures throughout the hike.

A few hundred yards into the trail, you'll hike over one of three large boulder fields, and if your young hikers like jumping off rocks as much as Ellie, they'll be off your back - literally - in no time.

A few large rocks, small spring runoffs intersecting the trail and some coercing from dad were all it took on this hike, and Ellie regained her status as a hiker, completing the remaining 3/4 mile on foot.

Once blazing trail herself, the myriad wonders of Bear Creek Trail piqued her interest and kept her going. While an adult's eyes might be trained on the glorious peaks jutting to the blue sky above, or on the subtle signs of a recent fire scorched on dead spurs, there is plenty else to captivate young hikers.

The visual: The wildflowers are in full bloom, with irises, lilies and others. Even at their miniscule size, wildflowers explode with color amidst the just-budding undergrowth. Older children can learn to rattle off their names and younger tykes can just dazzle

at them.

The tactile: Along sections of the trail that intersect small runoffs, rocks are covered by soft moss, especially higher up the trail near the waterfall. They're great "energy stops" to take young hikers' minds off the left-right-left monotony of hiking, even at this short a distance.

The adventuresome: Jumping over the small runoffs is adventurous and breaks up the mundane. For younger children, playing 1-2-3-jump over the water with mom or dad is as fun as it gets.

At the 1.5-mile mark, the trail opens up to a small rock and wildflower-laden clearing. There, the Bear Creek waterfall looks more like a class IV rapid this time of year. Later in the summer, when the water flow eases, it's a playground of sorts for the whole family.

Water cascades over the rocks and pools below the falls. Tan-hunters can sprawl out like lizards on the flat, terraced rock slabs and bask in the sun.

You can bushwhack down to the creek just up the trail from the falls, but keep a handle on small children - even in the summer - because the water carves through a gorge just below the falls.

There are also various freestanding rocks big enough, and with the perfectly placed foot and handholds, for children ages 2 to 5 to begin bouldering. Just spot 'em and watch 'em go.

The more experienced, adventurous hikers or overnight backpackers can continue past the waterfall on Bear Creek Trail to Bryan Lake, a small alpine lake at the Montana-Idaho border. From the trailhead, it's about an eight-mile hike in to the lake - doable one way for backpacking with children, but too much to ask of a young child for a 16-mile day hike.

The waterfall at Bear Creek is ripping this time of year, but slows to a more convenient cooling-off spot in the summer, perfect for a dip.

Photo by JUSTIN GRIGG/Missoulian

Turning around after a snack lunch and playtime at the waterfall, retrace your steps back down the canyon, this time watching for birds like yellow-rumped or Townsend's warblers, western tanagers or kinglets. Keep an eye out, too, for woodpecker holes in trees, or listen for the occasional cry of a peregrine falcon soaring high above the trail.

If all's quiet on the bird front, look for some scaly friends slithering across the trail - yellow racers or other garters. We saw one, and it provided an immeasurable jolt of awe for our tyke.

And as we snaked back out of the forest road in the car, Ellie faded to sleep, no doubt dreaming of her first encounter with the Montana wilderness, notching another hike into her perfect column.

Rating system:

Hiking guru Ellie Doran, an almost 3-year-old Missoula girl, rates hikes taken with her dad, Missoulian city editor John Doran, and mom Anna from a child's perspective. The hikes are rated on the following scale:

- Not worth the gas.

- Dreamed better.

- Let Dad do it.

- Perfect for kids.

Favorite spot?

Do you have a favorite hike you take with your children? Let us know. Contact city editor John Doran at 523-5268 or by at jdoran@missoulian.com.

City editor John Doran can be reached at 523-5268 or at jdoran@missoulian.com. Watch for Hikes with Tykes every other Thursday this summer in Outdoors.

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