Emigrant peak casts a broad shadow over the well-known Paradise Valley in Southwest Montana. The scene of such recent movies as “A River Runs Through It” and “The Horse Whisperer”, Paradise Valley has its unique share of both trophy homes and deep rooted ranches and farms. Much like Pikes Peak on the front range of Colorado, Emigrant Peak is often framed in the large living room windows of the homes belonging to those lucky enough to live or visit such a wonderful place. Fly-fishing abounds on the Yellowstone River which snakes its way through the valley and climbers find a world of wonder in the neighboring peaks in the Northern Absaroka Mountains including Mount Cowen, Black Mountain, the Pyramid, Crow Mountain, Chico Peak, Marten Peak and Mount Wallace.
Emigrant Peak was apparently named for the numerous miners that flocked to the area in search of gold in the mid 1800’s. One can still find the remnants of these mines in Emigrant Gulch, one of the access points for various different approaches on the east and north sides of the mountain. Generally speaking, Emigrant Peak isn’t as challenging as some of its neighboring peaks (such as the more difficult Mt. Cowen )and its prominence at the south end of Paradise Valley makes it arguably the most popular climb in the area. However, it is only popular by Montana standards.
The standard route is the class 2 northwest ridge which is described in detail in the route section. Other routes include the southwest slopes and the north ridge which is reachable by way of Emigrant’s north summit (10,567’). For a historical reference and guide book of Emigrant and other Greater Yellowstone peaks, look no further than Thomas Turiano and his book Select Peaks of Greater Yellowstone, which is unavailable through the large online book stores. The lack of a detailed route maps and descriptions is more than made up for in his fabulous historical descriptions. Turiano reports more technical climbs in Emigrant gulch that may be of interest.
From the top of Emigrant you will enjoy views to the east of the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountain ranges, the Crazy Mountains, Castle Mountains, Big Belts and Bridger Range to the north, the Gallatin range, Madison range, Gravely range, Tobacco Roots and Pioneer Mountains to the west and Yellowstone National Park and the distant Teton range to the south. Of course, when you finish climbing Emigrant, a nice soak and dinner is highly recommended at Chico Hot Springs Resort. Not only is a soak in the pool fantastic after a long day, but I have found the food to be outstanding. On a weekend evening, catch some local tunes at the Chico Saloon.
Use the USGS Dailey Lake and Emigrant Peak quads as the most favored reference for climbing Emigrant. Also, the Absaroka/Beartooth Wilderness Map published by the Gallatin, Shoshone and Custer National Forests is a good reference.
An avalanche on Emigrant's east slopes almost took the lives of two skiers recently. look here for an article from the local paper and here for a brief report from the local avalanche center. These guys got lucky.
From Livingston, head south on U.S. highway 89 until you reach the town of Emigrant. From Gardiner, head north on U.S. Highway 89 until you reach Emigrant.
Gold Prize Creek approach and the northwest ridge:
From Emigrant, turn west at the main intersection onto Murphy Lane until you reach East River Road. Turn right and follow East River Road (540) until you reach Sixmile Creek road which is marked with a brown forest service sign that points you in the direction of Dailey Lake and Sixmile Creek. Follow this gravel road for about 4 miles until you reach a small fenced in parking lot which serves as the winter access point. During the summer months, travel through the gate and into the Sixmile creek drainage. Follow this road for about a mile and turn left off on an obscure single track dirt road that leads directly to the Gold Prize Creek trailhead.
Emigrant Gulch approach:
From Emigrant, turn west at the main intersection onto Murphy Lane until you reach East River Road. Turn left and follow East River Road (540) briefly until you reach Chico road which doubles as a landing strip for the Chico Hot Springs Resort. Travel past the resort on Chico road until you reach the “village” of Chico where the Emigrant Gulch road turns southeast towards an old mining remnant called White City. I have not traveled beyond this point, but apparently, there is an old mining road that switchbacks up Emigrant’s east slopes and is used for a variety of approaches to reach the peak from the east side. Perhaps more importantly, Emigrant Gulch is used to access excellent backcountry skiing opportunities, some of which were published recently in Backcountry Magazine.
Emigrant’s north ridge can be accessed near the village of Chico as well as from White City up Blacktail Creek. If anyone has any information pertaining to these approaches please submit what you know.
Emigrant Peak is located in the Gallatin National Forest within the Livingston ranger district (406 222-1892). However it does not lie within the adjacent Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness so wilderness restrictions do not apply. Emigrant is flanked on the Northwest by private ranchland and a few residences. The winter parking lot and first mile of the road headed up the Sixmile Creek drainage (for the Northwest ridge approach) passes through private land; simply stay on the road to avoid trespassing. If approaching from Emigrant Gulch/White City area, be aware that there are private properties scattered throughout the valley.
On the Northwest ridge approach during the summer months, you may encounter livestock of the bovine type. They are fenced into the Gold Prize Creek drainage and will venture as far up the slopes of Emigrant as the large meadows that lead climbers to the northwest ridge.
When To Climb
Generally speaking, climbing peaks in Southwest Montana is best accomplished during the summer months (July through mid-September). In some years, such as 2005 promises to be based on our dismal snowpack, ideal climbing conditions can be as early as mid-June. Climbing in the region without significant amounts of snow on the ground can be had well into October. On the other hand, in wet and cold years, it can be mid-July before anything opens up into “summer conditions” and early September when snow shuts down the trails.
Climbing Emigrant via the northwest ridge in the winter adds not only 4 miles round trip and an extra 500’ vertical (due to the winter road closure), but it also adds a challenge more significant than the class 2 climbing described in many guidebooks for the regular summer route. As you approach the 10,000’ mark, significant cornices form along the ridge creating various hazards. One in particular, just below the summit isn’t for the faint of heart (at least that was the case in early May 2004). Winter and spring does offer ski mountaineering in many forms. The southwest couloir is commonly climbed and skied. As are the slopes coming off of the southwest ridge. I plan to head back for a ski off of the southeast ridge in an wide open bowl which leads back to the Gold Prize Creek trailhead.
A winter attempt requires an ice axe at the very least and crampons would be advised when crossing the upper portions of the Northwest ridge. Beware of avalanche danger and check here before you set out on your climb. On New Years Eve, 2000 there was a tragic accident on Emigrant’s north slopes involving a man and his sons. By all means though, this is an enjoyable and easily accessible winter and spring mountain.
Camping in the area can be found along the Yellowstone River in a variety of fee campgrounds. One may also find non-designated camping in the Sixmile Creek drainage and at the Gold Prize Creek trailhead. Camping is generally not permitted at the fishing access points in Paradise Valley, contrary to popular belief. One camping spot in particular that has always appealed to me is in the northern reaches of Paradise Valley at the Pine Creek campground which can be used to access Black Mountain
Look here for what I consider to be the most reliable weather forecast.
The rock on the northwest ridge is typical for any climbing in the Northern Absarokas, not to great, but not too crumbly either. In places, something that resembles a trail was obvious during my spring ascent. There exists a few scree and talus covered slopes, but the climbing on this type of rock is not sustained for long periods of time. Generally speaking the scrambling is quite pleasant.
In terms of what equipment to bring, simply prepare yourself with the gear necessary for any normal day’s outing in the Rockies. No special equipment such as ropes, crampons and helmets are required in the summer months for the northwest ridge. If you are uncomfortable or unsure of what to bring, visit Barrel Mountaineering in Bozeman and spend a bundle – they, along with all of the other gear outlets in the area would be happy to provide you with advice, and of course, empty your wallet. Honestly, Barrel is the place to go.
Given that the most common question we hear in these parts from tourists is about bears, I figured that I would address that topic here to provide anyone with what I consider to be some of the better information about bear encounters. I've been told by a good friend who has worked in the past as a bear biologist just to the south of Emigrant Peak in Yellowstone National Park tells me that grizzly bears don’t usually venture this far into the Northern Absarokas. In the case that you are worried about grizzly bear encounters, the best advice I can give is to simply keep a clean camp and respect their territory while traveling. That means periodically making noise (whistling, clapping, singing etc) when you are hiking and being extra cautious if you are hiking into the wind. Look here for a recent account of a bear encounter in the area and here for another recent encounter. Just for fun, take the bear identification test to see if you can tell the difference between a Grizz and a Black bear! If you are really worried about boo-boo bear, then get yourself a bear dog.