The Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex is overwhelmingly huge and I often find myself pouring over maps plotting out interesting loops for a run, only to realize this “short” loop is 35 miles. With so many options I often find myself paralyzed by indecision on adventure locations here.
Fortunately there is a massive waterfall on the North Fork of the Blackfoot that roars through a narrow defile in the canyon. Well, it roars in late spring, which is when I suggest going. The Falls are a great destination spot in the Bob Marshall Wilderness for a weekend long run, or weekend backpacking ramble (although it’s better to camp near the guard station). I typically like to avoid out-and-backs, but this route is worth it.
From the North Fork of the Blackfoot Trailhead, follow the wide, well-traveled horse trail to North out of the parking lot. Like many of the trailheads on the South side of the Bob Marshall Wilderness this is a major access point for outfitters, however, this trail is designed to handle two-way traffic in many places with split, single-direction paths.
|Wide open views for most of this trail|
The trail begins initially on the west side of the river and climbs up to a vantage point overlooking the next few miles deep into the drainage. Because of an old fire, much of the trail has expansive views, but this also makes it warm and exposed in summer months.
At the three mile mark the trail descends to the river and crosses to the East side on a solid bridge. There are a couple great places to pitch tents here, or simply enjoy the river on a warm day, but I’d recommend saving a dip in the water until the trip home when there are only three miles of travel in squishy shoes.
The trail for the next few miles is a fun mix of ups, downs, ins, and outs as it traverses a bit away from the water and above the bottom of Sourdough Flats. The roar never really leaves your ears though and is always a reminder that the falls are ahead.
Crossing the river again at mile 6.5 puts you at the North Fork Guard Station, which marks the junction of the North Fork and the Dry Fork of the North Fork. Just past the guard station the trail splits. The falls are to the right, continuing up the North Fork of the Blackfoot, while the other trail options are for another adventure elsewhere in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
|The upper cascade of the North Fork of the Blackfoot Falls|
The trail splits again not much farther on as you begin a serious climb, and depending on which map you have the junction may not be on the map (I recommend the Cairn Cartographics Bob Marshall Wilderness Map). Looking at the direction of the trails you’ll notice the right trail climbs straight up the impending slope, while the left trail stays more mellow and makes a big switchback. They both lead to the same place, but we opted for the more gradual climb on the way out and shorter steeper descent on the way back.
Just over a mile from the guard station (if you took the long, gradual way) the trail rounds a corner and you’ll start hearing the deep reverberations of the Falls. Multiple user created paths descend to various overlooks to view the raging water as it is forced through the gap in the canyon. While it’s fun to see anytime of year, the crescendo during spring runoff is something special and why it’s worth making the trip early season.
After taking in the misty beauty of the North Fork Falls, the choice is yours to continue up the North Fork of the Blackfoot and further adventure in the Bob Marshall Wilderness or return.
- Distance: 15.6 miles from the trailhead to the Falls and back.
- Elevation Gain: 1,535′
- Water: The trail crosses the river at mile 3 and 6.5. Otherwise pretty dry.
- Surface: Single track trail
- Ideal times: Late spring while the river is still high. The drainage is south facing and exposed so melts out relatively quick.
- Getting there: From Missoula drive East on Hwy 200 and continue straight through Clearwater Junction (on Hwy 200 not 83). 19.5 miles after Clearwater Junction turn north onto North Fork Blackfoot Road #5550. Follow the signs and 10.5 miles later you will be at the trailhead.
- GPX route: https://www.strava.com/activities/1021553629