Bear Canyon Hike

Revised October 2015

Download printable Bear Canyon Hike Guide (3 MB)

Lower Bear Canyon Scenery. photo by Dick Walton Lower Bear Canyon Scenery. photo by Dick Walton

Great views of Bear Canyon, much of Wyoming and the Beartooth Mountains, and excellent birdwatching. A unique riparian ecosystem in the arid Pryors with
running water in the spring and early summer.

Bear Canyon is a good place to hike in the spring and fall when other places may be snowed in. If you go in July or August be prepared for hot weather. Take lots of water.

Access to this hike only requires driving four miles off paved roads. The good gravel road is passable most of the year. Neither a high clearance vehicle nor 4WD is needed.

The first three miles of this hike is within the Audubon Society designated Important Bird Area (IBA)

Driving Directions: How to Get There»

The Bear Canyon Hike (with variations):

A.   0.0 miles:  Mouth of Bear Canyon. The Pryor Mountains suddenly rise from the plains ½ mile from Helt Road on Bear Canyon Road. Start walking on the “road” into the canyon. All hiking mileages below are measured from the canyon mouth.  There is no trail sign at the beginning of the hike which is on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. 

For the first 1.4 miles the trail follows the broad sagebrush flat in Bear Creek valley bordered by cliffy limestone ridges vegetated with juniper and bunch grass.  The elevation gain on the section is only about 250 ft.

If you meet people on ATVs or driving 4WD vehicles, please be courteous.  This route is currently legal for motorized use.  
Although this segment of the hike is legal for motorized use, we recommend you park and walk from the canyon mouth even if you have a 4WD. You came to hike. The road is rough, and driving defeats the purpose of hiking and disrupts the peace and quiet for other hikers. When you want a drive in the Pryors, we encourage you to use one of the abundance of other scenic motorized routes up Big Pryor Mountain including one about three miles east, two more a couple miles west, and four more around the “corner” north of the limestone quarry on the west slope. The Forest Service should serve hikers by designating quiet hiking trails in the Pryors also.

B. Junction: Ridge Hike left & Creek Hike right. B. Junction: Ridge Hike left & Creek Hike right.

B.   1.4 miles:  Junction.

Red: Bear Canyon Ridge Trail. Dark Blue: Bear Canyon Creek Trail. The red grid lines are 1 mile squares. Click on map to enlarge.
 

The left fork starts climbing steeply out of the canyon.
This is the Bear Canyon Ridge HikeClick for Details»

The right fork continues in the bottom of the canyon.
This is the Bear Canyon Creek Hike.  Click for Details»

Small Side Canyon. photo by Dick Walton Small Side Canyon. photo by Dick Walton

After Your Hike:
Tell us about your hike.  How did this hike guide help, or not?  How could it be improved?

Please contact Custer National Forest» and ask that these trails (#2492 and #2814) be designated for non-motorized use only.    There are an abundance of other scenic motorized trails up Big Pryor Mountain including one about three miles east, two more a couple miles west, and four more around the “corner” north of the limestone quarry on the west slope.  The Forest Service should serve hikers by designating quiet hiking trails in the Pryors also.


Return to Hiking in the Pryors page.

Download Printable Driving Directions.

The drive from Billings to the mouth of Bear Canyon takes about 1 ½ hour.  

Warren: Helt Rd leaves Hwy 310 Warren: Helt Rd leaves Hwy 310
Warren: Helt Rd. left, Hwy. 310 right Warren: Helt Rd. left, Hwy. 310 right


Drive to Warren MT, 21 miles south of Bridger on Highway 310.  (It is 20 miles south of the junction of highways 310 and 72 from Belfry and Red Lodge.)   There is no town at Warren. Look for the Montana Limestone Company sign.  Warren is where they load limestone from their quarry at the southwest corner of Big Pryor Mountain onto the railroad cars.  Limestone mining threatens to slowly “eat” the Pryors.

Road from Highway 310 at Warren to Bear Canyon

A. 0.0 miles: Warren MT. Turn east on Helt road (also called Quarry Rd.) toward the Pryors.  If you are traveling south on highway 310 it is a left turn.  Follow this paved road for 2.7 miles to a junction and road sign. The BLM sign says “Bear Canyon Road 3.5”  (The paved road continues as Quarry Rd.)

Sign at Quarry and Helt Rds. Sign at Quarry and Helt Rds.

Quarry Rd. (left). Turn right on Helt Rd. Quarry Rd. (left). Turn right on Helt Rd.

B. 2.7 miles: Helt Rd. – Quarry Rd. Junction. Turn right to continue on Helt Rd. which is now narrower and gravel. Go 3.5 miles (past a BLM sign for Stockman Trail) to a BLM sign for  Bear Canyon Road.

Bear Canyon Rd. Turn left from Helt Rd. Bear Canyon Rd. Turn left from Helt Rd.

C. 6.2 miles: Bear Canyon Road. Turn left. It is half a mile to the mouth of Bear Canyon.  Most of this road is OK for highway vehicles.  The last 250 yds. is rocky.  Some people might park and walk that short section.

D. 6.7 miles: Mouth of Bear Canyon. Park and begin hike.

It is possible to drive farther into the canyon, but few people would want to take highway vehicles over the several very rough rocky sections.  You came to hike.

Bear Canyon Ridge Hike
This route is legal for motorized use, but is worth the hike. Great views of Bear Canyon, the Beartooth Mountains, and Wyoming

C: BLM - USFS Boundary Fence C: BLM - USFS Boundary Fence
C.   1.9 miles:  Fence and Gate. At this boundary you leave BLM land and enter Custer National Forest.  There is a sign indicating that this is USFS Trail # 2492.

D.   2.1 miles:  Junction. Trail #24922 is an 0.2 mile (one way) spur to a very nice viewpoint overlooking lower Bear Canyon.   The ridge hike continues on trail #2492.  As you continue to climb the ecosystem changes gradually but significantly.  Sagebrush decreases. Some limber pine can be seen, and Douglas fir eventually becomes abundant.  Lovell, Cowley and most of Wyoming can be seen as the view increases with elevation.  The Bighorn Mountains are visible to the southeast.

D: Spur to Lower Bear Canyon Overlook D: Spur to Lower Bear Canyon Overlook
Lower Bear Canyon Overlook. photo by Dick Walton Lower Bear Canyon Overlook. photo by Dick Walton


E: #2492 left. Take the right fork #2814 E: #2492 left. Take the right fork #2814
E.   3.1 miles: Junction.  Take the right fork, trail #2814.  (The left fork is #2492. You will return on this trail if you follow the loop option below.) Trail #2814 continues to climb through a timbered draw.  In about half a mile, with a turn to the left, it breaks out of the draw, out of the trees and enters open grassland.   About half a mile farther the trail levels on the rim overlooking the west fork of Bear Canyon to the right (east).  This is Upper Bear Canyon Overlook.

F: Upper Bear Canyon Overlook. photo by Dick Walton F: Upper Bear Canyon Overlook. photo by Dick Walton

F.   4.1 miles:  Upper Bear Canyon Overlook. Pick your own spot to stop, sit and enjoy the view of much of the south slope of Big Pryor Mountain both above and below you.  The highest point on the ridge to the east is the peak of Red Pryor Mountain.  The Absarokee and Beartooth Mountains can be seen just over the rise to the west.  Depending on the time of year wildflowers may be on display.  You may see arrow-leaf balsamroot, sky-blue flax, white sego lilies and others.  The elevation here is nearly 6700 ft., a total elevation gain of about 1600 ft from the mouth of Bear Canyon.

Upper Bear Canyon Overlook. photo by Dick Walton Upper Bear Canyon Overlook. photo by Dick Walton

Return Hike Options:

You can return the way you came. Another alternative (see map) is to walk off-trail 1/3 mile toward the west across open, but rocky, grassland.  After climbing a short and gentle rise it is downhill to the easily visible trail #2492.  Follow trail #2492 left (south) about a mile back to the junction E where you left it on trail #2184.  Then follow #2492 back to your vehicle. This loop alternative gives more views of the Absarokee and Beartooth Mountains to the west.
(You can also continue north ½ mile on #2814 to #24923 which goes left to #2492.)

Bear Canyon Creek Hike with optional climb to east Canyon Rim Viewpoint and loop hike connections with the Big Sky or Rocky Juniper Trails.
Follow the right fork (Junction B), past the log barrier fence, into the bottom of the canyon.

B. Right Fork. BLM motor vehicle barrier fence at start of Creek Hike. B. Right Fork. BLM motor vehicle barrier fence at start of Creek Hike.
The canyon narrows, the vegetation changes becomes noticeably more lush. Cottonwood and ash trees, and clematis vines become abundant. In the spring the creek is often running.  It is a great place to look for birds, butterflies, and wildflowers.

People familiar with this route before the massive spring 2011 flooding will be amazed by the changes. This route had been driven regularly, but illegally for years. Much of the two-track route was washed out in the flood. It is a pleasure to know that beyond the barrier there will be no motorized disruptions.

Noxious Weeds: Unfortunately there is a significant infestation of invasive weeds in the bottom of Bear Canyon. Be careful not to collect and transport the “Velcro” seeds of houndstongue and burdock beyond their current infestations. Usually you can avoid the plants, but check your clothes frequently and remove any seeds. Carry them out to dispose.

Example of Trail. Example of Trail.
The hiking is somewhat rougher than before the flood, but still mostly fairly easy. The trail is sometimes overgrown with grass and other vegetation. Other times it simply follows the rocky stream bottom. Occasionally it is necessary to scramble up or down the sides of a stream channel. From mid-summer to fall these channels should be dry.

Trail in new creek bed. Trail in new creek bed.



C.   1.9 miles: Fence and Gate.  About ½ mile past the barricade at junction (B) there is a fence and gate. The fence is the boundary between BLM land to the south and USFS land to the north. If there is an “Unauthorized Trail” sign at the gate, it only applies to motor vehicles. Hikers are welcome to continue.

D. 2.3 miles: Alternative trail to East Rim Viewpoint.

D. Trail to East Canyon Rim Viewpoint. The red arrow indicates a visible section of the trail sloping up and to the right. (Photo taken from about GPS coordinates: 45°05.536' N 108°30.961' W) d. Trail to East Canyon Rim Viewpoint. The red arrow indicates a visible section of the trail sloping up and to the right. (Photo taken from about GPS coordinates: 45°05.536' N 108°30.961' W)
0.4 miles past the BLM/USFS boundary gate (C) there is an old trail that switchbacks up the hill to the east canyon rim. There is no trail junction. You must push through brush for a couple hundred feet from the gravel streambed/trail in the canyon bottom to intersect the switchback trail at the base of the slope. Look for the scene in the photo. The red arrow indicates a visible section of the trail sloping up and to the right. (Photo taken from about GPS coordinates: 45°05.536′ N 108°30.961′ W)

It is about 0.3 mile and 250 ft elevation gain to the rim on a surprisingly good, but little used, trail. The views on the way up, and from the top, are well worth the climb.

Once on top the trail ends, and the open country invites exploration, but be careful not to “lose” the trail back down.

Aspen in fall colors. View from east canyon rim. Aspen in fall colors. View from east canyon rim.
#2 GoogleEarth view of Bear Canyon Switchbacks. White arrows parallel trail pointing uphill. #2 GoogleEarth view of Bear Canyon Switchbacks. White arrows parallel trail pointing uphill.

Return the way you came or consider two loop hike alternatives: The East Rim Viewpoint is also THE Junction where the Big Sky, Rocky juniper and Bear Canyon Trails converge. You can return via either Rocky Juniper or Big Sky Trails. See detailed guide for these loop options.



E.   2.7 miles: Fork in Canyon.

Trail approaching fork in canyon. E. West Fork goes left and Main Fork right of limestone ridge. Trail approaching fork in canyon. E. West Fork goes left and Main Fork right of limestone ridge.
0.8 mile past the USFS boundary fence there is a major fork in Bear Canyon split by a high rocky promontory. The left (west) fork continues north without a trail. The right (main) fork turns to the east for ¾ of a mile and then turns north again. The trail continues for a little farther, but soon fades into bushwhacking – especially after the 2011 flood. The total elevation gain from the mouth of Bear Canyon to this fork in the Canyon is about 450 ft.
E. Beginning of Main (right) Fork trail. E. Beginning of Main (right) Fork trail.



Contact Custer National Forest:

Traute Parrie, Beartooth District Ranger
Email: tparrie@fs.fed.us
Phone: (406) 446-2103

Snail Mail:
Traute Parrie, District Ranger
Beartooth Ranger District, Custer National Forest
6811 Hwy. 212 S.
HC 49, Box 3420
Red Lodge MT 59068

or

Mary Erickson, Forest Supervisor
Custer National Forest
1310 Main Street
Billings, MT 59105