Pets allowed
Allowed
Elevation Gain
9,319.00 ft (2,840.43 m)
Trail type
Loop
Distance
62.00 mi (99.78 km)
Please respect the outdoors by practicing Leave No Trace. Learn more about how to apply the principles of Leave No Trace on your next outdoor adventure here.

Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex encompasses a staggering 1.5 million acres of untouched Rocky Mountain terrain. That’s roughly the land size of Delaware without a single road or piece of machine-built infrastructure throughout. The complex includes three different wilderness areas: Bob Marshall Wilderness (The Bob), Scapegoat Wilderness, and Great Bear Wilderness. 

This immense sprawling landscape offers some of the most remote backpacking experiences in the lower 48, with hundreds of routes to choose from. The most popular, and often a great introduction to The Bob, is a route to the massive limestone outcropping known as the Chinese Wall. 

This eye-catching escarpment stands over 1,000 feet tall and runs unbroken for more than a dozen miles. Pictures can never do it justice. The Wall rises so prominently that sightseeing planes zoom by on special trips to capture the grandeur. However, the most rewarding way to stand in its shadow is making the long haul into the middle of the wilderness. Only hardcore ultra-runners have a chance to see the Wall in a day. 

The entire route travels through grizzly bear country. Proper precautions include carrying bear spray and storing your food appropriately at night are essential. Educate yourself on how to travel throughout grizzly country before backpacking into The Bob.
 
Several routes lead to the Chinese Wall. Hikers can reach it from the east or west side of the wilderness boundaries. The cross-country Continental Divide Trail (CDT) traverses a significant span of the Chinese Wall. This national recreation trail offers a picturesque route after a long approach. 

The Benchmark Trailhead is a well-known starting spot for backpacking trips to the Chinese Wall. This trailhead and campground of the same name entice hikers to the eastern side of the wilderness complex. The trailhead is 22 miles west of the community of Augusta, Montana (as the crow flies). The CDT skirts by this trailhead and campground.

Both an out-and-back and loop hike depart from the Benchmark Trailhead. This guide details the loop route.

The loop route covers approximately 60 miles and can take anywhere from five to eight days to complete. The hike begins at the Benchmark Trailhead by crossing the South Fork of the Sun River on a wooden bridge. Here you can snap a photo at a Bob Marshall Wilderness sign to prove to your friends you were there. 

After two miles, the route comes to a junction heading east or west along the Sun River. This is where the loop route diverges from the out-and-back by heading east. Hikers on the loop trail will want to head right, following the South Fork of the Sun River.

As evidenced at the beginning of the trail, this entire area is still bouncing back from a damaging forest fire. Still recovering, this burnt landscape offers more extended views through the forest but provides little shade from the sun.

Shortly after the fork, hikers encounter several river crossings. In late July, the waters likley won't  surpass your thighs, however, late spring and early summer are known for dangerous water crossings when spring melt swells the riverbanks (be sure to unbuckle hip belts for any high-water crossings). The route follows the South Fork, past the Gibson Reservoir, and continues along the North Fork of the Sun River. It’s approximately 20 miles of hiking along both branches of the river, or two to three days of hiking. Elevation gain is gradual in this section, and much of the hiking is through big open valleys. 

Camping is available throughout this 20-mile stretch. Pretty Prairie and a forest cabin of the same name are a short way from the fork in the trail and river crossings. This area also has well-used campsites nearby under a stand of ponderosa pines. More campsite opportunities are available closer to Gibson Reservoir. 

Campsites in the wilderness complex differ from those along regulated routes in national parks. Some areas are clearly marked by past campers but are infrequent along the trail and not marked on many maps. 

The Bob provides learning grounds for good campsite selection. By the end of most trips, hikers should be able to sniff out good places to pitch a tent. Desirable qualities include a defined flat space, proximity and access to water (yet no closer than 200 yards in the spirit of practicing Leave No Trace ethics), and location away from dangers like dead trees. A popular corridor for horse travel, finding a campsite not covered in horse manure is also desirable.

After following the South and North Fork of the Sun River, this loop route heads west on Trail 131, following the contour of Moose Creek. A recommended approach is to camp near the left turn for Moose Creek, and a great site is near the Sun River at this junction. The beginning of Trail 131 along Moose Creek has much fewer camping options.

The hike follows Moose Creek for nearly 10 miles, with a slight elevation gain. The Moose Creek corridor is heavily wooded and has a "tunneling" effect that can make for tedious, albeit beautiful, hiking. Moose Creek delivers hikers to a broad east-facing section of the Chinese Wall. From the Wall, a no-camping zone extends for approximately two miles along Moose Creek. If your group has the energy and stamina, it’s a good goal to get as close to this no-camping zone as possible in one day of hiking along Moose Creek.

Several campsites are at the western end of the Moose Creek corridor, close to the Wall's no-camping zone. To find a campsite, venture down one of many scattered trails toward Moose Creek. It’s a long hike to find a spot close to the water, and the side trip may include a creek crossing. 

Camping close to the Chinese Wall allows for the next day spent exploring the natural feature at leisure. Trail 203 (a.k.a. the CDT) spans the Wall from north to south. The loop continues south, but with some spare time to explore, taking a side trip north is well worth the views.

From the junction of the Moose Creek Trail and Trail 203, the no-camping zone extends two miles south. Just getting past this no-camping zone is an excellent easy goal for a Wall Day. 

Heading south along the Wall, and shortly after exiting the no-camping zone, the trail climbs to a small mountain pass. At the top, a side trail heads right and leads up to a miles-long view of the Chinese Wall. Back at the pass, the trail makes a steady downhill journey to meet back up with the South Fork of the Sun River along Burnt Creek.

It’s approximately 16 miles from the south end of the no-camping zone back to the original fork in the trail to complete the loop. This is the shorter out-and-back route to the Chinese Wall and follows the CDT the entire way. Several unofficial campsites line the route. Hikers can break this section up into two days, or thanks to the downhill grade, make for a shorter trip with one big day of hiking.

After 16 miles, the route crosses an iconic wooden bridge spanning the South Fork of the Sun River. Shortly after, the loop completes at the original junction, and hikers repeat the remaining two miles back to the trailhead. 

Logistics + Planning

Preferable season(s)

Summer
Fall

Congestion

Moderate

Parking Pass

None

Open Year-round

Yes

Days

5

Pros

Iconic Montana geological feature. Unsurpassed wilderness beauty. Backpacking bucket-list trip.

Cons

None.

Trailhead Elevation

5,257.00 ft (1,602.33 m)

Highest point

7,859.00 ft (2,395.42 m)

Features

Near lake or river
Backcountry camping
Wildlife
Fishing
Geologically significant
Big vistas
Horseback riding
Big Game Watching
Shelters
Wildflowers
Bird watching

Typically multi-day

Yes

Suitable for

Horseback

Permit required

No

Location

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