Photos: Exploring Southwest Montana Backcountry

Written by: John McKinnie, Lone Mountain Ranch


Wild high-country trout are the reward for the trip into the backcountry.
All photos courtesy Lone Mountain Ranch

Reins, lead rope, cinch, stirrup, pannier. . .

Until this summer, most of these terms were still a little foreign to me. Even though I have been around horses and worked closely with a few wranglers over the last couple of years, I have not fully immersed myself into backcountry horseback expeditions until recently. In the last couple of months, I have been fortunate to lead, and guide, some epic trips into some of the stunning Wilderness and National Forest areas around Southwest Montana.


On horseback, you can enjoy the scenery on the way up.

In the past, I have done hiking or backpacking journeys into the mountains with the objectives of escaping crowds on the rivers, discovering new bodies of water, or chasing different species of trout. By introducing horses into the equation, everything becomes a little easier. Horseback makes the deep backcountry more accessible, since they can cover 15 to 20 miles of terrain, and elevations gains of  up to 2,500 feet, in a day with ease. Since someone else is doing the hard work, you get the chance to sit back and enjoy all the breathtaking scenery and views.


At the trailhead, the wranglers prepare the mounts.

Next, horseback can save your back when it comes to camping and overnight expeditions. Horses give you the option to camp in comfort by bringing along cushy pads, warm sleeping bags, plenty of layers, all your fishing gear and, most importantly, cooking supplies and great food. After enjoying a prime rib dinner cooked in a cast iron skillet over a camp fire, it will be hard to go back to eating freeze dried meals in the backcountry.


Stunning lakes surrounded by craggy peaks are the destination.

Regardless of how you get there, on horseback or by foot, the fishing is always rewarding! In Southwest Montana, we are fortunate to have destinations that hold plenty of cutthroat trout, some lakes that hold arctic grayling, and a few lakes that have golden trout. Through August and into September most of these trout are more than willing to eat a dry fly, which only adds to the excitement.


You can carry more creature comforts on horseback, as well.

During a recent expedition to one of the Spanish Lakes, three of us enjoyed an afternoon of landing dozens of cutthroats, all on dry flies. Some of my go-to backcountry patterns include the Parachute Adams, Purple Haze, and any assortment of ant or beetle imitations. For some reason trout cannot resist those little crunchy terrestrials during the late summer months.


The journey is just as incredible as the destination.

The Madison, Gallatin, and Yellowstone Rivers get all the attention in this part of Montana, but you can be rewarded with scenery, solitude and hungry trout by getting off the beaten path and exploring the backcountry!

John McKinnie is the Fly-Fishing Manager at Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky, Montana.


Once you’re there, it’s time to fish!

These fish do not see a lot of flies and are willing to strike dry flies all day.

Backcountry trout are great for kids because both are so eager.

These are great family trips, too.

If you want, you can find plenty of solitude.

It’s sometimes hard to know where to look. . .

One of many gorgeous cutthroats that rose for a Purple Haze.

The author prepares to head into the hills.

The trip home offers different views.

The memories of hooking up in the high country will remain for a long time.

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