A Tale of Two Treks to Montana’s Medicine Point Lookout
WORDS & PHOTOS BY JEREMY LURGIO
She wanted to wear her snow boots. She insisted. She didn’t care it was the last day of June. She didn’t care the climb to the fire lookout was 2,000 vertical feet over 3.5 miles. She was steadfast about the snow boots. If you know anything about 7-year-olds, they can be particular and stubborn about attire. Our Amelia was no different. Gold cape with colorful ski socks on Monday, sure. Michael Jackson-style red leather jacket with striped socks and polka dot shorts on Tuesday, okay. Shorts for every sub-freezing day of the year, fine. As parents we try our best to teach our kids to be prepared, but we also kind of pride ourselves on our kids being Montana tough.
Yet against Amelia’s best judgment, as we prepared for our journey to the Medicine Point Lookout in the southern Bitterroot Mountains, my wife and I convinced our free-spirited daughter that comfortable sneakers were indeed the proper shoes for the hike.
The night before we left, a summer cold front blew through western Montana, bringing freezing temperatures and possible snow to the high country. With our backpacks geared up for an overnight adventure, we drove from Missoula to the trailhead near Sula, Montana. Based on the dusted snow line adorning the high peaks of the Bitterroots from Lolo Peak all the way to the range’s highest point at Trapper Peak, the weathermen had nailed it.
Three months into the pandemic, we were excited to have the first available night booked at the lookout, which is available from June 30 through early September. We pulled off Highway 93 and started up the dirt Forest Service road. As we drove higher, we could see the silhouette of the lookout perched on the 8,409-foot Medicine Point, which was blanketed in white. We knew there’d be some snow up top.
Packs on and dogs in tow, we started up the first third of the hike through a forest of Douglas fir and purple lupine. Our daughter and our 10-year-old son, Lachlan, had never stayed in a lookout, so excitement fueled the first leg. The sun was out and things were good.
The second leg of the journey got slick and a bit muddy from the melting snow. By the time we reached the saddle below the last third of the climb, we could see the snow we had thought might be a dusting was indeed something heavier. Clouds shrouded the peak.
As we started up the last 500 vertical feet, 1 inch of wet snow became 3, and then pretty quickly, 6. Feet were wet. Feet were cold.
Amelia erupted with tears. “I told you I wanted to wear my snow boots,” she wailed. “My feet are so cold.”
“Yup, you were right, we were wrong,” I replied. “Let’s take a break and figure out a plan.”
I moved onward taking really small, 7-year-old stride length steps to pack down the snow so it didn’t get above her shoe cuffs. I joked that I’d rub her cold digits and I’d blow hot air on her stinky feet to keep them warm. And I did. Then we played the animal game where one person picks an animal and the others have to ask yes and no questions to solve the riddle.
Bolstered by gummies, energy bars, reassurance and the excitement for the warmth of the lookout, we managed to keep moving. In some places, the snow was 10 inches deep. My wife and I have spent a lot of time backpacking, backcountry skiing and mountain biking and have endured countless events of that oddly treasured Type Two Fun, but there was something special about sharing this misery with our family of four. As we built a fire in the stove, the kids nestled in a sleeping bag together. They gazed through the lookout’s windows with a 360-degree view for miles. In minutes, the siblings were laughing and giggling, the recent post- holing forgotten.
We looked at maps, read about the history of the lookout and perused journal entries from past guests. The kids were in awe of this 14-foot by 14-foot shelter perched atop Medicine Point. There’s something primal, something instinctual, that happens when setting up camp in a remote place; I feel deeply grounded as the exhilaration of wild places blends with the calmness of sanctuary.
By nightfall we all joked that we had to do this again next year, and we did. But true to the fickle nature of weather in Montana, a year later we hiked to the lookout on a 70-degree day; the distant ridges weren’t blanked in white snow, but instead shrouded in early wildfire smoke. Despite this classic Northern Rockies juxtaposition, the wildness remained, as did the beautiful rustic sanctuary.
This photo essay is a comparison of two trips, nearly a year apart, to the remarkable Medicine Point Lookout.
Jeremy Lurgio is a freelance photographer and filmmaker based in Missoula, Montana. He is also a professor of photojournalism and multimedia storytelling at the University of Montana School of Journalism. In his downtime he enjoys skiing, mountain biking, cyclocross racing, fly fishing and exploring the wilds of Montana with his family and dogs.