Camping Fever

A multifaceted kick-off to warmer weather. 

Like most folks around here, I love winter—but by spring, sun and warmer temps become a psychological necessity. I also need to sleep outside, and since I’m not an idiot, I don’t do much winter camping. So on that first warm spring weekend, I’m looking for dry ground.

And like most folks, I find it due west of Bozeman on the Madison River. My favorite place to set up a base camp for the weekend is the BLM land around Bear Trap Canyon. This central location is perfect for the outdoor schizophrenic—hiking, climbing, biking, fishing, and floating draw out each of my multiple outdoor personalities. 

Although summer brings out the annoyingly oversized RVs, springtime at the BLM campgrounds offers a multitude of options and way less crowding. Take the opportunity to stretch out—meaning bring everyone and everything. Eight-person tent for two? Check. Cots? You bet. Fishing gear, crossbike, running shoes, and even a swimsuit? Yes, yes, yes, and most definitely. Just don’t forget the fleece and raincoat, too.

Set up shop in a number of different locations, in everything from pay-to-play campgrounds to dispersed sites. There are a few cherry individual sites right along the river, but if those are taken, drive back to Red Mountain and relax in the large campground below it. It’s a little closer to the road, but still adjacent to the water. As a last resort, check out one of the fishing-access sites farther downstream.

As far as activities go, right on the Madison, there’s Bear Trap. This Wilderness trail is no secret, but again, spring is less crowded and a bit more exciting, as you never know what you’re going to see along the trail. Bring some running shoes, extra layers, and watch for snakes—as the temps warm, rattlers move down from their dens in the rocks, often crossing the trail. 

Jog the moderate slope up the canyon, turning around whenever you want. (If you’re looking for an early-season backpack, hiking into the canyon and camping along the river guarantees some solitude in an otherwise popular location.)

If running isn’t your thing, this stretch of river also offers excellent pocket water, so bring a rod and reel. Luckily, you have your vehicle back at camp, so you can take this opportunity to bring each and every fishing-related item you own and dial in your kit before summer sets in.

For a half-day trip from camp, load the bike rack with something that can handle dirt roads and check out Revenue Flats, just west of Norris. The riding isn’t spectacular singletrack, but there is some gravel to grind, plus you can throw your climbing gear in a pack and solve some boulder problems while you’re out that way as well.

 Madison Valley, biking

On your way back, be sure to hit Norris Hot Springs for a soak and maybe some live music. There's something special about soaking in inclement weather, so spring is a great time to be at the hot springs. If you’re lucky, it’ll drizzle a bit or even snow right after you’re done enjoying the trail or crag, and you can enjoy the warm water with a bit of cool air for contrast—unlike summer, when hot-potting can make you feel like a boiled wiener.

Now that you’ve spent the whole weekend outdoors for the first time in months, it’s back to the real world. Or not—the beauty of Bear Trap is its proximity. Head back to camp, get a raging fire going, and stay one more night. You can break down camp and be back in Bozeman Monday morning before 9am without much trouble at all.