Hurry or You’ll Miss Western Montana’s Best Wildflowers
Western Montana is one of the best places in the Northern Rockies for wildflowers, primarily because of the varied geography and climate. Whether it's the high meadows in Glacier National Park, the burst of unpredictable color on the Rocky Mountain Front, or the peekaboo blossoms in our forests, it makes this time of the year one of our favorites in the Treasure State.
Yet, I would suggest one of the best blooms happens right in Missoula's backyard when the camas flowers explode across the open country of Packer Meadows at Lolo Pass.
That's not just because of the hundreds of thousands of blossoms, but because of the easy access for all ages.
There's also a much deeper story that makes you appreciate Mother Nature's annual gift, and how the camas are still central to life after thousands of years.
The cultural importance of camas
The camas, or Camassia quamash, are sacred to the Nez Perce Tribe and were central to the lives of many other tribes throughout the Northwest, like the Salish and Shoshone, who would travel long distances to collect the camas roots later in the season.
For the Nimiipuu, the camas blossoms across the meadows and prairies on the Inland Northwest were a sign of a new season, and the coming opportunity to gather the roots as a primary food source for the coming winter. It would also provide fiber and other materials that could be used in clothing, baskets, and ropes.
Tribal historians have told me the women would dig as much as 50 pounds each every day, a tradition that continues.
Historical Packer Meadows
While many places are known for producing camas, Packer Meadows has special significance because of its location right on what would become the Idaho-Montana border. It was positioned at the apex of the old Lolo Trail, and it was through here that Lewis and Clark passed on their two trips across the Bitterroot Mountains in a place largely unchanged from those days.
What you'll see
It's that dual historical significance that lets you experience a "snapshot" into the centuries when Packer Meadows would have seen the tribal families or the intrepid explorers of the Corps of Discovery stopping to rest after the long climbs along the ridge lines.
But just being able to look across the purple blooms stretching for acres in either direction, seeing the trees and the sky filled with a deep blue, or the clouds of a developing thunderstorm is an incredible experience, filling you with a spiritual sense of "place."
Location and best tips for the visit
Packer Meadows is a short drive down a well-graded Forest Service Road from the Lolo Pass Visitor's Center. Trucks and SUVs aren't needed, but I would caution you about driving beyond the meadows because the roads turn quickly rougher and climb beyond the comfortable conditions for regular cars.
Parking can be tight at the height of the day, but usually, there's plenty of room along the edge of the road in the early mornings and evenings. You can get good views right from the road. But if you choose to stroll into the meadows, please stay on the established paths and respect this special environment, including the creek banks.
Because camas, and the other flowers that grow in Packer Meadows, love moisture, the trail can become quite muddy. The meadow is also crossed with small creeks, so a pair of boots is a good idea, especially after the heavy rains of June. Also, the blooms draw thousands of bees. That gives a great ambiance, but it might be scary for some children. The bees go about their business and generally won't cause any problems, but it's something to remember if someone in your party is allergic.
Also, be sure to have a jacket and watch the weather. Thunderstorms can develop quickly on the Bitterroot Divide in June. Finally, remember there's no cell service.
Get there soon
This year the warm weather in May has accelerated the camas bloom, which was already expected to peak this week. However, the meadows are still amazing for a week or so after the bloom. The Lolo Pass Visitor's Center provides updates on its Facebook page.
Master Tribal Interpreter Roger Amerman will be on scene again this year from 9:30 am to 3:30 pm (PDT) each day through June 18th with informative presentations.