Mann Gulch Trail #258

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This information is a public record of the 2024 NRT application and may be out of date if it has not been updated by a trail manager --
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Mann Gulch Trail #258

USDA Forest Service
  • Length
    3.4 miles
  • Elevation Gain
  • Route Type
    out & back

The Mann Gulch Trail is a hiker/pedestrian trail from Meriwether to the top and around the rim. It is not open to wheeled vehicles, motorized vehicles or snow mobiles. The Mann Gulch Trail is open year-round, but winter access is a challenge since the river freezes in places and alternate access points from the north are closed.

  • Mann Gulch, Helena National Forest. Photo by Montanabw
  • Mann Gulch, Helena National Forest. Photo by Montanabw
  • Mann Gulch fire commemorative sign
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Location: Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area

  • States: Montana

The Mann Gulch Trail has existed since at least 1942. However, the trail was not officially recognized in Forest Service records until 1964, around the same time it became part of the newly designated Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area.

The Mann Gulch Trail was utilized by James Harrison in 1949 to respond to the Mann Gulch fire. This fire started the night of August 4th due to a lightning strike. The first official report came from the Colorado Mountain lookout. However, James Harrison, the Meriwether guard, found the fire in the late morning and attempted to contact the Canyon Ferry ranger station but radio issues delayed the report. Harrison then went to begin fighting the fire himself. At 1:30, a plane with smokejumpers was deployed from Missoula to fight the fire. They arrived around 3:00 and jumped onto a site at the head of Mann Gulch. The gear was scattered during the jump. The men gathered the gear and ate dinner. Dodge heard voices and went to find James Harrison leaving his second in command to start the men toward the river.

When Dodge and Harrison rejoined the men, they continued hiking on the North side of the gulch. Within a few minutes however, Dodge realized the fire had jumped onto the side they were on and ordered the men to turn and retreat. As they broke out of the trees into grass, the fire began to blow up. 300 yards after turning around, the men were ordered to drop their tools hoping to make the ridgetop. Only another 200 yards later, the foreman Dodge, realizing they were never making the ridge, started what today is known as an escape fire. Not knowing the technique, the rest of the crew thought he was crazy for starting another fire and kept running. Dodge survived in his fire ring. The

two youngest smokejumpers using the escape fire on their flank went straight up to the ridge and over the other side to a patch of rocky ground. Here they took refuge until the fire had passed. The rest of the crew ran scattered across the hillside and were felled by the flames or by smoke inhalation afterwards. 13 of the 16 men perished.

James Harrison's story was unique. He had to hike the 1500-foot Mann Gulch Trail two times on this hot August day. Harrison's first trip up the trail was ordered by Ranger Jansson to check for smoke from the previous days' thunderstorm. He did see a fire was burning on top of the ridge between Meriwether and Man Gulch. This was around 10:45 am. He walked back down the trail to radio both Missoula and Canyon Ferry.

Unsuccessful in his attempts to make contact, he left a note saying "gone to fight the fire, Jim" then he hiked back up the trail. He arrived on the fire at approximately 1:00 with tools in hand and created a fire line trying to protect the Meriwether side of the gulch. He remained working until Dodge contacted him at around 5:15 where he became part of the ill-fated Mann Gulch crew. James Harrison became a guard at the behest of his mother who felt smoke jumping was simply too dangerous. Harrison was not to survive his final race with fire that day.

The Mann Gulch fire changed many ways firefighting was approached. Based on Dodge's escape fire where he burnt out an area and laid face down to survive, the idea for a safety zone was born. These safety zones are pre-burned areas, larger than a football field, where crews could retreat if a fire started burning too hot. In addition, crews are given an individual fire shelter where a firefighter could be protected from radiant heat and smoke. Firefighters now live and train together and know the ins and outs of fire behavior in multiple terrains. The location for hiking to attack the fire would have been the rim top from the beginning and lookouts are established to know changes in fire behavior during any procedure performed to fight a fire. All crews have better radio communications, which was an issue throughout the day in reporting this fire and because the Mann Gulch radio broke in the initial drop. The crews now are trained to follow orders and stay together even if they are badly framed. In addition, fire is studied extensively at locations such as the Missoula Intermountain Research Station.

The Mann Gulch Trail continues to connect future generations to the events of August 5, 1949. There have been meet-ups held on August 5th in remembrance of the event. There is a tour of the Gate of the Mountains via boat, and it stops at the campground and picnic area where the trail begins as well as at the base of Mann Gulch to describe the events of the day. When you get off the tour boat at the picnic area, you will see a memorial to the fallen firefighters as well as a cabin where a Mann Gulch firefighter lived and worked in 1949. The trail is the same trail that James Harrison used to fight the fire, a direct connection to the events of that day. It makes one realize the rugged nature of the terrain. At the top of the trail there is a sign with a map of events of the day. Those include where all 13 men bravely fell and the location of the attempt at an escape fire by the foreman in 1949. From this view, you can see straight across to Mann Gulch and are standing near where the fire began from a lightning strike. Future generations could read books to connect them to the trail including Young Men and Fire and A Great Day to Fight Fire. Our work will help connect future generations because the trail will be designated as a National Recreation Trail on the maps making it easier to find this trail and making it a point of interest.

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Public Contact

Rory Glueckert , Forest Recreation Program Manager
USDA Forest Service
2880 Skyway Dr
Helena, MT 59602
[email protected]406-495-3761

More Details

  • Elevation (low): 3660
  • Elevation (high): 5153
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  • Part of a Trail System? No
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  • Certified as an NRT
    Feb 2, 2024
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