The 29,135-acres Welcome Creek area is a true wilderness experience. The densely forested slopes, exposed ridges, and deep canyons of this heart-shaped Wilderness contribute to an all-too-rare example of relatively low elevation general forest to the National Wilderness System. The land rises gently from the main Sapphire Range Divide and then drops abruptly to form breaks that are surprisingly steep and rough. Old-growth stands of lodgepole pine interspersed with sylvan groves of spruce and Douglas fir provide homes for elk, deer, mountain lions, bobcats, pine martens, minks and weasels. Some of the lower slopes near Rock Creek are park like, with stately stands of large, yellow-plated ponderosa pine.
In his 1974 journal, noted Montana conservationist Bud Moore captures the wild nature of Welcome Creek:
'Except for [Welcome] Creek's energetic music, I hiked alone in silence deepened by the mountain's shadow. Each intimate twist in the trail-there are many-opened sudden new vistas, mini worlds they were, each different from the last, expanding ahead then closing behind a giant rock point or spruce tree as I ambled on through the spell of evening hush.'
Welcome Creek has a past as colorful as the gold that lured outlaws, cabin-builders, and miners here more than a century ago. Gold was first discovered in Welcome Creek in 1888; most of the paydirt was extracted from placer claims. During its fleeting mining era Welcome Creek yielded one of the largest gold nuggets ever found in Montana-tipping the scales at 1.5 pounds. When the mines were abandoned, the steep mountains of Welcome Creek became a hideout for fugitives. The crumbling remains of at least a dozen old cabins can be found, often in places where you least expect them.
Welcome Creek was designated Wilderness in 1978 as part of the Endangered American Wilderness Act largely through the efforts of late Senator Lee Metcalf and of Montana conservationists who recognized the relationship between protecting the headwaters of Rock Creek and maintaining its superb water quality and fishery.
There are about 30 miles of trails, most of which lie on steep ridges and in the narrow stream bottoms. Most of the use occurs during the fall hunting season, and most of this is confined to the lower several miles of the stream bottom trails. Summer day hiking is increasing in popularity; the most popular route is across the Welcome Creek swinging bridge over Rock Creek.
Steep terrain and dense vegetation limit the number of suitable campsites near the larger streams, and only a few of these are adequate for larger parties. For this reason the maximum part size for both days use and overnight use stays in ten people.
Cross-country skiing can be excellent in the high basins near or just below the Sapphire Divide in the western portion of the Wilderness. Ideal terrain and good late-season snow conditions compensate for the difficult access to the higher country. Be sure to check local avalanche reports before venturing into the backcountry during ski season.