An island of wilderness in a rising sea of development, that's how a retired wilderness ranger describes the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area. It's around 20 miles south of Bozeman, in between the Madison and Gallatin Rivers, and stretches 259,000 acres, ten miles shy of West Yellowstone.
Jonathan Klein prepares for take-off. He's no stranger to the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area.
"I was the very first wilderness ranger for the Bureau of Land Management, managing the Bear Trap Canyon Unit of the Lee Metcalf," says Klein.
He tells me the Lee Metcalf is unique in that it's divided into four units- Monument Mountain, Taylor-Hilgard, Spanish Peaks and Bear Trap Canyon.
"That was also the BLM's very first designated wilderness area," says Klein.
But Klein says, if leaders had waited much longer, there might not be any wilderness there at all due to a growing population and the kind of technology that can use the terrain, like snowmobiles and ATV's.
"The wilderness, Lee Metcalf, is more or less an island of wilderness in a rising sea of development," says Klein.
It's home to grizzly bears, wolves, elk and wolverines and provides water for agriculture in the valley below.
That's not to mention the opportunities for hunting, fishing and solitary recreation.
"You could kind of get lost back in there and you can kind of feel a little bit like Lewis and Clark, like you're seeing nature for the first time, and that's becoming increasingly rare in this world that we live in today," explains Klein.
The flight is part of the summer of lee, an opportunity to celebrate the wilderness area and the man who helped make it a reality.
"Lee Metcalf was really the patron saint of wilderness in Montana. If you look at any wilderness area in Montana from ridge top to ridge top, Lee Metcalf had a hand in protecting that," says The Wilderness Society's Jared White.
While the former state senator never lived to see the area protected, folks with the Wilderness Society say he's made it possible for others to enjoy the land for years to come.
"It just creates a huge opportunity for future generations to be able to get out there and explore," says White.
Here are some facts about the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area:
According to the Wilderness Society it has 70 lakes and is home to some of the wildest whitewater in Montana.
You'll find 28 trailheads with 300 miles of trails.
Hilgard is the highest peak in the wilderness area, topping out at over 11 thousand feet.