Monday, May 11, 2015

Mother's Day weekend in Glacier

Take a pick of breath-taking scenery on Mother's Day weekend in Glacier.  Top:  Two Medicine Lake;  Middle: Katie and Lake McDonald;  Bottom, Upper Two Med Lake
We've done Mother's Day in Glacier before, but usually under wintry conditions.
This year, our three-day trip was spent in shirt-sleeves and we enjoyed mid-summer-like conditions with clear, cloudless skies.
On the west side of the park, the folks from the Flathead valley were out in droves Saturday.
The conditions on Going-to-Sun Highway in the Avalanche Creek area trailhead were so congested that people were parking more than a half-mile away to access the Avalanche Lake trail!
We took a quick look and decided for a more relaxing stroll along McDonald Creek.
We encountered several other hikers, who like us, were looking for Harlequin ducks.  We saw one from afar in the beaver ponds.  We walked as far as we could on the trail, until it petered out.  The map shows it clearly going another 1.5 miles further, but the traces of that trail are so overgrown that we gave up after about a quarter mile of bushwhacking.
Trillium in bloom
The water is running absolutely clear, an emerald color, and fairly high, making the various falls and the Sacred Dancing Waters sections of the creek well worth seeing.  The wildflowers on the west side are not as numerous or riotous as on the east side, although we did come across a patch of trillium flowers in bloom in one
We could see the traffic and crowds on the other side of the creek, making our decision to walk the trail rather than drive to the sights, even more rewarding.
We stayed in East Glacier Park, our favorite part of the park.  The campground at Two Medicine is only partially opened, but there were camping spaces available.  It was empty enough that we found a small band of bighorn sheep milling around one site.
The businesses in East Glacier are starting to open.  Brownies had just opened last week, and we enjoyed its baked goods and coffee.  We ate at Two Medicine Grill, with its hippy ambiance.  It has become pie central, replacing the St. Mary Park Cafe as the place to get great pies, and it has been discovered.  There were lines several of the days we went in for our snack.  We stayed at the Mountain Pine Motel and enjoyed a visit with owner Terry Sherburne, who is always full of information about the park.  Serrano's had opened May 2, and we ate there on Friday night, joining the crowd that lined up to get in for the 5 p.m. serving.
On Mother's Day, the Looking Glass Highway 49 opened to Kiowa Junction, and we drove to the top to enjoy the clear views of the Two Med Valley and Badger Two Medicine Country below us.
There really wasn't much snow to see on Rising Wolf, the biggest mountain in view.  This is worrisome for water supply and potential fire later this summer.
On Sunday, we went to Upper Two Medicine Lake, a round trip hike of about 10 miles.  I can't remember when we've ever been able to get this far into the interior of the park this early without snowshoes or skis.  We walked over several patches of snow when we reached the Twin Falls area and a large drift just before the lake.  However, the lake was clear of ice!
Along the trail we saw mountain goats on the side of Rising Wolf and plenty of moose tracks.
Out of curiosity, we hunted for and found the two cemeteries in East Glacier Park.
The public one sits on a hillside just north of town, overlooking the community with fantastic views of Glacier and Badger peaks.  It is in really rough shape and doesn't appear to be maintained, although there were signs of visitation.  The other is opposite the Mount Henry Trailhead just west of town.  It is also in bad shape.  Both cemeteries appear to be quite old, with graves there nearly 100 years old containing the settlement's pioneers and native peoples.
On McDonald Creek

Coming off drift in front of Upper Two Med Lake

Beaver pond below Mount Rockwell

Twin Falls

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Ford Creek Basin exploratory

Fairview Mountain dominates the horizon near the Scoutana trailhead

The trail follows below an exposed ridge with many openings, revealing grassy parks

Above the Ford Creek Basin
After Tuesday's foray up the North Fork Ford Creek, I just had to take a look at the Ford Creek Basin hike, Trail No. 258 that travels 5 miles below a high, limestone ridge on the east face of the Front near Willow Creek outside Augusta.
I wasn't disappointed.
We chose to hike from the trailhead just west of Camp Scoutana south to the Benchmark Road.
You gain elevation immediately in a thick forest environment of healthy trees.  Some 500 feet are gained in the first half mile.
I emphasize "healthy" as contrasted with most of the rest of the Front, hammered by mountain pine beetle infestations and fires.
An early Fairy Slipper orchid in bloom
It was refreshing to be in a forest that hadn't been hit by either of those two events yet.
The ridge line shows itself frequently in the breaks of grassy parks, which also offer views of the Great Plains to the east.
Rock cairns have been placed as trail markers on those grassy parks.
This is cattle grazing country and it appears to be in pretty good shape.  It is also the horseback playground for dudes from the nearby guest ranch.
We covered nearly 3 miles before hitting the high saddle that revealed below us the basin that descends into the Benchmark Road.
At this time of year it is lush and green.  There are wildflowers of all kinds everywhere you look.
Instead of dropping down to the road, we turned around and walked back.
Although it had been blustery and there was some new snow, the sun came out after lunch and we got terrific views to the north and east of Fairview Mountain and Lime Gulch.
This is a great point-to-point hike, where cars could be left at Benchmark Road (almost at the Ford Creek Guest Ranch gate) and Scoutana/Willow Creek (just beyond the Girl Scout camp).
It is 5 miles long with about 1,300 feet of elevation gain.

For more on the hike, Click here

Walking back to the car

The hills were lit up by Arrowroots

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Poking around in Front's Ford Creek high country

Crown Mountain from North Fork Ford Creek

The grassy high country of North Fork Ford Creek

First lupine of the year
I spent Tuesday in the Benchmark area exploring and enjoying.
The only big game animal I saw was a mule deer.
But, the birds were a treat:  sandhill crane, bald eagle, spruce grouse and bluebirds.
I had hoped to do the Benchmark Creek-Fairview Creek loop, but wussed out when it came to stream crossings.  Benchmark Creek is high enough that I would have had to take my books off and on numerous times.  At about 1.5 miles I bagged it. The Patrol Mountain and Wood Creek ridges are still packed with snow.
I had lunch at the Straight Creek packers camp, checked out South Fork Sun trailhead (no cars) and went to Wood Lake, where I kicked back and took a great nap in the sun.
Heading back to Augusta, I decided to stop and explore the North Fork of Ford Creek (not far from the Double Falls Campground).  There's supposed to be a trail there, but I didn't see any sign, but found a pretty good footpath that eventually disappeared.  I reached a hill top and discovered cut logs and a real trail that I followed to the foot of the Ford Creek Plateau.  This is high grass country hemmed in on both sides by high ridges.  To the north I could see Fairview Mountain above Willow Creek.  Lots of flowers already.
Coming back I enjoyed views of the Crown Mountain ridge line, still very snow covered.
I returned on the great path I had found.  After achieving a saddle it drops steeply and is just adjacent to the unnamed limestone ridge to the east.  It had been horribly eroded, I suspect from heavy horse and cattle use.  Yet, it was pretty and there were wildflowers growing on the eroded, south-facing slopes.
On the other side of this ridge is a Forest Service trail that goes from the Benchmark Road back to Camp Scoutana on Willow Creek.  It is about 4 miles one way.
More to come.
Wood Lake up the Benchmark Road.  Prairie Reef is in the background

Sunday, May 03, 2015

A Wind Mountain tune-up

View from top of Wind Mountain north to Choteau Peak

Attaining the summit

Coming down the scree slopes above South Fork Teton

Me on top looking northwest above Teton River
Wind Mountain at 6,900 feet is a small, yet prominent mountain on the Front that splits the South Fork and main Teton River.
It is pointed at some of the most startlingly beautiful peaksin the Front, such as Big Baldy, Rocky, Cave, Ear, Choteau and Lockhart, to name a few.  It offers great views of the Plains to the east.
Climbing it is somewhat challenging because its summit cap is blocked on all sides by high cliffs with few chinks to attain the top.
Yet, it is a quick way to see beautiful high country quickly.
I've climbed this a number of times and each time has been satisfying.
We went up on a gorgeous spring day Saturday, and if it weren't for the ever-present ticks, it would have been a perfect climb.
Our route, and about the only route I think possible without rope, is from the South Fork Teton about a mile beyond the Forest Service boundary sign.
There is a broad saddle below a west-facing ridge up the mountain. Aim for that on one of the several ridges that run to it. It is an ascent of about 950 feet.
Once there, the key is staying as close to the sharp ridgeline as possible on the way up the final 750 feet.
When blocked, I move to my left (north), and find routes.
At the summit cap itself, it's a matter of going to the base, where there's a good trail traveling south, and at the end of the cap ascending to the north.
I've seen mountain goats from the summit, but not this time.
However, we had a very sunny, blue-sky day with tremendous visibility.
The high mountains were particularly handsome because they are snow-capped.
Below us were breath-taking views of the large cliffs adjacent to Bear Creek.
Coming down, once we had gotten through the cliffs we stayed in soft, but steep scree for most of the descent.
We didn't see much in the way of wildflowers as I had earlier in the week, just an outcropping of Douglasia.
Once down, we drove to the end of the road where there's a trailhead for the Our Lake and Headquarters Pass hikes, and we stopped for a view of Mill Falls at the tiny, adjacent campground.
Wind Mountain from the car

Big Baldy still has plenty of snow

Mill Falls 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Blackleaf Canyon, Mt. Helena, Pioneer ridge birthday hikes

Glacier Lily

Cloud play on the Blackleaf Canyon

An early Showy Daisy

With such perfect late April weather, I've been very busy hiking.
Today it was a hike up the Blackleaf Canyon; yesterday, Mount Helena; late last week, a portion of the Pioneer Ridge in the Little Belts.
I'll count these all as my 67th birthday hikes, although the day was Tuesday, the 28th.
It's been in the 70s for most of the past week, and the snow is really going fast.
Most of the Front's main peaks on its eastern face are clear.  I could have easily gotten up Mount Frazier if I was so inclined.  I toyed with the idea of Wind Mountain.
Yesterday, we climbed a very dry Mount Helena on a crystal clear, blue sky afternoon.
Aside from the melting snow, the main event are the numerous wildflowers.
Me on my 67th birthday below Mt. Helena
Yesterday in Helena it was the shooting stars that caught the eye.
Today it was the glacier lilies and pasque flowers.  They were everywhere side-by-side.
I started today with the idea of climbing Wind Peak, but when I got there I just didn't feel like it.  I went up the road and looked at Rierdon Gulch, but turned around because I didn't want to chance getting my boots wet crossing the South Fork Teton.
I decided that a grand tour of the front would be perfect, so I drove across the Front on the Blackleaf Canyon Road that borders the Blackleaf Game Range.
It was quite spectacular.
The saddle below Mount Frazier

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

An early Castle Reef (false summit) climb

A picture-perfect day for a climb of Castle Reef

I climbed this false summit, some 250 feet lower than the true summit 

I climbed the pointed peak at left.  The true, unimpressive summit is to the right, some 250 higher
Castle Reef (elevation: 8,330 feet) is on my "regulars" list for repeated climbs.
It is one of the iconic mountains of the Front that offers a western backdrop, along with the Sawtooth Ridge, to the city of Great Falls.
Normally, this is a late season climb.
But, with the weather so summer-like, and the mountain virtually clear of snow, I headed up from Hannan Gulch on Tuesday.
I went up from Wagner Basin, one of the jewels of the Rocky Mountain Front, a bighorn sheep sanctuary, pocked with small beaver ponds, and surrounded by high, limestone ridges.
I gained about 1,500 feet from a low saddle to attain the ridgeline.
The mountain is a narrow ridge that extends for miles.
The trail is quick steep and rocky from the saddle.  I found myself carefully negotiating loose scree and talus as I picked my way along.
On top with the ridgeline below and 'Bob" in distance
My wife reminds me that this is early in the season as I complain about how difficult it has been for me during these early climbs.  Normally, I'm skiing now.  Unfortunately, the snow was such that I didn't get in the long skis I regularly do, which keep me in some kind of hiking shape.  My knees got sore quickly and coming down off this mountain was excruciating.
I climbed to what many people think is the peak, but is really the false summit at 8,081 feet, some 249 feet lower than the true summit, which is out of sight.  With a gain of 3,652 feet over 3.7 miles one way, I figured that I had had a pretty good early day.  It would have been another three-quarters mile or so to the real peak.
Along the way I saw two bands of bighorn sheep, ewes and lambs, lots of whitettail and mule deer and a gob of ticks.  Be watchful out there.
While there was little snow on Castle Reef, the high country to the west, particularly in the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas, is just loaded.
The views from the top are spectacular:  the plains and island mountain ranges to the east, the Scapegoat and Bob, and Gibson Reservoir to the west, north and south.

For route map, graph and more, click here: Castle Reef

Sawtooth Ridge across the road

I reached the ridgeline by the saddle

Part of a band of bighorn ewes and lambs

An interesting break in the Castle Reef wall along the way

Wagner Basin along the Sun River with its beaver ponds and view of Sawtooth

Sunday, April 19, 2015

An early Many Glacier visit

Many Glacier reflections in Lake Sherburne

Looking toward Grinnell Glacier

Grinnell Point
We visited Many Glacier on Sunday, the earliest I can recall in any season.
It was a day trip and a magical one at that.
There were only a few people in this part of the park despite a gorgeous blue sky and warm day.
Of course, it is worrisome that the park is so short of snow that something like this is possible.
We made the most of it.
We drove up US 89 by way of St. Mary and then up through Babb and into Many Glacier, stopping along the way to oogle the brilliant reflections of the snow-capped mountains on the glass-like Lake Sherburne. It is highly unusual for the area to be so bereft of wind.
Our goal was to see animals, and see animals we did.
On the Mount Altyn hillside we spyed herds of bighorn sheep and mountain goats.
While we kept a special eye out for moose and grizzlies, we didn't see any, but we saw plenty of signs,including a large pile of grizzly scat in the middle of the road across from the Many Glacier picnic area.  We saw grizzly prints in the snow on our hike and innumerable piles of moose droppings and hoof prints.
We set out to walk from the picnic area around Swiftcurrent Lake and a look at Many Glacier Hotel.
But, by the time we got to the head of the lake, we decided to see if we could get to Lake Josephine with its views of Mounts Gould and Grinnell.
We thought there might be ice on the landlocked Josephine, but there wasn't any.
The views from the foot of the lake toward the mountains were impressive,  The Grinnell Glacier area, the Salamander Glacier, the massive peaks were still in their winter blankets.
As we started up north shore of Josephine we heard what sounded like a loud gunshot, and shortly after another slightly muffled shot.
A bighorn ram on Grinnell Point
I scanned the horizon and the cliffs below Grinnell Point and lo and behold found two bighorn rams squared off, rearing up on their hind legs to butt heads. Sure enough, when they did, they produced the sound we thought to have been gunshots.  This kept us entranced.  I had always wanted to witness rams knocking heads, and here they were above us.
On the way back to the car, we stopped again to watch the wildlife on the mountain-side and found an even greater number of goats.
On the way out of the park, just beyond hotel turnoff we encountered a yearling sheep who allowed us to study and photograph him.
On the way home we stopped for a bite to eat in Dupuyer at the Buffalo Joe restaurant, a new addition to that community, and were quite pleased by the food, service and decor.
It is unusual to find a vegetarian-friendly place in these parts, but they had a home-made vegan black bean burger that was quite delicious.
What a terrific day!
Mount Gould from Lake Josephine boat dock

Where else but Montana would someone photograph grizzly crap in the middle of the road?

Our first glacier lily of the season

A young bighorn stayed still enough for us to enjoy him 

Friday, April 17, 2015

There's hiking in Glacier already (East Side)

Hard to believe that this was taken Friday, April 17.  Looks like summer's here in the park!
Almost out of habit I packed my skis, boots, and snowshoes in the car when I prepared to head to Glacier to enjoy a spectacular day of sun Friday.
This has always been a time of year when the snow was great there, even when it had disappeared elsewhere.
Luckily, I had also packed my hiking boots, because those were what were needed.
Yes, there's snow in the high country, but the foothills and many ridgetops there are already bare.
Even high peaks like Summit and Rising Wolf are only mottled with snow on their flanks.
I parked at Running Eagle (Trick) Falls in the Two Medicine country where the road was blocked, and decided to hike the remaining 2.5 miles to Two Medicine Lake.
On the shore on an April hike
The road was clear, although there were patches of snow in the shaded, wooded areas.
The lake was clear of ice, which offered an interesting counter-point to what looked like pretty good snow along the Continental Divide near Painted Teepee, Helen peak and Dawson Pass.
I encountered a lone coyote on the way up and throughout the day three other parties of road hikers.
Amazing that a great American national park would be so empty.
After enjoying the lake, I walked around the Two Med campground as far as the bridge to the North Shore Trail, and then circled back, deciding to give the Scenic Point Trail a try.
I'm glad I did, because I could ascend nearly 1,000 feet and more than a mile before I hit snow patches, which on other days when I had more time, I could have skirted.
I enjoyed lunch above the Apistoki valley with the lake below and Rising Wolf in full, glorious view.
After returning to my car, I decided to see what Marias Pass looked like and was pleased to see that Elk Calf, Flattop and Elk mountains all had what could be skiable snow if the sun softened it.
The pass parking lot was clear of snow, making the sign warning of avalanche danger seem out of place.
It was a glorious day that I enjoyed thoroughly, but I think the lack of snow could be a harbinger to a rough summer of fires.
Mighty Rising Wolf

Lone Walker at head of Upper Two Med Lake

Marias Pass is clear and Little Dog and Summit Mountains only mottled with snow

Apistoki Valley on way up Scenic Point Trail