Monday, October 24, 2016

Doing Ear Mountain most directly

On our way up the northeast ridge line

Mary Stelling braces herself against the wind

The Ear Mountain cliffs just above us
I wanted to get on record the easy way to climb Ear Mountain.  Well, okay, a somewhat easy way.  This involves going to the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks parking area off the Bellview Road northwest of Choteau, accessed from the Teton River Road.
There's a good parking area and a gate across what used to be a road.  Get on the road and follow it until it crosses a small drainage (you'll see the steel culvert). This is a wood cutting area.  Start up the ridge and follow it to the base of the cliffs.  This is on the norheast side of the mountain.
This is as far as we went last week with our Wayne's Wednesday Group hikers because the wind was blowing so hard we thought it risky to go any further.
We went 3 miles up and gained 2,700 feet.
If doing the full climb, at the cliff base there is a great, but narrow goat trail that goes across the face of the mountain to a very obvious saddle to the west.  Carefully follow it to that point where the trail becomes more pronounced and goes to the back of the mountain.  Follow that good trail in the scree to where it stops at a large and steep gully full of talus.  This is the way up.  Follow it through the cliffs, about 200 feet of elevation, and it is an easy walk to this mountain's high point.
In years past the most popular way of climbing this mountain is from the BLM trailhead off the South Fork Teton Road. This involves lots of up and down and across the Yeager Flats.
The way I described is much simpler and direct.

Here is a topo of the route and more photos:  CLICK HERE

H. Wayne Phillips with Metis (Earwax) Mountain in background 
Descending the ridge line 
The group encounters snow

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Rock City: magical land of hoodoos

Our group in a field of hoodoos

Frank Smith near a free-standing hoodoo

Where the Two Med and Birch Creek come together

Hoodoos above the Birch Creek cliffs
Thanks to the Portage Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation I was introduced to Rock City, about 10 miles north of Valier on Saturday where hoodoos abound and Birch Creek and the Two Medicine River join in sight of a snow speckled Rocky Mountain Front.
Frank Smith of Great Falls, of the foundation, led a dozen hikers to this magical place on the plains.
After snowfall and melt during the week that muddied and softened the dirt road, we had to abandon a plan to drive to the rim of this unusual land of weathered rock formations, and hiked up the Rock City Road a couple of miles to reach the hoodoos.
This was our third experience with hoodoos --- rock weathered chimneys and slots --- this season.
We found them on the Lewis and Clark "Fight Site," Montana Wilderness Association hike led by Larry Epstein where the Corps of Discovery had an unfortunate skirmish that killed a teen Blackfeet boy, and at the Writing on Stone Provincial Park near Milk River, Alberta, not far from the Port of Sweetgrass.
While those hoodoos were beautiful, and historical, Rock City was far more spectacular.
Finding this spot is a tad complicated, because it is not formally marked, although it sits on Bureau of Land Management property, bounded by wheat farms.
Drive straight north of Valier on the highway to Cut Bank.  After several miles the road swings sharply to the west.  A "Rock City" street sign on a gravel road is straight ahead.  Take it and in several miles becomes dirt.  Stay straight ahead for a couple more miles.  It becomes two-track to the Two Medicine River's rim where the hoodoos become very visible.  When it is dry you can drive right to those rims.
The route to Rock City
If confused, Valier locals will tell you where it's at.
Take your time, wander around, squeeze through tight slots, ascend flat topped hoodoos, and eventually climb to the grass on the southwest for a view of where Birch Creek and the Two Med join.  There are high, sandstone cliffs above both bodies of water
Birch Creek is the smaller stream to the south.  The Two Med is powerful and where the two are joined there are rapids.
While Valerians are familiar with this area, it is largely unknown by those of us from Great Falls, who speed through this scenic northcentral Motnana farm town on the way to Glacier or the Front.
My great concern is that if it is eventually discovered it can be overused.
This place deserves some kind of protection.
Hoodoos everywhere

Tight squeeze for Richard Fischer through a slot

Stove pipe hoodoos

Saturday, October 01, 2016

East Side ground cover at autumnal best

Scarlet huckleberries and red rocks on Steamboat hillside

On top Steamboat Lookout

Steamboat above an aspen grove
I made a last minute decision Friday to climb Steamboat (Lookout) Mountain (elevation: 8,565 feet), hoping to enjoy fall color along the Rocky Mountain Front.
Along with the clear skies, warm temperature and light winds, I nailed it.
While many enjoy the changing trees, I go for the ground cover on the east side of the Rockies.
The rose bushes, huckleberries and fireweed turn various shades of red, yellow and orange and light up hillsides.
They are particularly striking against the red rocks on this hike.
I did the standard Elk Creek Pass Trail route from the Elk Creek Trailhead, a route that is about 13.2 miles and gains and loses nearly 3,800 feet roundtrip.
I got a late start since I worked a couple of hours before deciding to go, arriving at the trailhead just before 11 a.m.  I was on top before 2 p.m., and back at the car around 5:30 p.m.
The huckleberry bushes were particularly brilliant, a deep scarlet color accentuated by the green grasses, as well as the red rocks.
I usually do this climb at least once a season because I've been fascinated by how this forest has come back since the 1988 Canyon Creek Fire.  I like to measure the progress of the regrowth. This 250,000 acre hot fire burned most of that summer and in September of that year jumped the highway and burned out on the plains.
It has been interesting to watch the forest come back in my short lifetime.
There are thick stands of lodgepole and Douglas Fir trees, so thick that it could probably use another fire to thin them.
Aspens aglow
This is also an area that I often see elk, and when I gain elevation I get fabulous views of some of my favorite country, the Scapegoat masif, Crown Mountain area, and to the north the Sawtooth-Castle Reef and high Teton peaks country as well as Haystack Butte closer by.
I rarely see anyone on this hike, but on Friday passed a local couple on horseback (yes, I passed them!) on their way on a loop ride that would take them back home via the Dearborn.
The Elk Creek bottom was brilliant with the yellow aspens.
On the way home I stopped and took a few photos of the Sun River bottoms east of Augusta, shouting color from its cottonwoods.
Crown Mountain complex seen from top of Steamboat
Steamboat Lookout Mountain summit cap
Golden cottonwoods on the Sun River bottom east of Augusta

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Wayne Walks one year anniversary Buffalo Canyon, Twin Sisters

Wayne Phillips enters the Buffalo Canyon 
The canyon gave us the finger

H.Wayne Phillips demonstrates how narrow Dark Canyon is

We felt a little safer helping Nora Gray with a piece of rope
We're about a week late, but a group of eight celebrated the one-year anniversary of our weekly Wayne's Wednesday Wild Walks hiking group by climbing the Twin Sisters in the Little Belt Mountains via Buffalo Canyon about 20 miles southeast of Hobson.
When you do a hike like this you realize how large this isolated Island Range mountain range is.  Actually, the range itself, about 1 million acres is the size of Glacier Park.  So, we're talking big here.
Hobson is about 80 miles east of Great Falls.
This is not a heavily used part of the Little Belts because access is on gravel away from population centers.
We started at day break and came out at dusk, having covered 11.3 miles and gained and lost over 3,000 feet.
Buffalo Canyon is a spectacular complex of limestone gulches, intersected by other gulches.  After a short walk through Buffalo Canyon, we detoured up the Dark Canyon to reach the top of a ridge line that took us to the Twin Sisters (elevations: 7,489, 7,496 feet), actually exposed bumps on the ridge line.
The canyons are every bit as spectacular as the limestone canyons and spires of the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area between Great Falls and Helena.
To get to the ridge we had to use a piece of rope to do one small pitch, although it probably wasn't necessary to rope up.
While much of the day was off-trail, we did a loop by staying on the ridge after climbing the peaks and using Forest Service trails and ATV roads to get back.
Because this area is so remote (it took us 2.5 hours to drive to the trail head from Great Falls), it gets very little use.
The gravel road is not too bad, although I'd recommend a high clearance vehicle, and there are two heavy gates to open and close.
We drank in the beauty of the surrounding mountain ranges on the ridge walk.  On a clear day it would be possible to see the entire state North to South from the high points.  We could see the Absaroka Range to the south, and haze blocked clear views of the Beartooths to the north.
To the northwest, there is the Highwoods, to the northeast, the Moccasins and Judiths, to the southeast, the Big and Little Snowies, and to the southwest, the Castles and Crazy ranges.
In retrospect, I wish we had stayed low rather than gone high and climbed the peaks.
Unfortunately, the foliage in this area wasn't spectacular and not lit up in fall colors like the rest of the Little Belts.  The Mountain Maple, in bright yellow, offered the best color
The canyon is simply fascinating and would offer hours of exploration.
On the way out we stopped in Hobson for a bite to eat at Tall Boys Cafe.  This might be one of the best kept secrets in Central Montana, a full service restaurant and bar with a spectacular menu and microbrews on tap.

For a topo map and more photos:  CLICK HERE

Rugged outcrops in this remote place

A view of the Twin Sisters peaks in the Little Belts

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Rocky Mountain Front Fall color

Colorful aspen creep up the Smith Creek drainage

That's Crown Mountain behind the color

The Smith Creek bottom

Some of the aspen had an orange-red tint

Katie crossing the creek

Reds of the rose bushes added color to the yellow aspen backdrop 
I've been traveling out of state (Mom, 50th class reunion, new grandchild), so posts have been missing.
Tuesday was my first chance to get out, and I went immediately to the Rocky Mountain Front, where the Fall colors are in full force.
We went to Smith Creek west of Augusta.
We hiked from the trailhead as far as the Petty Creek trail junction and went up Petty Creek for a short distance.  That trail leads to the base of Crown Mountain.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Mount Wright: perfect Wild Fest hike

Approaching the summit

Reaching the top

In the saddle 
Mount Wright from the trailhead
The colors are rolling out along the Rocky Mountain Front, adding a lovely touch of color to a perfect  climb of Mount Wright on Saturday.
My wife, Katie, and I lead nine hikers on this classic Front climb as part of the Montana Wilderness Association's Wild Fest annual meeting in Great Falls.
We gained the 3,200 feet in less than 3 hours, despite taking breaks.
We had worried that we might not be able to get to the top of this beautiful mountain because there had been a good amount of snow in the previous few days.  In fact, Rocky and Baldy summit caps had accumulations of the white stuff.
Although Mount Wright is only a few hundred feet lower than those two mountains, we encountered no snow.
There were some clouds at the top, that burned off later in the day, providing a clear skies later on.
When we got to the top there were some low clouds that blocked views beyond the Badger-Two Med into Glacier Park, nor could we get a clear view of the Swans to the West.
Still, this mountain lived up to its reputation for having some of the best views across the Bob Marshall Wilderness to the West and the Front and Great Plains beyond.  We could clearly see the Sweet Grass Hills to the east on the Alberta border, floating in a sea of grass.
Along the way, our group enjoyed hunting for sea shells, remnants from the once large sea east of the mountain.  These shells and the creatures that made them are the stuff of limestone that give the Front its distinctive look.
We covered the 7.1 miles in 6 hours, giving us plenty of time to get back to the gala in Great Falls.

For a topo map of our route and more photos:  CLICK HERE

Up through the burn

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Smith Creek: poster child for Canyon Creek Fire recovery; Welcome Pass traverse

Welcome Pass at the head of the valley 
Scapegoat Massif above the Dearborn River headwaters

Smith Creek Falls
It had been a dozen years since I last ventured up Smith Creek, southwest of Augusta in the Rocky Mountain Front.
I hadn't returned because that trip had turned me off.
What I found there then were the remains of the cataclysmic 1988 Canyon Creek Fire that burned nearly a quarter million acres, scorching the entire Smith Creek drainage.  The trailhead was difficult to find, there had been extensive salvage logging, cattle were wandering on the bottom, and there were horse flies everywhere on the 1.5 miles of ranch the poorly marked and trail/road passed through. It was an unpleasant experience, except for the Smith Creek Falls we eventually found and enjoyed.
What a difference those 12 years have made.
This time I was determined to see Welcome Pass at the Scapegoat Wilderness boundary, a 6.5 miles hike that gains 1,800 feet one-way.
An example of the forest recovery from 1988 Canyon Creek Fire
What I found was a new, well-marked trailhead with a 'Cadillac' Forest Service outhouse and parking area, a forest that was thickly covered by lodgepole, Doug Fir and spruce trees (except for the exposed South slopes which are still sparsely revegetated), no cattle, even on the private stretch of land, and fabulous mountain scenery all the way.
To me, it is a poster child of the Canyon Creek Fire recovery, a very pleasant place to be.  My hiking partner, Mark Hertenstein said it reminded him of valleys in Glacier Park.  I agree.
I had been only as far as the falls on my previous visit.
This time we hiked the trail all the way to the pass and beyond, then going off-trail and climbing the ridge line to the highly visible "Nipple" shaped peak 7,246, south and east, and then dropping down a ridgeline to the north and west to the trail.
We covered 15.5 miles and gained and lost some 4,100 feet of elevation going up and down the ridges, turning our easy walk to the pass into something more robust.
The walk to the pass itself is quite appealing, following Smith Creek to its junction with Jakie Creek above a deep gorge some 3.5 miles from the trailhead.  Then the trail follows Jakie Creek to its source through open hillsides and the reforested burn to a high point above a scenic valley some 500 feet below the pass.
The pass scenery isn't particularly scenic.  It is the headwaters of the heavily-forested Dearborn River.
But climbing the trail toward the Forest Service Welcome Creek cabin and then going a short distance on the ridge above the trail the Scapegoat Mountain Massif comes into view.  This is one of the great views in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, with the high Chinese Wall-like Scapegoat Wall rising for miles above Half Moon Basin.
If you go the Welcome Pass, make the effort to get above the pass for these views.
A note of caution on the hike:  there are four crossings of Smith Creek (it was low, so we didn't have too much trouble rock hopping across), that in high water could be problematic (take wading shoes), and there are four wire gates (which we were able to climb across rather than unlatch).  If you're looking for the Petty Creek and Moudess Creek trails, we couldn't find signage.
One of the beauties of this hike is that to the north is the Crown Mountain complex and ridgeline and to the south is the Steamboat Mountain complex and ridgeline.
I wish that I had included this hike to the pass in my book, "Discover the Rocky Mountain Front."  If there is a Third Edition, I will.

For more photos and topo map detailing trip: CLICK HERE

On the ridgeline looking back toward the Crown Mountain complex

Coming down off-trail from the "Nipple" peak

Gorgeous fields of grass on the way back to the trailhead

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Silver King Lookout: feeling the burn

Like a grizzly wearing a radio collar, Silver King Mountain wears a Forest Service electronic site
A scorched tea kettle in the 2003 Snow Talon Fire rubble left when the lookout burned down

There's a nice recovery going on here
As much as I like what fire does to renew an area, I wished that I had climbed Silver King Mountain/Lookout (elevation: 7,771 feet) before it was incinerated in the 2003 Snow Talon Fire north and east of Lincoln.
Luckily, I had a partly cloudy day on Tuesday when I did it and didn't have to endure much direct sunlight where there is no longer any shade.
I've long been curious about this mountain, reached by the super-popular Indian Meadows Trailhead in the Helena Lewis and Clark National Forest, reached by the Copper Creek Road.
The hot fire that burned this area also took out the lookout tower on this mountain in a direct line of sight just east of Stonewall Mountain Lookout, which I climbed a couple of years ago.  All that's left on top is the fire debris, some of it the cookware and stove used in the lookout.
There is a trail to the top of the lookout, which makes the 14.4 miles day hike and climb of more than 3,400 feet cumulative easier.  However, the trail, though maintained, appears to be disappearing in spots from disuse.
I took Trail 438 from the trailhead to its junction with the lookout trail No. 420 some 3.5 miles and then followed the lookout trail the rest of the 3.7 miles up some 2,400 feet from that spot.
Up to the lookout junction the trail is heavily used as a feeder to the Landers Fork country of the Scapegoat Wilderness, churned to chalky dust by horses.  It weaves in and out of burn.
A crossing of the Landers Fork, thigh deep and cold, was required.
At this point it is burn all the way to the top of the mountain.
Luckily, the Forest Service had done a great job marking the trail through the burn with cut logs.
There is significant new growth, mainly thick lodgepole, but some Doug Fir.
The fire has opened the views along Trail 420 and Red Mountain, at 9,411 feet, the highest point in the Scapegoat dominates the northwest horizon.  To the north and east there's Caribou Peak and the unnamed peaks above the West Fork Falls Creek.  Otherewise, the ridgelines are low-slung and burned to a crisp.
Grassy slopes below Silver King are a welcome sight.
Like a grizzly wearing a radio collar, the peak wears a silver electronic communications structure.
I looked around the lookout ruins, and then took in the scenery, particularly admiring the the Continental Divide ridge line and the smaller Alice Mountains, of which Silver King is a part, and the meadows and small lakes, and Lone Mountain above Indian Meadows trailhead.
Then, I turned around for the 7.2 miles out, beating a rain shower.
When these new trees mature this will be a beautiful hike.

For a topo map route and more photos:  CLICK HERE

Ground cover announces fall is on its way

I had a cold, barefoot crossing of the Landers Fork

The Snow Talon Fire was in 2003, but its ghosts abound