Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Wildlife galore in Montana's Beartooth State Game Range

The bull and his harem

Wind-whipped clouds put on a show

Bighorn sheep share the range

We got lucky Monday as we ventured into the Beartooth State Game Range just east of Holter Lake.

We didn't realize it, but it officially closes for the season on Dec. 1, and we walked in Nov. 30, one day after the end of  big game hunting season.

What luck.  During our 4 mile hike we saw an elk herd of some 20 animals, six bighorn sheep, including two rams, and some deer, along with amazing scenery in all directions, dominated by the Sleeping Giant Mountain, Holter Lake's oxbow, and the snow-covered Rocky Mountain Front.

This is an area of grass, gulches, and high ridges that offers wildlife plenty to eat and room to roam as winter range.  It doesn't open again until May 15.

It is 60 miles south of Great Falls, and 40 miles north of Helena, an area of 35,000 acres along Cottonwood, Elkhorn and Willow creeks also adjacent to the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area.

The first time I entered this area was in 1975 when I accompanied Wayne Arnst, the Great Falls Tribune's outdoor writer, who was doing a story on the area which had been a ranch and then was sold by a family from San Francisco to the state for wildlife management.  I met Bill Milton, a family member, at that time.  He went on to ranch in the Roundup area.

Climbing buddy Mark Hertenstein has been talking up this area all Fall.  He's mountain-biked and hiked throughout this 35,000 acre paradise.

The last couple of years we've been hiking just west of this game range above Holter Lake.

In addition to the wildlife we discovered ridges that led us up successively higher to a long, igneous wall not unlike the walls you find on Square and Crown buttes.  As we approached the wall, the herd of elk emerged and displayed themselves, at first hesitantly, then boldly.  We had plenty of time to admire them from a healthy distance.

From the piles of elk droppings it was obvious to us that this was their home.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Almost December and hiking is still a good option near Great Falls

I disturbed some migrating geese

Rimming the Missouri River
The Highwood Mountains stand guard

The hoodoos across the river from Box Elder Canyon

 The muted colors of late Fall, the migrating geese and the glorious Missouri River along the Great Falls Rivers Edge Trail offered a hiker's paradise on Sunday. This along the stretch between Ryan and Morony dams. Almost December and hiking is still a good option.

I covered 7.2 miles on the trail, enjoying radiant sunshine and meeting no one else.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Working off Thanksgiving in Bear's Paw Mountains

Bearpaw Baldy, highest peak in the range, dominates the horizons

Katie on the way up in the wind

Susan Woyth celebrates her 20th peak in 2020
There were occasional patches of snow on the designated trail

Katie's Girls in Glacier group celebrate their post-Thanksgiving climb

 It has been so long since I've hiked or climbed in the Bear's Paw Mountains south of Havre that I don't have any record in this 16-year-old blog.

We corrected that Friday with a post-Thanksgiving trip to climb Mount Otis (elevation: 4,471 feet) in that mountain range with Katie's Glacier Girls in extreme wind, but with bluebird skies.

It was as fascinating to drive through the Rocky Boy Reservation on the way as it was climbing this small peak.  

The seriousness of the Covid pandemic really hit home when we were checked in and out of the reservation on our way to the trailhead in Beaver Creek (Hill) Country Park, said to be the largest county park in the nation.  Masked checkers stop all cars coming and going as the pandemic rages on the Chippewa Cree rez.  We had to give our names because a strict tracing regimen is followed. 

Aside from that, the beauty of this island mountain range so isolated on the High Plains grabs you along the way.  There are so many snow-covered "bumps" to this range that your eyes don't know where to focus.  The reservation is quite pretty, though engulfed in poverty.

We warmed up for the climb with a short hike at the Bearpaw Lake Campground, taking the lower 1-mile Rotary Loop Trail.  Lots of snow and ice around the campground made getting to the trailhead a little tricky.  I added a bit to the hike by climbing an adjacent high ridge and taking that back to the trailhead.

About two miles away we found the Mooney Gulch road that leads to the Otis Mountain trailhead, but thought it too icy to drive.  I sized up the mountain and decided to take an off-trail route to the top along a low ridge that connected to the summit ridge.  All eight of Katie's girls had no trouble making it up this steep 1,000 feet route, which offered progressively more beautiful views of the Bear Paws.  To our surprise there was a bench on the top which we ceded to Susan Woyth, who had just accomplished her 20th peak in 2020.  We were all so proud of her.

We decided to take the official trail back down, which offered us a nice loop.  Then it was a walk back to the car through an area that has many small cabins.  We had covered just under 3 miles and climbed just over 1,000 feet on this loop.

I have climbed Bearpaw Baldy at 6,619 feet, the highest peak in this range, but that was some years ago. It is a brooding, high presence from most vantage points.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Picking up Otter Peak after going through McGee Coulee Arch


Descending to McGee Coulee trail

Walking across the top of Otter Peak

Approaching Otter Peak
Gordon Whirry climbs up through the arch

Gordon Whirry at the beginning of our hike in brilliant sunlight

The skies cleared and headed for the Little Belts to climb Otter Peak (elevation: 6,713 feet) after walking under the McGee Coulee Arch.

We had done the Arch in September and had seen Otter in the close distance up McGee Coulee.  It seemed a shame not to climb that close at hand.  And, that's why returned Tuesday.

We took the west ridge up toward McGee Coulee, although Mark Hertenstein thought it might have been better, and with less deadfall to climb over, had we taken the east slope.

Last time we did the arch we approached it from above.  This time we hit it from the bottom, climbing straight up through a large scree field.

This proved to be a much better way to go.

After a walk along the flanks of the Sawmill Ridge, we dropped back down through snow to McGee Coulee at the foot of Otter Peak.  From this point it is about 1,200 feet up a relatively steep, and sometimes open slope.

On top we found that there had been a recent herd of elk there that had churned up the hard-pack snow, and the elk had left their calling-card droppings everywhere.

The views from the top were quite good ----- Mount Barker, immediately to the east was the highest point, although we could see Long and Neihart Baldy peaks, Servoss, Big Horn and Thunder mountains, and then out onto the Great Plains toward the buttes near the Rocky Mountain Front, the Bearspaws, and Snowies.

The sky was a deep blue, highlighted by a bright sun, that despite a relentless wind, kept us relatively warm.

We walked 7.2 miles and gained more than 2,200 feet, driving only 45 miles from Great Falls.

The Arch is highlighted in yellow

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Exploring the Little Belts


At the Oti Park junction with Mount Baldy in sight

Snowy Upper Dry Fork Belt Creek

The Upper Dry Fork Road 120

As I write my book on the Little Belt Mountains I continue to stumble on new revelations about this interesting mountain range.

On the spur of the moment Friday I headed to the range to remind myself about some of the features of the Dry Fork of Belt Creek.  It is an extremely scenic road east of Monarch that offers car campers awesome spots along the creek under limestone spires in a tight canyon.  There are several trailheads;  McGee Coulee, Sawmill Gulch, Henn/Hoover, Bender Creek and access to the Butcherknife Ridge that leads to the centerpiece of the Little Belts ---- Mount Baldy at more than 9,100 feet in elevation.

While I have often skied and hiked the Bender Creek Trail, and driven through the Barker and Hughesville ghosttowns and even traveled across the divide to Dry Wolf Creek, I had avoided the roads in the mining district coming off Dry Fork Belt, thinking they would be too tough to drive.

I have been extremely curious about FS Road 120 that is a mile beyond Bender Creek because at its end is Trail 739 that travels to the top of Butcherknife Mountain.

With the ice and snow I thought it best to park the car on Dry Fork Belt and walk up the road to see if I could reach the trailhead.

The first 100 yards of the road was ice-covered and rutted, and I was glad I was walking rather than driving.  Then the road opened up nicely and looked drive-able during the summer.  I was amazed to see a fairly sizable number of camp sites along the Dry Fork.

I walked as far as where Gray Creek comes in, the beginning of 739.  I stopped and turned around there.  That trail looked more like a motorcycle trail, but was still glad to have found it.

On the walk I was delighted to find the road to Oti Park, where I know there is a trailhead that  eventually leads to the Hoover Ridge and connects to Pioneer Ridge.

I walked 4.4 miles and gained and lost just over 800 feet.

Once again, Mount Helena

I took a pleasant walk with Katie and a couple of her Girls in Glacier companions up Mount Helena.  She chose a route down that traversed the southeast side of the mountain on a trail I hadn't hiked before. I'm always surprised to find my way around the trails on that mountain that have been developed since I moved from Helena 39 years ago.

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Milking the last of Autumn: western larch colors

Mounts Brown, Edwards and Gunsight across Lake McDonald

The golden larch trim Lake McDonald

Katie on the flank of Rocky Point
A sprig of golden larch on the ground

A view of Mt. St. Nick from top of Gerry Lookout
Katie on colorful shore of Salmon Lake

The falls at the head of Holland Lake

 Now that the trees on the east side of the Continental Divide are stripped bare and the colors gone, we've taken to the west side and have been enjoying the bright yellow and orange western larch.

We ventured up the Swan Valley on Saturday as far as Holland Lake, where we hiked to the Holland Lake Falls.  The Swan and Mission mountain ranges were covered in a mantle of snow.   The colors were particularly bright at Salmon Lake State Park.

On Monday, the day before the U.S. Election, we escaped the political news by going to Glacier National Park, where we hiked the various loops of the Rocky Point Trail along Lake McDonald from the Fish Creek Campground.  The temperature was in the mid-20s, but the skies bright blue.  After that hike we went to Mile Marker 168 on U.S. 2 and on the Flathead National Forest side of the highway climbed to the former site of the Gerry Lookout for amazing views of the south end of Glacier Park in the vicinity of the St. Nicholas Mountain matterhorn.  We encountered very little snow on both hikes.  Driving out early in the day we were treated to the alpine glow of the rising sun on the Rocky Mountain Front west of Valier.

We arrived home just as the sun set, leaving no daylight on the table.  Perfect.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Record October snow: out come the back country skis!

The Porphyry Lookout framed by snow-flocked trees

The view from the top, above the empty ski runs.  That's Yogo Peak in the distance.

Smoke rises from the Showdown slash piles from timber cleared to open new runs

 Over the weekend we got hammered by record snowfall in Great Falls, some 14.5 inches.

It was a wet, heavy snowfall that put our hiking to a stop (I hope for now!), delayed our annual trip to see the west side larch in color, but had the welcome effect of providing my first skiing of this (winter?) season.  Yes, I know that we'e only a month into fall.

In anticipation of the change of season, I had scraped, hot-waxed and tuned my skis.  I was anxious to use my new Scarpa T-4 boots, which I had purchased to replace my T-3s, which I've had for more than 20 years.  Though usable, my aged feet have spread out and I needed a bigger boot.

On Monday I took the skis out for a run around C.M. Russell Park and judged the waxing and tuning to be just fine.

On Tuesday, it was up to King's Hill.  I climbed to the top of Porphyry Peak, took a short run off the top of Big 7, and decided to come down from the Porphyry Lookout through the trees to Prentice and Golden Goose, instead.  I got my first turns of the season.  It had been cold and gloomy in Great Falls.  At the ski hill the clouds parted from time to time, showing the sun and illuminating the snow ghosts.  The snow was excellent because the moisture had consolidated it, providing a good base.  I saw four other skiers who, like myself, had skinned to the top.

It appears as though we're going to get hammered by two more cold pulses through the weekend, dropping lots more snow and sending the temperatures below zero.

Last year, we skied on Oct. 1 after a record Sept. 30 dump.  Winter never left until March.

It does seem as though the weather pattern has changed.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Fall hits colorful peak on east side: Glacier, Highwoods, Blackleaf

Buffalo Lakes with Glacier Park in background

A small portion of the aspen show in the North Fork of Highwood Creek in the Highwoods

Muted aspen color and leaf loss beneath Mount Frazier in the Blackleaf Canyon

The autumn colors hit their peak on the East side of the Continental Divide this week and we took full advantage, traveling to Glacier Park, the Highwood Mountains, and the Blackleaf Canyon on the Rock Mountain Front.

These were really the best fall colors we've had in years, and we're almost manic trying to get out and enjoy them before the snow flies.

On Monday we traveled through East Glacier Park and did the three-mile hike to Buffalo Lakes in the Badger Two Medicine.  It had been one of our first hikes of the early summer season.  The aspen were spectacular.  There were terrific views of the south end of Glacier Park, which was also lit up by golden and orange aspen.  Then we took a long loop via the Looking Glass Highway to St. Mary and then up to Baab and back around to Browning.  The Blackfeet Reservation is being hit extremely hard by the Covid-19 virus, so we couldn't do much other than look.  We were thrilled with views of Chief Mountain from a Duck Lake overlook.  Brilliant aspen and cottonwoods in all directions.  One of the highlights of the trip:  a Moose just off US 89 below Divide Mountain above a fork of the Milk River.  The highway construction that has been going on for several years is nearly complete near that point.  It has straightened curves and provided pullouts and made the drive from Kiowa Junction to St. Mary more pleasant and scenic.   There were only a couple of cars on the road.

On Tuesday, Gordon Whirry and I did a 7-mile loop in the Highwood Mountains from the North Fork Highwood trailhead over and along the high ridge to the north and then down Briggs Creek and back to the trailhead.  We gained and lost about 2,200 feet.  I was amazed that the colors were even better in the Highwoods than in the Front, particularly in the draws.  We encountered high winds that sent yellow leaves spiraling into the air.   Briggs Creek, that runs in a narrow canyon, was particularly scenic and colorful.  On the way home we could see the smoldering Yogo Fire in the Little Belt Mountains.

On Wednesday, I joined Katie on one of her Girls in Glacier hikes up the Blackleaf Canyon to the pass above the East Fork of Teton River.  I had expected quite a show of color there, but either the peak has passed or the profoundly impressive limestone mountains there, particularly Werner and Frazier, overwhelm the views. We spent an extended lunch break at the pass and picked out surrounding mountains on one of the clearest days of the summer.  Haze from the California fires returned Thursday and was to have lingered until a weather change this weekend.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Smoke clears, Fall color emerges: Middle Fork Judith again, Pioneer loop again, Rierdon again


At the top of the Rierdon/Slim gulch divide

The lofty Rierdon Gulch wall
Color shot taken from car on South Fork Teton Road

Fall color is beginning to peak on the east side of the Continental Divide, and I was out three times in the past week to enjoy it.

These were all repeats of hikes I had already taken this year, real favorites I never tire of.

I showed Mark Hertenstein the Pioneer Loop in the Little Belt Mountains on a gloomy day.

Then, Katie and I went back to the Middle Fork Judith Wilderness Study Area, where, with her Girls in Glacier group, she redid the hike we had done earlier in the week.  While she was hiking with her "girls" I explored the link between Judith Guard Station and the Middle Fork Trailhead, while dropping to the river, where I discovered the girls.

I was late on the colors in Rierdon Gulch in the Front, but enjoyed a 10.5 miles hike that gains 3,000 feet.  The air was (finally) clear of the fires smoke and we had some breathtaking views.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Summer ends on Middle Fork Judith; Fall commences on Middle Fork Teton

 We ushered out summer with a wet, spectacular hike up the Middle Fork of the Judith, and welcomed fall with a hike in the Middle Fork Teton.

The Judith hike was a reminder of the beauty of the Middle Fork of the Judith Wilderness Study Area and the 40-year futility of trying to get this area into designated wilderness.  The Teton hike was a reminder of what we lost in not putting that area into the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage bill's wilderness category in 2014.

Both days the skies were hazy with Oregon/California smoke, but the colorful autumnal ground cover, reds, oranges, greens and yellows, more than made up for the obscured views.

On Monday, the last day of summer, we hiked from the Judith Guard Station in the Little Belts a couple of miles in the Middle Fork Judith through towering canyons whose walls are pock-marked with caves.  The ground cover was glorious.  We saw no one else and we hiked as far as the major stream crossings where the ORVs come in from the Woodchopper Ridge, muddying the stream and killing fish.  Wilderness advocates have been trying to close this stream to these quads and the Forest Service is preparing a plan to do so.  The motorized use there is contentious and one of the reasons the area hasn't been designated as wilderness yet.

Then, on Tuesday, we walked from the Cave Mountain Campground on the Teton River Road up the Middle Fork Trail toward Route Creek Pass. The colors were exceptional.

We took a small sidetrip to survey Garners Gulch, which used to be Forest Service fire trail, but has long been abandoned.  I asked Gene Sentz, the Front's most knowledgeable source, for information about this gulch:  "Years ago there was an old Forest Service fire trail that dead-ended up in Garners Gulch.  In the 1970s when I guided hunters out of the 7LazyP, sometimes we’d ride up that spur trail as far as we could go and tie the horses and climb way up in the head of Garners Gulch to hunt for mule deer.  Over the years I dragged three or four nice bucks down out of there.  Garners Mountain is the local name of that mountain up there (although it’s un-named on the map).  That trail is as good as any route to go up to climb Garners," Sentz said.

The only evidence of the Gulch is a small path.  About 100 feet along this trace there's an old sign marking the gulch.  There's tons of deadfall along this trace, a disincentive for following it.  I think I'll come back in the winter and try skiing it.