Thursday, May 30, 2019

A burst of activity: Glacier, Judith Mountains, Pioneer Ridge

On a high Judith Mountains Lime Kiln Trail

The Judith Mountains Lodge at the Lime Kiln Trailhead 
Katie with Glacier's Mount Gould in the background

Fields of Shooting Star wildflowers in Many Glacier
I'm so busy enjoying this wonderful weather I haven't had the time to summarize my trips.
On Tuesday Katie and I traveled to Glacier Park and assessed the trail conditions at Many Glacier and Going to the Sun Highway.  On Wednesday, it was a trip to Lime Kiln Gulch in the Judith Mountains with Wayne's Wednesday walks group.  On Thursday, it was the Little Belts and the Pioneer Ridge circuit above the Belt Creek Ranger District.
We saw moose, a black bear, dozens of bighorn sheep and about six mountain goats on a Josephine Lake hike.  The purple shooting stars lit up the Many Glacier roadside.  I was a bit surprised with the lack of snow on many of the hillsides.  We had a picture perfect day with clear, blue and sunny skies.
Wayne Phillips, who leads the Wednesday Walks, is trying to hit all the central Montana island mountain ranges and the Judiths, north and east of Lewistown was his premier. This BLM managed range is much larger than I had expected and has been mined, roaded and burned, but there are pockets, like the 7.4 miles Lime Kiln loop has large pockets of old growth ponderosa and Douglas Fir stands.  These are tall trees on steep slopes.  There is a thick patch of new lodgepoles that have filled in the space burned by a fire.  Very thick.  We were surprised to see the Judith Mountains Lodge at the trailhead.  We took a side hike to an overlook, but views were marred by smoke rolling in from northern Alberta fires.  I'll return to this area to high-point, as well as do Collar Park hike.  The trail is excellent.
Central Montana is so green right now and floods are devastating my Rocky Mountain Front stomping grounds, so I was drawn to the Little Belts Thursday, to Pioneer Ridge.  I reached the high point of this 4.5 mile loop hike in an hour and 10 minutes, climbing 1,900 feet over the first 2.1 miles, equivalent to climbing Mount Sentinel in Missoula.  The hills were resplendent with different varieties of wildflowers.  I was surprised to encounter a lone bear hunter from Great Falls, reminding me to be aware of of the hunting seasons.  He had lots of helpful information about the Little Belts backcountry.
These were a fun three days.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Easy Sluice Boxes stroll

Red tape marks where the trail is closed at an unstable railroad trestle.

Where a flood took out the old trestle 
Belt Creek is running high through the limestone canyon

A small, but unusual waterfall near where the trestle is out 
Belt Creek is full of mountain runoff

The Sluice Boxes State Park in the Little Belts Mountains is always a good choice.
It's extremely scenic, an emerald creek rushing through a tight, high, limestone canyon.
It has historical significance because a narrow gauge railroad used to hang from the canyon's cliffs serving mining communities like the now-ghost town of Albright.
The rail bed is now the trail.  Hikers dodge rail ties and trestle and pass through an old tunnel when the 8 mile point to point hike is open.
It's not now as one of the trestles is too unsafe to cross and is closed at about the 2.5 mile mark if traveling south from the Riceville trailhead.
It is early spring but I counted 31 different blooming wildflowers just a day after I had a great ski just up the road at the Showdown Ski Area.
Ah, this is such a great place to live.

Hauling the skis back out

Climbing Showdown's Golden Goose ski run

Steve Taylor crests the top of Showdown 
A wintry scene less than a month from the first day of Summer

Below the Porphyry Peak Lookout
I should have known better than to pack my ski gear up for the season after our May 1 backcountry trip.
After a couple of weeks of delightful, warm and sunny weather the rain and snow returned and skiing was the obvious choice when our Wayne's Wednesday Walks day rolled around yesterday.
We could see that Big Baldy, Long and Barker peaks in the Little Belts and Highwood Baldy had gotten new snow.
The weatherman also promised 12 inches of fresh powder.
But, you know how that goes.
It turned out the 12 inches was more like two.
No matter, we pulled out our gear and went to the trailhead and had a delightful day doing the Porphyry Peak Traverse, skiing to the top of Porphyry (elevation: 8,210 feet) on the empty Showdown Ski hill and back down Trail No. 747 to a road that wraps around the north side of Porphyry.  We used that to connect to the O'Brien Creek Trail and then back to Showdown and Kings Hill Pass where we were parked.
The weather roiled the clouds a bit, but it eventually cleared and there were blue skies.
Driving up we anticipated having to slog through slush, but didn't hit the good snow until just beyond the Silvercrest XC Ski Area.  We figured the good snow was at 7,000 feet and above.  The new snow from the night before frosted the trees on the top.
The new, wet snow covered several feet of hardpack, making tele-turns pretty treacherous.
Where there was direct sunlight the snow was heavy and would capture our ski-tips catapulting us forward.  So, I proceeded more cautiously.
Then, with some caution when I returned home I put my skis up for the season.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Glacier's Scenic Point Peak and Mount Kennon in the Highwood Mountains

An early Glacier climb:  Scenic Point Mountain

One of the many bighorn sheep I encountered on the way up Scenic Point

The Apistoki valley and Mount Henry behind me

Lots of ice at foot and head of Two Med Lake
It is always a delight to climb Scenic Point (elevation: 7,500 feet) in the Two Med portion of Glacier Park, but I've never climbed it this early in the season.
There were snow drifts across the trail above the cliffs, but I cut those by going off trail and using the scree on a ridge line.
A friend had told me she had seen a Momma Grizzly and two cubs near Apistoki Falls the week previous, so I was extra careful to make plenty of noise on my solo trip.
Along the way I saw numerous bighorn sheep.  The only wildflowers were a couple of tiny clusters of Douglasia on top.  Coming into Two Med there were fields of Glacier Lilies along the roadside.
In cutting trail and going to the ridgeline I added some distance and some elevation.
The mountains in all directions had plenty of snow, although less than I had expected. I think the snow here is not as plentiful as normal and is coming off fast.
Park services are sparse. I had to check in at the gate, but the camp store is not open.
There is ice at the foot and head of Two Med Lake.
I was surprised to see a good number of folks in the parking lots of the camp store and the Scenic Point trailhead.
But, I saw only three other hikers on the trail itself and am pretty sure I was the only one who reached the summit.  I think the snowdrifts discouraged folks who are not used to going off trail.
In East Glacier Park Serrano's Restaurant is open, but Brownie's and the Whistle Stop aren't operating yet.  It looks as though the Mountain Pine is in business.  Gardeners were working on the Glacier Park Lodge grounds and the train station was open.

Mount Kennon in Highwood Mountains

On a Kennon ridge outcrop

Wayne Phillips points out the sites to Steve Taylor

Ranger, Steve Taylor's Golden Lab cools down

Katie Kotynski experiences one of the many wet, cold crossings of Shonkin Creek

Mount Kennon.
This 5,620 feet mountain in the Highwood Mountains doesn't get much attention because it is so out of the way.  
The closest place name on the map is Shonkin, now pretty much a ghost town in the Big Sag country where the former Missouri River channel used to run.
It is on the northeast side of the Highwoods close to the isolated community of Geraldine.
It is 51-miles from Great Falls, much of it on pretty good gravel, to a crude trailhead where there is a Forest Service cabin.
Shonkin Creek, which originates here, is a pretty stream that criss-crosses the trail several time.  But, the stream crossings are unnecessary if the mountain is your goal.  Just go to the cabin and pick a ridge to the top.  You'll climb about 1,700 feet in grass, through fir trees and adjacent to rocky laccolith outcrops to the top in about a mile.
This is an area of open, grassy ridges and aspen groves that show signs of lots of cattle grazing.
After mid-June the Highwood Mountains become the domain of grazing allotments.
The mid-May to mid-June period is just perfect for hikers who want to experience this without fresh cowpies.
From the top of Mount Kennon we did a long, up and down ridge walk to the south end of the valley where we picked up a road trace to the bottom.
The views from the ridge to the south include most of Montana's Island Ranges:  Mocassins, Judiths, Snowies, Little Belts, Bearpaws, Little Rockies, Sweetgrass Hills and Highwoods.
We were delighted with the wildflowers in bloom.  We counted 24 different varieties.  The yellow bell (fritilary) and kitten tails were most prominent, although there were fields of shooting stars, and the arrowleaf balsamroots were beginning.
We hiked 7.3 miles and gained and lost 2,550 feet of elevation.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Blown away by 'Bullwhacker'

Rugged, almost beyond belief, is this Bullwhacker area of Missouri River Breaks National Monument

Like the spires of a cathedral

Tim Faber led our hike and explains the landscape

A wonderful, short hike in the Breaks
You really have to work at it to see the Bullwhacker wilderness study area in the Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
I've long been aware of the six wilderness study candidates in the breaks, but haven't had the gumption to endure the long, tough drives to get there.  I think the badlands here are better than what I saw in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, ND.  If less colorful, these are wilder and more expansive.
Luckily for me the Montana Wilderness Association and trip leader Tim Faber made it possible by leading a wilderness walk into this magnificent area Saturday.
This area is simply jaw-dropping for its rugged badlands and unusual vistas.
For those of us in Great Falls it takes a trip to Big Sandy (90 miles) another 71 miles, mostly on pretty good (if dry) gravel roads.  I'm certain that I could not navigate to this trailhead by myself.  The roads in the Breaks are poorly marked and there are plenty of turns that can lead you astray.
Let's just say you need to take the McClellan Ferry Road and hope you can find the BLM-numbered sign before you get to the ferry.
There's also a Bullwhacker Road, but it has been closed by a Texas-owned family.  I hope this eventually gets worked out.
Faber, who lives in Missoula, but still has a place in Big Sandy, really knows this Breaks country and can stories about those rugged pioneers who settled this country or who were driven out by the tough conditions.
This area has a rich history that includes Lewis and Clark, the flight of the Nez Perce Chief Joseph, and the steamboat days.
Apparently steamboats would unload here and then goods loaded onto oxen-driven wagons that were driven on by whip-wielding "bullwhackers" who beat them onward.
We walked a short ridgeline through these breaks, achieving amazing viewpoints that included the Bullwhacker Creek below us.  I don't think it would have been impossible to descend to the bottom, but it would have been rough.  Having a rope would be helpful here.
There were bighorn sheep signs everywhere, and we saw one herd of about 20 mule deer.  There were some wildflowers, mainly light lavender phlox.
This is dry, prickly and barren country, beautiful for its desolation.
I'm not sure I'll ever return, but I feel enriched for the visit.
Should there ever be better access this would be an amazing recreational opportunity.
A map of the National Monument.  I've circled the area we were in red.

Saturday, May 04, 2019

Much of the Front is open for hiking

Castle Reef above Wagner Basin

Beaver lodge in Wagner Basin 
It's a sure bet you'll see bighorns when visiting Wagner Basin

Camille Consolvo crests "Crago" Ridge above Hannan Gulch

Katie and me on top the ridge.
It might seem odd that two days after having had my best back country ski of the winter season I would be enjoying a good ridge run in the mountains.
But such is the case here in northcentral Montana.
We skied in 10 inches of fresh powder Wednesday in the Little Belt Mountains east and south of Great Falls, and hiked in the Sun River Canyon west and north of Great Falls Friday.
We walked into Wagner Basin on Castle Reef's southern flank where we watched a small herd of bighorn sheep and lambs and white-tail deer.  Then we crossed the road at Hannan Gulch and climbed the ridge to the west above it, walking its length to the ranger station.
Our distance was 2 miles in Wagner Basin and another 2 miles on the ridge, which I like to call "Crago Ridge" for the Great Falls family that has a cabin below it and who did the so-called "Skull Tree" in Wagner Basin, hung with deer skulls colorfully painted.
On the ridge we saw numerous alpine wildflowers, particularly the pink clusters of Douglasia, although there was also the Yellowstone Graba.  Can blue Forget-Me-Nots be far behind?
We enjoyed the company of our friends Camille Consolvo and Mike Dannells.
We made an unsuccessful attempt to drive the Beaver-Willow Road from the Sun Canyon, finally getting blocked slushy snow beyond Sawmill Flats.  That should be gone and the road drivable within a week or so.
Early alpine wildflowers abloom 
Looking down on the Sun River Canyon

Thursday, May 02, 2019

A (71st) birthday ski on May Day

My 71st birthday portrait

An empty Showdown ski hill waiting for our tele-turns

Drifts on the Mizpah ridge that created unusual west slope cornices 
The warming cabin was drifted in by the deep snow

Gordon Whirry enjoys lunch on Mizpah Ridge 
The glorious ski across the top of Mizpah Ridge

I did my birthday ski a couple of days late this year because on  the big day (April 28) there was a big blizzard, big enough to close roads and trap me at home.
It was more than made up May 1 as skies and roads cleared and there was a layer of more than 10 inches of new powder in the Little Belts calling me.
Showdown Ski Area had closed more than two weeks ago so the powder was untracked and the new snow fell on a hard base making the snow in the backcountry some of the best of the winter.
We had hiked last Wednesday and counted 11 wildflowers in bloom, so skiing was a big physical and psychological adjustment.
The car thermometer as we approached our trailhead
As we were driving to the trailhead the car thermometer dropped to 6 degrees!  Later in the day I discovered that just a few miles south, at Newlan Creek, the temperature was Zero.
It was so clear that we could pick out the individual peaks in the Crazy Mountains to the south and the mountains in the Little Belts were as pretty with snow as I've ever seen them.
Our Wayne's Wednesday Walks group started off to do the 5-mile Trail 747 loop, but by the time we reached the Porphyry ridge line and the 747 trailhead Jasmine Krotkov recommended that we do the longer Mizpah Bowls ski instead, taking advantage of the open vistas along the way.
It turned out to be an excellent suggestion.
The snow was easy to break and the brilliant sun warmed us considerably.
I did several short tele turn runs as we went up the ski hill to Porphyry Peak.
We were surprised to see what the wind had done to the Mizpah Peak ridgeline, sculpting enormous drifts and creating cornices on the forest side.  I don't think I've ever seen so much snow on this ridge.  The warming cabin, where we stopped for lunch was shrouded in a drift, but still invited a stop.
With the tele turn yo-yo-ing I covered 8.4 miles and gained and lost 2,200 feet.
I was delighted with the beautiful day and gratified I could still ski like this at 71.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Grass, ticks, flowers. Hiking season well underway, but skis not put away yet

We saw tons of Pasque flowers and 10 other blooming spiecies
Lots of angles on the Sleeping Giant

We called this high point "Rattle Mountain" because of Katie's interaction with a rattlesnake there

We hiked on ridgelines high above Holter Lake
Glorious clouds were our constant companion on this hike

I know I shouldn't get too optimistic about the beginning of hiking season.
I haven't put my backcountry skis away yet just in case we get that usual late April or Memorial Day snow storm.
While I haven't filed for a while it doesn't mean I haven't been out.
I skied in the Kings Hill area a couple of weeks ago, and last week had great hikes on the River's Edge Trail North Shore between Ryan and Morony dams, and did a long loop on Mount Helena on the way to Salt Lake City for Easter.
The snow wasn't great for skiing.  It never did seem to set up this year for great winter powder in the back country.
Enough snow has cleared below 5,000 feet that we can comfortably hike.
But, beware the ticks.  They are out.  Between my wife, Katie, and me, we picked up seven ticks on the short Mount Helena walk.
We saw the purple Pasque flowers in a few spots on that hike.
We saw even more flowers on Wednesday as we did a loop hike from Juniper Bay at Holter Lake. We counted 11 different wildflowers in bloom on a 5-mile loop that included about 1,200 feet of elevation gain.
We could look down on Holter Lake, across to the Sleeping Giant Wilderness Study Area, the Gates of the Mountains and Willow Peak, and from high points, the Rocky Mountain Front.
On top a small high point Katie stirred a rattle snake.  It was quite a surprise at this elevation.
There is still plenty of snow in the high country, but this hike satisfied my early season itch to get out hiking.
One of the shelves on the Rivers Edge Trail North Shore

Looking across the Missouri on the Rivers Edge North Shore Trail

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Spring begins! The end of a mean winter

Snowshoeing up Looking Glass Road in the shadow of Rising Wolf Mountain in Glacier's Two Med country 
Lower Two Med Lake.

We got home to watch the Equinox Super Moon rise in our neighborhood

Not to be minimized,  the Front's Walling Reef and a ranch below it near Dupuyer

On Wednesday Katie and I did a repeat of the first day of Spring trip that I did last year ---- a tour of the Two Med country in Glacier up the Looking Glass Road --- except this year it was on snowshoes rather than skis.
I'm glad to see winter go. The dry kept us from skiing at the beginning of the season, and trapped us with extreme cold during its long February-March run.
We've begun the Spring thaw celebrating as we watched the Super Moon sink into Front's Castle Reef in the Gibson Dam area on the Sun River west of Augusta. I've never seen such clear skies as we saw in Glacier, where we did a 7.2 miles roundtrip on snowshoes up the Looking Glass Road, looking down on the Two Med Valley and in the shadow of Rising Wolf Mountain. We had been warned that we'd find icy snow in the morning and slush in the afternoon. That's exactly what we found. Because winter arrived so late, and when it did it came with a fury, the bottom layer of snow really never set up. We were glad that skiers and snowmobiles had packed down the road in most spots. Where they didn't we sunk up to our thighs in soft, wet snow ---- even with snowshoes on!On the way home we stopped at Buffalo Joe's Cafe in Dupuyer where we have always had good meals. This was no exception.We got home in time to watch from the Russell Park Gazebo as the sun sunk in the west over the Great Falls Clinic and the huge moon rose in the east on a parallel with 15th Avenue South. Having seen the Winter's shortest day I now have a comparison with the start of Spring where the sun sets. Glorious day!