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

Friday, August 19, 2016

Scapegoat's Cigarette Rock ridge walk

Reaching the top of Cigarette Rock 

Viewing Scapegoat Peak from the Cigarette Rock ridge line 
Flint Mountain was our goal, which we didn't make for lack of water 
The Wood Creek Hogback was our backdrop to the east
What began as a straight-forward climb of Flint Mountain (elevation: 9,186 feet)  in the Scapegoat Wilderness was aborted for lack of water but  turned into a glorious ridge walk in the Scapegoat plateau Aug. 12-14.
This 28 mile up and back trip began on the Crown Mountain Trail, down Crown Creek to Straight Creek and then up Cigarette Rock (elevation: 8,235 feet) and from there ridge walks in both directions and back to camp at the mouth of the Crown Creek canyon.
This is country deep in a burn  in the past couple of years, but the abundant fireweed, potentilla, and asters made up for the lack of green trees.
The Crown Creek route into the Scapegoat is super spectacular:  high mudstone and limestone peaks line the trail that offers an easy route up Crown Mountain (elevation: 8,340 feet) if one chooses a side trip.  It drops down the Crown Creek trail, which has been nicely rehabilitated from fire by the Forest Service in just the past year.  This is part of a fast route to Scapegoat Mountain, which we took last year.
A dry Straight Creek greeted us near Cigarette Creek
We had hoped to top Cigarette Rock and camp below it the first day if there had been water in Straight Creek or Cigarette Creek, but there wasn't.  After looking around those creeks futilely, we retreated to Crown Creek and set up a base camp.
In the morning we did a short-cut up to the Cigarette Mountain trail.  We had tried in vain the previous day to find it.  The trail needs some clearing and markings through the burn, which has obliterated an easy path.
Once we found it the second day, we could follow it easily to a limestone saddle and it was an easy walk-up to the top, and fabulous views of the Scapegoat with the Swan Range visible to the west.
We walked toward Flint on the Cigarette Rock ridge line west, enjoying tremendous views of Scapegoat Peak as well, dropping into a small lake and gaining ridge line high points.
We realized that we wouldn't have the daylight to complete Flint by this route.
We noticed that there might have been a better and more direct route from the Cigarette Rock saddle directly west along a bottom just above Sun Lake instead.  Maybe next year, and maybe with an extra day and a high camp.
In retracing our steps we arrived at the saddle and continued north along it, climbing the unnamed high point (elevation: 8,236 feet), marked with a large cairn.  In his Bob Marshall guide, Molvar calls this Bunyan Point, but we located the real Bunyan Point some 600 feet below this unnamed peak.
This is truly unvisited country these days, although I can imagine that this would have been a good horse route to the Scapegoat high plateau, something Gene Sentz verified since he had done it with a horse some years ago.
It would be hard to beat the glory of this ridge walk, even though we climbed a different peak than we had set out to do.
For more photos, and topo map of route, CLICK HERE
Cigarette Rock to the left along a little used Forest Service Trail 
A small lake along our Cigarette Rock ridge walk

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Pitamakan-Dawson in Glacier: 2016 version

The red rocks abound in the Dry Fork valley (Gordon Whirry photos)

Flinsch Peak towers over Old Man Lake 
On the shelf between Morgan and Flinsch peaks

I try to do this hike once a season.
I think it is the best hike in Glacier.
It is a traverse around the park's most massive mountain, Rising Wolf, in the middle of the Two Medicine valley.
It is a long and robust hike:  about 3,800 feet of elevation gained on an 18 mile route that threads two high passes in the park:  Dawson and Pitamakan.
I've done it both ways, but think I like going up the Dry Fork Valley and  through Pitamakan first and then Dawson because it is an easier grade.
The four miles between the two passes is on a high, alpine trail that clings to the west faces of Flinsch and Morgan mountains.
From on high it is possible to see 9 different alpine lakes, including lakes in the Dry Fork, Cut Bank Creek, Nyack and Two Med valleys.
We passed an amazing huckleberry crop well into the Dry Fork/Pitamakan portion of the hike.
Here's a full link to a map and description:  CLICK HERE

The lakes below Pitamakan Pass

Enjoying a moment on a ledge

Above the Nyack Valley

Monday, August 01, 2016

Big Sky Resort: Beehive Basin, Lone Mountain ridge line

From Lone Peak looking south the development of the Big Sky area sprawls

Pink and magenta Paintbrush wildflowers in the Beehive Basin

The lightly visited upper Beehive Basin lake
It has been more than 40 years since I spent much time in the Big Sky Resort area south of Bozeman.
In fact I used to run trails there before the resort was built.
In 1977 I skied from where Moonlight Basin now exists past the Ulreys lakes and down Hammond Creek on the other side into the Jack Creek drainage and on to Ennis before there was a road there.
I had to go there last weekend to accompany my wife to a meeting she was attending at the Huntley Lodge there.
I was not prepared for what I saw and experienced.
We stayed at Huntley Lodge and I was given free tickets to ride the Swiftcurrent and Ramshorn lifts for a look around.
I arrived in the early afternoon on Friday, and despite blazing heat took Swiftcurrent lift to the Lone Peak southeast ridge line, the most popular way to climb the mountain.   I started up through the talus and scree and got on the ridge for about a third of the way up the mountain for a look-around.
It was a clear and hot afternoon and I was stunned by the development.
Wilderness boundary sign
Of course, there was Moonlight development to the north where I had once cross-country skied.
The Big Sky ski resort was fully developed below me to the east, with more coming, particularly in the Andesite Mountain area.
To the south I could hear workers busily developing the Yellowstone Club's exclusive resort.
Below me it was a veritable ant-hill of activities at Big Sky with lifts and runs and high end housing in every direction.
I suppose I should have had a look-around sooner and should not have been so naive to think that what I saw would please me.
I knew this was coming when the resort was announced.
What strikes me the most is the vast display of enormous wealth all around.
If a palace could be built higher and better on the biggest hill in the deepest forest, it has been built.
We Montanans live simply, so this must be wealth that has been piled in from the 1 per-centers and from the wealthy from around the world.
Which brings me to my Saturday hike in the Beehive Basin in the Lee Metcalf Spanish Peaks Wilderness Area just above Moonlight Basin.
It is a gorgeous 7 miles round-trip hike that climbs about 1,700 feet into the basin where there is a stark, but pretty tarn with the Beehive Peak skyline above it.
I also climbed another couple hundred feet toward the peak for a look around and then cut cross country to another prettier and secluded unnamed lake.
The trail was spangled with violet, pink and magenta Indian Paintbrush wildflowers.
Throughout my hike there was a steady stream of hikers coming in from Big Sky.
I had never seen so many hikers in a national wilderness area.  It must be the product of being so close to a national ski/summer resort.  It reminded me of a Glacier Park trail, like the Iceberg/Ptarmigan Tunnel trail.
Had I not gone off-trail to the upper lake I would not have had any wilderness solitude.  Thank goodness the vast majority of hikers are off-trail averse.
The trailhead parking area was mobbed by cars, many parked on the sides of the road.  I couldn't figure out how they would get out.  Luckily, I was able to find a space because I had started early and beat the crowd.
The first mile of the trail is on Big Sky property and high above on both sides of the trail were perched high-end mansions I can't think could be reached without snowmobiles in the winter.  I shudder to think what might happen to these if there were a wildfire.
While the beauty of the Madison Mountains should be on every Montanan's hike bucket-list for its sheer beauty, as a north-central Montanan I thank my lucky stars we don't have this kind of high-impact development and resource use they are experiencing at Big Sky.
How it looked as I headed up Lone Peak.  I didn't go all the way

Monday, July 25, 2016

Rocky despite lousy route-finding

I picked the wrong route and we paid the price

Reaching the summit cap 
On top, with mountains upon mountains in the Bob Marshall Wilderness as my backdrop

Chip Myers below Rocky Mountain Peak, the Bob Marshall Wilderness high point

I hadn't climbed Rocky Mountain Peak (elevation: 9,392 feet), the high point in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area in seven years and hadn't thought of it as a particularly difficult peak.  It is a 4,100 feet cumulative gain over 10-miles roundtrip.
But Sunday's climb on a clear, hot day proved somewhat challenging because I was insistent on choosing bad routes.
I've climbed this peak three different ways over the years.  I think I've summited some 20 times over the past 30 years.
The most direct route is from the east, but involves a slog up scree.  The most challenging route is from Headquarters Pass via the north ridge on a jagged ridge.
We went to the west saddle by way of HQ Pass, dropping 200 feet west from the pass and gaining the saddle, some 600 feet above us to the south.
In years past we've gotten into a large gully to the north of the saddle and scrambled up, using our hands at times.
I'm not sure why, but I decided to bypass the gully and went slight south and then up.  We immediately got into Class 3 rock and gradually picked our way up about 900 feet, using our hands most of the way.  About 150 feet from the top I could see the easy gully I had by-passed.  Bad mistake!
On top it was about as calm and clear as I can ever remember.  The 360 views were amazing! To the north we could see the high Glacier Park peaks ---- St. Nick, Stimson, Rising Wolf, Divide.  Directly in front of us, strikingly handsome Old Baldy. To the west, Pentagon, Silver Tip, the North Wall, the Chinese Wall, The Sisters, Red Buttes, Prairie Reef.  Further out, the Swans, Holland, Great Northern, Swan Peak.  To the south, the Scapegoat Plateau as far out as Red Mountain, which we had climbed last week.  To the east, the brilliant limestone peaks of the Rocky Mountain Front, and beyond them the butte laccoliths, the Island Ranges like the Sweetgrass Hills, the Highwoods, Big and Little Belt mountain ranges.  And....the Great Plains!
We decided to descend the east ridge line and then from the saddle down the giant scree fields to the trail near the great spring.
Once again, a great error in judgment by me.
Once we hit a large break in the ridge line, instead of sticking with it, I followed my step-son down scree and talus through a series of cliffs, which, because of my caution, took us forever to get through.
Finally, we hit the scree and it was smooth sailing, on plan.
But, I was severely embarrassed.
The nanny became aggressive when we approached, so we made a high trail around her and her kid
A real highlight of the trip was the number of mountain goats we saw, particularly nannies with kids.
While I always expect to see goats at the pass or at the spring or at Our Lake trail over the next divide, I had never seen them so low on the trail, grazing right on the trail.
The best guess I could come up with is that they were seeking salt from horse urine as packers frequent this trail.
I suspect I'm going to need to go back later this summer and reclimb the peak just to refresh my memory and restore my route-finding confidence.

For a route map and more photos, CLICK HERE

HQ Pass trail far below us

Finally through the ugly talus