Sunday, June 21, 2015

Steamboat ridge traverse; Willow Falls to Fairview Creek

Figuring out what's next to get to the Steamboat ridge line
This has been quite a week.
I added two exceptional hikes/climbs in a week that included a quick backpack into Pretty Prairie in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area:  a Steamboat Mountain ridgeline traverse and a Montana Wilderness Association key exchange walk between Willow Creek Falls and Fairview Creek.
Both trips were in the Rocky Mountain Front west of August.

Steamboat Mountain ridge traverse

I love the Steamboat Mountain ridgeline.
There are views here that rival the Chinese Wall and you've got Scapegoat Mountain and its wall in views as you walk it.
I've done this traverse several ways, often starting at Elk Creek and dropping over to the Dearborn side on a point-to-point.
Getting to the top of the ridgeline is tricky if Steamboat Lookout Mountain isn't climbed first.
The trick is to start at the Elk Creek trailhead, ascend an old fire break trail above Cataract Falls and stay on the ridge between Bailey Basin and Cataract Creek.
Along the way you'll fight the debris from the 1988 Canyon Creek Fire, along with the tightly packed lodgepole pines that have regenerated the area.
Once through, there are two cliffs to navigate, the first being straight-forward and the second more problematic.  How the second is navigated will set the stage to reach the Steamboat peak ridge.
On Friday's climb we moved to the left (east), followed the base of the cliff, found an easy crack to ascend, and then followed an animal trail to the left to where we could climb to the top of the ridge.
In the past I've also gone to the right after climbing the crack and found a game trail at the base of the ridge and through scree to the top further west.
I definitely like the left (east) option, although if I were down climbing rather than up climbing the west option is easier to find at the top.
Once on the ridge it is very straight forward, a breathtaking walk that climbs three mountains along the way, with the lookout mountain at the end.  Along the way are thrilling views of the cliffs below to the northwest and the heart of the Scapegoat Wilderness nearby to the south and west.
At the mountain-top there's the trail, a 6-mile, more than 4,000 feet descent to the Elk Creek trailhead.
We climbed just under 5,000 feet and hiked 12.3 miles on this strenuous trek.

For more photo, route and elevation chart, Click here

Willow Creek to Fairview Creek key exchange

One of the Willow Creek Falls
This is a spectacular 9 mile hike between the Willow Creek Falls and the Fairview Creek trailhead on the Benchmark Road near the airstrip with a gain and loss of about 1,500 feet in elevation. (Ignore my distance and elevations on the chart because I did side trips that added distances).
Approaching from the Willow Creek Falls side, we passed through ranch land, grass, aspen groves and ascended to the falls on a narrow trail that hugged the limestone cliffs on the side of Fairview Mountain.
We passed a series of falls into an open, gorgeous, wildflower-strewn meadow rimmed by bright red rock before taking a sharp north bend and ascending to a pass strewn with igneous rocks, a signal of an intrusion, unusual for the Front.
At the pass we were at the headwaters of Fairview Creek, rimmed to the west by a massive limestone ridge that followed us for the remainder of the hike, and Renshaw Mountain to the north.
We hiked through lovely elk meadows, popping in and out of old growth forest, crossing and re-crossing Fairview Creek.
Unlike much of the Front and adjacent Bob Marshall Wilderness, this area was not ravaged by pine-beetle kill and the old forest was lush and green, as was the vegetation.
It reminded me of the Bob before the fires began raking it in the mid-1980s.

For more photo, route and elevation chart, Click here

Thursday, June 18, 2015

A quick run into Pretty Prairie in the Bob

Where the West and South forks of the Sun River come together in the Bob

A small portion of the Pretty Prairie

The ranger station
I've often done this as a 15-mile roundtrip day hike, but decided I needed some time alone in the backcountry and did it as an overnighter.
This is a trip that highlights the river rather than the mountains, although surrounding mountains are impressive.  The approach is through a pretty intense burn.
Start at the Benchmark South Fork Sun River trailhead, cross the pack bridge over the South Fork in a half mile. 
It's about 5 miles to the West Fork pack bridge, mostly through a recent burn, where small lodgepoles and abundant vegetation is a testament to its rebirth.  At the West Fork packbridge the trail splits.  Go west and you're headed to the Chinese Wall. 
My campsite in the prairie
Go east and it's about about 2 miles to Pretty Prairie.  Most of the traffic heads to the Wall.  The final 2 miles follows the West Fork to its junction with the South Fork, where the South Fork becomes a major river in the Spring. 
The trail travels high above rivers and the sight of the two coming together is remarkable.  Both rivers are extremely beautiful, running a transluscent green color.  Both are great fishing.  Pretty Prairie is just what the name says, a pretty prairie surrounded by (burnt) mountains, with islands of trees that were untouched by fire. 
Set back in the prairie against one of the limestone walls is a Forest Service cabin.  The prairie was full of flowers and the spring grass was lush.  Prairie Creek cuts across the center of the 1.5 mile long prairie, roaring all the way, competing with the noisy South Fork. 
There are numerous campsites, including full-fledged hunters' camps all along Pretty Prairie.  They are all good, if a bit horsey, so I had a difficult time choosing.  I saw no one for the time I was there despite the excellent weather.
A hiker and dog from Bozeman headed for the Chinese Wall

The West Fork pack bridge

The South Fork Sun from a camp site

Sunday, June 14, 2015

More than a week's worth: a potpourri of hikes and climbs

On top of Mount Royal in East Buttes of Sweetgrass Hills.  Gold Butte and West Butte in distance
I've been extremely active these past 10 days, hitting the Continental Divide Trail at Rogers Pass on both sides, climbing Mount Sentinel in Missoula one day, and then going to the "M" the next, climbing Mount Wright in the Front and then Elk Peak in Glacier Park the next, and finally doing Wolf Butte in the Little Belts on Friday followed by Mount Royal in the Sweetgrass Hills on Saturday.
I'm going at it pretty hard and fast, trying to get in shape for the backpacking and climbing season.
At this writing, I'm a bit tired and am glad for an off day.

The blue alpine flowers offer a sharp contrast with red shale on Rodgers Peak

Rogers Pass

The CDT Trail here is the best at this time of year with the alpine wildflowers in full bloom.
I went to the west side on the way to Missoula for a meeting. It climbs over 800 feet to the divide.  I went only as far as Cadotte Pass before turning around, enjoying the wild display of fragrant, blue Forget-Me-Not flowers.  I saw my first Beargrass flower in bloom on the way down.
I picked up the east side on the way back home, joining my wife's Get Fit Great Falls group that was climbing Rodgers Peak.

Mount Sentinel

The first day of my stay, I climbed Missoula's iconic Mount Sentinel to the top, a gain of 1,958 feet on a perfectly clear and cool morning, affording great views of the Missoula valley.  I spooked a colorful and puffed out male sharptail grouse and several deer.
On the following day I went only as far as the "M" on this mountain, a gain of 625 feet.

Looking across the Bob from the top of Mount Wright

Mount Wright

I'm always anxious to get up Mount Wright in the Rocky Mountain Front in the Spring with its 3,245 feet elevation gain over 3.5 miles to the top.  This nearly 9,000 feet mountain offers spectacular views across the Bob Marshall Wilderness and great visibility of Glacier peaks.
I was not disappointed with the views, but noted the sparse snow there and on lots of the low country across the Bob.
This is early for this peak.  The snow is going fast.

Great Bear peaks from top of Elk Peak in Glacier

Glacier's Elk Peak

This 7,835 feet peak on Glacier's southern end is very similar to Mount Wright for distance and effort --- 3,332 feet in elevation gain over just under 3.5 miles to the top.
The trail is picked up at the Fielding entrance to the park reached from Highway 2 at Mile Marker 192 about a half-mile up Forest Service Road 1066.
The views from the top of this peak, once a Park lookout, are really fantastic, particularly looking south into the Great Bear and Bob Marshall wilderness areas.  I found myself intrigued by the possibilities of a trip down Ole Creek in the Park from this vantage point, with the high walls of peaks like Sheep, Battlement and the Barriers on one side and Summit and Little Dog on the other side of a low valley.
From here, the pointed chard of Mount St. Nicholas is a powerful presence to the west.
I jumped a young bull moose in a meadow on the way up.

Jim Heckel approaches top of Wolf Butte

Wolf Butte in Little Belts

I love doing this hike in the Spring when the grass is an incredible green in this Little Belts spot south of Geyser.
This is an unusual little peak that sticks out on the prairie on the very north end of this mountain range.
It is 6,791 feet with an elevation gain of just over 2,000 feet, the last 1,200 almost straight up through a maze of house-size granite boulders.
The peak is difficult to find, located behind one of the boulder walls.
There are terrific views here of the Highwood Mountains.

On the way up Mount Royal with Mount Brown in the background in East Butte area of Sweetgrass Hills

Mount Royal in Sweetgrass Hills' East Butte area

This was my favorite hike during this period and I'm sure it will rank among the favorites for the summer.
I had been in the East Buttes to climb its high point, Mount Brown, about 10 years ago.
This was a Montana Wilderness Association sponsored hike.
A climb of Mount Royal (elevation 6,908 feet) in the East Butte portion of the Sweetgrass Hills northwest of Chester, and just south of the Canadian border crossing at Whitlash. This hike is in an area that has long been considered sacred for Blackfeet ceremonies (we saw prayer flags tied to trees), and sought by mining interests for its gold (a pursuit stymied by botched heap leach cyanide mining in places like Zortman/Landusky in the Little Rockies). This is a so-called "Island Range," an isolated igneous intrusion shaped by glaciers, and now a lonely mountain range on the vast prairie. The hike was put together by Patrick Johnson of Helena and Arlo Skari of Chester for the Montana Wilderness Association to highlight the area's wilderness potential. It covered nearly 8 miles and an elevation gain of over 3,100 feet and included a side trip into a limestone cave's cavern. Light streamed into the cavern from two large "sky light" holds in the ceiling. Access was across state, BLM and private land. Visible for much of the hike was rounded Mount Lebanon (elevation: 5,807 feet) to the northeast, and Mount Brown (elevation: 6,977 feet), the highest point in the Sweetgrass Hills and East Butte area. We were treated to exceptionally green spring grass and copious wildflowers. Mount Royal is the only truly developed portion of this part of the Sweetgrass Hills, with numerous communications structures on its summit and a road leading to this site from the south. However, we were able to experience a great backcountry trip by approaching the summit from the saddle to the north, bypassing that road. We didn't have to deal with the development until hitting the top. Even then, the 360 degree views more than compensated, allowing us to view the Gold (Middle) and West buttes clearly to the west, as well as the Rocky Mountain Front and Glacier/Waterton peaks (dimly) further west. To the south and east were the Highwood Mountains near Great Falls, and directly east, the Bearpaw Mountains.
In a meadow below Mount Royal

Inside the cave

Click here for more on the Mount Royal hike

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

My new Front guide out June 10

My revised and updated Front guidebook will be out June 10.
There will be a book signing at the Front brewery on that date from 5-7 p.m.
For full Tribune story go to: Tribune story

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Exploring new Front territory on Jones Creek center ridge

A Chinook Arch cloud formation was with us much of the morning
Mark Hertenstein working his way up Jones Creek center ridge in Front

On the ridge, taking a break as we work our way to the north
A hike Sunday reminded me of the need to explore new territory along the Rocky Mountain Front.
I've always enjoyed the Jones Creek Trail No. 155 off the Teton River Road, using it to access peaks like Choteau from the west, the unnamed ridge on the west that define this scenic valley, or simply for a hike or ski up the bottom. 
When I say "trail" here I use the term advisedly as it isn't marked other than a road sign, and it means following the large wash up a usually dry creek bed.
On Sunday I was in search of any markers I could find for the West Fork Trail No. 156 that is supposed to split from Jones Creek at about 1.5 miles.
When we hit the junction of Jones Creek and the West Fork, we found a pretty good trail that took us up the ridge that separates the two creeks, instead of what I had expected --- a trail that followed just above the West Fork.
It was our lucky find.
Incomparable scenery from the ridge
I had never considered walking along this ridge line, although I've done many others along the Front.
It is the classic Front/Bob Marshall limestone ridge, much like what we've found traversing from Mount Lockhart to Teton Peak or along the Washboard Reef from Teton Pass.
We found ourselves in the center of alpine valley, with the Choteau ridge to the east, and on the distance, great views of snow-covered Old Baldy, Rocky peak, Headquarters Pass, Teton Peak, Lockhart, Mount Wright and Patrick Gass.  To the south, Cave Mountain dominated.
It rises about 2,600 feet from the road, and we traveled it about 4.5 miles to a high point of 7,730 feet.
This ridge intersects at a 90 degree angle into a divide above the East Fork Teton that comes off Blackleaf Canyon.  It was spangled with wildflowers, particularly rich in deep-blue forget me nots.
We dropped to that divide's saddle to the west and came down the West Fork, looking for the "trail," enjoying the scenery along the way, following deeply green, grassy slopes and carpets of glacier lilies.  I've never seen so many glacier lilies.  Eventually we found a trail near the creek about a half mile above the main creek junction.
Coming out, we were in a valley of tall mountains and facing Cave Mountain.
Exciting trip.

Click on this link for more photos, map, graph: Jones Creek exploratory

Very small amounts of snow along this ridge line

Descending into the West Fork Jones Creek

Glacier lilies everywhere

Friday, May 29, 2015

Getting away from rain on Glacier's west side

Kintla Lake

Bowman Lake

Lake McDonald
We're getting the moisture we so badly need.
So, it's been hit and miss for outdoors trips.
In the past couple of weeks I've been to Continental Divide Trail near Rogers Pass twice, had a wet trip in the Ford Creek Plateau and spent a couple of gorgeous days in the Polebridge area near Glacier Park's northwest side.
Both CDT trips were wet as well, but satisfying in that the alpine wildflower show was still remarkable.  The fragrant Forget-Me-Not blue flowers carpet the divide.  They are about three weeks ahead of schedule and I'd recommend anyone reading this to see them now as I think they are at their peak between Rogers Pass and Cadotte Pass.
Katie on CDT near Rogers Pass
We stayed at the North Fork Hostel in Polebridge, an eclectic collection of shelters, ranging from thrown-up single room huts to old travel trailers with roofs over them.  Everything is clean and comfortable and the main lodge is warmly overseen by Oliver Meister, who also doubles as a Glacier Park Ranger at the Polebridge entrance.  The hub of Polebridge is the Mercantile, with a bakery renowned for its huckleberry bear claw pastries and even its savory treats.  We ate at the Northern Lights Saloon and Cafe, where the food is deliciously prepared.  The cafe and Merc are staffed by friendly folks from all over the country.
This is floating season and the North Fork Flathead is high and muddy and the rafts are out in droves.
We were surprised to see how dry and dusty the North Fork country is already.
Yes, there's been some moisture, but this part of Glacier is much drier than the east side.  It rained on the east side, while we were dry and toasty (in the 70s) on the west side.
There was no snow on most of the lower ridge lines.
Katie had a couple of short day hikes planned ---- both to lovely meadows just inside the park's Polebridge border;  Hidden Meadow and Covey Meadow.
The Livingston Mountain Range is a powerful sight on this side of the park.  There's still some snow on the high peaks, like Kintla.
One evening we took the North Fork Inner Road in the park to Kintla Lake, a 14 mile drive that took an hour over a rocky, dusty road.  Don't do this unless you want to rattle your car.
The next morning we hiked the Bowman Lake trail to near the head of the lake, a most pleasant and relatively flat hike.
On the way out of the park, we stopped at Lake McDonald and then ate a great meal at the Belton restaurant in West Glacier.
Part of the Livingston Mountain Range on the Glacier West Side

Katie in front of our cabin at the North Fork Hostel

North Fork Flathead bridge at Polebridge

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