Friday, November 13, 2015

Shoulder season: a taste of winter

We had Showdown Ski Area all to ourselves!

On the old cross country trail

Looking east toward Yogo Peak above the Golden Goose ski run
Often we're backcountry skiing by now.
Although we've had a blast or two of snow, we haven't gotten enough to ski, much less snowshoe.
So, on our weekly Wayne's Wednesday Wild Walks we headed to King's Hill in the Little Belts, hoping for snowshoeing or skiing in some fresh powder that had fallen two days earlier.
Although there was some snow, we were sadly mistaken that there was enough for winter sports and had to be satisfied with a hike in the white stuff.
A pleasant lunch
In a couple of spots we found ski-able or shoe-able snow, but even there we could walk through it in our hiking boots.
We did an exploratory on a route that I had tried in January on skis, essentially heading up the Porphyry Lookout Road from the pass, and then dropping down to the Moose Creek Road, finally finding a ridgeline where Forest Service Trail 747 is supposed to be.  I say that because it doesn't look like the trail is cut yet, but there are plenty of yellow ribbons tied to the trees marking a route to the Porphyry-Mizpah Ridge.
The weather was plenty cold ---- about 15-20 degrees most of the day, but the sun broke out at times and we had a pleasant experience, covering 4.2 miles and gaining 1,100 feet.
For routes, maps and more photos:


A quiet descent down Golden Goose several weeks before the skiers arrive

Thursday, October 29, 2015

We got a fair view from Fairview Mountain

Fairview Peak's east exposure

Approaching the summit

Joy at the top
This was another of Wayne Phillips' Wednesday Wild Walks from Great Falls.
Senior types gather for a day hike early Wednesday mornings, usually organized by Wayne.
We had six on our climb of Fairview Peak (elevation: 8,246 feet) west of Augusta, more a stroll than a climb, covering 8.6 miles and nearly 3,300 feet of elevation gain via the Willow Creek Falls trailhead.
This was the second time I did this enjoyable hike this year.  Given the opportunity, I'd do it more than that if I could.
An icy wind had us huddling for lunch
It involves going to a scenic trailhead near the old Scoutana girl scout camp, walking through the limestone walls of Willow Creek Falls, and just beyond the falls, accessing a cow path up the faint trickle of a creek to two successive saddles over a couple of miles.  You are bounded by Fairview to the east and Red Hill to the west.  Once at the high saddle it is another 800 feet on a gentle, domed slope to the top.
The view from the top are remarkable in every direction;  the Bob and Front to the north and west, the Scapegoat and Front to the South, and the island ranges of central Montana to the east.
We were surprised that there wasn't any snow since the Highwoods and Belts had been hit by good snowfall on Tuesday.
It was exceptionally clear, and we could see north to Rocky Mountain Peak, got a glimpse of the North Wall and Silvertip Mountain to the northwest, and of course, Scapegoat to the South.
We enjoyed the sunny weather, but the wind gave the summit an icy chill.
Along the way, the long, warm summer showed itself in the blooming wildflowers, like Pasque Flower.
All of us had to acknowledge the ravages of age, despite the easy mountain:  there were sore knees and flagging energy. At one point there were a group of four of us together, each using hearing aids.

For more photos, an elevation graphic and route, 


Looking toward the heart of the Bob Marshall from the flank of Fairview

Sheep Shed Mountain to the north

At the high saddle

Through the Willow Creek Falls Canyon

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Mixes Baldy, Clendennin mountains in Little Belts

The approach on Mixes Baldy was like walking the Continental Divide Trail near Rogers Pass

Descending to saddle between Mixes Baldy and Clendennin mountains

Katie Kotynski marks Clendennin Mountain summit
The Little Belts are like Rodney Dangerfield ---- they don't seem to get the respect they deserve.
That was underscored again Wednesday when our Wayne's Wednesday Wild Walks group of senior hikers walked the Mixes Baldy (elevation: 7,959 feet) -Clendennin (elevation: 7,808 feet) mountains' ridgeline in the Little Belts off Lonepine Road south of Glacier.
The mountains in the Little Belts appear to be low-slung with a 9,000 feet timber line that rarely exposes craggy peaks and tree lines.
Where we climbed ---- basically above the former Barker-Hughesville Mining District east of Monarch ---- the peaks are high and exposed (because of the talus slopes) and ridge-walking with amazing vistas possible.
We counted 16 mountain ranges in view from Clendennin, looking as far east as the Little Rockies and as far north as the Sweetgrass Hills on the Canadian border.
The Little Belts peaks surrounded us ---- Barker, Anderson, Wolf Butte, Taylor, Granite, Peterson, Butcherknife, and the 9,000 feet + , snow-glazed Big Baldy.
The hike Wednesday was inspired by last week's climb of Mount Barker.
On top we were looking directly at Mixes Baldy with its pointed top.
We had to get it.
Wayne Phillips designed a loop hike that approached Mixes Baldy from the south.  We 800 feet to a broad saddle, and then climbed about 650 feet to the top of Clendennin. We went back to the saddle and down a ridgeline to the road and back.   Our cumulative elevation gain was 2,802 feet over 6.5 miles.
This area has a rich mining history, and it was fun to have Neihart Mayor Steve Taylor along with us to tease us with that history as well as its geology.
Steve Taylor examines mining equipment below Mixes Baldy
I think we in Great Falls often fail to appreciate this history, as well as the great scenery at our doorstep.
We encountered mining detritus and debris at the saddle, and could look down on Hughesville/Barker.
I had done these mountains some 10 years ago, walking the ridgeline from Peterson peak. This Lonepine Road, only a mile east of Geyser, is in terrific shape and climbable mountains line both sides of this scenic road.
The weather Wednesday was as perfect as late October weather could be.

For an elevation chart, route on a topo map and more photos:   Click here

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Mount Barker in Little Belts

On top Mount Barker 

On the ridge line heading for the peak

Looking out toward  Round and Square Buttes near Geraldine
I've climbed Mount Barker (elevation: 8,309 feet) three other times, but all from different routes starting on the Dry Fork Road east of Monarch in the Little Belt Mountains.
This route, devised by Wayne Phillips, is much easier and somewhat more scenic, but tougher to reach by car.
We drove to the Otter/Green divide north and west of the mining ghost town of Hughesville on a rough, one-track road.
From there, it was an easy 1,800 feet scramble on a ridge line to the top, with the only obstacle, a giant scree field, which we mostly skirted by staying on elk paths in the alpine fir and white bark pine forest. This, as opposed to my Finn Creek ridge route that gains more than 3,500 feet, is in the trees much of the way, and covers scree slopes.
The 360 degree views on this trip are what make it so memorable.
On the way up we got a great look at the Little Belts' highest peak, Big Baldy, at more than 9,000 feet, Butcherknife Ridge and Peterson, Clendennin and Mixes Baldy peaks on the divide line between Big Otter Creek and the Lonepine road.
A ridge coming in from the north intersects and offers climbers nearby Mount Irene, which I climbed a number of years ago.  In the Otter valley below are limestone ridge outcrops.
Once on top these mountain ranges came into view:  Sweetgrass Hills, Highwoods, Bearspaw, Little Rockies, Judiths, Moccasins, Snowies, Adels, Big Belts, Elkhorns, Rocky Mountain Front and both east and west Square buttes.
We were luck enough to do this on a clear, sunny day.
This is historic mining country and there was evidence of old diggings on the ridgeline, as well as cave openings, which we were tempted to explore.
One of the cave openings
In the Big Baldy area we saw evidence of recovering clearcuts now dense with pine.
There is considerable reclamation work being done in the Hughesville and Barker ghost towns, which are encountered on the trip.
On the trip down we exercised poor judgment by continuing on the Otter Creek county road.  If you do this you better have high clearance and nerves of steel in the event you meet another vehicle on this one-track that is cut precipitously close to a steep dropoff.  It comes out on the Limestone Canyon/Raynesford Road.
I don't recommend this route.
Go back by way of Hughesville/Barker.

For more photos, a map of the route and elevation chart, Click here 

Looking toward Clendennin and Mixes Baldy peaks

Looking toward the really bad county road we drove back down

Wayne Phillips making sure Chuck Jennings car had enough clearance to get down the one-track road

Monday, October 12, 2015

Heart of Highwoods: Loop the Loop

Windy Peak spur

Glorious aspen
Even orange in the aspen!
The spectacular fall in the Highwood Mountains kept dragging me back and in the past week I did four trips there, walking every trail in the North Highwoods drainages.
There are four parallel trails connected at top and bottom, creating loops.
I started by hiking the Center Trail that separates Highwood Creek from North Fork Highwood, completing a loop by coming back down North Fork Highwood.  The next hike was up North Fork Highwood and coming back by way of the ridge that separates the North Fork from Briggs Creek.  The third hike was up Briggs Creek and then back on North Fork/Briggs divider trail.  Finally, I went up Briggs and back down the Windy Point Trail to Thain Creek Campground.
Each of these loops range from 7.5 to 8.5 miles in length with 1,500 to 1,800 feet elevation gain.
On Sunday, I took a fifth hike that tied all of these loop trails together ---- starting at Thain Creek Campground, traversing by trail over Briggs Creek and North Highwood to Center Ridge and then Center Ridge back to the Windy Point Trail ---- some 15.2 miles with an elevation gain of 5,900 feet. It took me 6 and a half hours.
For a more detailed look at route, an elevation chart and more photos, CLICK HERE
I know, I know, it seems a bit excessive, but I have to assure the colors and the scenery merited the return trips.
This range is within 30 miles of Great Falls, and a tremendous resource.


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Height of fall colors, a week's worth of hikes

Gordon Whirry on North Fork Deep Creek trail in Bob Marshall

Aspen cover the hillside on North Fork Highwood Creek in Highwoods

The fabulous Slim Gulch/Rierdon Gulch Wall in Bob Marshall Wilderness 

The fall colors this year have been better than usual and I've taken the past week to getting out and enjoying them.
I've had two Little Belts trips, a Highwoods hike, a traverse in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, and a climb of Mount Wright in the Rocky Mountain Front.
On one of my "off " days I traveled to Glacier Park to check out the colors there.
And of course, Great Falls, with its splendid Boulevard District, is in full color, the ash, elm, oak, buckeye, basking in all the glorious shades of red, orange, and bright yellow.
In the Little Belts we did the Crawford Creek hike behind the Belt Creek Ranger Station to Belt Park, walked above Memorial Falls, and did the Pioneer Ridge/Off-Trail Loop, all hikes I've done before and detailed in this blog.
In the Highwoods I walked up North Fork Highwood Creek to a junction that joined the high ridge to the north.
The 18.5 miles Rierdon/Green Gulch Loop in the Bob Marshall/Front country was probably the highlight of this past week.  Rierdon and Slim gulches are as scenic as anything in the Bob.  Unfortunately, Rierdon as wilderness got left out of the Heritage Act, so when you cross the saddle between Rierdon and Slim gulches you enter the Bob there in the new Deep Creek Addition.  The only difference between the gulches is the sign.  It's insane Rierdon Gulch was ignored for wilderness.  The great feature of this hike is the wall that stretches the length of these two gulches, starting at South Fork Teton Road and ending at North Fork Deep Creek.  This 10-mile, 8,000 feet ridge is just as beautiful as the Chinese Wall.  I will warn anyone that as the bend is turned in North Fork Deep Creek and you head up Sheep Creek to access Green Gulch, the scenery is not as spectacular and the trail on the downward is extraordinarily steep.  If you're going to put in this kind of mileage on a day hike, extend the trip several more miles and take it to the South Fork Teton Trail rather than Green Gulch.
Finally, I climbed Mount Wright for the umpteenth time on a clear, cool day Monday.  To the south, I could see the Moose Ridge fire in the Bob near the Chinese Wall smoking;  to the north, the air was incredibly foul from a combination of fires, probably those still smoldering in Glacier Park.
On the day I went to Glacier, I drove by way of Heart Butte to look at the near disaster in that community from the Family Peak/Spotted Eagle complex.  I noticed the butte itself, Feather Woman and Half Dome mountains entirely scorched.  Won't be any trees on those prominent peaks for some time.  On the way home, the smoke was rising on a hot evening.

Here are some additional photos, a map and an elevation chart for the Rierdon/Green Gulch Loop hike:  

Click here

The Moose Ridge Fire --- or is it the Sheep Creek/Sun Canyon smokes the sky Sept. 28

Atop a ridge north of the Pioneer Ridge Trail in Little Belts

Two Med Lake bottom in Glacier Park

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Was this our fire season ending storm???

Katie at Cobalt Lake on Labor Day

The trail was snow covered and slick within a half-mile of the lake

On the trail to Cobalt Lake the ground cover was a blaze of color
I had to check the fire conditions in Glacier and along the Front this Labor Day weekend.
Since late last week we have gotten pounded by steady rain and I had heard that there was some snow at higher elevations.  I had to see for myself.
Sure enough, there had been rain and snow, and the temperatures had dropped drastically.
We stopped at the Izack Walton Inn for a look at what could have been a catastrophe and checked out fire lines near the cross country ski runs and viewed charred trees on the ridge tops above this historic old inn.
We had hoped to drive a loop through Glacier, going through Logan Pass, but heavy snow had closed the pass and we had to retrace our steps by to East Glacier where we spent the night.
The following day, snow or no snow, we decided to do the 12 mile round trip hike to Cobalt Lake in the Two Med beneath Painted Tipi peak.
We had unsettled, windy weather and didn't find snow until about a mile from the lake.  Within a half mile of the lake, the snow became fairly heavy --- about four inches.  The trail was covered just below the lake, and it was slick where the trail was steep.
The mountains were gorgeous with the snow, but the most beautiful aspect of the hike was that the ground cover was in glorious color:  bright oranges, reds, yellows and chartreuse.
This is the time to be on the east side of the Continental Divide to see the ground a blazing.
Is this our fire ending snow?
It is supposed to warm up and get windy, which could dry things out and reignite the many blazes.
Let's hope so.
Snow tips Sinopah's southeast buttress.

The south facing flank of Sinopah

There's usually a moose hereabouts below Rising Wolf peak

Thursday, September 03, 2015

A mine tour, a ridge walk, a soak in the Little Belts

A face mask to filter out wildfire smoke is a must as Wayne Phillips ascends a ridgeline north and connecting to Pioneer Ridge

Tintina's Jerry Zieg explains the location of the Black Butte Mine north of White Sulphur in the Smith River headwaters
I'm climbing the walls.
Not literally.
No, the smoke from the many fires has driven me inside and looking for alternatives to my climbing and hiking.
The air cleared enough Tuesday and I took full advantage and headed for the Little Belts south of Great Falls.
Lots of variety to this day:  I tried a new route on the Pioneer Ridge, did a formal tour of Tintina's proposed Black Butte copper mine at the head of the Smith River, and soaked at the Spa in White Sulphur Springs.
The highlight of the day was the tour of the proposed copper mine, a very controversial proposal because of its location.
Click this link for Tintina's video explaining the mine:

Tintina video explaining mine

Company officials appeared to be open to any question thrown at them.
Most of them involved in handling of tailings, the toxic waste rock left over after the copper is extracted.
On the mine site's large storage area, with Black Butte in the background

Tintina's geologist Jerry Zieg taking questions from the public at a White Sulphur Springs mine presentation
The fear is that some catastrophe might occur where the poisonous waste product from mining would find its way into nearby Sheep Creek, which flows into the Smith River, polluting this national treasure.
Here is a great, recent New York Times article that offers a balanced news report on the conflicts in the proposal:

NY Times article on Tintina mine proposal

My natural inclination had been to support mining if it can be proven that the Smith is in no danger.
Those 200 well-paying jobs that would come from this development would benefit the locals and the state.
However, after visiting the site and hearing the company's side, I'd need much more assurance before supporting the mine.
Our state's legacy is too clear and present:  mining has left lasting scars.  The adjacent, mine-polluted Belt Creek drainage should be lesson enough.
We can't afford even the possibility of a polluted Smith.
Proposing a mine in the Smith's headwaters is inappropriate.  This is sacred ground.  There must be some places where development can't occur.  This is one of those places.
Click below for an excellent website opposing the mine:

Save Our Smith website

 On the ridgeline heading toward the Pioneer Ridge Trail

The Pioneer Ridge alternative route:

An off-trail alternative to Pioneer Ridge route in Little Belts.  Begin at Pioneer Ridge trailhead across US 89 from Belt Creek Ranger station.  Instead of following the trail, cross the creek and start up the ridge on the north side, staying with it all the way.  It will eventually join the Pioneer Ridge Trail, but its advantage is that it is less steep and more open, with tremendous views in all directions.  It can be made into a nice loop with the Pioneer Ridge Trail.  This account is only for a one mile, 1,225 feet gainer.  Once the ridge line is gained, simply stay on top of it, gaining another 800 feet as it meets the trail.  I can see this area has great potential for backcountry skiing, telemarking and snowshoeing.

For map and more photos, CLICK HERE

Sunday, August 23, 2015

This and that from summer hikes: fire, fire, fire forces us to hike creatively

Near Sunrift Gorge, shot from the car.  No stopping allowed on Going to Sun Highway on east side
The Reynolds Fire aftermath
No, there's nothing wrong with the camera, it's smoke obscuring Glacier's Mount Sinopah at Two Med Lake

Fire and smoke-filled skies now dominate Montana's outdoors scene.
My brother's long-awaited motorcycle trip from Chicago to Glacier was ruined by the fires.
I've sucked it up and sucked in my share of smoke this summer, trying not to let the fires ruin my good time.
However, even a trip out of state --- to California and its Lassen Volcanic National Park --- was affected by smoke.  I did climb the volcano.  Not much of a big deal with just under 2,000 feet of elevation gained, but views were spoiled by the many fires going in the Golden Bear state.
Katie and I on top Mount Lassen volcano in northern California
I would recommend a trip to this park, north and east of Sacramento, for its unspoiled beauty, and hot sulphur springs, reminiscent of Yellowstone.  Not only is it in a gorgeous part of California with tall, dense trees and sparse population, but the park itself is virtually empty.  No Glacier-like lines here.
I've been struggling with a pulled calf muscle for the past six weeks and have returned to a several easy hikes to  keep in shape and stretch it out.
One of the hikes was to Headquarters Pass, one of the Front's treasures, which offers a great variety of high mountain views, looks to the Chinese Wall from its high point, and access to Rocky Mountain Peak, the tallest mountain in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
I was thrilled to see the Bob Marshall boundary sign had been moved within a half-mile of trailhead, a product of the passage of the Heritage Act, that added acreage to the Bob.
Wayne Phillips at new Bob Marshall Wilderness boundary sign, a half-mile from HQ Pass trailhead

Where the boundary sign used to be, at HQ Pass
It was disappointing that the iconic boundary sign at HQ Pass had been removed, though.  I would have left it as a reminder of the arbitrariness of wilderness boundaries and because it was so scenic.
My wife and I spent three days in Glacier Park this past week to get a look at what the fires have done there.
It was my first look at Going to the Sun Road after the Reynolds Fire, which burned on both sides of the road from Rising Sun Campground (the campground was incredibly saved) to just beyond the St. Mary/Virginia Falls trailhead.  The walk to St. Mary Falls has been forever changed, although I noticed that Virginia Falls foliage is unburned.  The fire will open some views and freak out lots of tourists who don't understand the need for fire.
After a quick shot to Logan Pass, we stayed put at Two Medicine and East Glacier Park, enjoying the culture of that quaint part of the park.
Most of the time, we could only see outlines of the mountains because the valley was so smoke-filled, mainly from the Thompson Fire in the Nyack area.  That fire will probably mean that I'll never fulfill one of my bucket list objectives --- the 36-mile Nyack-Coal Creek wilderness loop in the park.  I had planned it for this August, but the fire there, nearly 15,000 acres at this writing, won't lie down until hit by hard snow.
While there, the Bear Creek fire in the Great Bear Wilderness, across Highway 2 from the park's southern boundary, blew up and threatened to jump into the park and burn down the Izaak Walton Inn area.  Residents there are on moment's notice for evacuation.
Highway 2 from East to West Glacier was temporarily shut down, then opened Saturday with a lead car.  BN was protecting its railroad trestles in the area.
Meanwhile, smoke poured into central Montana and Great Falls from the Sucker Creek fire near Lincoln and smaller fires burning along the Front.  Large fires in Washington, Oregon and of course, California, added to this mess.
At Two Med we limited ourselves to short day hikes at the lake, going to Aster Park Overlook and Paradise Point one day, and then exploring the Two Medicine River above Running Eagle Falls (formerly Trick Falls).   At this time of the year, the river dives into the limestone for more than a mile, emerging in a gusher at the falls, and leaving a dry riverbed above it.  We hiked the rocky and colorful riverbed until it reappeared at another waterfalls upstream, where it descends into a sink hole.  This is an off-trail hike and most interesting.  The upstream waterfalls is gorgeous.
Where this smoke and fires leaves us is anyone's guess.
After a rainfall on Friday night, we're anticipating the return of hot weather and heavy-duty smoke for the full upcoming week.
I'm climbing the dry Two Med river bed

Where the Two Med River dives into a sink hole and disappears, showing up at Running Eagle Falls
Where the Two Med River emerges from the limestone as Running Eagle Falls

Katie walking the dry Two Med River bed