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.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

California-Oregon smoke arrives; smoky Marias Pass, Pilgrim Creek


The ground cover was in its autumnal glory

With the thick smoke from the historic California and Oregon fires arriving here, I've scaled back my hiking and am going day-to-day, taking trips on the spur of the moment.

Such was the case last week with a trip to Pilgrim Creek in the Little Belts near Monarch one afternoon, and exploring the Continental Divide Trail and a connector from Marias Pass.

It was hot and hazy, but they were good trips.

CDT from Marias Pass

Katie making her way over the plentiful deadfall

A typical section of the Elk Calf Mountain trail

A fork of Pike Creek
Brilliant mountain ash berries

The final part of the hike

It had been 15 years since I was in the area.  Lots has happened since then, including a ban on motorized travel into the Badger from the Pass.  Then, the "trail" (133) was a mess from abuse by Off Road Vehicles, motorcycles and horses.  It has undergone a dramatic transformation.  Yes, the first three-quarters of a mile are still a wide, dirt mess, but after that it cinches down to a real footpath delivering the hiker to a wild country experience.
There are outstanding views all the way of the big three mountains in Glacier National Park to the north:  Elk, Little Dog and Summit.  Elk Calf and Flattop are the most prominent peaks in this part of the Badger Two Medicine area.
There are a couple of loop options on the CDT from Marias Pass.  
There's the Elk Calf Mountain-Pike Road loop, and the much longer  Elk Calf-South Fork Two Medicine Loop.
We took the former, a 6.5 mile loop.
The alternative is to connect the Elk Calf Trail with the South Fork Trail for about twice the distance and nine crossings of the river.
The CDT trail starts at the east end of the Summit Campground at the pass.  It looks like a giant right of way has been cut across it, and at one point crosses an oil pipeline right of way.  There are a lot of trees that have been cut to accommodate this, but vegetation is quickly taking over.  I suspect this trail had been a road for oil and gas exploration, logging, cattle grazing and fire line.  Now, it's main users are CDT travelers at the beginning or end of their long jaunt.
At two-miles there is the Elk Calf junction, Trail 137, where the trail enters thick forest where the trail is covered with hard to negotiate deadfall.  We climbed over countless trees on this 1.8 mile section.  It was tough going.  I would think most CDT hikers would avoid this route at any cost, opting for the lower South Fork trail as a route instead, despite its many stream crossings.
The only compensations were bountiful, ripe huckleberries, which we ate by the handful, and the riotous reds, yellows, and oranges groundcover, changed overnight by oncoming autumn chill.  The mountain ash's bright orange and orange-red berries were everywhere.
This area is regenerating nicely from what I think to have been the Challenge Creek Fire that jumped the divide in 2007.
The connector Trail 134 is only .8 of a mile and goes through dense grasses and timber.
It empties out onto the Pike Creek Road, about two miles above Marias Pass.  We cut the distance by finding an unofficial game/hiker's trail that led right back to the campground.
I'll return this winter to ski some of this country, hoping the Forest Service will cut out the deadfalls so we can make a loop out of it more easily.

A quick Pilgrim Creek hike

Limestone spires and cliffs above the trail
A glimpse of Belt Creek near the mouth of Pilgrim Creek

Where Pilgrim Creek empties into Belt Creek

This is one of the many Little Belt Mountain Range's gem hikes.
At 45 miles from my door, the hike is less than 3 miles round trip, but with a 466 feet elevation gain and loss, and super-spectacular limestone cliff scenery above sparkling, translucent emerald streams.
I hadn't done this wonderful hike in quite a number of years and I wasn't aware that a trail had been built from the Belt Creek Bridge at Logging Creek to the original trailhead 1.5 miles above on a bend of the Logging Creek Road.
I always struggle with the best way to get to the trailhead.
The shortest way is to take U.S. 89 to the Logging Creek Road before the highway descends toward Monarch.  It is about 6.5 miles to the high trailhead parking area, 8 miles to the bridge over Belt Creek.
However, there's a two mile stretch of it that is sometimes one-track with pullouts and rutted and pocked with rock.  It takes about 25 minutes to do this route.
The easier drive is via the Stockett-Sand Coulee or Riceville roads, but involves many more miles of very dusty road.
I chose the high, rocky, narrow route.
I parked at the high trailhead, which immediately travels below high, limestone cliffs and spires and a forest interspersed with tall Ponderosa and Douglas fir trees.  There are occasional glimpses of Belt Creek and the Pilgrim Creek valley nearly 500 feet below.
I decided to turn around at Belt Creek, opting not to cross.
There is a great trail that runs up Pilgrim Creek, all the way to its source off the Divide Road.
Maybe another time.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Little Belts surprise: McGee Coulee Arch, Pioneer Loop (again)

Wayne Phillips underneath the arch on steep scree slope
Wayne turned 79 years old just two days before the hike

Katie got up above us
Otter Mountain could be easily climbed at the end of the Arch hike

Wayne takes a break beneath one of the outcrops along McGee Coulee
We found quite a number of folks camping along the Dry Fork on this Labor Day weekend

A couple of years ago I missed the Wayne's Wednesday Walk that went to the giant arch off McGee Coulee in the Little Belts up the Dry Fork of Belt Creek.

Wayne agreed to take Katie and me there Saturday, and I was just blown away by this spectacular off-trail feature hidden in the limestone cliffs.

To reach it we hiked 1.75 miles to some livestock watering tanks and turned up a ridge above a deep gulch, which was flanked on the other side by the cliffs.  We found a nice game trail that took us up another quarter-mile to another draw where we walked across the gulch and then side-hilled up to this large arch.

Wayne had discovered it accidentally, and approached it differently, coming steeply up from the bottom through the arch.  We found a game trail above the arch.  We were able to climb into the cliffs and look at the arch below us.  We had come 2.25 miles and gained a little more than 800 feet.

After a scenic lunch on a flat bench in the cliffs we were able to walk cross country on good elk trails, eventually descending to McGee Coulee, having completed a loop.

Because the arch is tucked back in a gulch without a trail, I'm amazed that Wayne was able to discover it.

Walking back down to McGee Coulee we had great views of Otter Mountain (elevation: 6,683 feet), which is at the end of a long ridge above the coulee.  We could have easily climbed it, but because of fire smoke and the heat of the day, decided that would be for another time.

Pioneer Ridge Loop (yet again)

We ascended clockwise through gorgeous grass

At the rocky high point

I took Katie on this loop for the first time on a hot Tuesday afternoon.  It was the fourth time I've done it this summer.
We got out early to avoid smoke and had relatively clear skies that worsened as the day progressed.

Friday, September 04, 2020

Steamboat Lookout, Cataract Falls and autumn colors

Cataract Falls is about a third of a mile from Steamboat trail that makes combining hikes logical
Camille Consolvo in autumnal ground cover

Lots of berries on this hike, like these elderberries
We got terrific views toward Scapegoat Mountain on our way up to Steamboat Mountain

Lots of Fireweed that had gone red

 Since the 1988 Canyon Creek fire that swept through the Scapegoat and Rocky Mountain Front drainages like Smith, Elk and the Dearborn I've returned to climb Steamboat Lookout for the pleasure of it and to observe the year-to-year rebirth of the forest.

However, last year the Elk Creek road closure kept me from this special place, so my visit Thursday was for the first time in two years.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is how quickly the ground cover is assuming its Fall colors. Reds, oranges and yellows are everywhere, particularly in the huckleberries and fireweeds.  Heck it isn't even Labor Day yet and we've got three weeks before Summer ends.

The trees continue to progress on all but the South facing slopes.  The regrowth reminds me of what has occurred in Yellowstone Park:  thick and luxuriant and now more than 20-foot trees so thick you can't walk through them.  It's interesting to see the large number of Douglas Firs interspersed with the Lodgepoles.  The forest looks very healthy.

In the meantime, alders and willows are encroaching on the trail so you have to bull your way through in some spots.

We added the short Cataract Falls trail to the hike, which brought our day to 3,933 feet over 13.2 miles.

The sky had cleared of the California fires so we got great views into the Scapegoat Wilderness and the Scapegoat massif where we had visited on a five-day backpack trip a mere month ago.

The views on this hike are simply exceptional:  the craggy Steamboat skyline, the Scapegoat and Crown Mountain complexes,  giant Red Mountain to the south, Rocky and Ear mountains to the north, and the distant Swan Range to the west.

There were some really sweet, but small huckleberries still out.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Oops! Forgot an Aug. 24 hike in Sluice Boxes State Park


A very steep trail to the cliff jumping area
A wide spot in a creek that still has plenty of water in it

I had to wonder how these concrete supports got here
The railroad tunnel

The decaying trestle
The remains of the old Montana Central Railroad tracks

A new bridge put in place (by helicopter) this summer

This state park in the limestone cliffs of the Belt Creek Canyon bottom is only a half-hour drive from town and perhaps, the most scenic hike in our are.

It is a 7.5 miles point-to-point hike through on the rotting remains of what was once a train that hauled mining ore (and fisherman) between Great Falls' smelter and the Monarch-Barker-Hughesville-Neihart mining district.

When I have a few hours and am looking for a short hike I plunge into this area.

I did so on Aug. 24 as our area was being overwhelmed by the California fires' smoke that had drifted in.

As usual, I was struck by how awesome the limestone cliffs and emerald waters are.

I also marvel at the engineering fete that the Great Northern rail line there was, hanging a narrow gauge railroad bed off the side of the canyon, crossing and recrossing gulches and Belt Creek, and even punching a tunnel through the rock.

While this area is overwhelmed by visitors on the weekends during the summer, I had it to myself on this day.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Long Peak in Little Belts, Cascade County's high point --- bushwhacking by car

Annie Taylor wielded an ax to help create  parking space

Katie in the talus on Long's summit cap.  Big Baldy in the background

The massive ruins of the Glory Hole Mine
Wayne Phillips on top, celebrating his 79th birthday

Wayne beneath a massive white bark pine tree

I guess you could say that I broke in my 2020 Subaru Forester on the climb of Long Peak (elevation: 8,621 feet) in the Little Belts on Saturday.

The drive to our starting point wrecked the paint finish on my new car, and to get it parked we had to pull out an ax to clear a space.

This was an off-trail climb and our trip leader Wayne Phillips devised a route that would take us to the end of the Chamberlain Creek Road.  Had we not traveled the final mile, my car's paint job would still be intact.  Branches overhanging the sides of this narrow road, did a real scratch job on the car.  It looks like someone keyed the thing.

Anyway, at this point it was all off-trail to what is the high point in Cascade County.

We reached our starting point by accessing the Jefferson Creek Road south of Neihart and traveling 3.5 miles to its junction with the Chamberlain Creek Road over numerous speed/erosion bumps.  Then it was 10.4 miles to the road's end, which we didn't make because it became impassible because it was too narrow, bumpy and somewhat overgrown.

At this point we had to clear some branches to turn around our cars and park them, and begin our hike.

Since Long Mountain is covered with talus, Wayne's route largely avoided the talus until we reached the summit cap by staying in islands of trees between talus chutes.

Although it was smoky from the California fires in Great Falls and on the drive to Belt, it was clear enough on top the mountain for terrific views of Big Baldy to the east, Barker and the mountains lining the Lonetree road to the north as far as the Highwoods and Square Butte.  To the west and south it was a bit more smoky.  We also got good views of some of the mining activity that gave rise to the mining towns of Neihart, Barker and Hughesville.  The size of the Glory Hole Mine on the flank of the Pioneer Ridge is ming boggling.

This was a nice, easy hike despite being off-trail.

I had climbed it once before, but on skis, directly up the southwest ridge.

This was a much shorter route, but I could have done without the car bushwhack.We climbed over 1,300 feet and hiked 4-miles round trip.

Notable:  This was a hike to celebrate Wayne Phillips' 79th Birthday, which is Sept. 2.

Our route.  Note all the mines nearby