Monday, September 06, 2004

Labor Day weekend

Smith Creek Falls
If Labor Day is the unofficial end of summer, summer ended perfectly this year.
The Labor Day weekend was spent in a frenzy of mountain activity.
We climbed Highwood Baldy and North peaks on Saturday; visited Memorial Falls and the Sluice Boxes State Park in the Little Belts on Sunday; and hiked to Smith Creek Falls in the Rocky Mountain Front outside Augusta on Monday.
The groundcover is rapidly changing colors; the elk are bugling; and the sharper air and shorter days signal the arrival of fall.
Here’s a summary of each hike:

Highwood Baldy and North peaks
The Highwood Mountains are quickly reached out of Great Falls.
The standard route up Highwood Baldy, at 7660 feet, the highest peak in this volcanic island range, is up Deer Creek from the north flank.
We decided to go at it from the Geyser side, gaining North Peak first, walking a long ridgeline to Baldy.
This was my third time up Baldy this season.
It was windy and a tad cloudy on the way up. However, the longer the day progressed, the more clear and beautiful it became.
Aside from some cattle along the way, we saw no animal life on the way up. On the way down we heard an elk bugling and followed an elk trail to within sight of him.
We came down the heavily timbered east side of the mountain and traveled through some very high grass in the clearings.
How refreshing to encounter greenery (thanks to the wet August) at this time in the season.

Memorial Falls and Sluice Boxes State Park
I hadn’t been to the Memorial Falls in several years and hadn’t seen the completed reconstruction of the trail. It has been made handicap accessible and it is a hike that nearly anyone can do --- shorter than half a mile.
There are upper and lower falls, and a good trail has been roughed in making the upper falls more easily reached than in the past.
Bring your camera on this hike!
We then headed for the Sluice Boxes to take some friends who had never visited it before.
We approached from the upper parking area, dropping into Belt Creek through the high canyon with its Zion-like waterfall.
We were very surprised to have seen so few people on the trail, although there were some kids at the cliff jumping beach, and a couple of families.
The asters were the flowers most in evidence, and the groundcover was turning more yellow than red.

Smith Creek on the Front
I hadn’t been in this area since 1988 and had never hiked the trail that is really a main artery for trails leading into the Scapegoat Wilderness.
Our goal was Smith Creek Falls, a 2.1 mile hike that loses about 500 feet before gaining slightly. We proceeded past the falls to the junction of Jakie Creek, another mile or so more.
When you go into this area you have to be tolerant of cattle ---- you pass through a working cattle ranch. And you have to have the right mindset about land affected by fire. This trail passes through one of the main areas high hard by the Canyon Creek fire 16 years ago. In fact, I calculated that we were on trail exactly 16 years to the date that the fire roared down this creek and threatened the town of Augusta!
There’s much evidence of regeneration, but there are hillsides full of whitened dead snags as well. It reminds me of what is happening in Yellowstone National Park, which is recovering from the fires the same year. However, it seems as though this area is coming back more slowly.
The cattle trails and cattle manure are everywhere. The cattle trying to reach the fresh springs above the falls have really hammered the area above the Smith Creek Falls.
You really don’t get away from much cattle sign until you hit Jakie Creek, another mile beyond the falls.
The falls themselves are an oasis. They are quite large and very interesting because adjacent to them is a large cave. Water from a spring above the cave pours down in droplets reminiscent of Glacier Park’s Weeping Walls, except there are no walls.
You can climb down to the base of the falls about 50 yards to the north of a gate across the trail. It is steep, but not too difficult.
The falls were a respite from the cattle sign and dead trees.
The falls are worth the hike!

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