|Norm Newhall in one of the many Middle Fork caves|
|Walking up the river bottom|
So, Norm “Dodger” Newhall’s Middle Fork of the Judith River traverse by way of Woodchopper Ridge hike in the Little Belt Mountains was especially appealing.
Newhall, whose family owns property in the area, has been leading this popular and scenic 10-mile hike for the Montana Wilderness Association for many years.
As we drove in we were treated to the hay bale sculptures from the What the Hay contest held the previous week. We ended the day with the world’s biggest order of French Fries at the Oxen Yoke bar in Utica, which epitomizes central Montana ambience.
The Middle Fork Judith is a Wilderness Study Area that was proposed by the late Sen. Lee Metcalf in the 1970s.
What holds it up from designation by Congress are private in-holdings and a four-wheeler road up its gut that crosses the stream dozens of times, muddying it with each vehicle plunge.
In fact, while on our hike we saw two groups of ATVs cross the river and heard another group in the distance.
Otherwise, the scenery in this spot is similar to the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area south of Great Falls, except with lots more water on its interior.
The low-slung mountains are heavily timbered with occasional breaks of grassy elk meadows. Like the Gates, the rock in the Middle Fork is porous limestone with lots of interesting caves.
Newhall began the hike by way of a rough road from the Middle Fork trailhead that lead to a Yogo Creek crossing leading to the Woodchopper Ridge, about 1,000 feet in elevation gain.
When the timber gave way to grass we could see flat-ridged top of the southeast end of the Little Belts with its spiky canyons and the Snowy Mountains, another Wilderness Study Area even further east.
We met the Arches Coulee Trail which drops to the Middle Fork and descended into the limestone outcroppings, which culminates in a small arch just before reaching the Middle Fork. We stopped and had our photos taken there.
At this juncture we played on the limestone, climbing to a deep cave about 500 feet above the river and found a shy porcupine hunkered down on a ledge above us.
We worked our way down the river, with four cold shin-deep crossings, stopping to poke around in some of the larger caves along its length.
Newhall gave us a choice for the last mile of the hike, either following the road back to the trailhead, or doing a bushwhack down the river, which narrows considerably.
We chose the bushwhack and were treated to sheer walls coming down the river, and more deep caves.
The reds, oranges and yellows of the groundcover and shrubs along the river bottom enhanced the scenery.
Up from the river we cut through a cabin property and took a last look at one of the “Indian” caves, and then back to the car.
We had even dodged the weather forecasts, completing our hike before the cold and wet of the approaching autumnal season change had hit us.
The Little Belts had yielded yet another of its spectacular charms.