Sunday, October 10, 2004

Charlie Russell's South Fork Judith country

Pole Creek, High Peak country of South Fork Judith in Little Belts
Cowboy artist Charlie Russell was drawn to the ranch country of the South Fork of the Judith River in the Little Belt Mountains when he immigrated to Montana in the late 1800s
But this is more than just ranch country. The scenery of this area epitomizes central Montana --- the low slung mountains, the ubiquitous limestone canyons and caves, the meandering streams jammed up with willows brought on by beaver dams.
Like Russell, I’m also drawn to this scenery, which has Square Butte as a sentry for its backdrop.
A group of us traveled into the South Fork Saturday to prowl the ridgelines and enjoy the scenery.
You enter by way of Utica, a quaint ranching outpost known as a jumping off point for nearby Yogo Sapphire mines, but recently even more so for the “What the Hay” contest, where locals dress up and sculpt bales of hay.
It is also the beginning of a scenic road that bisects the Little Belts, and contains a major trailhead for the Middle Fork of the Judith Wilderness Study Area. The South Fork road is lined with campsites that fill up during the summer because they offer good access to fishing, sightseeing, and some great hiking.
We set out to get on top of the east ridge above Dry Pole Creek where we intended to climb high peak and everything else along the way in getting to the ridge’s west side before returning to the car.
Along the way we were treated to a great perch from which to view the limestone canyons we could see trailing up the many canyons in sight. In the distance we could clearly see Square and Round buttes, the Highwood Mountains, the Bearpaw Mountains, the isolated ranges surrounding Lewistown like the Judiths, Mocassins, and Snowies. To the west and south there were the Big Belts with Edith and Baldy, the Castles, Bridgers and the north end of the Crazies. And this was on an overcast and windy day where I’m sure the views were obscured.
From the Dry Pole Road to the top of the ridge you pass through several limestone cliff bands that are relatively easy to traverse. The ridgeline slopes gently up for the next 1,000 feet to its almost featureless and undistinguished peak, High Mountain, at 8,242 feet, that is marked by a cairn on grass back in the trees.
There’s a rough road that comes up from the west, but we descended off trail down the north, rocky slope, much steeper than our approach.
We moved into the small Douglas Fir trees that opened occasionally into meadows of tall grass, but found ourselves mostly on an undulating ridgeline of limestone and occasional volcanic outcroppings.
At one point we dropped through an opening in one of the cliff bands through limestone spires.
Below us we could see more spectacular canyons, large stretches of open grass, and numerous clear cuts that appeared to be regenerating for the next harvest.
We could see that multiple use is very much in evidence in this end of the Little Belts. The ranching roads have opened up this country to loggers as well as recreationists, but somehow it appears to be working.
Despite the development the land retains its spectacular canyon and forest feel, and that’s what makes it worth coming back to.
If you decide to try Dry Pole look to the east ridge immediately after turning onto the road after coming off the South Fork road. At the top, about a half mile onto the Dry Pole you’ll see a very spectacular limestone arch on the skyline.

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