|A warm day climb of Crown Butte|
We had bright, sunny weather with temperatures in the mid-50s and no wind Saturday, so we headed for the Nature Conservancy’s Crown Butte preserve between Cascade and Simms. Originally we had set out for a hike along in the Dearborn River on the Front outside Augusta, but the butte snagged us first.
One of the many laccoliths that dot the prairie between Great Falls and the Rocky Mountain Front, this one is special because it is preserved for public use, purchased by the Nature Conservancy, a private conservation-environmental organization, in 1982. There is tall, ungrazed grass on its top. After Square Butte to the east, this is most prominent butte in view.
Here is how the Nature Conservancy’s Web site describes the Crown Butte laccolith geologic formation:
“It was formed by intrusions of molten rock, called dikes, which flowed between layers of shale and sandstone that were laid down as marine deposits nearly 80 million years ago. The weak overlying layers bulged upward as the molten rock (magma) intruded, creating the lens-like body of the laccolith. Some of the dikes are visible to the west of Crown Butte, and the soft underlying layers of shale and sandstone are seen at the mouth of the canyon to the south.“After the magma cooled, it formed the resultant rock called shonkinite. Shonkinite is a distinctive rock that contains the glossy black mineral augite, which appears as small stubby crystals. Upon cooling, the rock contracted, causing vertical fractures that formed the towers and columns. While this weather-resistant rock still protects the underlying sedimentary rocks, the surrounding layers have eroded, exposing the butte.“Laccoliths are rare formations, particularly ones with exposed dikes. Crown Butte is one of the finest examples of a laccolith in central Montana and most likely the world.”
We weren’t the only ones who thought of Crown Butte this day. There were cars from three other parties at the access point.
Finding the access can be a problem. Here are Nature Conservancy’s directions:
“Crown Butte is 30 miles southwest of Great Falls. The Preserve can be approached from Simms (on Highway 200, just north of the butte) or from Cascade (on I-15, southeast of the butte). A small parking area is located outside the fence at the south slope of the butte.“From the parking area there is a one-mile trail along the west side of the butte. Elevation is gained gradually to the butte’s base. Along the trail, the careful observer will find a number of tepee rings marked by circles of stones. From the base of the butte to the top, the trail becomes steep for a quarter mile more.“When descending the butte, exercise caution. Watch for snakes. And please . . . no fires, camping, mountain bikes or pets.”
One more direction: just go to Simms or Cascade and find the country Simms-Cascade Road, follow it to the ranch at the base of the butte and park in an open area below a set of tire tracks that leads to a trail that snakes up from the butte’s southwest side.
It is not a hard hike, but up near the top of the butte you’ll skirt some rock to get to the grassy top. Give yourself a minimum four hours to thoroughly see the butte.
The views from Crown Butte make this hike particularly worthwhile. The Rocky Mountain Front marches out on the western horizon, filling the view from south. On the south there is the Big and Little Belts mountain ranges, to the east, the Highwoods and Square Butte, and on a clear day you can see all the tips of the Bear Paws and Sweetgrass Hills.
We walked around the perimeter of the butte, looking over the sides down chutes to the prairie. We could spy deer on the butte’s flanks, and we scared up deer on the grassy top.
Crown Butte is much more pristine than the larger Square Butte to the east because no grazing other than wildlife is allowed.
The igneous volcanic rock forms buttresses that in spots are bright green from lichen. There are many fingery spires of rock and “keyholes.” Some of the rock is segmented, almost as if a bricklayer had positioned it.
We climbed down into one of the chutes and in full sunlight on this deep winter day enjoyed lunch and the warmth of the sun.
Later in the hike we took a break in the sunlight beneath some interesting rock formations.
Unfortunately, it is much too dry this winter, and we’ll probably pay for the lack of snow with forest fires this summer.