This small (28,560 acres), but spectacular wilderness area is located along the east shore of the Missouri River, its brilliant, white limestone spires along the river shoot up toward the sky.
The “Gates” is described in the Lewis and Clark Journals, an optical illusion that makes this limestone canyon on the river appear to shut closed like a gate from a certain angle. The Corps of Discovery, upon seeing the Gates worried that their trip up river was over, blocked by the Rocky Mountains.
It is the staple of a popular tourist boat ride on the river each summer that drops its guests on the banks of the shore that flank this wilderness area.
Spring is perfect because the Gates is a dry area in the Big Belts mountain range with many intermittent streams that are dried up and underground by summer. If you go into this area you better be toting water or know where the precious springs are located.
I like to get into the Gates several times each year, but each spring I pick off one of its peaks.
Sunday we head out for the Refrigerator Canyon Area up the up from Nelson hunting for an approach to Sheep Mountain, 7,369 feet, but just about 3,000 feet in elevation gain from the road.
A great joy in doing this climb is the drive to the jumping off point.
This is on a road in the Helena National Forest that used to be known as the Figure 8 Route. Flooding in 1981 destroyed the road in the Vigilante Campground area near York. But this part of the road remains and takes the driver through Ponderosa pine forest, along limestone spires and canyons, and along rushing trout streams. Beaver Creek, known for its fishery, parallels the road out of Nelson.
The rock outcroppings and buttresses rise directly up from the road, and to the uneducated eye, look impassable.
We chose a route up a draw roughly between the heads of Sheep and Diamond gulches across the road and just west of the Refrigerator Canyon trailhead, and it wasn’t long before the road had receded far below us.
From this southern approach there’s rock and scree to deal with all the way up to the 7,000 foot timber line. On top, the thick timber opens up occasionally for spectacular views of Hogback Mountain across the road and to the north Candle and Moors mountains. Below to the northwest the snow-capped Rocky Mountain Front recedes into the horizon, but Red, Steamboat and Caribou mountains in the Scapegoat Wilderness Area are clearly visible.
After climbing the highpoint we retraced our steps and walked the ridge to where an old fire had cleared our line of sight.
What struck us was the great amount of Missouri River water that has been impounded in the area. We could see Hauser and Helena lakes and in the distance Canyon Ferry Lake, all created by dams on the Missouri. We could see a spring rain storm skipping across the Helena valley.
The trees aren’t coming back any too quickly in this burn, which occurred more than a decade ago. Amidst the skeletal remains of the burned trees were gorgeous scatterings of purple and yellow wildflowers.
I’ve never understood why the Gates is such an empty place. Perhaps it is the lack of water.
It is rare when you see anyone, even along the main trail that goes from the Missouri River’s Meriwether Picnic Area back to Refrigerator Canyon, some 16 miles. Off trail, I guarantee solitude. There are black bears, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, elk and deer in this place.
The area is not that far from Great Falls. By way of Holter Lake on the Willow Creek Road it is about 60 miles. To Refrigerator Canyon, 100 miles. By way of Gates of the Mountains Boat Club, about 75 miles.
Even if you don’t hike, it is well worth the drive.