Wednesday, June 01, 2005

A week's worth of trips

Katie at Granite Park (two above), and Chief Mountain in field of shooting stars

The drought has had lots of bad effects, but one of the good side effects has been the glorious, warm and clear weather we had during the week leading to and including Memorial Day weekend.
It was impossible to stay home with clear skies, temperatures in the 70s and wildflowers popping up everywhere to add color to hikes and climbs.
This is the time of year I like to frequent the nearby “island” mountain ranges like the Highwoods, Little and Big Belts. I managed to hit those during the week as well as escape to Glacier National Park.
Here is a rundown of some of my hikes:

Highwood Baldy (elevation: 7,670 feet): The standard route for climbing this mountain is from its north-facing slope up Deer Creek, not far from Thane Creek campground. Over the past several years we’ve preferred a route up the south-facing slope by accessing the mountains from Geyser, climbing North Peak (elevation: 6,943 feet) and following a 7,000 foot ridgeline a couple of miles to Baldy’s base. We descend to the road on an east-facing ridge.
Wayne Phillips on Highwood Baldy 
The last couple of times I’ve done this I’ve run into elk on the descent, and this time was no different. We had perfect conditions and were able to get within about 100 feet of an elk grazing a meadow before it noticed us. She didn’t seem particularly alarmed, though. Views from the top are always satisfying: Bearpaws, Little Belts, Little Rockies, the Front, Big Belts, Snowies, Moccasins, Judiths, Square and Round Butte.

Gates of Mountains, Big Log, Hunters Gulches: This is one of the few areas I hadn’t explored in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness until last week. I had climbing Cap and/or Sacajawea mountains in mind and thought an approach up Big Log Gulch might work. Access is about a quarter mile from Nelson in the Big Belt Mountains. This area was hammered by forest fires in the 1980s and 90s. The first couple of miles of the Hunters Gulch Trail is marked by matchstick trees that have been charcoaled to a crisp. There are nice views of limestone canyons running behind Sawtooth Mountains.
The trail ascends quickly to a pass to Big Log Gulch, which eventually connects to the main north-south trail through the Gates and Bear Prairie, a great backpack camping destination. I got sidetracked up the Left Fork of Big Log Gulch, lost the trail and ended up bushwhacking to the top of a 6,500 foot ridge. I could see I wouldn’t have enough time to climb Cap and Sacajawea peaks from this approach, although they were clearly within reach across ridgelines. I think a better approach to these two would be from the Missouri River side, possibly up the gulch from Coulter campground. I then followed the ridgeline southeast and found the main Big Log Trail, took and took it to Kennedy Springs, where I spooked an elk grazing in the pasture there. I followed the trail back through the narrow Kennedy Gulch and then back to the Hunters Gulch junction and out.

Back to the Highwoods: It had been so green and beautiful in the Highwoods earlier in the week that I felt compelled to return. My goal was the simple 9-mile Thane-Briggs creeks loop and a climb of Windy Mountain (elevation: 5,998 feet). This is one of the classic climbs in the Great Falls area, something to I try to do yearly. It is accessed from Thane Creek Campground, a 36 miles drive from town. It climbs about 1,000 feet to a ridgeline to access Windy Mountain.
The Highwoods' dandelion patch
The ridgeline takes the high route to the head of Briggs Creek, where it drops into the trees, through open grass, and back to the campground. Instead of dropping into Briggs Creek I stayed high on the trail for another mile to the head of the North Fork of Highwood Creek where it follows the ridge between the North Fork and Briggs Creek for more than a mile before dropping into the North Fork where there is a connector trail back to the campground. The ridgeline offers spectacular views of Arrow and Highwood Baldy peaks, the two highest mountains in this isolated, volcanic mountain range. The time to get into the Highwoods is right now before the cattle begin grazing it in July. Every flower imaginable is blooming. The arrow leaf balsam root dominates. Hikers are treated to open, central-Montana views here. Lots of grass. Wind-blown trees. There is considerable competition for recreation here. I bumped into dirt-bikers and horseback riders. But, the encounters were brief and friendly.

Glacier National Park: I took advantage of the St. Mary’s Lodge 2-night $99 cabin special. The quarters are rustic and a bit cramped, but for the money a pretty good deal. It includes 2 for 1 breakfasts each morning at the Snowgoose Grille. There were so few people in the park that there was little highway noise. Views from our cabin were of East Flattop Mountain above St. Mary Lake. Most of the mountains on the east side of the park are climbable because there is little snow. What snow there is, is concentrated around Logan Pass, where there are still big drifts. The Highline Trail is still closed. We did three hikes in the park over this holiday weekend: Scenic Point out of Two Medicine Lake, Sunrift Gorge below Siyeh Pass, and Granite Park Chalet from the Loop. The days were clear, dry and warm. We hit snow at about 6,000 feet on our way to the chalet and a little above the falls above the The Scenic Point Trail was clear. This has been an amazing year for flowers. The purple shooting stars are growing in large fields. There are many yellow glacier lilies as well. We saw elk in Two Dog Flats and black bears near Trick Falls at Two Medicine and in the woods adjacent to Two Dog Flats. At the Swiftcurrent Inn at Many Glacier, which still wasn’t open for the season, we were able to use field glasses to see a mother grizzly and two cubs playing on the flanks of Mount Altyn. I hadn’t been on the Loop Trail approach to the Sunrift Gorge.Granite Park Chalet in more than 30 years and was impressed by how much more open and interesting it is now that fire has cleared the views. It is an 8-mile roundtrip with a 2,500 foot elevation gain. There are massive amounts of snow on Heaven’s Peak across the valley that dominates the landscape. Several other hikers reached the chalet as we did and we enjoyed this park landmark thoroughly. All of us had a bizarre encounter with an aggressive grouse protecting its nest near the trail by clucking and pecking at us. Usually Memorial Day weekend is cold and blustery. This was quite the exception.

Tenderfoot Creek in Little Belts: I’m ashamed that I had never been to Tenderfoot Creek in the Little Belts, a major Smith River tributary. Although I was tired from the previous week’s trips, the weather was just too good not to get out. The trailhead I used was the Taylor Hills Trail No. 344, off Divide Road about 10 miles above Logging Creek Campground. It starts at 7,600 feet, rises to 7,800 feet in the first mile and then DROPS 2,500 feet very sharply over the next three miles into the bottom, passing through dense forest, and open, green grassy parks on its way down. I looked at these parks and thought what good elk country this is. About 1,000 feet from the bottom in some private land that opens into a meadow I bumped into a dozen elk that were grazing there. The “trail” is really an old one-vehicle track that is now restricted to hikers, bikers, snowmobilers and dirt-bikers. If there is a way to get access to this area, these hills would be among the best telemark skiing slopes around. Anyway, I nearly aborted the trip because it started in fairly deep snow (with its attendant post-holing). I lost the snow after I had descended about 600 feet and found the open parks. The vistas from these parks are inspiring. They show a large, remote valley surrounded by good sized mountains with other grassy openings. It reminded me a bit of the Elkhorn Mountains near Helena, another great elk producing area. However, the Tenderfoot valley is much more pristine and lots tougher to reach. When I reached the grassy openings I would stop and admire these quiet wilderness views. I know that this and the Deep Creek area nearby have been on the list of roadless areas that wilderness advocates would like to see as included in some future wilderness bill. I can see why. Tenderfoot Creek reminded me a little of Pilgrim Creek on the other side of Divide Road, except it is larger. I washed my face in its cold, clear- greenish waters, hitched up my pack and turned around to face the four-mile, 2,500 foot walk back out. While I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, I’m not sure I’d approach Tenderfoot Creek this way again. You can see why the elk have it all to themselves!

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