|A rock outcropping on way to Anaconda Hill on CD Trail|
|Atop Anaconda Hill, surrounded by alpine flowers|
|Renshaw Lake in Front from near top of Renshaw Mountain|
|A selfie on Renshaw|
I was able to get out for a couple of mid-week jaunts, one was a Montana Wilderness Association hike on the Continental Divide Trail; the other, a solo trip in the Rocky Mountain Front at Benchmark outside Augusta.
It was a pleasure to take part in a trip led by Helena’s Andy Kukolax, who for years has conducted MWA hikes. He’s doing some 16 this summer for MWA. He is a gentle and knowledgeable leader who knows his territory.
He took us up Anaconda Hill (elevation: 7,152 feet) off the Continental Divide Trail a couple of miles south of Rogers Pass. We bushwhacked up Chambers Gulch to the trail and then followed it, getting off it to bag Anaconda Hill. The CD trail is wide and grassy with occasional outcroppings of red and green mudstone in this stretch, which allows fantastic views of the Blackfoot Valley, the Rocky Mountain Front, and Red Mountain in the Scapegoat Wilderness, which dominates the northwestern horizon. It is the highest point in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex at over 9,400 feet.
Even though this has been a good beargrass year, I was surprised to see how profuse it was along the CD trail and in the forest on the west side of the mountains. The hillsides were also covered in a couple of different kinds of buckwheat flowers, and we even saw some bitterroots on the top of Anaconda Hill.
From the top of the mountain we were able to view the nearby Anaconda Co. Mike Horse mine complex below us, which has been an environmental disaster at the head of the Blackfoot River (the river that ‘ran through it’). Some of the area on the hike in its lower reaches has been picked over by prospectors and miners.
Although it was in the 90s in Great Falls and Helena, our group enjoyed temperatures in the mid-70s and a nice, cool breeze to keep us ventilated.
All along the CD Trail we saw evidence of very active bears that had been turning over rocks and rooting underneath them. There were numerous piles of bear scat, particularly on Anaconda Hill.
Andy carried with him a copy of his book, “Ultralight Wildflowers Guide to the Central Montana Central Rocky Mountains.” This shirt-pocket-sized book, printed on waterproof paper is very handy and helpful, particularly in this year of spectacular flowers. The book is available from Andy or from Amazon.com.
I was thankful that Andy feels comfortable to take his groups bushwhacking. We saw territory that those confined to trails will never see. We covered about 9 miles and an elevation gain of just under 2,000 feet.
Because the weather cooled off some on Thursday, I went back out again, this time to retrace a backpack trip I had taken 20 years ago in the Front.
My goal was to see if I could get to Renshaw Lake and back comfortably in a day hike, taking Benchmark Creek trail up and Fairview Creek trail back, encircling Renshaw Mountain.
I was on trail at 10:15 a.m., and back to my car by 5:15 p.m., some 7 hours later, after hiking an estimated 16 miles and gaining 2,700 feet.
It’s funny how after 20 years your mind plays tricks on you. While I remembered the lake pretty well, I had forgotten much about the hike.
Benchmark Creek was more wooded and shaded than I had remembered it, although there were several stretches in a tight limestone canyon. Fairview Creek was more open and offered better mountain views than I had recalled.
So, I was most satisfied with the hike.
The Benchmark Creek Trail is a quick way to get up to the top of Renshaw Mountain, but since I had climbed that before, I aimed instead for a prominent (8,012 feet) unnamed peak just to the west and above Renshaw Lake. It was a 500 foot scramble from the trail and a great place to have lunch. I had views of the Front, the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness Areas and the lake below.
The lake is an emerald gem that sits at 6,500 feet in a heavily wooded basin between this unnamed peak and Sheep Shed Mountain to the east. Sheep Shed would be easy to climb from here.
Creek crossings are a constant on this trip, but none unreasonable. Despite the wet year, I was able to cross all the creeks without getting my feet wet.
Reaching the lake is particularly satisfying because there aren’t many high mountain lakes in the Rocky Mountain Front. This was cool and shaded and would have made a wonderful camp. I recall pulling big cutthroat trout from its water years ago.
The hike is really a traverse around Renshaw Mountain, a large, flat block of limestone that dominates the horizon, particularly when you are on the eastern front of it.
This is horse country and I caution other hikers that the trail is wide in spots and chewed up in others.
The horses from the dude ranches along the Benchmark Road have set down so many trails that it was difficult to pick out the right trail.
On the way back I missed the cutoff trail that traveled through above the road and wound up walking the last mile and a half on the road itself back to my car.
Nonetheless, this is a lovely, if strenuous hike and one I’d recommend.