Monday, September 05, 2005

Cottonwood Creek in Big Snowies Wilderness Study Area

A dry Cottonwood Creek in Big Snowies WSA

Finally, some water in the creek
How could anyone whine about a trip into a Montana Wilderness Study Area?
That’s what I felt like doing Wednesday as I hiked into the Big Snowies Wilderness Study Area’s Cottonwood Creek Canyon south of Lewistown.
I found myself immediately disappointed with the cattle, the fences, and the dry creek.
Considering the Rocky Mountain Front is a much closer destination and far more spectacular, it took me awhile to get over my pique over my selection.
My hike was more than compensated, though, by the splendid drive through Central Montana wheat and cattle country, through valleys that show Montana’s big sky better than anywhere else.
I decided for Cottonwood Creek after a newspaper article suggesting the hike. I’ve had really good experiences in the Big Snowies on such hikes as the Crystal Cascades, the Ice Caves, or up to the top of the range’s highest peak, Greathouse (8,681 feet).
The Cottonwood Creek Canyon Trailhead is located off Montana 200 five miles west of Lewistown. It is about 15 miles of gravel to the parking area for the trail.
This would be a prettier hike in a few weeks when the cottonwoods are in blazing yellows and orange.
Trail No. 489, up the East Fork, begins at a working ranch. You are instructed to stay on trail for the first 1.5 miles because you are on private property. The flat trail crosses the dry, limestone creek bed several times, finally becoming wet about a quarter mile before the Lewis and Clark National Forest boundary.
At this point the trail enters the deep forest and climbs. Although it is in the forest there are occasional openings where the hiker can view limestone columns and exposed limestone walls above the now rushing creek below.
In about another 1.5 miles the trail veers to the east as it climbs toward Greathouse Peak. This is where the east and west forks of the creek come together to form the main creek. It was at that point I wanted a better look at the creek. The creek bed, like the walls of the canyon, are flat chunks of limestone. It reminded me of Pilgrim Creek in the Little Belt Mountains.
I was rewarded with a beautiful elk trail that climbed a couple of hundred feet above the West Fork that I followed for more than a mile before turning back.
It was a pleasant trip, but I’ve had better adventures and seen more spectacular sights in the Snowies than this.

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