Monday, October 24, 2005

Gates of the Mountains: Sacajawea Peak

Mark Hertenstein on way up the limestone to top of Sacajawea Peak

We canoed our way through the Gates to our start point

A look back
It was obvious to me Sunday just how ignored the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area south of Great Falls is.
The temperature was near 70 degrees. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The wind was light. There were still some trees with colorful leaves on them. Just perfect.
Yet, no one was visiting this 28,562 acres wilderness area, despite it being the opening day of the Montana Big Game Hunting Season.
Its western border is the Missouri River that cuts through a limestone canyon with walls towering above the water more than 1,000 feet.
We were there canoeing our way into the Colter Campground on our way to climb Sacajawea Mountain (elevation: 6,539 feet), about a 3,100 foot gain from the river.
It is about a two-mile canoe trip from the Gates of the Mountains Boat Club.
When we arrived the area was covered with a deep fog, making it impossible to see across Upper Holter Lake to the canyon, so we navigated along the west shore.
Once in the canyon the fog lifted and we could see these inspiring cliffs clearly.
Our plan was to go just a bit north of the campground and get on top of the limestone ridge.
Sacajawea peak is a narrow ridgeline of broken limestone cliffs and spires that snakes its way back from the river some 3-miles to the tallest spire.
The higher we went the better the scenery. We could see the river receding below us, cutting its way through the canyon. In front of us the ridgeline was serpentine, rising steeply.
We often had to get off the ridge itself because it was so broken and precipitous and followed a rule of thumb to “go to the left” (north) when in doubt. The ridge drops more than 500 feet in spots to the south.
As we climbed higher the Meriwether Canyon came into better view, along with Willow Mountain and Mann Gulch behind it.
We had set out to climb nearby Cap Mountain as well, but with the short October day, thought better of it and returned quickly down south facing scree slopes to the bottom and out.
The top of the mountain offered stupendous views: the high peaks and canyons of the Gates to the North. To the east there was the Helena National Forest, dominated by Hogback Mountain. To the south and west were the Elkhorns, East Helena, Helena and the Continental Divide country and ultimately the Rocky Mountain Front. We could see the Sleeping Giant and the great oxbow of the Missouri below it.
The drive to the take-out is just over an hour. At this time of year the motorized boats are mostly out of the water (although we did see a couple) and it’s open to the canoeists.
This is a must-do fall trip, if only to enjoy the canoeing.

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