Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Highwoods in late fall

Nancy Dow on top Windy Point in Highwoods

A rocky outcropping

The open ridge line
My goal was the simple 12-mile Thane-Briggs-North Fork Highwood creeks loop and a climb of Windy Mountain (elevation: 5,998 feet). This is one of the classic easy climbs in the Great Falls area.
We accessed the trail from near the Thane Creek Campground, a 36 miles drive from town.
The campground has been closed since June after a flood ripped through it. From the looks of it, it will remain closed next year as well. Not much has been cleaned up.
The trail climbs about 1,000 feet to a ridgeline to access Windy Mountain.
Instead of following the trail, when we got about 300 feet below the Windy Mountain ridgeline, we went for a break in the ridge and climbed the mountain from its heavily timbered, and very steep north side, walking across the top of the rock to the summit.
After dropping off the top we took 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 we 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. We walked back to the car down the North Fork Road.
The ridgeline offers spectacular views of Arrow and Highwood Baldy peaks, the two highest mountains in this isolated, volcanic mountain range.
This is hunting season, but we saw no hunters on our trip, although there were a couple of vehicles parked at the North Fork trailhead.
It is always troubling to walk these open ridges in the Highwoods, a mountain range that is captive to the cattle industry.
I find it remarkable that the closest mountain range to one of Montana’s urban centers isn’t friendlier to hikers.
Yes, the trails are there. They’re quite nice, too.
But, you have to pick your hiking season carefully or you’ll be knee deep in cow manure or worrying that some hunter will mistake you for an elk.
That means getting into this range by mid-May when the snow melts and it starts to green up and before July 1 when the cattle come in.
Then you wait until October when the cattle come out, and you compete with bow and rifle hunters until the snow makes the area impassable again.
I don’t think it would take much to stir Great Falls recreationists to demand back this public land from the subsidized grazers.

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