Sunday, April 16, 2006

Wagner Basin on a "shoulder season" day

One of several bighorn sheds we found

The sweep and grandeur of Castle Reef from Wagner Basin

A band of bighorns in the basin
It was the prototypical “shoulder season” day.
Although the forecast called for some mountain snow, it just wasn’t enough to grab the skis. What snow is there is hardpack-crusty, and spotty at best because of the 60 degree temperatures.
The same forecast also said it would probably rain down below, making a hiking choice iffy.
We cast our lot with hiking.
But, getting the perfect spot would be a game of chance.
Our first thought was the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area where I still need two named peaks ---- Cap and Sawtooth ---- to have climbed all the named peaks in that place.
We also considered Haystack Butte near Augusta, always an early season favorite.
As I surveyed the mountains on the way to my climbing partner’s house, I noticed I could see clearly to the Rocky Mountain Front. So….the forecast appeared to be wrong. There would be no rain or snow, at least early in the day.
So, after some procrastination, we decided it would be Haystack. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get through to rancher Tim Tew, who controls access to the mountain, which sits on private land.
We headed out anyway, and kept trying Tew by cell phone. Finally, we got ahold of him and he told us that he is in the process of getting liability waiver permits drawn up and they aren’t ready yet, so he couldn’t give permission for that day.
Mark Hertenstein beneath a jagged point

A large beaver dam spans an eddy of the Sun River
Disappointed, we continued to drive toward Augusta, looking over the snow conditions in the Front, half disappointed that we hadn’t brought snowshoes or skis.
We noticed the snow squall pattern in the Gibson Dam area and discovered that Castle Reef was pretty much free of snow on its southeast face.
Now we had a plan!
The wind was blowing pretty steady and hard, so we decided that instead of going to the top we would explore Wagner Basin below that southeast slope.
Wagner Basin is known for its large bighorn sheep population, beaver ponds, and splendid isolation at the foot of spectacular Castle Reef, which has 500 foot cliffs guarding its top.
Wagner Basin is the perfect kid hike. It’s an easy 10 minute, relatively flat hike into this vast, protected area.
To get there drive up the Sun Canyon Road past the Home Gulch Campground to Hannan Gulch, where there’s a bridge across the Sun River. Drive across the bridge and it’s about .3 of a mile to the road to the parking area. Take a right, drive .4 of a mile past summer cabins where Castle Reef rises abruptly. Park here. It is a 10-15 minute walk around the Castle Reef wall to the basin. Along the way you pass large beaver dams and a huge lodge.
The basin is ringed by the high walls and a couple of ridges coming off Castle Reef.
Immediately, a very climbable ridge leads to a low-point saddle on Castle Reef, an easy way to get to the summit ridge.
We decided to head for the base of the high cliffs, hoping to find an animal trail that would take us for a walk along the cliff-line.
We passed the first ridge, instead aiming for the highest cliffs we could find, which meant finding another ridge to the east.
We followed that ridge some 2,500 feet to the base of the cliffs at about 7,600 feet, about 700 feet below the summit.
The wind was really howling, and along the way we encountered some substantial snow patches that we post-holed through.
We also found a bighorn ram curl and his jawbone in the lower cliffs.
We worked our way up and down through the cliffs, all the time looking for an opening where we might find a way to the top. We couldn’t to the east, although to the west we were aware of a way.
Ultimately, snow and wind stopped us, but not before having a spectacular walk.
We paused in spots to admire grand views of the Great Plains, Highwoods, Big Belts and Adel mountain ranges. The Front held back the gathering storm clouds of a weather front. The Sun River snaked its way through the canyon.
All of this was backset by stunning, snow-capped Sawtooth peak ---- Castle Reef’s “match” on the south side of the River.
The walk down followed the ridge that ends at the Sun Canyon Road.
We also encountered a couple of bands of bighorn sheep and saw a couple of others from our high perch.
There were more than 100 sheep in those bands, the largest being more than 40.
Traversing back to the parking area we also stirred up some whitetail deer, including one that walked across the creek on a beaver dam.
It was the second week in a row where we enjoyed a spectacular, if unplanned shoulder season hike.

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