Sunday, June 17, 2007

A day hike across the Big Snowy Mountains

At the beginning of the hike

A great view of the ridge-walk and mountains to be climbed

Mark Hertenstein above Swimming Woman basin
I have to count this as one of my most successful hiking weeks.
How could it not be? Two trips into the Highwoods, one into the Front, another into the Little Belts, and everything topped off by a walk across the long ridge in the Big Snowy Mountains near Lewistown.
The 21 mile walk across the Snowies has been a goal of mine for more than 30 years.
I had always assumed that the best way to do it was in a 2 or 3 day backpack trip, as many of my friends had done.
Then, last year fellow Glacier Mountaineer Tram Stout of Lewistown reported that he had walked across in a day hike. I knew it could be done.
In the interest of full disclosure, I'm 59. Mark Hertenstein, who accompanied me is 53. I was mobile enough the day following the trans-Snowies hike to do the Center Ridge-North Highwood Creek, 6.5 miles loop in the Highwoods.
For the Great Falls hiker the Snowies hike involves a 300 mile commute to post cars at the Crystal Lake Campground starting point on the east and the Half Moon Creek Trailhead finishing point on the west. It is 125 miles to the Half Moon trailhead and about as far to Crystal Lake; but, you have to hit both twice on this traverse.
Point-to-point, if you trust the trail signs, the hike is 20 miles. The elevation gain, without the ups and downs is roughly 2,400 feet. We threw in a small sidetrip to climb Greathouse Peak, the highest point in the Snowies at 8,681 feet, which added some distance and some elevation.
Then throw in some walking on sidetrips, as we did. Because of deep snow on the north-facing slopes up from Crystal Lake to the ridge, we lost our way for about a half-hour and wandered around, adding distance. You’ll also want to explore some outcrops, caves and sidehills along the way, which puts on miles.
You’re walking at about 8,000-8,400 feet all the way along the ridgeline ---- some 10-11 miles. These are some of the most glorious ridge-miles in Montana.
In addition to the canyons that come in from the south, like Swimming Woman, or from the north, like the Cottonwood forks, there are the northern vistas that include the Highwoods, Moccasins, Judith, and Bearspaw mountains, and the southern vistas like the Crazies and all the way to the Beartooths on clear days.
The range is located in the dead-center of the state, rising more than 5,000 feet from the valley floor.
It is such a scenic and special place that it is being studied for inclusion in the national wilderness system.
Why it isn’t in the system already is mystifying.
It is remote, undeveloped and as scenic as any ridgeline could be.
In addition to the east-west Trail 493 route, Crystal Lake Campground is the trailhead for such sights and hikes as the Ice Caves and Lake to Grandview Point loop, and the Crystal Cascades spring. The 7-mile hike (one way) to Half Moon Pass up Half Moon Creek, which was at the end of our hike, is worthwhile itself. The trail passes back and forth across the creek lined by high limestone canyon walls, and ascends into lush elk meadows and the pass between Greathouse and Baldy peaks.
To begin the hike, pick up the trailhead at the Crystal Lake Campground. It’s Trail 493. It rises steeply, gaining 2,000 feet over about 3 miles to the ridgeline, where things flatten out and then rolls up and down in 200-400 foot increments for the next 10 miles.
We got mired in snow just below the ridgeline. I had always heard that lost hikers retrace their steps, but never had any evidence this is true until we wandered around in the snow on this hike and came across our own footprints. At that point we pulled out a compass to guide us through the white stuff.
Once on top, the going was generally clear, with the bare top marked by limestone cairns, some of them more than 6 feet tall!
We could pick out our route by following these cairns, although there were more trail marker signs than I’m used to in wilderness. We found ourselves questioning the math on some of the signs, but they were useful to find trail intersections.
The ridge snaked its way miles in front of us, with ridges coming in from the north and south.
While we were not disappointed by Swimming Woman Canyon that had once been the center of controversy over proposed oil and gas well drilling, we were most impressed by the beauty of Careless Creek and Cottonwood Creek drainages.
We were fortunate that the day was cool, and there was some cloud cover.
The ridge is mostly treeless, and I can imagine unlucky hikers enduring the direct exposure of a hot sun bearing down on them on a clear day. It is important to take water along because there is no water on top other than snow patches.
Wildflowers were abundant along the way. We were most impressed by the limestone-loving alpine Jones Columbine.
When I saw that we had to hike a stretch called “Knife Ridge,” just below Greathouse Peak, I was a bit apprehensive, thinking about some of the harrowing ridges I’ve been on in Glacier and the Front.
While narrower than the rest of the ridge, the Knife Ridge is a beautifully built trail with ample width.
At the bottom we found Greathouse irresistible, and followed a good side trail up to its top, about a 600 foot gain from the ridgeline.
We came down from the top to Half Moon Pass by way of an east ridge.
As was the case on the east side of the range, it was early to be on the west side. The trail hadn’t been cleared of windfall, and we had to negotiate many trees. Also, Half Moon Creek was bank full and raging and we had to cross it numerous times.
I’ve done the Half Moon portion in late August and don’t recall the creek being much of problem at that time.
However, cattle near the pass might be.
We found the hike a reasonable thing to do in a long day, particularly if like us, you no longer like to carry a heavy backpack for an overnight stay.
Either way, this is much too pretty and wild an area to be ignored.


nelledoor said...

Hi Tom
I really loved your description of this hike so I attempted a Half Moon Canyon to Crystal Lake on my birthday this year....July 5, 2011. You gave your age when you did this hike, so I'll tell you I turned 58 that day.
Half Moon Canyon was devastated last spring by slides and wakes about an extra hour.
The entire day was fabulous. I took off my pack and ran up to the top of Greathouse...came back down and walked along the top of the range...glorious. I arrived above Crystal Lake about 5:30 or so that afternoon and there was so much snow I could not even begin to locate the trail.
I spent the night on top of the Big Snowys...built a fire to dry my socks and ate more nuts and raisins...I had enough snack stuff to get by and even gave some to my dog...melted snow for water.
I let my husband know I wasn't going to be down by cell phone. We got our messages crossed because of lack of cell service, but he wasn't able to get into Crystal Lake because the road was washed out.
I even talked to the sheriff of Fergus County about 1:00 a.m. and I turned down all offers of rescue because I kind of liked it up there and was more than able to walk out the next morning. It was a double up of miles, but well worth it. I want to do it again, but go slower and camp. Do more exploring on top.

Out there with Tom said...

That sounds like a wonderful trip and thanks for sharing.
I was thinking about trying to ski up there this winter, but was uncertain about how close I could get on the road to Crystal Lake.
Can you tell me what I might encounter on a drive up there?