Sunday, July 29, 2007

Hanging out in the Hanging Valley

Mark Hertenstein "stems" his way

The Hanging Valley Overlook

Limestone caves and crevices
First off, the fires are everywhere around you.
It makes planning a hike almost impossible.
One must study the forecasts, temperatures and wind directions before venturing out. You don’t want to be smothered in smoke, which seems to blanket Great Falls daily.
Originally, we thought we might try Holland Peak, the highest point in the Swan Range. The fires at Polson, in the Bob Marshall, and forecasts of more than 97 degrees there nixed that.
So, we thought we might try the Hanging Valley hike in the Big Belt Mountains of the Helena National Forest instead.
Just as we settled on that the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area fire blew up.
Luck was with us, though, and the wind pushed the fire out of the way of our planned hike.
This 12-mile hike is marked by extreme limestone walls and caverns at its turn around point. It is an up and back hike.
I need to warn you that you climb 2,000 feet, drop 1,000 feet, and then have to regain that 1,000 feet. Better be in great shape, and carry plenty of water.
We were fortunate to have clear visibility most of the day despite the fire to our east. It never got too hot, either.
The trail begins within in the Vigilante Campground, six miles outside the community of York, which is 20 miles from Helena, deep within the forest. For those of you coming from Great Falls, take the Lincoln Highway to Lake Helena, and at the Hauser Lake turn go in the opposite direction. Look for Deal Lane that takes you over a ridge to the York Road.
The trail climbs steadily for most of 4.5 miles and drops steeply for the remaining 1.5 miles.
The final mile on the “out” route is in the limestone canyon and is breathtaking --- worth all the elevation gain. At the very end of the canyon is an overlook, which requires a scramble down a piece of limestone, but nothing that a couple of hikers helping one another couldn’t do together.
The overlook peers down into another limestone canyon some 2,000 feet below.
You can see why the Forest Service has fenced this overlook to prevent some fatal accident.
After soaking in the views, we played in the adjacent limestone and scrambled toward the ridge top.
Driving home we stopped to view the Gates fire as it was blowing up as winds fanned it.
Gates of the Mountains fire blowing up

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