Monday, April 23, 2012

Crown Butte as summer arrives early

Jim Heckel on the point with Square Butte on the horizon

Katie and Pam Smith in the tall grass with the Front as a backdrop

Some of the many gendarmes on the butte
It is only April 22 and it was 82 degrees.  It had been in the 70s the day before.
It is dry and the wind has finally calmed down after a winter of continuous bluster.
There's still some snow in the high country.  The Rocky Mountain Front is frosted with white.
But, I just didn't feel like skiing.
And, the trails in the high country aren't ready yet for hiking.
So we did the next best thing and hit Crown Butte, the Nature Conservancy's volcanic remnant preserve about 35 miles west of Great Falls between Simms and Cascade.
Crown Butte between Cascade and Simms.
It rises about 1,000 feet above the surrounding plains with its colorful volcanic buttresses guarding ungrazed prairie grass on top.
There are occasional outcroppings and a few trees.
But the main attraction is in walking the perimeter of this gorgeous outcropping.
The butte is the result of fractures in the prairie where magma squirted out of a nearby volcano and stacked itself.
We were all fascinated by the mortar-like layers in the stacked rocks that looked as if a mason had carefully bound the rocks with a cement.  Jim Heckel, who was on the hike did some research and discovered the effect is caused by  "successive layers of magna. The lighter material between layers probably was a separation of less dense material after each layer was formed."
The spires of the rock wall around the butte are colored bright green by lichen.  We mused about down-climbing openings in the wall in one spot and ascending through others.
The virgin grass on the butte's rolling top was a tawny buff color because it hadn't begun to green yet.  However, we found yellow bells, phlox and even bright purple shooting star wildflowers in the white/gold grass.
The views from the top are amazing.  Close by are other buttes like Square Butte, a landmark made famous by cowboy artist Charlie Russell or Birdtail near St. Peter's Mission.  The Rocky Mountain Front with the 9,000 feet plus  Rocky Mountain Peak was trimmed in snow.
The Adels, Little and Big Belt mountain ranges to the south and east had yet to shed their snowy mantels.
We were very cautious about snakes and didn't see any.
But the ticks were out in profusion and I even found one when I got back home.
This summer-like weather can't last; or if it does we're in for a big fire season.

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