Thursday, March 05, 2020

Priest Butte: historic, scenic, easy

To the top on a ladder 
The middle cross was a casualty of wind and rust

The easy route to the top 
The walk across the top

Anyone who has traveled between Fairfield and Choteau can't help notice Priest Butte adjacent to the north of Freezout Lake.  It's the one with the three large, white crosses on top.
Normally I would still be skiing at this time of year, but very mild weather and lots of wind have opened this landmark to hiking.
I've driven by it on U.S. 89 hundreds of times on the way to the Front and Glacier Park, but never stopped until Thursday.
Katie was taking her "girls" for a trek there and didn't mind that I would tag along.
The backdrop for this butte is the snowcapped  Rocky Mountain Front, although the Sweegrass Hills, Little and Big Belt mountain ranges, the Highwoods, and the Continental Divide country are all in view.
Historically, bison grazed it, there are hardened dinosaur prints on its top, the Blackfeet used it for vision quests,  and in 1859 Jesuit priests built a log cabin at its base in an effort to evangelize that Indian tribe.  They didn't last, leaving in 1860.
As State Land, it is open to the public through a latched gate.
The butte, unlike those between Cascade and Simms which are volcanic, is a sandstone.
There are four prominent tops that are easy to reach across open, grassy slopes that are grazed by cattle.
We climbed all four under the direction of Dave Shea, 80, a retired Glacier Park ranger who lives in Choteau and is an expert on native plants, wildlife (especially snakes) and the history of this spot that he frequents. We were also hosted by Linda Sentz of Choteau.
This being winter, the snakes were in their dens, but Shea showed us spots where they come out to shed their skins and we saw several hanging in the vegetation.
From the parking area it is an easy 500+ feet walk up.
There was a surprise on the north butte high point, a wooden ladder, Shea said the Choteau Jaycees had put up a decade ago.
On top we saw that the wind had recently blown down the middle cross, which had rusted away at its base.
We also spied a bald eagle soaring on the thermals.
The walk across the top from north to south offered interesting sandstone hoodoos, great overlooks, ravines, and views of Priest and Freezout lakes.
The 2.1 mile roundtrip walk was easy, the climb only about 700 feet.
On the way out we passed Freezout Lake, where the early migrating Arctic swans, and snow geese were arriving.  In one spot there were seven eagles standing on the ice assessing dinner possibilties.
We had left Great Falls at 8 a.m., and were back at exactly noon, with plenty of visiting and a leisurely pace.

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