Sunday, September 13, 2020

California-Oregon smoke arrives; smoky Marias Pass, Pilgrim Creek


The ground cover was in its autumnal glory

With the thick smoke from the historic California and Oregon fires arriving here, I've scaled back my hiking and am going day-to-day, taking trips on the spur of the moment.

Such was the case last week with a trip to Pilgrim Creek in the Little Belts near Monarch one afternoon, and exploring the Continental Divide Trail and a connector from Marias Pass.

It was hot and hazy, but they were good trips.

CDT from Marias Pass

Katie making her way over the plentiful deadfall

A typical section of the Elk Calf Mountain trail

A fork of Pike Creek
Brilliant mountain ash berries

The final part of the hike

It had been 15 years since I was in the area.  Lots has happened since then, including a ban on motorized travel into the Badger from the Pass.  Then, the "trail" (133) was a mess from abuse by Off Road Vehicles, motorcycles and horses.  It has undergone a dramatic transformation.  Yes, the first three-quarters of a mile are still a wide, dirt mess, but after that it cinches down to a real footpath delivering the hiker to a wild country experience.
There are outstanding views all the way of the big three mountains in Glacier National Park to the north:  Elk, Little Dog and Summit.  Elk Calf and Flattop are the most prominent peaks in this part of the Badger Two Medicine area.
There are a couple of loop options on the CDT from Marias Pass.  
There's the Elk Calf Mountain-Pike Road loop, and the much longer  Elk Calf-South Fork Two Medicine Loop.
We took the former, a 6.5 mile loop.
The alternative is to connect the Elk Calf Trail with the South Fork Trail for about twice the distance and nine crossings of the river.
The CDT trail starts at the east end of the Summit Campground at the pass.  It looks like a giant right of way has been cut across it, and at one point crosses an oil pipeline right of way.  There are a lot of trees that have been cut to accommodate this, but vegetation is quickly taking over.  I suspect this trail had been a road for oil and gas exploration, logging, cattle grazing and fire line.  Now, it's main users are CDT travelers at the beginning or end of their long jaunt.
At two-miles there is the Elk Calf junction, Trail 137, where the trail enters thick forest where the trail is covered with hard to negotiate deadfall.  We climbed over countless trees on this 1.8 mile section.  It was tough going.  I would think most CDT hikers would avoid this route at any cost, opting for the lower South Fork trail as a route instead, despite its many stream crossings.
The only compensations were bountiful, ripe huckleberries, which we ate by the handful, and the riotous reds, yellows, and oranges groundcover, changed overnight by oncoming autumn chill.  The mountain ash's bright orange and orange-red berries were everywhere.
This area is regenerating nicely from what I think to have been the Challenge Creek Fire that jumped the divide in 2007.
The connector Trail 134 is only .8 of a mile and goes through dense grasses and timber.
It empties out onto the Pike Creek Road, about two miles above Marias Pass.  We cut the distance by finding an unofficial game/hiker's trail that led right back to the campground.
I'll return this winter to ski some of this country, hoping the Forest Service will cut out the deadfalls so we can make a loop out of it more easily.

A quick Pilgrim Creek hike

Limestone spires and cliffs above the trail
A glimpse of Belt Creek near the mouth of Pilgrim Creek

Where Pilgrim Creek empties into Belt Creek

This is one of the many Little Belt Mountain Range's gem hikes.
At 45 miles from my door, the hike is less than 3 miles round trip, but with a 466 feet elevation gain and loss, and super-spectacular limestone cliff scenery above sparkling, translucent emerald streams.
I hadn't done this wonderful hike in quite a number of years and I wasn't aware that a trail had been built from the Belt Creek Bridge at Logging Creek to the original trailhead 1.5 miles above on a bend of the Logging Creek Road.
I always struggle with the best way to get to the trailhead.
The shortest way is to take U.S. 89 to the Logging Creek Road before the highway descends toward Monarch.  It is about 6.5 miles to the high trailhead parking area, 8 miles to the bridge over Belt Creek.
However, there's a two mile stretch of it that is sometimes one-track with pullouts and rutted and pocked with rock.  It takes about 25 minutes to do this route.
The easier drive is via the Stockett-Sand Coulee or Riceville roads, but involves many more miles of very dusty road.
I chose the high, rocky, narrow route.
I parked at the high trailhead, which immediately travels below high, limestone cliffs and spires and a forest interspersed with tall Ponderosa and Douglas fir trees.  There are occasional glimpses of Belt Creek and the Pilgrim Creek valley nearly 500 feet below.
I decided to turn around at Belt Creek, opting not to cross.
There is a great trail that runs up Pilgrim Creek, all the way to its source off the Divide Road.
Maybe another time.

No comments: