Friday, May 14, 2021

Lime Gulch ridge walk

 Lime Gulch is a gorgeous, if often ignored Rocky Mountain Front destination.

It is located just up the Willow-Beaver Creek Road from the Girl Scouts' Camp Scoutana.

There's a well-marked trailhead sign for Trail No. 267 on the Helena Lewis and Clark National Forest.

We wound up there on Wednesday because we were looking for a place to hike on the Front after a major snowstorm.  I figured with its south and west facing slopes it would have scant snow, and that turned out to be the case.

While I have made several other trips to this gulch, it had been 16 years since I last walked the high ridge flanking the east side of it.

I didn't remember much about that trip, taken during an extremely open 2005 winter day in February.

What was interesting about our hike Wednesday was the ease with which we could reach the ridge line, and a discovery (for me) that there is another wonderful trail that travels above the bottom-hugging Lime Gulch Trail.

We parked at the trailhead and walked roughly half of a mile to where the trail turns north up the gulch.  Instead of following it, we continued toward that east ridge and after jumping across a small stream found a good path that zig-zagged to the top of the ridge, just opposite the McCarty Hill cliffs.

It was about a mile and a 600 feet elevation gain to the ridge line.

The views on this open hike were immediately remarkable --- of McCarty, the wall on the west side of Lime Gulch and Fairview Mountain beyond.

The long walk across the top of the ridge was typical Sawtooth Range hiking, jumbled limestone. 

There's still good snow in the Scapegoat and Bob Marshall wilderness areas, which are visible from this ridge.  We were also entertained by views of mountains like Castle Reef and Sawtooth, from aspects to which we aren't accustomed.

We hit small patches of snow.  At one of them near our lunch stop we noticed numerous grizzly bear tracks.  We practiced our bear spray quick draw at this point.

We walked north along the entire ridge, descending steeply to the Cut Reef trail, which connects to the Lime Gulch Trail.

We crossed a large snow field and my inclination was to head straight down the gulch along the bottom as I've done on other occasions.  My partners had other ideas, spying a high and well used trail above that which weaves in out of the trees and through snow patches. We found snowshoe tracks.

We followed the trail all the way out to where it joined the creek bottom not far from the trailhead.  It is not marked and you wouldn't know it was there, unlike the trail that runs up Lime Gulch bottom.

I'd have to say that I liked this high trail better than the 267 bottom trail.  I suspect it is an old hunter's trail that the Forest Service is not maintaining.

With the discovery of the good trail up the east ridge and the high trail above Lime Gulch this trip was a great exploratory venture.

My GPS showed an 8.1 miles hike with a gain and loss of more than 2,500 feet of elevation. Our high point was 7,485 feet, although Mark Hertenstein recorded 7,500 feet on his GPS.

Gordon Whirry imposed our route in purple over an earlier hike up Trail 267 in black to show the relationship of the upper and lower Lime Gulch Trails

My GPS recording of the trip

Saturday, May 08, 2021

Warm weather arrives: Pioneer Ridge loop; both sides of Rogers Pass

Rodgers Peak looking south

Red Mountain, high point in Bob Marshall complex

A Pasqueflower in a Douglasia bloom

The first of the glacier lilies

Old friends Gene and Linda Sentz

 Glacier lilies are a sure harbinger of good hiking weather and they were out Thursday as I tested myself by hiking to the ridge lines on both sides of Rogers Pass on the Continental Divide Trail.

On Tuesday I did a similar hike, this time a favorite loop in the Little Belts from the Pioneer Ridge starting near the Belt Creek Ranger Station.

They are roughly similar in distance and elevation gain.

The Little Belts have more snow, particularly on north-facing slopes.

There are more flowers at Rogers Pass,

Both are hikes which I use to tone my conditioning.

At Rogers Pass park the car at the pass sign near the stair steps.  Look across the road and a little to the left and you'll see a snowmelt stream.  There's a prominent ridgeline to the left of the stream.  Start up steeply.  There are quite a few deadfalls for the first couple hundred yards, but they give way to grass and rock which you can follow all the way to the top of Rodgers Peak, some 1,500 feet and 1.15 miles above you.  There are two patches of trees beyond the deadfall, but it is easy to work your way through them.  I chose this route because it was clear of snow, while the Continental Divide Trail is still covered. The payoff are exceptional 360 degree views.  Mount Powell, the highest point in the Flint Creek Range is visible to the southwest above Deer Lodge; west, Red Mountain, the highest peak in the Scapegoat and Bob Marshall complex raises its snow-covered flanks to 9,411 feet. There were displays of Douglasia alpine flowers, as well as Pasque flower. It took me just under an hour to the top without pushing it, but I was also practicing a new breathing technique that distracted me.  I've been reading John Nestor's, "Breath," about avoiding mouth-breathing, and found sucking air and exhaling through the nostrils very difficult.

Once back at the pass, the stair-steps lead to the Continental Divide Trail.  I had spied this trail to the ridgeline from Rodgers Peak and figured a route around the snow.  The trail is covered with it.  At a bend in the designated trail just above the large, colorful outcropping, I left the trail and entered the grass, which I stayed in to the ridge. While still on the trail I was treated to an encounter with Linda Sentz, who was photographing flowers.  Her husband, Gene, was above her sitting on the higher outcropping above the grass, enjoying the views.  It was a delight to visit with these Choteau hikers.  There were also lots of wildflowers out on this side of the pass, including the beginnings of a glacier lily bloom, a real treat to the eyes.

There weren't nearly as many flowers out on my Little Belts hike, one of my favorites when I don't have much time.  There is a lot of deadfall here, too, particularly on the first quarter-mile of the Pioneer Ridge Trail and on the abandoned Forest Service Trail atop the ridgeline.  There was a ton of snow below that ridgeline, which I skirted by staying on top.Combined, I had covered 4.1 miles and gained more than 2,100 feet.

Pioneer Ridge Loop

Rogers Pass ---- both sides


Sunday, May 02, 2021

Putting up the skis, Priest Butte, Mount Sentinel and Wagner Basin loop

Two curious bighorn rams didn't seem fazed by us in Wagner Basin

Gordon Whirry on Wagner Basin ridge line

The incomparable Castle Reef scenery

Bighorn ewes pose for us
My official 73rd birthday photo on Priest Butte

Exploring Priest Butte gullies

 It was a busy Spring week with my last ski of the season in the Little Belts to a Priest Butte hike above Freezout Lake on my 73rd birthday, followed by a drive to Missoula for my annual climb of Mount Sentinel, to a spectacular Wagner Basin loop hike in the Sun River Canyon where we saw some 30 bighorn sheep and alpine wildflower displays.

There was new snow in the Little Belts up high on April 26, but it was wet and heavy, making tele turns tough.  I called it quits after climbing up the Golden Goose run.

My last ski of the season on heavy, wet snow on Showdown

It was the second time I've done Priest Butte this Spring, this time led by my wife, Katie, for Wayne's Wednesday Walks.  Our small group of five enjoyed the 360 degree views under sunny skies and a breeze. It was Wayne Phillips' first time up this landmark and he loved the hoodoos, the fossilized dinosaur tracks, the rocks left by the Indigenous people pointing toward the distant Sweetgrass Hills to the north and east, and the snowcapped mountains of the Rocky Mountain Front.   

After this short hike, Katie took three of the group for a scramble up McCarty Hill near the old Scoutana Girl Scout camp, and I had to return for a doctor's visit.  I've been struggling with tired and heavy legs that the doctor diagnosed as vein disease and then fitted me with high compression socks as a stop-gap.

This is a worrisome development.  I have no problem when I stay act and walk, hike, ski or climb, but the legs ache and my ankles feel like there are weights tied to them when I'm not active.

We drove to Missoula on April 29 where I tried out those new compression socks and climbed Mount Sentinel, something I do every year.  We had a beautiful spring day, saw a few alpine flowers and the traffic on the mountain was light.

The highlight of the week had to be the 4.5 miles, 1,450 elevation gain Wagner Basin loop in the Sun River Canyon.  The weather was perfect, with blue skies, temperatures in the 50s and a breeze.

This canyon offers some of the best scenery in the Rocky Mountain Front outside Augusta, where the translucent, emerald Sun River comes of the mountains onto the Great Plains between two of the iconic Front peaks ---- Sawtooth and Castle Reef.

A series of parallel gulches come into the Sun at 90 degree angles.  The Sun is blocked by the Gibson Dam, that creates a giant reservoir.  The Bob Marshall Wilderness lies beyond.

It is an area rich in wildlife.  We were privileged to see some 30 bighorn sheep or so on our hike --- 14 rams, some in full curl in one group, and two separate groups of ewes and youngsters.  They seemed very tolerant of our presence and we were able to spend considerable time shooting photos.

The alpine flowers made quite a show, particularly the purple Douglasia and Yellowstone draba.  There were shooting stars, and Pasque flowers. 

Warning:  the ticks are out.  I picked up four.

Friday, April 23, 2021

First road trip since Pandemic: (nearly) border to border

The Saguaro was in full bloom
Red was the dominant rock color
Katie atop Wassen Peak, high point of Tucson Range in Saguaro National Park

Prickly Pear blooms brightened the desert

Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River in Glen Canyon near Page, AZ

Cholla blooming in the desert

Red Rocks in precarious perching

Hopi cliff dwellings in Walnut Canyon east of Flagstaff

 We hadn't had a real road trip since October 2019, pre-pandemic, when we got in a terrible car wreck in Minneapolis.

Yes, there have been numerous hiking and backpack excursions, totally distanced and locked down, since then as Covid-19 did its number.

Because we were fully vaccinated and fully stir crazy we thought a trip to visit grandchild in Salt Lake City and Katie's  (vaccinated ) parents vacationing in Tucson, would be in order.

We spent nine-days and drove 2,800 miles that took us border to border (Canada to Mexico) and through some startlingly spectacular desert that displayed her spring flowers.

In Tucson we explored the East and West units of the Saguaro National Park, climbing the Tucson Range high point --- Mount Wassen, and driving the Mount Lemmon scenic drive in the Catalina Mountains to witness the ecological zones beginning at the bottom in the Sonoran Desert and ending on top in a Doug Fir forest and past a ski resort in cool shade above a scorching ground level.

The saguaro and numerous other cacti were in spring bloom in all spots.

We stayed in a deserted winter vacation enclave.  Temperatures were a perfect mid-80s during the day while it snowed in Great Falls.  Our timing couldn't have been better.

Between southern Utah and Arizona there is just too much to see ---- national parks and monuments, Indian reservations and scenic byways through mountain ranges and desert.

We stopped at Walnut Canyon east of Flagstaff for  look at the ancient cave dwellings, and spent some time in the Page, AZ area to hike to the Horseshoe Bend Overlook on the Colorado River.

I was shocked to see the deep poverty of the Navajo people, living in this harsh, isolated land.

Our timing was perfect ---- there were spring blooms and very few tourists.

Witnessing the brilliant red bluffs and slot canyons of the Staircase Escalante Monument we were aghast that former President Trump could have taken away a third of the Monument protected status to promote coal development.

We drove between the Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryse National Parks and numerous and amazing other public lands.

The stark nature of the desert, and the striking red cliffs were exciting to see.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Wayne's walk on River Trail: Morony to Box Elder and back

This cascade comes off an unnamed warm spring a half mile from the Morony parking lot

A tributary comes into the Missouri River at a cliffy bend

Wayne Phillips, our group leader, is ever the teacher on these trips.

There were lots of yellow bells (fritilary) in bloom

Our lunch spot, turnaround at the Box Elder Canyon overlook

 With two consecutive weeks it looks like Wayne's (Philllips)Wednesday Walks is back in the groove after a year's Covid pandemic hiatus.

Last week at Holter there were just three of us.  This week there were nine (and three dogs) who made the trek on River's Edge Trail from the Morony Parking Lot to the overlook across the river from the Box Elder Creek Canyon.

While windy, the sun shone brightly and the sky was blue.

We came across four different wildflowers in bloom:  biscuitroot, phlox, sweet pea, and fritilary (yellow bell).  Only Gordon Whirry found a tick.

The ground is starting to green up, a sure sign of spring.

This was a 6-mile trek round trip.


Monday, April 05, 2021

A peek (and peak) at the Little Rockies


The ghost town at Zortman, the foot of the Little Rockies

Pegasus Mining Company stripped off the mountain top, polluted the waters and abandoned its mine

Old Scraggy Peak, a prominent and logical mountain to climb

A shout out to Rod Benson and his excellent Big Sky Walker blog for interesting me in the Little Rockies Mountain Range located south of Malta.

With social-distancing and CDC advice against travel, we spent Easter Sunday on a 450-miles road trip to visit this island range because of Benson's hiking posts there.

He is a teacher in Hays, doing an encore there after retiring as an environmental studies teacher in 2019 from the Helena Public Schools after 37 years.  He's originally from Harlem and knows this range.

I had been in Hays about 20 years ago and didn't remember much about it.

I had never been to Zortman, which is the site of the remains of the disastrous Pegasus Mine, which the company walked away from, leaving polluted waters and toxic mine waste and tailings in this range, which is sacred to the Fort Belknap's Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes.

Our trip there was timely because the tribes recently brought suit against the state for permitting an assessment of mining potential in the area.

We drove to Zortman by way of Lewistown, and north from the Fred Robinson Bridge over the Missouri River.  This is a spectacular Central Montana road trip that from Great Falls passes by the Little Belt and Highwood Mountains with the Mocassins, Bears Paw, and Judith ranges in site and across the Missouri River National Monument breaks country.

I had never set foot in the Little Rockies and doing so Easter Sunday meant I had hiked in all of Montana's isolated island ranges now.

Because of the long drive we didn't spend much time.  We drove around the town that has a general store and a bar and some run down residences.  Then we drove to the nearby Camp Creek BLM campground and walked up a road that climbed a ridge pointed directly at Mount Scraggy, a prominent peak (5,708 feet) in the range that offers views of the mine and other mountain ranges. The campground is very nice.  Nearby Antoine Butte (5,731 feet) is the range high point.

We walked for about a half-hour and decided to see Hays, and Lodgepole, which gave us good looks at the limestone walls that flank the mountain range that Benson has written about extensively in his blog.

Then it was up to U.S. 2 and Harlem, Chinook, Havre, Fort Benton and home.

It was a splendid, if tiring trip.

We'll return.

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Alternating hiking and ski trips (10 days worth)


Wayne Phillips above Holter Lake in Big Belt Mountains

Skiing along O'Brien Creek in Little Belt Mountains

Katie at Two Medicine Lake in Glacier

The past 10 days I've whipsawed between exceptional Winter and Spring backcountry hiking and ski  trips:

  • A hike into Glacier Park's Two Medicine Lake after watching the migrating snow geese and tundra swans at Freezout Lake
  • A quick day trip to Showdown Ski Area in the Little Belts to take advantage of the exceptional snow --- 18 inches of powder in a week --- to yo-yo telemark turns on empty mid-week runs
  • An 11-mile backcountry ski trip in the Little Belts where we linked the 747 loop with the O'Brien Creek trail
  • A loop hike in the Big Belt Mountains above Holter Lake from Juniper Bay to Log Gulch and back with a quick run up the high point

The snow geese have been exceptional at Freezout and we've taken five trips there to see the magnificent spectacle of them rising from the ponds and into the air.  There's hardly a better wildlife show in Montana than this annual spring migration event.

We were unsure just how far we could go on the Two Med Road and were delighted to find we could hike all the way to the lake.  The road was clear to Running Eagle (Trick) Falls, and icy and somewhat snow-covered to the lakes.  It is an 8-mile hike round trip.  We were joined by our friend Lauri Lintner of East Glacier Park, who bicycled against the wind to join us at the falls, where she stashed her bike and hiked with us to the lake. I was excited to see Two Med, closed off last year because of the Blackfeet/Park Service Covid closure.  I don't remember another year in my 48 years here when I haven't gone to Two Med, my favorite valley in Glacier Park. We bucked a really high wind to Trick Falls, which abated.  There was plentiful snow near the lake.  In normal years we ski to the lake.

The 11-mile 747-O'Brien loop was probably the best backcountry ski trip of the season.  I've never had better snow consistently throughout this ski. Because of Covid last year I didn't do the annual O'Brien Creek trip (because I wouldn't get in anyone else's car in this point-to-point).   Because I'm fully vaccinated, as is Gordon Whirry, who with Jasmine Krotkov accompanied me on this trip, Gordon and I could travel together.

The following day Wayne Phillips, 79, revived his Wednesday Wayne's Walks after a year's Covid break, and three of us did the Juniper-Log Gulch loop near Holter Lake in the Big Belt Mountains.  There was just a hint of snow on north facing slopes, a big contrast to what we found in the Little Belts.  It was terrific to be around a Wayne hiking group again after its hiatus. Besides dandelions the only wildflower we saw blooming was one biscuitroot.  The scenery in this area, above this Missouri River reservoir, adjacent to the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area, Beartooth Game Range, and the Sleeping Giant mountain, is outstanding.  The hike is roughly 5-miles with more than 1,000 feet of elevation gained. 

Friday, March 19, 2021

A spectacular way to usher out winter

The Freezout Lake sun rise

Snow geese gathering for a grain field feed en route on their migration south

Katie, Camille and Mike on top the grassy Scratchgravel Hills peak

Katie at an interpretive sign at Glacier National Park

Migrating geese and swans headed for the grain fields

We ushered out the season of Winter in spectacular fashion, climbing the grassy peak in the Scratchgravel Hills near Helena on Wednesday, walking the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier Park from St. Mary's on Thursday, and viewing the annual migration of snow geese and swans at Freezout Lake Friday.

It had only been six weeks since we did the Scratchgravel hike, but we wanted to repeat it to share with our friends Mike Dannels and Camille Consolvo.  There were some really icy patches in the shaded gullies we had to gingerly tread.   But otherwise, the 360 views of the Helena Valley, Elkhorn and Big Belt Mountains and Continental Divide country makes this short hike something worth doing.  It is a good alternative to Mount Helena, which at times can be overrun with people.

The East Side of Glacier Park had been closed since March last year when the Covid pandemic hit because the Blackfeet shut down the reservation, and thus the park's access points at East Glacier Park, Cut Bank Creek, St. Mary, Many Glacier and Chief Mountain.  

When the Blackfeet announced the reservation was reopened, Katie and I knew we had to hit that side of the park, our favorite side.

We walked 2.5 miles up the road to where shadows had prevented the snow from melting, had lunch and turned around.   We encountered a half-dozen other hikers.

We spotted about a half-dozen mountain bluebirds, and saw bear sign on the road.  It was a glorious day, and it felt so good to be back on the east side.

On the way up to the park we noticed that there were many snow geese and swans on Freezout Lake, and that's why we headed up early Friday morning to see the birds lift of the lake and head for the grain fields.

I must admit that although this is one of the great annual natural Montana spectacles, I was equally wowed by the colorful sun rise.