Thursday, May 19, 2022

A full week of hikes: Lionhead (again), Limekiln in Judiths, Windy Highwood, Falls Creek

Our Wayne's Wednesday Walks group gingerly descends Lionhead Butte north slope

Falls Creek is a truly wilderness water

Our Falls Creek lunch break

The main Falls Creek falls

 Hiking season appears to be in full swing.

In the past seven days we climbed Lionhead again, did the Limekiln loop in the Judith Mountains, went to the base of Windy Peak in the Highwoods, and hiked Falls Creek in the Rocky Mountain Front to the West Fork.

Things are greening up and emergent wildflowers are everywhere. And, the ticks are out on the Rocky Mountain Front.

Gosh, we live in a great place with amazing things to do in every direction.

These are all hikes I've done before, but I have to admit that I enjoyed the Falls Creek hike the best.  Maybe because I love the Front the best.

Grizzlies are obviously out.  We found a large, fresh scat pile on our Falls Creek hike.

It's dry everywhere.  We found clear, low streams, and in some places no water.  The Judith Mountains were particularly dry.

We stayed at the Pheasant Tales Bed and Bistro south of Lewistown off Spring Creek, our first bed and breakfast experience since Covid.  The rolling, green hills were a refreshing break from Great Falls and we were thoroughly entertained by Dr. Taylor and his wife who run the place in their retirement.

In addition to our Limekiln hike, we stopped at the new American Prairie headquarters in downtown Lewistown and were impressed with the displays at the museum.  They drove home the importance of the prairie ecosystem that revolves around the bison.  We could have spent the afternoon there.

On the way home, we took a circuitous route along the base of the Moccasin Mountains along U.S. 81.  We wanted to see the aftermath of fires that had swept through the Moccasins and destroyed a portion of the little town of Denton.

We were surprised to find a developed Warm Springs at the base of the Moccasins that we didn't know existed.  I'm not sure it is open right now.  It had suspended visitation during Covid.

Denton didn't look as bad as I expected.  The cleanup has been extensive.

On Lionhead we traversed the high point and our Wayne's Wednesday Walks group got a thrill negotiating a steep north face.  From the top we saw two elk.

The Highwoods are waking up, starting to show green, grassy slopes.  We saw our first arrowleaf balsamroot flowers of the year there.  We were surprised to find that metal bridges had been placed across the nine crossings of Thain Creek on the trail to Windy Peak. It made those crossings much more pleasant, although the creek was as low as I have ever seen it in the Spring.

Going out, we took the high, unofficial horse trail on Falls Creek that allowed us to bypass crossing the creek on the regular trail.  We stopped at the big falls coming and going, dropping down to the creek at Twin Buttes Creek where we stopped at a rocky glen for a break near rushing creek.  Going back we dropped to the creek not far from the other major waterfall, where we stopped for a look.  We saw our first glacier lilies of the year on this hike, as well as sugar bowls and clematis.  Lilac colored phlox lined the trail in many spots and there were Pasque flowers in profusion.  The whole area felt very wild.

Friday, May 06, 2022

Great Falls area buttes are a treasure

On the way up Shaw Butte

Walking the Shaw Butte ridgeline

The spike at the end of the Shaw Butte ridgeline we climbed

Gordon Whirry reaches the top of Lionhead Butte

Our lunch spot on the Lionhead "ramp" to the top

Great views of Birdtail Butte as we came off Lionhead

I think those of us in Great Falls take our magnificent scenery for granted, or downplay it when comparing it to the scenery in the Flathead or Gallatin.

That's too bad.

In this in-between season, the so-called "shoulder" between winter and summer, skiing and hiking, I've found right at my doorstep what could be considered national scenic treasures, our local buttes that dominate the landscape mostly west of Great Falls.

The most prominent is probably Square Butte (popularized by cowboy artist Charlie Russell).  The most hiked is probably Crown Butte (because of the access granted by the Nature Conservancy). Between these two is long and low-strung Shaw Butte.  East of Fort Shaw, Birdtail Butte and Lionhead Butte are hard to miss on the skyline.  There are numerous other buttes in the Birdtail-St. Peter's Mission areas, most on private land.

These buttes are volcanic remnants formed by tubes of lava flowing from an old volcano in the Adel portion of the Big Belt Mountains up through cracks in the earth.  These "dikes" have created long, craggy ridge lines.

This past week I climbed to the top of two of these buttes for the first time --- Lionhead (elevation: 5,051 feet) and Shaw (elevation: 4.541 feet) --- and been treated to thrilling views of the surrounding buttes, the Rocky Mountain Front and several "island" mountain ranges.  Both are reachable via the Birdtail Road just east of Fort Shaw.

Shaw Butte is normally open (with permission) from the adjacent Cascade Hutterite Colony.  There's block management hunting during the fall.

We went directly up from the Colony through some cliffs an then grass to the flat top, meeting a band of domestic sheep along the way.  To the north we could look down into a deep ravine and the ridge line above that climaxes in a pointed spire above a large gravel pit below.  

After enjoying the views from the top, we crossed over to that adjacent, serrated ridge and climbed the spire, before dropping back down to the gravel pit and over to the Colony.  Our hike was only 4.3 miles with an elevation gain and loss of 1,250 feet.

Shaw and Lionhead were dotted with emerging wildflowers, dominated by kitten tails, yellow bells, shooting stars and Pasque flowers.

We liked our Shaw Butte experience so well that two days later we headed to Lionhead, which sits directly across a draw from the more dramatic and unclimable Birdtail Butte that dominates the area.

Both Birdtail and Lionhead are open to hikers through a 4,000 acres conservation easement.  You can drive in through a wire-gate.

Lionhead has an impressive cliff band that must be breached and there are several ways to do it, with the most easy being looking to the east where there is a break in the cliffs and noticing a grassy "ramp".  Use this ramp to get to the top and then follow it as it bends back toward a prominent peak of about 100 feet that is easy to scramble.

We descended the east along the ridgeline and my partners scrambled the length of the ridgeline.

With my balance and leg issues I descended about 50 feet from the top onto a grassy shelf and paralleled below my buddies about 50-100 below them.  It was an easy descent.

Once on the valley floor it is easy to go through a short canyon and come around the adjacent ridgeline and hike below the cliffs and out.  Instead, we reclimbed that adjacent ridge and descended that grassy ridge to complete this short trip. We had hiked only 2.8 miles, gaining over 1,600 feet.

Birdtail across the valley was a most impressive sight.

I'm somewhat surprised that these and the adjacent buttes haven't come under some kind organization to promote their recreational values.  Agriculture has won out here.


Saturday, April 30, 2022

Season ending ski?

The impressive Little Belts skyline.

Porphyry Peak lookout at the top of the peak

My near-birthday backcountry ski

 We had a nice surprise on Thursday, a wet snowfall that coated the Little Belt and Highwood mountain ranges east of town.

I often try to get a final season ski in sometime around my birthday, and the snowfall arrived right on time, if a day late.

I did the new 747 loop, throwing in some turns down Golden Goose and an unnamed run along the way.

There was about two inches of thin snow that coated a hard base on these Showdown runs, which haven't been groomed since the ski area closed some three weeks ago.

While the forecast was for fog, I found billowy clouds and bright blue skies.

Off the ski hill on the west side of Porphyry Peak the snow was deeper and softer and there was a short stretch where I dealt with snow clumping up on the bottom of my skis.  I had applied a glide wax at the car, and it did a pretty good job for most of the trip.

The 747 6-mile loop has become a default when I don't have much time or the weather is threatening.  With the added runs on the hill I figure I got in at least 1,200 feet of elevation gain and loss.

There were several other skiers using the hill, but they were on all terrain outfits and staying on the runs.

I encountered no one off-piste.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Trout Creek Canyon and Holter Lake in Big Belts; Rogers Pass at 74; Wayne's Walks resume

My 74th Birthday photo above Holter Lake on a high point

Wayne Phillips joined us for part of our Holter Lake hike, a resumption of the Wayne's Wednesday Walks, after a two year Covid hiatus

Nora Gray takes a scenic break

The Kelseya flowers are starting to bloom in Trout Creek Canyon

Katie above Rogers Pass on the Continental Divide Trail

 Lots of repeats here as I continue to condition for hiking season.

The headline hike was to the Holter Lake country where, after a two-year Covid break, we resumed our Wayne's Walks, and Wayne, despite a hampered knee, joined us for a part of it.

I've pretty much let backcountry skiing go, although it snowed today and it would have been possible.

We went for a hunt for Kelseya flowers up Trout Creek Canyon in the Big Belts, retraced our steps from a couple of weeks ago above Holter Lake from Juniper to Log Gulch and hiked a short distance up the west side of Rogers Pass on my 74th birthday.

Since my last post I've returned to River's Edge Trail numerous times, hiking the North and South shores and taking in sites like Sacajawea Springs.

I can report that I'm in pretty good shape for my age, although I'm having issues with a hammer toe on my left foot and the tired, heavy legs I've struggled with for more than a year.  I'm trying to make an appointment with a vascular surgeon.

The walk from Vigilante Campground up Trout Creek in the Big Belts is a breathtaking spectacle of towering cliffs.  I marvel that we used to drive this route before the big flood in 1981 closed the road permanently.  We walked very near to the 3-mile mark where a Forest Service Road comes in.  We didn't get all the way because we got blocked by snow and ice.  We found the first flowers of the rare Kelseya that hang in spots from these steep walls.  I think we were at least a week early to enjoy the full bloom.

The wildflowers have really progressed since our last visit two weeks ago to the Holter Lake area.  There are Pasque flowers in abundance and we saw plenty of yellow bells, kitten tails, phlox, Douglasia and even some early shooting stars on our 4.5 miles loop from Juniper Gulch to Log Gulch and back with a short climb to a high point.  I'm always impressed with the views of the Missouri River impoundment, Sleeping Giant Mountain, the Beartooth Game Range and snow covered Willow Peak in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area.

Finally, on my birthday we did a short loop along River's Edge Trail to Giant Springs Park and back and the drove to Rogers Pass where we walked across snow patches to the first major outcropping before being turned around by snow drifts.  Looking across the highway to the east and Rodgers Peak, we could see that climbing the peak would have been possible via the ridgeline rather than the trail.

It was a very nice birthday hike.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Comparing Lethbridge Coulees parks to River's Edge Trail (North Shore)

We started our Lethbridge Coulees hike up a steep staircase

The Lethbridge Coulees parallel the country club golf course along the Oldman River.  There was considerable slumping in the terrain

Some of the steep pitches in Lethbridge

Some of the plant diversity of River's Edge Trail we didn't see in Lethbridge

At the North Shore Shelf on the Missouri River

The rugged Box Elder Canyon across from the North Shore Trail

 In this shoulder season with plenty of unhikeable and unskiable snow in the mountains we usually take to the breaks (and coulees) country along our rivers for hikes.

Great Falls is blessed with the River's Edge Trail along the Missouri River.

Lethbridge, Alberta is blessed with hiking trails and parks in the comparable Lethbridge Coulees country along Oldman River.

Now that Canada has dropped its Covid testing protocols for entry it is easier than ever to take a day trip to southern Alberta.  Its Can-Arrival phone app has been improved since we last used it, last September, when Canada began permitting U.S. citizens to cross the border.

Katie arranged a day trip to Lethbridge to hike with her dear friends, the Women of Wonder hiking group, in the coulees.

I was expecting a hike very similar to what I experience on our River's Edge Trail.

It was surprisingly dissimilar. 

The Oldman River is a wilder, more free-flowing and prettier body of water there than our dammed up Missouri River, with its reservoirs.

The Lethbridge coulees have a steeper pitch, with longer runouts than our River's Edge gulches. 

The views on the Lethbridge hike (we did a 5 miler) were more urban in nature.  The trail we hiked paralleled the country club golf course.  The West Lethbridge ridge top was filled with high-end houses.  There was some paving, a nicely constructed bridge, a highway underpass.  We could see Lethbridge's iconic bridge/trestle.

By comparison the River's Edge North Shore trail (and other sections outside the Great Falls city limits) has a wilder, almost wilderness feel.

There's a greater diversity of plant life in a setting away from highways and housing developments.  River's Edge has an abundance of junipers, sage, rose bushes, yucca plants, rock outcroppings, hoodoos, all set against the backdrop of the Highwood and Little Belt mountain ranges.  There was a greater variety of grasses on River's Edge than Lethbridge.

Seeing the Lethbridge coulees country gave me an even deeper appreciation for what we have here in Great Falls in our Rivere's Edge Trail, taking nothing away from the scenic and challenging Lethbridge topography.

Friday, April 08, 2022

Back online: Sluice Boxes, Glacier's Two Med, Holter and River's Edge

Our first Pasque flowers of the season

The hike above Holter Lake with the Sleeping Giant Mountain looking down

Katie and I out on the Two Medicine Lake ice

Plenty of snow at Two Med campground

Down in the Sluice Boxes Park

Camille Consolvo on a Sluice Boxes overlook

 Welcome back!

I've been off-line for several months for personal reasons, but had continued to post trips.  Have a look.

I'm in the full swing of things with trips in the last week that included a hike through the Sluice Boxes State Park tunnel, Two Med Lake in Glacier Park, a Holter Lake loop in the Big Belt Mountains up Juniper Gulch to Log Gulch and back and hikes on north and south shores of the River's Edge Trail.

With the exception of Glacier, which still has plenty of snow, I'm seeing the first spring wildflowers --- the yellow bells (fritilary), Pasque flowers, Douglasia, and buttercups.

And, I've even picked up my first couple of ticks.

The annual spring trek to Glacier Park was a simple hike up the road, which is fully plowed with only a couple patches of snow.  But, the Two Med Lake is still ice-covered and we found it worthwhile to hike through the campground, in spots through narrow tunnels of snow twice our height.  The day was crystal clear, bluebird.  In years past at this time we've been able to ski up and back to the lake, but this year the plows got there first.  It is 5 miles from the gate to the lake one-way.  There encountered only four other parties on this perfect day.

The Sluice Boxes park was quite a contrast to Glacier.  It was clear of snow and we found flowers and easy going through the old train tunnel to the first crossing.  We got an early start, so we missed the crowds in this most accessible wild place.  We covered about 7 miles on this hike.

We often use the Holter Lake Juniper-Log gulch hike as a Spring warmup, and I followed Katie and six of her friends on this 4-mile roundtrip above the lake to the north.  Three of us split from the group and climbed a small high point along the way before rejoining the other hikers.  There were a variety of wildflowers and amazing views of the lake with the Sleeping Giant Mountain looking down on us.  We encountered no other hikers.  I even got home in time to watch the dismal final innings of the Chicago White Sox loss to Detroit in the first game of the Major League Baseball season.

I picked up my second tick of the season on an out and back hike along the River's Edge North Shore Trail between Ryan and Morony dams.  I went out on the high trail and back on the low trail, turning around at the hot spring, covering just over 7 miles.  The yellow-bell flowers were out.  I also did a hike on the South Shore Trail later in the week from Rainbow and through the Chaos Trail and back against a formidable wind.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Spring in full swing: more Freezout, River's Edge, Mount Sentinel, Buffalo Jump

Working our way off the jump sit precipice

An example of the rock art we found

The sedimentary layers of the jump

More rock art

 Spring is in full swing, and so the usual I'm doing my usual kick out the kinks hikes.

In the past week that has meant hikes along River's Edge Trail to Sacajawea Springs and to the Chaos Trail, a couple more visits to see the migrating snow geese and swans, a quick-hit climb of Mount Sentinel in Missoula, and a walk-through the First Peoples' Buffalo Jump (formerly the Ulm Pishkun).

I'm still having odd problems with my lower legs that feel like they become encased in concrete when on a long hike.  They loosen up if I rest.  I don't know what to think, particularly after I got a vein clinic procedure last August that was supposed to have cleared this problem.  It stems from veins that won't pump blood from my feet back to my heart.  Once I get going the calf muscles take over and do the pumping.  The feeling in the legs is disturbing, particularly when descending steeply as I had to do on Mount Sentinel.  It creates a balance problem.

The 5K Sacajawea hike was a delight, but I picked up my first tick of the season.  I expected to see wildflowers.  None are out yet.

I was able to climb Mount Sentinel to the top in less than an hour (just barely), so I was pretty pleased with that, despite the difficulties descending.  I thought I might see several kinds of wildflowers, but spied only a single buttercup.

Buttercups:  my first flowers of spring

The snow in the Missoula valley and all along my drive there from Great Falls was sparse and going fast.  Could be a long fire season upcoming.

The highlight of the week was the First People's Buffalo Jump Hike, a mere 11 miles south of Great Falls at Ulm.

Katie and I had scouted a possible walk-through from the north side parking lot to the headquarters on a clear, warm winter day.

Four of us did this hike and really enjoyed it.  Most people don't know the north side of this area is open, with a nice loop trail.

On top, it meant hiking a fence line to the edge of the jump itself, which we walked along, enjoying Rocky Mountain Front, Big and Little Belt, and Highwood mountain ranges views along with the prominent buttes; Square, Crown, Shaw.

We walked along the bottom of the jump and found ancient Indian rock art ---- ocher colored hand prints, an animal depiction, and artwork carved into the rock itself.

We had a car parked at the north end (just off the Ulm-Vaughn Road near the McIver Road junction, and at the headquarters.

It was a 4.4 miles hike with about 600 feet of elevation gain.

The hike reminded me that we've got to get the grandkids there.

I made it to the top of Mount Sentinel in under an hour.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Shoulder season: Freezout Lake bird migration, Priest Butte and O'Brien Creek ski

Gordon Whirry and Chuck Jennings enjoy our lunch break on O'Brien Creek

Coming down through the powerlines

The skies at Freezout were smeared with migrating snow geese and tundra swans

Alpine glow lights up Ear Mountain

Coming off Priest Butte

The Priest Butte ridge walk

 I love this "shoulder" season between the best back country skiing and hiking.

That's because you can have both.

I did a solo back country ski  scoot down 747, climbed with the Katie's girls on Priest Butte, combining it with watching a bald eagle banquet of ducks on Freezout Lake, visited Freezout twice more to observe the migration of some 50,000 snow geese and 15,000 tundra swans, and did a fast and harry ski down O'Brien Creek.

All within a week!

Although there was more snow in the Little Belts, by the time we got to it it had thawed and refrozen and the course was treacherously fast.  Luckily, we had 50 degrees and a bluebird day and saw tons of moose sign in the willows.  The snow bridges were still in, which surprised us.

At the end of the trip we discovered the keys to the car had been left on the car we had dropped off at the Kings Hill Pass.  Luckily, a Northwestern Energy maintenance worker had come to check the snow levels in the creek at the Neihart Water Treatment Plant, so we weren't stranded.

The bird migration is always a treat and a thrill, and this year was no exception.

What was different for me was that in advance of the big bird migration, some 50 bald eagles hung out on the Freezout ice and feasted on ducks, creating a bloodbath that drew seagulls, who cleaned up the mess. The ice melted a couple of days later, opening up the water and right on schedule the migrating geese and swans arrived in massive numbers.

I think I enjoy being there the most when the sun rises to watch the transformation of the Rocky Mountain Front, which becomes bathed in alpine glow.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Winter's grip starts to loosen: 747, Glacier, Freezout Lake migrations

The suspension bridge over Ole Creek in Glacier Park

Essex Creek

McDonald Falls

At McDonald Lake

 You know winter's grip is loosening when the snow geese and Arctic swans start arriving at Freezout Lake.

The lake is still pretty iced over, but the migrating birds are landing, to be greeted by more than 50 bald eagles who are having a feast.

In the past week I've skied the 747 loop again in the Little Belts, and spent three days at the Izaak Walton Inn at Essex where we hiked and snow-shoed ice and slush in the rain at Glacier Park.  We stopped at Freezout coming and going to see the arriving birds, particularly the eagles.

Eagles at their Freezout migration feast

We had a blue bird, if cold and windy day for 747, but the breeze ushered in a Chinook that melted the snow in town.  This was Mark Hertenstein's first time on the 6.25 miles loop, and we even threw in a few tele turns.

I joined a group of Katie's "Glacier Girls" at the Izaak Walton retreat.  We snow-shoed Ole Creek, crossed the suspension bridge and went down as far as the creek's meeting with the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.  The snow was icy and deep and melting fast.  That evening we took a long Yak-Trak hike on the groomed trails behind the lodge.  The following day we hiked the road from Lake McDonald Lodge to the McDonald Falls, crossed the bridge and hiked the road back.  The views were stunning, of course.  Then we headed for a hike at the Fish Creek turnout, using a road past the private cabins, a first for me.