By Brian D’Ambrosio
One of Helena’s greatest attributes is that anyone living or visiting here can enjoy the beauty and benefits of its hiking. Spring, summer, and fall, the hiking of the great outdoors beckons loudly – and closely. Boasting an attractive, direct escape from the monotony of the gym and the same benefits as the treadmill, Helena-area hikes could be considered as aerobic workouts with spectacular scenic value. Choose your own turnaround point. Saunter as near or as far as you prefer. Put together a checklist based on your physical abilities, overall state of health, hiking experiences, and equipment. When you are finished, investigate this list of local sojourns that simultaneously soothe and strengthen the spirit.
Mount Helena and Mount Ascension
Helenans are understandably deeply grateful for Mount Helena City Park – 5,468 feet above sea level at its peak, and approximately 1,300 feet above the Last Chance Gulch Mall. What is a better introductory lesson to Helena’s quiet beauty and outdoor heritage? There is an information kiosk available at the trailhead detailing the many trails on Mount Helena, ranging from short and steep (Powerline) to steady and leisurely (1906 Trail). More than 700 acres in size, according to Prickly Pear Land Trust, Mt. Helena City Park is the second largest city park in the United States, behind only Central Park in New York City (840 acres). All of the trails are well-worn, well-maintained, and easy to follow. Perhaps the most popular route to the top of the mountain is the 1906 Trail, which follows the base of the limestone cliffs and switchbacks along panoramas. Mount Ascension is a 5,262-ft summit most commonly accessed at the Beattie Street trailhead. It is a mild three mile hike to the top and you can retrace your steps on the return.
At 8,499 feet, Casey Peak isn’t the tallest local mountain, but it is one of the most enjoyable to reach. Getting to its base requires a three mile trek to Casey Meadows, which in itself is worth the trip (and a fine camping destination). From here, it’s a solid and steady climb up the ridge. The brown information signs are a bit weary and ramshackle, so pay close attention. The views from the top are impeccable, with Canyon Ferry and the Helena Valley below. Even in mid-June, the snowfields are still deep and thick, and the north face of Casey Peak above 8,000 feet is usually crowned with drifts.
On the top of Casey Peak is a collapsing stone and wood fire tower, a wrecked foundation anchored into the mountain. Debris lies strewn across the peak. Planks of wood. Shards of glass. Even the stone foundation is beginning to fracture. Built in the 1930s, the structure stood guard over the Elkhorn Mountains and offered clear, open views of the Big Belts across Canyon Ferry Reservoir.
Crow Peak and Elkhorn Peak
Crow Peak is the tallest point in the Elkhorn Range at 9,414 feet. The back side of the mountain – an inactive volcano land mass – falls away sharply and approximately 600 feet below, Tizer Lake sparkles deep and blue on a summer day. Of all the high points around Helena, Elkhorn Peak (9,314-feet) is the easiest to reach courtesy of an abandoned road that climbs up the mountain to an old mine. The hike to the summit of Crow and Elkhorn Peaks begins in Elkhorn Ghost Town, the last remains of an archetypal, scantily-inhabited ghost town. The Fraternity Brothers Hall is considered to be one of the most historically significant – and architecturally unique – western American structures still standing. Walk along the jeep trail road north of town and when the road ends, it’s a tricky scamper on volcanic rubble to the summit. Both summits are denoted by rock cairns and a log book. Crow and Elkhorn present fabulous views of the Elkhorns and the Tobacco Roots to the south.
Mann Gulch Fire Hike
The Mann Gulch fire claimed the lives of 13 firefighters on a Montana mountainside in 1949 and has lived on in memory as one of the worst tragedies in the history of the U.S. Forest Service. On Aug. 5, 1949, the temperature in Helena was 97 degrees, the hottest day of the year. The fire appeared at first to be confined to an area of about 60 acres in a canyon called Mann Gulch, just east of the Missouri River. It had been ignited by a lightning strike.
Located 20 miles north of Helena in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness area in the Helena National Forest, Mann Gulch is reachable only by boat from the Missouri River or by horseback. A tour boat will drop you at Meriwether Canyon. At the top, you’ll find an interpretive sign. The hike along the ridge and around and down to the markers takes another hour or so. For most reasonably conditioned hikers, it’s a six or seven mile hike lasting approximately six hours. The hike is hot, open, and difficult, but rewarding and thought-provoking. For tour and drop-off information, check with Gates of the Mountains tours: www.gatesofthemountains.com
Thrust high on the southern wall of Trout Creek Canyon, the Hanging Valley presents far-reaching views of the cliffs northeast of York, lofty slabs of limestone formed 250 million years ago. These limestone slabs were later pushed upward in the heavy cataclysms that formed the Rocky Mountains. The Hanging Valley National Recreation Trail is a moderate path that takes hikers up over a ridge and down into a narrow, high-walled canyon. The trail ends at the rim of a dry waterfall, approximately 500 feet above the trees of Trout Creek Canyon. This out-and-back route is 12 miles and takes approximately six hours total. There is a steady pull to the top of the ridge at the beginning and several open spots along the top of the ridge provide sweeping views of the Big Belts, Elkhorns and the Continental Divide. Then the trail dips into Hanging Valley courtesy of a set of switchbacks, entering water-soluble gigantic limestone rocks, with the cliffs appearing taller and the canyon slimming. The path is loose and gravelly; unsteady hikers may want to consider using poles and might need assistance dropping down the final steps to the overlook and returning out. The return hike swings up through the switchbacks and then coasts back to the trailhead. There’s no water at all on the trail. Take York Road to York. Stay on the road, which eventually turns to gravel. It dead-ends at the Vigilante Campground and the Trout Creek Canyon trailhead. Park here and walk to the southeast side of the campground to locate the Hanging Valley trailhead. The trail is Forest Service 247.
At 8,150 feet, the views from the top of Red Mountain are worth the trip. Being one of the highest points on the Continental Divide between Helena and Butte, Red Mountain is worth the effort, though finding the trailhead is futile. I’ve heard that a trail exists to the top, but I bushwhacked the entire way alongside a slow-moving creek and broken log cabins. From the summit, you can take in the Scapegoat Wilderness to the north and the Flint Creek Range to the west. The trail climbs the mountain’s south face through timber, wildflowers and occasional patches of huckleberry. Drive to Rimini – an old mining town 20 miles west of Helena – and look for openings along the road approximately six miles east of town.
The Sleeping Giant is the model Helena-area hike and one of the area’s most known landmarks. The trek takes hikers through open grassland, dry forest, and scree slopes to the summit of Beartooth Peak, more commonly known as the “Giant’s Nose” where one is bestowed with spectacular views of the Missouri River, the Gates of the Mountains, and a half dozen or so more of west-central Montana’s mountain ranges. Short and moderately strenuous, the hike gains over 2,000 feet in elevation which involves some non-technical scrambling and open exposure to reach the summit. Bring plenty of water and sunscreen and layered clothing for variable weather conditions. This rugged perch lying within the Sleeping Giant Wilderness Study Area was included in a “Crown Jewel” list of wilderness recommendations recently sent to Congress by the BLM. Access can only be obtained through permission by an adjacent landowner, though occasionally special group hikes are granted. Keep your ears open for information about group hikes organized by local outdoor and civic groups to the Sleeping Giant.
Mount Baldy and Mount Edith, Edith Lake Trail
If you wait until the snow melts, you can practically drive up Mount Baldy (9,478-feet) using Duck Creek Road. The hike from the road follows a rock-strewn ridge up the mountain. White Sulphur Springs sits to the east and Canyon Ferry to the west. The Tobacco Root Mountains, the Bridger Mountains and the Gallatin Range can all be seen. Travel east of Townsend on US Highway 12 approximately 11 miles, then north on Forest Road 423 (North Fork of Deep Creek). Follow road for approximately 9 miles, then north on Forest Road 12052 for approximately 1 mile to parking. Edith Lake is 4.5 miles from the trailhead. From Edith Lake, it’s about a two-mile scramble to the summit of Mount Baldy. Mountain goat sightings are common. Beginning along Forest Road 12052, Mount Edith trail is a moderately strenuous ascent of the snow-capped signature peak of the Big Belt Mountains (southeast of Helena). It is an enjoyable, non-technical hike of 9,504-feet. Windy conditions are a good possibility. The hike is six miles roundtrip, with a moderate elevation gain of 2,000 feet.
Discover the Nevada Mountain roadless area, one of the largest remaining roadless areas in the Helena National Forest. Worthy of wilderness designation, it includes Black Mountain (8,338 feet, the highest point of the Continental Divide between the Scapegoat Wilderness and the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, Nevada Mountain and a long segment of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. Wildlife includes elk, lynx, wolves, migrating grizzly bears and wolverines. The views to the north of Nevada Mountain are extraordinary. Hiking this trail of 15-miles roundtrip involves significant elevation gains so carry adequate water and food for this full day outing.