Hunters Gulch takes hikers into Gates of the Mountains Wilderness
Hunters Gulch northeast of Helena is one trail that gives its worst first.
Starting near the small community of Nelson, Hunters Gulch offers access to the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness. The well-developed trailhead is easy to get to with any vehicle and provides ample parking at the bottom of the gulch.
The trail wastes no time in gaining elevation and getting a hiker’s blood pumping. The initial push begs the question of why the Forest Service decided an uphill jaunt was better than the pleasant creek bottom, but after about a mile of switchbacks and the high ridge in sight, the reward is a view into a burn that defines much of the wilderness area.
The Gates of the Mountains Wilderness is small by most standards at about 28,000 acres. The 2007 Meriwether fire burned nearly 20,000 of them. In the last decade many of the standing snags have fallen but the landscape is still one defined by wildfire.
Late springtime might be the best season for visiting Hunters Gulch. While the high country remains packed with snow, the lower elevation is alive with mountainsides of bunchgrass and wildflowers. Elk, deer and black bear are prevalent throughout the area, along with the constant melodies of songbirds.
Near the ridgetop the trail meets the wilderness boundary. The trail then follows the ridge in a steady but gentle elevation gain into the burn for another mile until intersecting the trail from Big Log Gulch. From there it is up to the hiker to decide how far to go.
At the wilderness boundary a lengthy day hike can be made to Bear Prairie, but the area has no major destination, just an array of beautiful views along the trail and the chance to appreciate a bit of solitude close to one Helena.
Most who venture to Hunters Gulch travel in and out, but for intrepid hikers with the ability to shuttle, there are a few options for through hikes.
A six-mile trip can be made out of Big Log Gulch, and for those hoping for a longer adventure, travel west for a 14-mile hike that exits at the Refrigerator Canyon trailhead. With a boat it is also feasible to hike through to Meriwether Campground along the Gates of the Mountains section of Holter Reservoir — a distance of about nine miles.
Explore the Jericho Mountain Inventoried Roadless Area near Helena
Bisected by the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, the Jericho Mountain Inventoried Roadless Area offers secluded hiking and horseback riding just a short drive from Helena.
The 8,700-acre Jericho Mountain IRA provides nonmotorized access along the Continental Divide for summer hikers, fall hunters and winter snowshoers.
A hike into Jericho typically starts from MacDonald Pass. From south of U.S. Highway 12 the road wraps around to a parking area that overlooks Jericho and the Lazyman IRA, as well as the Helena Valley. The area is home to elk, deer and bear, as well as the occasional Canada lynx and wolverine.
The trail dives off the pass and almost immediately into the timber, losing elevation for close to a mile. There it levels out with a few pitches and drops, continuing through a mix of fir and spruce along with stands of lodgepole pine, many of them dead from mountain pine beetle. The lodgepole mortality may cause some issues early in the season with downed trees across the trail, but the U.S. Forest Service and travelers usually prioritize clearing the trail due to its popularity.
The CDT continues south providing a few glimpses of Jericho Mountain and the Ten Mile Creek drainage to the east, and west into the Little Blackfoot drainage. The trail is well-established, graded for comfort and suited to hikers of most abilities. On most days, the area remains shaded with a pleasant breeze, but the ridgetops may also see some high winds and storms that drop temperatures and precipitation in short order.
After about 2.5 miles travelers get a choice in the form of a trail intersection. Hikers may travel east and down a couple of miles to Rimini Road if they dropped off a vehicle. They may also continue south past Jericho Mountain for five miles and a through hike to Telegraph Creek. For those looking to hike and return to the trailhead, the only option is an in-and-out hike, as the CDT does not connect to any loop trails in this section.
Crow Creek trail offers a hidden Montana gem
Often described as the crown jewel of the Helena National Forest, the hike to Crow Creek Falls is a perfect day trip with the family, or a short adventure for frequent hikers. The trail is an easy out and back 6-mile hike along Crow Creek, with a few steep inclines that even children can navigate.
After hikers park at the Jump Off Trailhead, the trail begins with a descent down to Crow Creek and over a narrow wooden bridge. The first mile and a half takes hikers up a small valley along the creek. Large pines and thick vegetation frame the trail as it slowly begins to gain in elevation.
Crow Creek features a few fishing opportunities, but don’t expect to catch anything big. Brook, brown, and rainbow trout inhabit the creek.
A steep but short climb takes hikers away from the creek and up to a wide meadow filled with wildflowers and lush grasses. The meadow is a popular break spot for families with children.
A couple of small ridgelines take hikers into the surrounding coniferous forest. Chirps from a range of different bird species can be heard from within the tree canopy.
At mile three, the trail sharply descends down to the waterfall. Loose rock and gravel make this the most difficult hiking section.
The 40-foot waterfall is one of only three in the region, making it a destination for hikers in the Helena area. A few days of recent rains, combined with the spring runoff make the falls particularly spectacular in the spring. At the base of the falls the water cascades into a large pool of water perfect for a refreshing mid-hike swim in the summer.
Take a cool hike up Refrigerator Canyon
Refrigerator Canyon north of Helena is aptly named for the cool breezes running down its narrow limestone passageways.
The popular trail starts from Beaver Creek Road north of York, with the first half mile following a creek that runs down the middle of the trail at times. The spectacular first section leads hikers and equestrians along a canyon dotted with caves and hardy ponderosa pine latched onto the steep walls.
About a quarter mile up the trail, travelers meet the hallmark of a day in Refrigerator Canyon as solid walls stretch upward to the sky and the trail narrows to only a few feet wide. Even on a hot August day the sun barely touches this section of the trail. Temperatures can be 20 degrees cooler with the steady wind channeled through the passage and whipping across the stream.
From the cool confines of the valley floor, the trail begins to climb into the 28,000-acre Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area. Switchbacks take travelers up the hillside through a shady pine forest until the trail cuts north. From here it begins to open up with limestone pinnacles jutting from the forest and the valley opening up for some expansive views, including of Sheep and Candle mountains and the heart of the wilderness area.
The trail continues north to the intersection with Trail 252 that cuts east to west through the wilderness. The junction is about three miles from the trailhead and leaves travelers several options for continuing on or turning around.
Hiking east takes hikers down Porcupine Creek with a backdrop of 8,000-foot Nelson Mountain.
Traveling west goes farther into the wilderness area and offers several opportunities for through hikes. A second vehicle can be dropped off at Hunters Gulch (13 miles) or Big Log Gulch (15 miles) for some lengthy day trips. For truly ambitious hikers with a willing boat captain, Meriwether Campground on the Missouri River section of Gates of the Mountains is a grueling 18-mile hike.
Sheep Mountain isn’t just for rock climbers
There really isn’t a right way to climb Sheep Mountain near Clancy, Montana.
A favorite of rock climbers, Sheep Mountain rises prominently above Lump Gulch on Bureau of Land Management property, offering hikers and climbers virtually limitless nooks and crannies to explore. The geology of the area is distinctive with boulder fields, stone pinnacles and slab faces with enough cracks to attract climbers from around the region.
A trailhead of sorts sits at the end of Sheep Mountain Road, although the area can be accessed from along the road, as well. From the trailhead a handful of paths of varying quality climb toward the summit about a mile and a half away. The most prominent trail travels east from the trailhead, curving up toward the climbing walls.
In most circumstances the trails tend to end in boulder fields, as hiking seems to transition to scrambling and back again. For those with a sense of adventure, navigating between rocks and the ponderosa pines anchored into the mountainside makes for a fun, albeit steep, climb. Enough duff and openings make picking a route fairly easy.
Several rock outcroppings dominate the climb and funnel hikers into some fairly narrow and picturesque areas with plenty of neck craning to take in all the surroundings.
After splitting the highest pinnacles you arrive at the summit just shy of 6,000 feet. Although topping the peak offers views of the Elkhorn Mountains, it’s safe to say that the real treat of Sheep Mountain is the trip to the top.
Explore Canyon Ferry Wildlife Management Area, but don't forget the bug spray
At nearly 6,000 acres, Canyon Ferry Wildlife Management Area near Townsend is on the smaller side when it comes to WMAs, but offers some of the biggest opportunities in the area to access shoreline and the wildlife that call it home.
Canyon Ferry Reservoir was formed when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation built Canyon Ferry Dam on the Missouri River in 1954, flooding nearly 25 miles of the valley between the Big Belt and Elkhorn mountains. The reservoir itself covers a variety of landscapes, from the more mountainous section near the dam to the flat valley at the inlet. It also holds some quality angling opportunities for trout, perch and walleye.
In 1957 the state of Montana signed a memorandum of understanding with the Bureau of Reclamation, putting the WMA in the hands of wildlife managers. By 1970 construction of dikes created four ponds totaling nearly 2,000 acres and containing 325 artificial islands, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
Canyon Ferry WMA sees significant public use with its proximity to Helena and Townsend and ease of access from major highways. Despite the use, the willow and cottonwood dominated landscape provides a thick stronghold for wildlife. Whitetail deer, moose, turkeys, pheasants, songbirds and waterfowl are prevalent. Bird hunters frequent the area in the fall while bird watchers have ample opportunities throughout the year. Whitetail hunting is also popular but limited to shotgun, muzzleloader, handgun or archery, and antlerless hunting is by special permit only.
The WMA’s southwest border offers some of the best waterfowl viewing and hunting access in the area. The dike systems make for easy walking and access roads cut through the vegetative jungle. Once out to the ponds it can be a lengthy distance to see birds, but flocks of geese, pintails and mallards frequent the area, along with numerous shorebirds.
The east side of the WMA provides multiple access points and parking areas along with a road system open to hiking, horseback riding and bicycles. Considering it's a smaller public area, it is easy to rack up a few miles of good exercise.
While the reservoir and floodplains are a mecca for many wildlife and bird species, mosquitoes can quickly turn a fun adventure into a miserable sprint back to the vehicle. Take proper precautions including bug spray or a face net depending on the time of year.
Explore Helena's close-by Scratchgravel Hills Recreation Area
The Scratchgravel Hills in the Helena Valley have a surprising amount of area to explore.
At 5,800 acres and dotted with old mining claims, the Bureau of Land Management-owned recreation area has seen a number of management changes that have made it a hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking destination.
Unlike other developed trail systems in the area, traveling through the Scratchgravels is concentrated on the relics of motorized recreation, which was prohibited in 2009. While BLM offers five trailheads, the trails themselves are typically old roads or user-created paths that often dead end. It can take a few failed hikes to learn where trails link to provide loops or to find destinations like Scratchgravel Peak.
The peak can be accessed from several trailheads. The most popular starting point is from the Head Lane Trailhead, located at the southwest end of the recreation area.
From the trailhead hike north up the gated road for about half a mile to a prominent ridge. From there travel east through a ponderosa forest, shady enough to keep the sun at bay but open enough to provide good views. The road turned trail remains fairly easy to follow, but unlike trails designed with hikers in mind, tends to climb steeply up the hill at times for about a mile.
Finally the trail reaches the main ridge with good views to the east and west and a flatter climb. Continue on the trail for a half mile until arriving at the peak and the payoff vista over the Helena Valley.
The Scratchgravels offer a number of other trails and loops, some short —such as Tumbleweed Trail through a disc golf course — to the Iowa-Butcherknife Loop that goes for seven miles. While still popular, the area tends to see less traffic than Helena’s South Hills.
BLM has a planning process underway for the future of the Scratchgravels. The agency is considering potential development of a managed trail system that will provide a good visitor experience while better protecting the area.
The agency recently closed its initial round of public comment and is expected to propose plans and alternatives in the coming months.
Strawberry Butte Lookout a delight for recreationists
Tucked away in the Elkhorn Mountains just south of Helena, the Strawberry Butte Lookout trail is a gem just waiting to be discovered.
This mild 1.5-mile trail curls around Strawberry Butte before arriving at a U.S. Forest Service cabin and fire lookout tower at the top. It is accessible from either Montana City or Clancy. The lookout tower stands nearly 80 feet tall, an awe-inspiring sight to see at the top of the climb.
The trail begins at the base of Strawberry Butte, where Strawberry Lookout Road forks from Warm Springs Creek Road to the south of the butte. Recreationists can either hike from the fork in the road or drive an extra two-tenths of a mile up the hill to where a gate bars the road. In the summer months the gate is open and cars are able to travel directly to the top.
With sight lines to the south and west, this trail provides stunning panoramic views of the Elkhorns, Montana City and the Helena Valley on the way up. There are snow-capped mountains to gaze upon in nearly all directions. Upon arriving in the clearing at the top, visitors can explore the cabin campground, the lookout tower and the surrounding areas, all while enjoying spectacular views.
Because the trail is a road, it is open to most forms of recreation. From hiking to fat biking to skiing, this trail has something for everyone, even in the winter. Forest Service employees said there were some youngsters recently riding ski bikes — bikes with skis on the bottom instead of wheels — down the trail. And because of its southern exposure, the trail clears quicker than most others in the vicinity and is more usable earlier in the summer.
Whether you enjoy recreating on two feet, two wheels, or two skis, you are sure to enjoy breathtaking views and a fun, easy climb to the top of this trail.
Helena's Brooklyn Bridge Trail provides biking, hiking opportunities
In the Helena Valley it’s easy to stick to the hikes you know. Mount Ascension and Mount Helena offer easily accessible, fun hiking for the whole family. But, not far from the city’s limits is a trail with something to offer for just about any recreationist.
Just under 3.5 miles from Unionville, an easily missed trailhead sits to the left of the road just before a sign signals the driver of the road narrowing. The trail is known to bikers in town as Brooklyn Bridge, but to myself and the friend that first showed me the trailhead, it’s just a spot tucked away in the Helena National Forest, perfect for the adventurous hiker.
The trail winds up a short climb — about three quarters of a mile — to the first rise. There, one can either continue straight down the trail, or venture to the southeast and explore a series of meadows with great panoramic views of the South Hills. Here, wildflowers grow rampant in the spring. The trail continues over a series of gentle hills and gullies for several miles, running into private land below Skihi Peak.
Hikers may opt to section hike a couple of miles with the family. The trail is mostly two-track for the first three miles and makes for easy hiking for the little ones. At this time of year the trail would be great for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing.
For bikers the trail moves from wide two-track, to techy singletrack farther on, offering both tech and flow sections for bikers of all skills. Some of the later sections of trail are rocky and may be difficult for hikers or inexperienced mountain bikers.
Brooklyn Bridge has something to offer for everyone, so take some time this winter to strap on your snowshoes or hop on your fat bike and try something new and different in the Helena Valley.
This story has been edited to note private land in the area.
Variety, great fishing highlight Blackfoot Meadows Trail No. 329
There is a versatile trail that offers recreationists a variety of different hikes winding through mostly lodgepole pine forest near the Continental Divide southwest of Helena. The most popular destination is to the trail’s namesake, the Blackfoot Meadows, a large, lush meadow with great fishing in the Little Blackfoot River.
The seven-mile trail winds through the moist, wooded Little Blackfoot River bottom, but the meadows are only five miles in. There are two river crossings with bridges and, depending on timing, be alert for raspberries and thimbleberries along the trail corridor.
The hike is not difficult by any means. It has very moderate overall elevation gain and only short sections of uphill climbing, so all experience levels are welcome on this trail.
The meadows offer beautiful views and great fishing. Although the fish are small they make for endless fun, so don’t forget a rod and a couple of typical Montana flies — the Elk Hair Caddis and Parachute Adams. Moose are known to frequent the meadows also, so be on the lookout.
The pond at the meadow has an interesting history. According to the Montana Office of Tourism, two men built a log and rock-filled dam to commercially raise beaver for five years. They supposedly also had plans to build a fish hatchery.
Those interested in making the hike into a loop should use Larabee Trail No. 359. Take Blackfoot Meadows Trail No. 329 to the meadows; next Trail No. 362 to the top of the ridge then cut-off along the ridge, Larabee Trail No. 359, to down Larabee Gulch. Total length of this loop is about 13 miles, finishing just two miles from the start of the hike.
Another option is following the trail up and over the divide between Electric Peak and Thunderbolt Mountain, then link in with Thunderbolt Creek Trail No. 7065, which after about a mile will bring hikers to Cottonwood Lake.
Maps of the area include the Helena National Forest Visitor Map, and the USGS's Bison Mountain and Thunderbolt Creek quad maps.
Beauty and ease make Trout Creek Canyon a half-day gem
With wonderful views and easy access, it’s understandable why Trout Creek Canyon northeast of Helena is a popular spot.
After hikers park at the trailhead adjacent to Vigilante Campground, the wide and well-maintained trail takes them on a casual route up the canyon floor. Hikers, bikers and dog walkers frequent the area, but fellow users tend to disappear just as quickly as they come around the many corners and thick willows along the trail.
The first mile is an interpretive trail with 10 stations to stop and learn about local geology, vegetation and wildlife, however, brochures are often scarce so download station descriptions before embarking. (A copy of the brochure can be found with this story online at Montana Untamed.)Large pines and spruce provide broken shade, while occasional openings offer views up and down the canyon at the rising limestone walls. Wildflowers, mossy rocks, birds and other wildlife are all part of the trip to Trout Creek Canyon.
Past the final interpretive marker the trail narrows and steepens slightly. The creek goes underground for about a mile only to reappear farther up the canyon. The final stretch intersects Forest Service Road 138 and marks the end of the 3-mile jaunt in. The hike out makes this a 6.2-mile roundtrip.
Besides its beautiful canyon walls and clear stream, probably the biggest attraction to Trout Creek is its relatively gentle trail that gains only about 800 feet of elevation. A road once snaked up the canyon until a 1981 spring flood destroyed the 3-mile stretch. Following the flood the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest has maintained the trail as nonmotorized.
Trout Creek Canyon is open all year but late spring through early fall is the prime time for most hikers and bikers.