Bear Trap Canyon

The Madison River is probably best known for its fishing. The trout draw fly-anglers from around the world and Bear Trap Canyon—a unit of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness administered by the Bureau of Land Management—is a particularly popular strech. While driving to the trailhead, I passed dozens upon dozens of families and fishermen camping along Bear Trap Road for the holiday weekend. There were so many people, the area more closely ressembled a music festival than a wilderness area. Memorial Day weekend wouldn’t ordinarily have been my choice for hiking in such a popular spot, but I’ll be leaving the country for a couple of months and wanted to enjoy at least one good day before returning to Montana in August.

There seems to be some mystery surrounding the actual length of the Bear Trap Canyon National Recreation Trail. The map at the trailhead bizarrely doesn’t list distances. Robert Stone’s Day Hikes Around Bozeman claims the trail spans 7 miles from the trailhead to the old power plant just north of the Madison Dam at Ennis Lake, while Bill and Russ Schneider’s Hiking Montana reports 9. As I has planned to make a day trip out of it, this meant I could expect either a 14 mile or an 18 mile out-and-back.

By my calculations, the trail actually spans around 7.5 miles (approximately 15 out-and-back, maybe a bit less). The map in Schneider’s guide makes it look as though it used to be possible to hike all the way to the old power plant. I’m not sure if this was once the case, but it certainly isn’t any longer, which might explain the discrepancy. When I reached the barbed wire fence marking the trail’s terminus, it wasn’t even possible to see the power plant through the foliage on the other side. It was also clear that very few people bother to hike the full length of the trail. I was forced to remove several trees from my path and because the trail is so steep and narrow at times, it wouldn’t have been possible to climb around. Moreover, anyone interested primarily in fishing would be discouraged by heights that tower 100+ feet above the river below for the last mile at least.

Until Bear Trap Creek at 3.5 miles, you can expect to encounter a number of people, especially on holidays and weekends. The trail winds easily along the bank of the river, past beaver dams and alongside meadows filled with wildflowers. An unchallenging trail delivering big scenic rewards will always be a favorite, but the numbers quickly diminish. Despite its popularity, the trail is a joy—absolutely beautiful from beginning to end, with more impressive scenery of austere cliffs and the Madison’s notorious rapids the deeper you go.

Beyond Bear Trap Creek, the trail begins to rise moderately over occassional fields of talus rock (watch your ankles) and into wet forests teeming with snakes. When I came through, the trail register indicated that some hikers had spotted Grizzly Bears in the area—but I wasn’t so fortunate. I did encounter a rattlesnake, however. They’re known to proliferate in the canyon and I had a fright when one suddenly began rattling at me from the tall grass as I approached. Carry a stick and watch your dog!

The canyon is named for Bear Trap Creek, but how the creek received its name is anyone’s guess. I wasn’t able to find out the exact story if there is one and the BLM’s 1984 Wilderness Management Plan doesn’t provide any clues. Barring the existence of any evidence to the contrary, I’m going to assume the creek’s name has something to do with a bear, a trap, or both. That, anyway, is my extremely informed conclusion.

Large swathes of charred trees are visible in the earliest section of the trail, serving as a painful reminder of human stupidity. A wildfire caused by an untended campfire and fueled by heavy winds back in 2012 consumed 15,500 acres in the area. The fire burned for over two weeks, cost $1.23 million to suppress, and caused up to $3.8 million in damage, including the deaths of eight horses and the destruction of crops, pastures, fences, transmission lines, and a family home.

According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Kyler Schmitz “accidentally ignited a small fire … from fireworks, ignored the dry and windy weather conditions and didn’t heed the warnings of his fellow campers.” Despite this, a jury generously found Schmitz not guilty of nine felony charges of arson. The whole sordid affair simply underscores my belief that people should be made to undergo a course in basic ecology and environmental conservation—perhaps even earning a license of sorts—before being allowed to run rampant in our dwindling wilderness areas.

By the time I made it back to the parking lot in the late afternoon, I was ravenous and decided to stop in at the wonderful Norris Bar and Grill at the intersection of the MT-84 and the US-287. I highly recommend the food here (served Friday-Sunday during the summer) if you find yourself in the area. The woman who runs the place is a jocular hippie adorned with peace sign earrings and a flair for cooking with fresh, local ingredients served up in massive portions. In short, it was a perfect end to the day.

More photos here.

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An abrupt end to a beautiful trail.

Description:

0.0 miles: The trail begins in the Bear Trap Recreation Area at the end of a large parking lot.

0.15 miles: Trail register.

3.5 miles: Bear Trap Creek

7.5 miles: Arrive at a barbed wire fence with a “No Trespassing” sign, behind which lies the old powerhouse. There is no access beyond this point so you must retrace your footsteps from here.

15.0 miles: Return to the trailhead in the Bear Trap Recreation Area parking lot.

Trailhead GPS: 45°34’39.1″N 111°35’42.5″W
Elevation gain: 500 feet
Distance: 15 miles out-and-back
Maps: U.S.G.S. Bear Trap CreekU.S.F.S. Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest Map: Central East; There’s a great retro visitors guide available at archive.org as well.

Ⓐ Hiked by the author, May 29, 2016

Humbug Spires

This is another wonderful day hike within a reasonable driving distance from Butte (26 miles south of the city, to be precise) and it’s a trail nearly everyone in town seems to have hiked at some point.

The Humbug Spires Primitive Area is an 11,175-acre wilderness area run by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)—also known as the Bureau of Livestock and Mining, as Ed Abbey ungenerously dubbed the agency for its collaboration with business interests of a moral status roughly on par with Cliven Bundy and his ilk. In this case, however, we have the BLM to thank for preserving an old-growth forest of Douglas firs, “somehow overlooked by early timber cutters,” as Schneider writes, in an area punctuated with stunning rock formations.

Nestled in the foothills of the Highland Mountains, this area is mainly known for the numerous and impressive outcroppings of quartz monzonite that tower above the hiker like so many colossal tombstones. The “spires,” are part of the Boulder Batholith and some of them rise as high as 600 feet above the forest floor, providing excellent opportunities for rock climbers. They’ve been given characteristically colorful names, such as Bulldog, The King, The Wall, The Bitch… The tallest among them—named by someone with a talent for understatement—is known as The Wedge (7,871 ft.) and it serves as a convenient turn-around spot for this hike (though there are numerous opportunities for extending the hike if you have a topographical map and compass).

Two years ago, a Senate bill sponsored by Senator Tester (D-MT) proposed that large swathes of this area be considered for protection under the National Wilderness Preservation System—which, had it passed, would have put the Humbug Spires forever off-limits to industry and development. Unfortunately, the bill continues to languish in Washington with no signs of going anywhere for the time being. Until it gains formal wilderness status however, the BLM has indicated their willingness to maintain the area’s pristine condition.

As expected, there is a great deal of wildlife to observe along the trail and we were surprised to encounter a bull moose along Moose Creek. Fortunately, he stood on the opposite bank and remained content to stare us down as we plodded along back to the car. In his book on Montana’s public spaces, Chuck Robbins also reports encountering a moose in the area—so Moose Creek seems to have earned its name!

As for the origins of the Humbug appellation, the spires are almost certainly named for nearby Mount Humbug, which lies north of the Primitive Area (as well as the regrettably named Mount Negro). Just who named Mount Humbug remains a mystery to me, though it stands to reason that someone once lived nearby to whom the namer was not especially well disposed.

The trailhead begins at the BLM parking lot, 3.3 miles down Moose Creek Road (open all year). The BLM has a good map of the area on their website. If you’re interested in a longer trip, it’s well worth camping for a night and spending the next morning exploring the spires. If you do camp, try to reduce your impact by using an area already worn by earlier visitors. There are many such sites around The Wedge.

Pros: Excellent proximity to Butte; primeval forests and unique rock formations.

Cons: None come to mind.

Fire Rings Destroyed: 1

Trash Removed: 2 plastic bottles

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Ruins of a cabin, just before arriving at The Wedge.

Description:

0.0 miles: Begin at the Moose Creek Trailhead in the BLM parking lot. Pass through the ancient forest alongside Moose Creek.

1.5 miles: The trail leaves Moose Creek and follows another small stream.

2.9 miles: Pass the ruins of an old cabin.

3.0 miles: Arrive at the The Wedge, one of the more impressive of the Spires. Unless you’re intent on exploring the many side-trails created by rock climbers who frequent the area, retrace your steps from here.

6.0 miles: Return to the trailhead.

Trailhead GPS: 45°44’34.9″N 112°40’14.8″W
Elevation gain: ~900 feet
Distance: 6 miles out-and-back
Maps: BLM Public Land MapU.S.G.S. Tucker Creek

Ⓐ Hiked by the author, August 12, 2015

Haystack Mountain

Before getting into specifics, I should confess that this hike was something of a failed endeavor. It was gorgeous weather the other day and we decided to attempt a nearby hike I’ve had my eye on ever since moving to Butte. Unfortunately, a good deal of lingering snow prevented us from pushing on to the peak in the end.

Falling short of the peak was rather disappointing for a mountain that boasts views of the Highland, Tobacco Root, Madison, Gravelly, Elkhorn, Flint, Bridger, Pioneer, Anaconda, and Swan mountain ranges—as well as nearby Delmoe Lake, Elk Park, and the Boulder River Valley. I’d guess we came within 0.5 miles of the top before having to turn back. Had I been alone (and not with a baby strapped to my chest) I would have found a way to the top. For now at least, Haystack Mountain will remain on my list of unfinished local hikes.

The Forest Service trailhead is located just 12 miles north of Butte off the 90 and yet very few Buttians I’ve spoken with have attempted the hike, or even heard of it. This surprised me. After all, it is an officially designated National Recreation Trail and while there aren’t many guides to the trails around Butte, the one that does exist—Jon Wick’s out-of-print QWick Guide—features this hike. Local press has also advertised the trail rather extensively. Carrie Quigley called it a “gem of a hike” in her write-up for The Montana Standard back in 2008 and more recently, Carmen Winslow described her own experience on the trail for The Missoulian.

Though we failed to conquer the peak, this is a lovely—albeit quite strenuous—trail. It ascends sharply and without much respite up to the peak. Because of the grade, descent is also no picnic. Along the way, it passes through aromatic pine forests and alongside alpine streams. Unfortunately, someone seems to have established several informal campsites and fire-rings along the trail. I happily dismantled one fire-ring and scattered the ashes, then removed a large plastic jug left there (presumably for future trips). Leave no trace, people!

As for the name, Haystack Mountain, I really have little to go on. There are innumerable Haystack Mountains around the country (Montana alone has at least two that I know of) and I haven’t been able to find much of anything about this particular Haystack Mountain, who named it, etc.

The official trailhead is located about 1.2 miles past the dead-end sign on Haystack Road (FS #1538). This road is really best traversed with a high-clearance vehicle, so we left our Chevy Spark below and hiked the difference. However, since hiking this segment, I’m convinced we could have made it in the car. The road does look extremely daunting at first but it quickly evens out and unless there’s snow or mud, I’ll probably attempt to drive up the next time.

Pros: Very close to Butte; stunning views.

Cons: Snow at this elevation makes the route impassable until late-June or July.

Fire Rings Destroyed: 1

Trash Removed: 2 plastic bottles, 1 plastic jug

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Still too much snow in mid-May.

Description:

0.0 miles: Forest Service trailhead. Ascend and ascend and ascend…

2.5 miles: Reach the peak with phenomenal views (on a clear day, so I’m told) of ten different mountain ranges as well as Delmoe Lake.

5.0 miles: Return to the trailhead.

Trailhead GPS: 46°09’51.8″N 112°20’45.8″W
Elevation gain: ~2,000 ft.
Distance: 5 miles out-and back; 7.4 if you begin at the dead-end.
Maps: Forest Service PDFU.S.G.S. Bison Canyon

Ⓐ Hiked Attempted by the author, May 18, 2016

Leverich Canyon

My parents were in town recently to meet my daughter (their first grandchild) and, as opportunities for hiking abound in Montana, we decided to spend a day on the trail. After perusing my copy of Bill Schneider’s excellent book Hiking Montana—the only comprehensive book of its kind—we decided to embark on an 11-mile out-and-back to Hyalite Lake, south of Bozeman.

Unfortunately, the park was closed when we arrived (still too early in the season?), forcing us to quickly alter our plans. So Leverich Canyon was not our first choice, but it looked promising and we were already in the area.

Leverich Canyon is sandwiched between the drainages of Hyalite Canyon and Sourdough Canyon and the eponymous trail is a 4.5-mile loop around the canyon walls. Along the way, it winds past an abandoned cabin and mineshaft. There are some good views occassionally to be glimpsed of Bozeman and the Bridger Mountains, but it’s not an especially remarkable trail and its popularity among mountain bikers doesn’t help.

I like to investigate the trails I hike, but I was unable to find much information about the name of the canyon or its history. There is a Leverich Creek that runs through the canyon as well as an historic Leverich School and an internet search turned up a number of Leverich families in the area. The only real lead I found was in A History of Montana 1739-1885, which reports of a certain C. Leverich, who left his family’s farm in Cedar County, Iowa for Montana in 1866.

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In 1872 [Leverich] located on his present place of 240 acres at the mouth of Leverich cañon. He took out the first timber that was ever cut. The location is a picturesque one at the foot of a beautiful mountain range.

Apart from his “visiting the different mining camps” before exploiting the canyon’s timber, there’s no mention of Leverich engaging in mining—so perhaps the abandoned mineshaft along the trail was built by someone else after he had already left for Wisconsin. 1866 would have been a bit late for Montana’s brief goldrush so perhaps Leverich instead turned his attention to timber, as the entry reports. Whatever the case, Leverich Canyon, like so many other places in Montana, seems to have taken its name from the white fortune-seeker who just happened to settle in the area.

Pros: Easy access for Bozeman locals; some good views.

Cons: Heavy mountain bike use. We were overtaken by at least three bikers and it’s still early in the season. In consequence, the trail is seriously eroded in parts and was recently rerouted to improve “flow.”

Trash Removed: 1 plastic bottle

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Abandoned cabin and mineshaft. Did C. Leverich build it?

Description:

The dirt road leading to the trailhead for the last mile is a bit rough. Low clearance vehicles might have trouble in bad weather or snow.

0.0 miles: Head up the trail and take the left fork about 600 feet in, as recommended by the signs (the right fork is a steeper climb).

1.75 miles: Abandoned mineshaft and cabin.

2.35 miles: The trail splits; stay right to complete the loop.

4.5 miles: Return to the trailhead.

Trailhead GPS: 45°35’02.1″N 111°02’26.1″W
Elevation gain: 1,200 ft.
Distance: 4.5-mile loop
Maps: U.S.G.S. Wheeler Mountain

Ⓐ Hiked by the author, May 13, 2016