Crow Creek Falls is variously known as the “jewel of Helena National Forest” and the “Crown Jewel of the Elkhorn Mountains.” I’m not sure the hyperbole is entirely deserved, but local thrill-seekers have enjoyed visiting the waterfall since at least 1895, when a local newspaper described the hike as a mere “one day’s ramble.” These days—thanks to a well maintained (and well traveled) trail—it takes significantly less time to complete the 6 mile round trip. The waterfall is named for its source, Crow Creek, itself a reference to the Crow tribe who hunted in the area before Euro-American colonization. While the walk and its eponymous destination are certainly worth the uncomfortable drive to the trailhead, the site has a particularly colorful backstory which renders the trip a more interesting experience.
In 1905, Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed large tracts of land around and including Crow Creek Falls as the brand new Elkhorn Forest Reserve, which merged with the designation of Helena National Forest a few years later. Unfortunately, Crow Creek Falls was privatized in 1924 under terms allowed by the General Mining Act of 1872. This law, which simply handed public lands over to plunderers and private fortune-seekers, allowed three aspiring gold miners to sequester the area as they transformed it into a placer mine and scoured the land for pay dirt.
By 1978, the policy of happily accommodating the acquisitive aspirations of any idiot who fancied himself a miner began began to crumble and the Forest Service banned the use of motorized vehicles in this section of Helena National Forest, thereby halting construction of a road to the waterfall. Meanwhile, the original patented mining claim traded hands several times and was eventually sold in 1981 to a man named Robert Lynn. Because of changes to the 1872 mining law and the designation of a portion of the Elkhorns (including Crow Creek Falls) as a wilderness study area, Lynn’s request to divert the waterfall was placed on hold.
Tired of waiting for the bureaucratic wheels to turn, Lynn decided to more forward with his plans without approval. He posted “No Trespassing” signs and, over a period of years, flagrantly violated numerous restrictions placed on the claim, illegally blasted large sections of land, and constructed a road through the forest to the falls. He was arrested and fined repeatedly as he diverted the waterfall without permission and dredged the plunge pool. Unable to find much gold, Lynn then tried to sell the land; he even took out an ad in the Wall Street Journal. Local activists organized to purchase the claim to no avail. By 1989 Lynn was destitute, unable to pay thousands of dollars of court-ordered restitution for his illegally constructed road.
Bill and Russ Schneider devote an entire page to the sordid affair in their excellent book Hiking Montana:
The Forest Service let it happen. The Montana Mining Association let it happen. The politicians let it happen. They all let it happen because they felt they had to, because Crow Creek Falls was private land. … At best this law [the Mining Law of 1872] is an absolute embarrassment to a civilized society, and there is no better testimony of this description than the desecration of Crow Creek Falls.
For years, the fate of Crow Creek Falls remained in limbo. Several attempts by the Forest Service to buy the land fell through and the site was finally purchased in 2002 by the American Land Conservancy. After a protracted clean-up effort, the Forest Service finally acquired Crow Creek Falls in 2004, incorporating it (once again) within the Helena National Forest. Jodie Canfield has a much more detailed account of the waterfall’s outrageous story on the Forest Service’s website.
As for the hike itself, many guidebooks I’ve seen describe it as easy, but I’d say it’s really closer to moderate—mainly because there are a handful of rather steep grades (especially down to the waterfall itself) and narrow sections of talus rock alongside precipitous drops to the creek below. It’s certainly not a hike for anyone who suffers from vertigo. Getting to the trailhead involves a 15.3 mile drive along a fairly decent gravel road, which slowly deteriorates. Still, because the hike is relatively short and culminates with a spectacular reward, it seems to be very popular. We parked alongside at least ten other cars and passed many families with small children on the way down. Such heavy traffic has taken its toll on the land and the trail is lined with nearly as many dandelions and other alien weeds as it is Mountain Bluebells and Aster.
The waterfall’s immediate environs, moreover, might be an improvement since its days as a placer mine, but is nevertheless pocked with multiple informal fire rings, empty beer cans, and the visible degradation of frequent primitive campers. Leave No Trace principles expressly discourage people from setting camp in such close proximity to flowing water, but I’ve long ago realized that such considerations are simply ignored whenever a site is located within a short distance of the trailhead—four miles seems to be the magic number. Anything longer than that dramatically diminishes tourist appeal, thereby sparing the land an onslaught of irresponsible and obnoxious bipeds of various ages. In a region that boasts other more beautiful trails with better opportunities for solitude, it’s not a hike I intend to revisit in the future, but I’m glad we did it nonetheless.
Unfortunately the hamlet of Radersburg didn’t appear to appear to offer much in the way of local fare and neither did its sister town of Toston. Both were rather bleak looking communities containing nearly as many derelict cars as houses—though I was interested to learn that the iconic actress Mynra Loy grew up in Radersburg.
We settled on Peking for our post-hike feast, a Chinese restaurant in Three Forks located just across from the historic Sacagawea hotel. It was a spectacularly tacky little place, replete with artificial flowers and bamboo wallpaper but the food was probably the best Chinese I’ve had in Montana. Of course, the Kung Pao shrimp was about twice as expensive as its New York City counterpart, but one does get rather bored of Montana’s beer and burger culinary culture.
0.0 miles: Ample parking at the trailhead. Pay attention to mileage. Some guides suggest 17 miles of gravel road but my odometer read 15.3
0.7 miles: Cross Crow Creek.
3.0 miles: Crow Creek Falls.
6.0 miles: Return to trailhead.
Ⓐ Hiked by the author, May 28, 2017