Charleston Peak Loop

For Thanksgiving this year, we drove down to Las Vegas to see my brother. Frankly, I can’t stand the town. I don’t enjoy gambling and I loathe frat party culture. I regard The Hangover films as quasi-journalistic in that they unapologetically fetishize the (white male) juvenilia around which the city’s economy really does revolve. As a New Yorker in exile, it occurs to me that Las Vegas is what passes for culture West of the Hudson. Put differently, if New York City is the epicenter of American consumerism, “Sin City” represents its vulgar extremity—all spectacle, no taste. Trump must love Las Vegas.

On top of it all, the city’s flagrant disregard for basic sustainability strikes me as particularly obscene in our time of ecological crisis. This little patch of sand consumes far more water than nature would otherwise grant and Ed Abbey’s ruminations return to me:

Water, water, water. . . . There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount , a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, insuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.

A city where no city should be. When it comes to Las Vegas, this is a multilayered sentiment.

As soon as we met my family at the hotel, I began looking for ways to escape the oppressive kitsch that is the Strip. Unlike some cities of its size, it is very easy to get away from Las Vegas in Las Vegas. We had stopped at Valley of Fire State Park on the way down and did a couple of short but quite lovely hikes. We made plans to visit nearby Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area as well, a popular site west of the city maintained by the Bureau of Land Management. Red Rock Canyon sees 2,000,000+ visitors annually and Thanksgiving is the busiest time of the year, as I was told over the phone. I wanted to hike somewhere less saturated with tourists, however, and this is usually no more complicated than increasing the mileage. Flipping through a copy of Bruce Grubbs’s Hiking Nevada, I settled on a long but promising day hike to the summit of Mt. Charleston (officially Charleston Peak).

My Dad had recently been training for a marathon and decided to join me. 15 miles would have been more than he had ever hiked in a single day, but he was in good physical condition and felt up to the challenge. We scheduled our trip for the day after Thanksgiving. I had wanted to be on the road by 5.30 AM (the trailhead is about an hour’s drive) but Thanksgiving revelry kept us up until 1.00 so we delayed things a bit and arrived at the trailhead by 7.30.

The trail (FT 041) rises steadily from the Trail Canyon Trailhead at the edge of the small community of Mt. Charleston. Both mountain and town are named after the city in South Carolina, apparently by southern emigres who settled in the area.

Two miles from the trailhead, we intersected with the North Loop trail (FT 042) to the summit and continued to climb. My father was doing very well. Light snow covered the trail as we ascended, but nothing too serious. As the morning clouds began to clear, spectacular views emerged across the valley. We could make out our route all the way to the switchbacks up Mt. Charleston’s bald and rather unremarkable peak. From there, a ridge walk along the Spring Range would round the loop before a steep descent returned us to the valley floor a short walk from the car. Surveying the topography, it didn’t look like 15 miles to me. I suspected the guide was a bit off. Just a bit.

Old growth trees, large enough to resist the area’s frequent avalanches.

Because I didn’t know what to expect from my father and because I wasn’t sure how challenging the ascents would be, I had estimated a worst-case pace of 1.5 mph. If we started at 8.00 AM, that would have us summiting in the early afternoon and off the mountain by 6.00 PM.  A long day but probably realistic. I wasn’t hiking alone, after all.

At 11,916 feet, Mt. Charleston is the eighth highest in the state of Nevada. Strange as it sounds, I’ve never hiked at such altitudes (the peaks in my Glacier National Park trek were almost entirely in the 7,000-8,000 ft. range) and my Dad began to experience minor signs of altitude sickness. His fingers swelled and his breathing became labored. Our perfectly respectable initial pace of 2.5 mph slowly evaporated as the trail became higher and steeper. But it wouldn’t ascend indefinitely and I felt confident that we would make up time on descent. We were on course to easily beat my 1.5 mph worst-case estimate.

Then my Dad injured his knee.

As we began to switchback up to the summit, he stepped into a snowdrift and twisted his leg. A minor irritation in his knee became an excruciating pain. He could scarcely bend his leg, which made walking extremely difficult. According to my GPS we had already come nine miles. If the trail was 15.4, there was no point in turning back now that we were (supposedly) more than halfway through. We would press on. I tied a rudimentary knee brace for my Dad from a small towel and he began to hobble along throwing his lame leg ahead of him without bending it and then stepping forward with the bad knee locked. I also lent him my trekking poles, which prevented countless falls and additional injuries. Our new pace was excruciatingly slow but steady and we reached the summit of Mt. Charleston at about 2.30 PM.

At the summit.

Few mountains in this area rival Mt. Charleston for height and the views at the peak are certainly spectacular. One can see as far as Arizona and California. A small ammunition box at the summit is filled with souvenirs and tokens of hikers who came before us, including love notes, business cards, an empty beer car (which I packed out), photographs, and a small American flag with a tribute to fallen comrades in Vietnam. We took a few selfies before I insisted that we continue. Sunset was officially at 4.28 PM, less than two hours away.

At the height of the Cold War in 1955, a CIA transport plane crashed atop Mt. Charleston while headed to Area 51 to test the U-2 spy plane, killing all 14 passengers aboard. The wreckage still lies strewn upon the mountainside but we must have passed it without realizing because the sun was rapidly setting as we proceeded along the ridge.

Mile after mile we continued with no end in sight. Now my GPS said we had gone 14 miles! Through the burned forest along the ridge, we could see our car in the trailhead parking lot far—very far—below us at the base of the valley. It was dark by the time we got to the intersection with the Griffith Peak spur-trail and began a steep descent. The desert temperature was plummeting. With all my layers on, I pulled out my headlamp and began a ludicrous routine that was to be repeated without end throughout the night: I would run about 30-40 feet ahead of my father and then light his path forward, pointing out large rocks, roots, and other obstacles as I went. And then again and again, until increments of feet slowly became miles.

At one point, the trail spilled out onto a large flat spot atop a sheer cliff and I wasn’t sure which way it continued. I was suddenly jarred to hear a dog growling menacingly and noticed that it was coming from a small tent erected near the trail. Someone within quickly zipped up the flap as they realized they were not alone and the dog continued to growl. Hoping to avoid being mauled by a feral canine, I attempted to defuse the situation: “Hi, do you know which way the trail goes from here?”

After a long pause, a deep voice responded simply. “No.”

“Oh, ok. Thanks.” For nothing, I thought. We soon found the trail again and continued for another couple miles of icy switchbacks.

Following the trail at night was difficult, but easier than I would have expected. The moon had been full on Thanksgiving and it illuminated our way whenever the trees became thin, which was often. When we were forced to rely primarily on the dim light of my small emergency headlamp, however, it was absolutely essential not to lose our way—not that we would have been lost per se. Even without GPS our general course to the car was obvious and we could theoretically have made our way down the mountainside without the trail, but it would have been that much slower going overland and through heavier snowfall on this side of the valley. Moreover, I had not anticipated being out after dark and my Dad simply wasn’t dressed for it in shorts and a light hoodie. He wore no gloves and as the temperature was now 28 F, I worried about frostbite. I must have asked how he was doing at least several hundred times throughout the night, wondering when our circumstances might slouch towards an emergency. Fortunately, there was no wind or snow. Had there been, our situation may have been dire. As my Dad never once complained and, on the contrary, insisted that he was good to keep going, we simply continued at a glacial pace of slightly less than one mph.

Finally, around 10.00 PM with the GPS indicating 22.2 miles, we came the Cathedral Rock Picnic Area, where I had planned to leave leave my Dad and sprint the final 1.5 miles to the car. To my great dismay, as I ran the perimeter of the picnic area, I discovered that we were trapped inside the picnic complex. The 10-foot fence of vertical bars looked impossible to climb and I frantically searched for a way out. Obscured by trees near Kyle Canyon Rd., I found a section of fence that had been ripped from its joints and strewn nearby. The handiwork of local teenagers, perhaps? Or else other wayward hikers? Whatever the case, I took the opportunity and ran down the road until my lungs heaved and burned in my chest, past houses adorned with premature Christmas lights and silent driveways leading to garish mountain McMansions. I found the car sitting alone in the parking lot, started it up, and blasted the heater as I sped back to the picnic area.

It was possible to drive into the picnic areas, but after several fruitless efforts, it became obvious that the main complex was indeed fenced off. I left the car by a “no parking” sign near the section of errant fencing and, running in the darkness through one identical picnic area after the next, made my way (with no small amount of help from the GPS) back to my Dad. All the while, I was shouting, “Dad! Daaaaad!” Yet no one answered. Where was he? Was he in shock? Asleep? Arrested for trespassing by an overzealous recreation officer? As I approached the restroom where we parted, I apprehended a dark figure leaning casually against the structure.

“Dad?” I asked.

“Nope,” the figure responded in a listless voice that almost sounded like my father’s.

“Uh, Dad?”

“Oh, sorry Kris. I didn’t recognize you with the dog.”

It was him. Dog? He must have dozed off and been dreaming, which at least explains why he didn’t respond to my hysterical screaming. I apologetically explained our predicament and we hobbled the last quarter mile through the hole in the fence to where I had left the car.

It was some time before the heater penetrated our frozen bodies on the drive back to Las Vegas. All said and done, we hiked just over 22 miles in fourteen hours (not counting my road run)—a daily average of about 1.57 mph. My worst-case scenario pace turned out to be presciently accurate.

what WE did wrong

There’s no question that I screwed up on this trip. I wasn’t fully prepared for an outcome that would keep us on the mountain long after dark. We were lucky and I’m just grateful that our bad situation didn’t become an emergency situation. It was a stark reminder that poor planning opens the way to disaster.

Sure, I had a headlamp, a first aid kit, extra food, and a poncho for each of us—but I didn’t insist that my Dad bring proper layers and I lacked an extra layer myself in case the weather changed for the worse. What if it had been snowing or even raining? What if there had been a strong wind? What if it had been 10 degrees colder? If I thought either of us was facing hypothermia or frostbite, I would not have hesitated to press the SOS button on my Garmin, but we should have been better prepared.


0.0 miles: Begin at the Trail Canyon Trailhead at Mary Jane Falls Campground.

2.4 miles: Intersection with North Loop Trail. Keep left.

3.0 miles: Spring.

9.5 miles: Summit Charleston Peak. Continue on South Loop Trail.

17 miles: Spur trail to Griffith Peak.

22 miles: Trail terminates in Cardinal Rock Picnic Area.

23.5 miles: Return to Trail Canyon Trailhead.

Trailhead GPS: 36°15’58.7″N 115°39’30.8″W
Elevation gain: 4,190 feet
Distance: 23.5 mile loop
Maps: U.S.G.S. Charleston Peak; U.S.F.S. Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest – Spring Mountains National Recreation Area

Ⓐ Hiked by the author, November 23, 2018.

Mann Gulch

On a lonely mountainside, overlooking a particularly beautiful stretch of the Missouri River, lie a dozen concrete crosses.1 Fractured, sun-bleached, and barely visible through the dry grass, each of the tiny monuments is emblazoned with the name of a smokejumper who died here in the devastating Mann Gulch fire of 1949.

Even by Montana standards, Mann Gulch is a harsh and remote place. A steep ravine roughly two and half miles long, it spills out into the Missouri River 20 miles north of Helena in a section named the “gates of the rocky mountains” by Meriwether Lewis in 1805 after the immense limestone cliffs that line the river for several miles here:

this evening we entered much the most remarkable clifts that we have yet seen. these clifts rise from the waters edge on either side perpendicularly to the height of 1200 feet. … the river appears to have forced its way through this immense body of solid rock for the distance of 5-3/4 Miles … I called it the gates of the rocky mountains.

Abundant wildflowers in late spring.

More than a century and a half later, in 1964, this place was formally designated the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area by an act of Congress and is now managed by the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest. At only 28,562 acres, it is Montana’s smallest wilderness area, but the sheer beauty it contains—from sweeping mountain vistas to views alongside and well above the Missouri River—is truly astonishing. The tragic history of this area adds an additional layer of significance to the site, which is still regarded by many as an open-air mausoleum.

Their crosses are quiet and a long way off, and from this remove their influence is quiet and seemingly distant. But quietly they are present on every fire-line, even though those whose lives they are helping to protect know only the order and not the fatality it represents. For those who crave immortality by name, clearly this is not enough, but for many of us it would mean a great deal to know that, by our dying, we were often to be present in times of catastrophe helping to save the living from our deaths.2

Norman Maclean’s beautiful book, Young Men and Fire (Chicago University Press, 1992) is almost certainly the most comprehensive account of the Mann Gulch fire. Of the sixteen men who jumped into Mann Gulch on August 5, 1949, only three cheated death. Two managed to reach the Northern ridge of Mann Gulch before the fire caught up with them, while foreman R. Wagner “Wag” Dodge spontaneously innovated the use of an escape fire to avoid the conflagration by depriving it of fuel in the area immediately around him. Of the unlucky others, eleven mercifully suffocated before the fire consumed their bodies, while another two succumbed to extreme burns before dawn the next day.

The Forest Service learned a great deal from the tragedy and, as forest fires go, Mann Gulch’s legacy seems to have been more consequential than most. Besides improving safety standards with respect to communication and chain-of-command, Dodge’s successful use of his escape fire guaranteed the tactic a firm place in the canon of firefighting maneuvers. The importance of this innovation, can scarcely be overstated. As Maclean writes, “The Mann Gulch Fire,” Maclean writes, “would never have attained its preeminence in the history of forest fires if foreman Wag Dodge had not set his escape fire.”3

The Missouri River ascending from Meriwether Picnic Area.

For the hiker, this is a phenomenal trip, both stunningly beautiful and historically compelling. That said, it is an extremely strenuous route I chose, ascending relentlessly from the Missouri River Canyon Trailhead and then down to the Missouri River—more than 1100 feet in the first three miles. And this is all a mere prelude to the “fifteen-hundred foot precipice” ascending vertically from Meriwether Picnic Area up to the south slope of Mann Gulch. Fortunately the trail is very well maintained and the switchbacks ease the ascent tremendously. At the top of the ridge, there is an interpretive display detailing the Mann Gulch tragedy. From here the trail continues along the slope for another two miles to the north slope, where the tragic events unfolded and where the memorial now lies.

The complete out-and-back is about 20 very difficult miles and I would only recommend this route as a day trip to hikers in top physical condition. It is certainly possible to break the trip up  by spending a night at Coulter Campground or Meriwether Picnic Area. Approaching overland from the North, as described in Bill and Russ Schneider’s Hiking Montana, is probably a much easier trip out to the crosses, but their route wouldn’t provide the unrivaled views of the Missouri River on the way.

Coulter Campground, an idyllic spot along the Missouri River.

Finally, there’s the climate to consider. The Gates of the Mountains Wilderness is extremely dry and hot. In his “fire report,” Norman Maclean describes Mann Gulch as “one of the hottest hillsides in … one of the roughest pieces of country east of the Continental Divide.”4 That’s an accurate assessment. Already when I was there in early June, the sun was scorching. I cannot imagine attempting this trip in the heat of July or August, let alone fighting a raging wildfire in such temperatures. Except for the short section along the Missouri, there is no water to be had.

View of Beartooth Mountain from the ridge above the smokejumpers memorial.


0.0 miles: Begin at the Missouri River Canyon Trailhead (Trail 257) off American Bar Rd.

4.0 miles: Coulter Campground

5.0 miles: Meriwether Picnic Area. Ascend the near-vertical trail up to the top of the ridge.

6.0 miles: Devil’s Kitchen rock formation.

8.0 miles: Reach the top of the ridge, the south slope of Mann Gulch. There is a large interpretive display here detailing the tragedy.

10.0 miles: Smokejumpers memorial crosses. Henry Thol Jr.’s is the closest to the top of the ridge. This is the turn-around point unless you wish to explore the other memorials.

20 miles: Return to the Missouri River Canyon Trailhead.

Trailhead GPS: 46°49’06.0″N 111°53’53.3″W
Elevation gain: 1,500+ feet
Distance: 20 miles out-and-back
Maps: U.S.G.S. Upper Holter Lake, Beartooth Mountain; U.S.F.S. Helena National Forest Forest

Ⓐ Hiked by the author, June 6, 2018

1. While there were originally 13 erected at the site, David Navon’s cross was replaced with a marker bearing a Star of David in 2001 to reflect his Jewish heritage. 

2. Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2017), 246.

2. Maclean, 313.

4. Maclean, 224.

Sypes Canyon

June in Montana is still too early for hiking without snow-shoes above a certain elevation, so we settled on a popular Bozeman-area hike for our Saturday family excursion. Like many of the short trails around Bozeman, this four-mile out-and-back through Sypes Canyon is (unfortunately) a dual purpose trail. Mountain bikers abound—none of whom seem aware of their responsibility to give hikers right-of-way—and the trail displays all the erosive indications of “pedalphilia.” And yet the bikers, though irritating, barely register next to the steady stream of trail joggers periodically punctuating our morning saunter with shouts of “Excuse-me-can-I-just-get-by-you-thanks!” or, worse, the oblivious dog owners who permit their slobbering beasts to indulge in gratuitous and extremely non-consensual sniffs at our crotches while feebly muttering “It’s-OK-he’s-just-friendly.” Whatever the virtues of Sypes Canyon, solitude and quiet contemplation are not among them.

As a rule, I usually avoid trails that are either easily accessible from urban centers or that provide scenic rewards for less than four miles of effort. They always attract too many people and Sypes Canyon falls into both categories. From trailhead to overlook, the Sypes Canyon Trail ascends a paltry two miles and so it was, predictably, one of the most crowded trails I have ever hiked, easily rivaling the notorious first mile of New York’s Breakneck Ridge. If Butte is the town of aging opioid-addicted Wobblies and Missoula that of man-bunned gluten-free hippies, Bozeman is populated by the kind of people one suspects take their membership at REI very seriously. At times, the procession of brand new gear on display (by human and canine alike) led me to wonder if we had accidentally stumbled into some kind of immersive photo shoot for outdoor casual wear. Because of its extreme popularity, the trail is heavily worn—compacted 10 feet wide in places!—and frequently pocked with hitchhiking dandelions.

Larkspur is abundant in the Spring.

But enough of my complaining. If you can resign yourself to the crowds, the trail does offer a beautiful array of wildflowers, particularly Low Larkspur (Delphinium bicolor) at this time of year and Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata). The scenic lookout, moreover, provides wonderful views of Bozeman across the Gallatin Valley and out to the Madison, Gallatin, and Tobacco Root ranges beyond. (When we were there, the view was slightly diminished by two young men blaring a radio while practicing their boxing moves and a dog that nearly ran off with my daughter’s lunch.) As the trail connects with the Bridger Foothills National Recreation Trail, there are many options for those interested in a longer outing.

Unfortunately, the origin of the name “Sypes” eludes me. I would suppose that the canyon takes its name from a family that may have lived in the area, but a cursory search produces nothing obvious. A Sypes family seems to have been involved with gold mining in Atlantic City, Wyoming and perhaps some of their relations settled in Montana, but this is just speculation. Moreover, no one by the name Sypes is listed in Bozeman’s White Pages, though there are a number of “Sipes” in Bozeman and throughout the state. As Sipes is itself an anglicization of the German surname Seip, it might simply be a case of the spelling evolving over time.

Sagebrush rebellion.


0.0 miles: Begin at the Sypes Canyon Trailhead, walking past the sign along a grassy fenced corridor.

0.5 miles: Reach the top of a ridge before descending into the canyon.

1.0 miles: Curve right along the edge of the national forest boundary.

2.0 miles: Scenic lookout. Turn-around point.

4.0 miles: Return to the trailhead.

Trailhead GPS: 45°44’42.8″N 111°00’28.6″W
Elevation gain: 1,000 feet
Distance: 4 miles out-and-back
Maps: U.S.G.S. Bozeman, Kelly Creek; U.S.F.S. Custer Gallatin National Forest Forest

Ⓐ Hiked by the author, June 2, 2018

Convento dos Capuchos to Monserrate

We’re in Portugal for a few weeks visiting family and I thought it might be fun to look into hiking here. Like much of Southern Europe, the concept of recreational walking is thought to be more than a little odd. Walking for fun? This mentality is slowly changing however and the country now boasts at least one long-distance trail. Still, there is no comprehensive hiking guidebook for the country and only after a careful search was I able to find an out-of-print book by the small Cornwall based Pili-Pala Press entitled Walking in Portugal (2nd ed. 2000). As my partner’s family lives near the coastal town of Cascais, just a short drive from the picturesque Sintra region, we decided to give their Sintra walk a try.

This walk begins in the town of Colares on the N247, the main road through Sintra to the coast, but it quickly leaves tarmac behind and ascends into the lush greenery for which Sintra is so well known. Through cascading flowers, cork groves, and aromatic eucalyptus, the path winds among ruined villas, magnificent old quintas, and sleepy mountain villages.

The Convento dos Capuchos resembles something out of a fairy tale and is worth a visit whether or not you choose to show up on foot. Founded in 1560 by Franciscan monks, the devout inhabitants had a clear-eyed ecological sensibility and the structure seems to rise organically out of the earth. Frivolous ornamentation is completely absent and the rooms are impossibly small, almost as if a colony of hobbits or some other diminutive creatures might have once inhabited the tiny cork-lined cells.

The Convento dos Capuchos

The walk from the convent to Monserrate is rather more confusing as it passes through a matrix of forestry roads—some active, others not so much. I’ve done my best to indicate the route below, but I mainly relied on intuition. We didn’t have the energy to explore Monserrate and instead pushed on to complete the loop, but I’ve heard great things about the 18th century English garden. The town of Gigueirós is a particularly idyllic spot with bougainvillea-lined stone walls and beautiful views across the valley.

There’s something nice about taking a break from wilderness hikes to undertake a lazy walk on old village paths. Barring a few aggressive dogs and their aloof owners (a good reason to carry a walking stick), it was a wonderful day.


0.0 miles: Begin walking south along Rua José Franco da Costa at the intersection of the N247 and the N375 in Colares.

0.1 miles: Pass a church to the right, the Capela da Misericórdia de Colares ou Antiga Capela da Família Melo e Castro, then continue past the square as the road becomes first Rua da República and then Rua Dezasseis de Infantaria.

0.25 miles: Turn left at the Rua das Flores, a small road that quickly becomes a dirt path.

0.7 miles: Take a left at a T-junction marked with an azulejo tile sign as Caminho Boca da Mata. Shortly afterward, note a fork running off the left signposted Caminho do Rio Velho. This will be your return route (see mile 6.12), so ignore it for now and continue straight ahead. There was an enormous pile of manure for sale at the fork when I came through.

Ongoing deforestation in this stretch might be confusing, so just ignore any small roads and paths and stick to the main track. Shortly after crossing the valley, take a right turn uphill so that you are almost doubling back on yourself. Unfortunately, there are no signs to the convent, but you should eventually pass a small reservoir on the left.

Charming azulejo tiles mark your route.

1.8 miles: Pass straight through a series of forestry roads.

2.0 miles: Pass a gate at the Convento dos Capuchos picnic area. The complex used to be accessible here. No longer. To tour the convent, you must continue to the main entrance.

2.17 miles: Turn right at the junction for a short walk to the main entrance to the convent. A large stone wall should be on your left and you will pass a spring (convenient for refilling water).

2.35 miles: Arrive at the Convento dos Capuchos. When you’ve finished at the convent, continue to Monserrate by retracing your steps with the stone wall now on your right and staying straight at the junction.

Pathfinding in this section can get tricky very quickly because of all the crisscrossing roads. At one time, there were white blazes marking the road to Monserrate, but forestry seems to have obliterated these guides.

2.67 miles: Pass a white building to the left as the trail slopes downhill.

2.75 miles: Keep right at the fork in the road. Stay on the main track, ignoring side roads.

3.0 miles: Pass a pond on the right, the Lagoa dos Mosqueiros (Mosques Lagoon). A path from the right intersects with the trail but stick to the main path. Soon after, ignore a couple of roads heading left.

Note: If you have a copy of Walking in Portugal, bear in mind that my path through the woods at this point between the convent and Monserrate deviates slightly because the dirt roads seem to have changed in the last 17 years.

3.4 miles: Arrive at a three-pronged fork and take the center path, which quickly becomes a cobblestone road. Follow this road downhill past a couple of ponds and several interactive signs with information about the local ecology. There is a small parking area and you may encounter some tourists before passing a green gate and arriving at the N375.

3.72 miles: Take a right at the Rua Barbosa do Bocage (N375) and walk a short distance to the main entrance of Monserrate. When you are finished at Monserrate, walk back along the road (stay alert for cars!) and continue past the point where you emerged a short while ago.

4.24 miles: Pass the gate to a large estate named Quinta da Capela.

4.32 miles: Just before passing a house on the road (part of the Quinta da Capela) take the dirt road heading uphill to the left.

4.43 miles: Stay right at the fork. The left is marked Proprieda da Privado (private property). Keep to the right after passing an old reservoir.

5.0 miles: Emerge from the forest before a wooden gate and turn right into the small village of Gigueirós along the Caminho de Rio de Milho.

5.17 miles: Take at left the intersection and continue through town. Once you leave the town, the tarmac road becomes dirt once more.

5.5 miles: Pass the gated entrance to the magnificent Quinta do Carmo. The trail hugs the perimeter wall of this converted convent and offers views across the Quinta’s citrus orchards and gardens to Colares beyond.

6.0 miles: Follow the azulejo tile sign indicating the Caminho do Rio Velho. The path becomes cobblestone, passes a few houses, and crosses a stream.

6.12 miles: Keep right at the intersection with Caminho da Boca da Mata (see mile 0.7) and keep right again at the azulejo a short while later to return to Colares.

6.6 miles: Arrive back in Colares and retrace your steps another quarter mile through town to the N247.

Click to view the waypoints in Google Maps.

Trailhead GPS: 38°47’58.3″N 9°26’40.8″W
Distance: 6.8 mile lollipop
Maps: Parque Natural de Sintra-Cascais

Ⓐ Hiked by the author, July 14, 2017.

Stanton Lake

My mother was in Montana recently to see her granddaughter (now 15 months!) and as she orients her travel plans around the timeshares she owns, she booked a stay at Whitefish Mountain Resort—just days before they officially opened for the summer season. The place was deserted, but we made the best of it and tried to determine which area hikes it would be possible to do so early into the season. The last time my parents were around, we hiked Leverich Canyon, just outside of Bozeman. It was May then and we slogged through quite a bit of snow, much to the irritation of my father, who suffers from a kind of mild basophobia. Each of us slipped and fell down at one point or another, which wouldn’t have been quite so concerning if I hadn’t had a dozing two-month-old strapped to my chest! My mother was adamant: this time around, snow was out of the question.

The first day in Whitefish, we attempted the well-known Danny On Memorial Trail to the summit of Big Mountain, but our plans were stymied by snow (as expected). Still, that trail was teeming with wildflowers for the first two miles and the ski slopes we passed along the way offered great views of Whitefish Lake and Kalispell beyond.

Searching the internet for easy early-season hikes that evening, we came across Stanton Lake, a leisurely 2.8 mile out-and-back to a beautiful lake in the Great Bear Wilderness, which borders Glacier National Park on the south side of US-2. The trailhead is almost immediately after the Stanton Creek Lodge, just a short drive (about 15 miles) beyond West Glacier, the gateway to Glacier National Park. This is a fairly popular trail and we encountered several people carrying fishing rods up to the lake. More concerning is the conspicuous damage done to the beargrass along the trail. Unattractive patches of decapitated plants mark the route nearly the whole way.


Stanton Lake (view of Stanton Glacier obscured by clouds)

Once you arrive at the lake, the trail runs along the western shore, so the day hiker has the option to continue or turn around. Typically, this hike culminates with excellent views of Stanton Glacier and Great Northern, but the glacier was sadly obscured by clouds on the day we were there. More’s the pity considering the glaciers in this area are rapidly melting thanks to climate change.

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T.W. Stanton (1860-1953)

As for the origins of the lake’s name (also shared by the nearby glacier, mountain, and creek), I cannot be absolutely sure. However, a scientist by the name of Timothy William Stanton seems to have taken a number of photographs of the glaciers in and around Glacier National Park for the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

Stanton was a paleontologist who specialized in the study of Cretaceous invertebrates. A 1954 obituary in Science called him “one of the outstanding figures of American geology.” It seems likely, given this connection, that Stanton Glacier was named after the man.


T.W. Stanton’s photograph of Grinell Glacier in Glacier National Park. Taken in 1911, the glacier has retreated significantly since then.

Today the Smithsonian Institute hold Stanton’s papers and their file describes his career:

His 46-year career with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) began in 1889 when he was appointed Assistant Paleontologist to support the work of Charles Abiathar White. By 1903 he had advanced to the position of Chief of the Section of Paleontology and Stratigraphy, USGS. In 1932 he became Chief Geologist, USGS, and remained in the position until his retirement in 1935. For many years, Stanton also acted as Chairman of the USGS Committee on Geologic Names. He also served as Custodian of Mesozoic Invertebrates, Department of Geology, United States National Museum (USNM) from 1894 to 1953.Stanton’s career with the USGS was marked by extensive field research, especially in the western and southwestern United States. He was active in the geological profession and served as President of the Paleontological Society in 1921. In the same year he served as Vice-President of the Geological Society of America.

As always, please let me know if I’m wrong about the name. If there’s another Stanton, I’d very much like to know about it. Until then, I’ll assume this beautiful lake is named after an obscure mustachioed turn-of-the-century paleontologist/photographer.


0.0 miles: Ample parking at the trailhead.

0.9 miles: Intersection with Grant Ridge Trail. Keep right.

1.2 miles: Stanton Lake; trail continues along the western shore.

2.4 miles: Return to trailhead.


My route highlighted in green.

Trailhead GPS: 48°24’00.0″N 113°42’54.4″W
Elevation gain: ~260 feet
Distance: 2.4 mile out-and-back
Maps: U.S.G.S. Stanton Lake; Great Bear Wilderness Complex Map; Flathead National Forest Map

Ⓐ Hiked by the author, June 13, 2017.

Crow Creek Falls

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.


Mountain bluebells.

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.


Crow Creek Falls

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.

Crow Creek Falls.png

My route highlighted in green.

Trailhead GPS: 46°19’17.2″N 111°45’46.0″W
Elevation gain: ~500 feet
Distance: 6 mile out-and-back
Maps: U.S.G.S. Crow Creek Falls; Helena National Forest Map

Ⓐ Hiked by the author, May 28, 2017

The Trask Lakes

The Trask Lakes lie in the Flint Creek Range just west of Deer Lodge but unless you have a high clearance vehicle, getting there is a bit stressful. The last 12 miles or so traverses dirt roads ranging the spectrum of quality from moderate stretches of cow shit-scattered gravel to what might be described as bisections of miniature ravines. I kept my Chevy Spark in first gear for at least the last five of those miles and still felt a bit uneasy about it. Fortunately, the weather was fine, because I would have aborted the trip in more uncertain conditions.

This is a simple out-and-back hike to Lower Trask Lake with options for camping and fishing at the lakes, which are scattered across a large basin above Rock Creek Lake (really a reservoir). While the hike is rewarded with excellent views, getting there involves a fairly humdrum forest walk. Though very well maintened by the Forest Service—foot bridges are conveniently placed over streams and muddy banks—the trail is littered with loose stones, nearly causing me to twist an ankle on several occassions.

The path closely follows Rock Creek for most of the way, which means water is abundant. I filled up at the lake for my return trip, but could easily have dispensed with more water weight than I did at the outset, simply filling up as needed from the numerous streams. I can’t imagine what the conditions are like in the early summer, but I’d guess very, very wet.

Once you arive at the lakes, the trail continues alongside several others, making for good additional trips if you choose to camp. The fishing is said to be excellent. Alas, that was not my intention and after snapping a few pictures, I headed straight back.


It took me a bit of effort to dig up any information on the lakes’ namesake, but I seem to have found it at a defunct school in nearby Deer Lodge: the Montana Collegiate Institute, which opened in 1878. As the Monta Historical Society explains:

The nonsectarian, coeducational college offered both high school classes and a classical graduating course “as comprehensive and thorough as that of most seminaries and female colleges.” Architects H. DeWitt and Henry L. Gay of Chicago designed the institute’s first building. However, the building committee stripped the design of much of its ornamentation after it received the initial construction bids.

Unfortunately, the institute closed within a year under financial strain and was acquired by the Presbyterian Church, which opened a private liberal arts college on the site and, in 1883, renamed it the College of Montana. In the process, they also named the original building at the site Trask Hall for a Mr. Alanson Trask of New York City, who balanced the remaining $6,000 of debt incurred by its construction and paid the salary of the school’s first president for a period of three years. The Reverend George Edwards’ describes the affair:

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Despite the monetary salvation he seems to have bestowed upon the school, there’s no evidence I can find that Alanson Trask remained in Montana for very long or established any further connection with the territory.

The College of Montana eventually closed in 1900 and exchanged hands several times reopening intermittently until 1917, when the school was shuttered for good. In 1982, Trask Hall was listed in the Register of Historic Places.

I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to conclude that the lakes lying only a few miles to west of the school were also named after the mysterious benefactor from New York. It would be a pretty amazing coincidence if not.

UPDATE: In the comments, Matthew Trask writes that the lakes were actually named after his grandfather, Frank Trask. The Trask family seems to have roots in the area going back to the 19th century. I wonder if there’s any connection to Alanson Trask? It looks like the family came from England in the 16th century and settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where they remained for several generations. At some point, a branch of the family headed West—as far as Wisconsin and Iowa and later out to Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. It seems likely that the Deer Lodge Trasks are one branch of the same family and perhaps it was a this connection that brought Alanson Trask through the area to begin with (maybe even establishing enough of a connection to inspire his philanthropy). Whatever the case, Alanson also visited Yellowstone National Park during his stay in the region and an obituary in the New York Times notes that he was a “great traveler.” The moral of the story: I really wish the federal government had easily accessible records noting the origins of place names!

When I made it back to Deer Lodge, I searched in in vain for a decent place to eat. Most of the restaurants were closed or shuttered. Someone pointed me to the Broken Arrow Steak House and Casino, a dingy, dark, and depressing dive with a handful of slot machines and a dining room like something from a 1980’s B-western. Several emaciated octogeniarians ordered up a round of Sex-on-the-Beaches and broke change, they announced, to continue on their “lucky streak.” Several cheered as one man counted his winnings and had them faithfully dispensed by the young woman at the bar—$1,400 in fifties. Meanwhile, I sat contently with a burger of adequate quality and a local IPA, while the spokesmen for the hunters on a television reality show silently explained the secrets of their sanguinary art.


0.0 miles: The parking lot at the trailhead is quite small. From there proceed along a jeep track for half a mile.

0.5 miles: Rock Creek Trail 8053 begins at the boundary of the Forest Service’s land. A sign indicates mileage to the Trask Lakes as well as Thompson Lake.

2.3 miles: Turn left at the junction with Trask Lakes Trail 8063, unless you plan to visit Thompson Lake.

6.3 miles: Arrive at Lower Trask Lake. From here, you can explore the other Trask Lakes as well as nearby Elbow Lake or retrace your steps back to the trailhead.

12.6: Return to the trailhead.

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My route highlighted in green.

Trailhead GPS: 46°24’58.5″N 112°57’30.4″W
Elevation gain: ~1,750 feet
Distance: 12.6 mile out-and-back
Maps: U.S.G.S. Rock Creek Lake, Pike’s Peak, and Pozega Lakes; Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest Map (North)

Ⓐ Hiked by the author, August 26, 2016

Hollowtop Lake

After a couple of months abroad, it’s good to be back in Montana during the glorious month of August. For my 32nd birthday, we headed to the tiny (ghost) town of Pony, a gateway to the Tobacco Root Mountains with convenient access to a large swath of the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest.

Named for an early prospector of an unusually small stature, Pony was a 19th century gold boom town with a population of 5,000. Today, it’s a registered ghost town with about as many crumbling buildings as it has occupied. As one guide to rural Montana explains:

Pony’s early population reflected the whims of the gold seekers, growing larger when a miner struck pay dirt and dwindling when someone found a bigger lode somewhere else. By the 1880s, mines like the Boss Tweed and the Clipper were yielding fortunes in gold ore.

It didn’t last. By 1918, the population fell to only 300 and Pony today is a bleak little town with a miniscule population, a collection of old houses, empty shops, and a single bar. Still, it’s a haunting place, full of decaying charm. As one might imagine, the town has its share of amusing tales. Many seem to revolve around a former Marshal of the town, William B. Landon, who was known for his interest in rock chiselling.

Once of the marshal’s enduring works can be found near the town of Potosi, where he scrawled “One Mile to Hell.” Near the city dump is another Landon masterpiece consisting of strange letters, Landon’s initials, a Maltese cross, and the date of 1921. Rumor has it around Pony that the marshal did it all as a joke, thinking some of the more gullible would think it was a secret treasure map.

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If you’re interested in reading more about Pony, there’s a good overview in Ghost Towns of the Northwest, by Norman D. Weis.

So much for Pony.

The main street eventually transforms into a dirt road winding past the ruins of former dwellings to the North Willow Creek Trailhead. We followed the 12.5-mile loop route described by Bill and Russ Schneider in their excellent guide Hiking Montana, but it can easily be adapted for an overnight backpacking trip or a shorter out-and-back day hike. Hollow Top Lake has great fishing (so I hear) and the surrounding area would make a pleasant spot to camp. It certainly offers easy access to other trails leading to lesser subalpine lakes as well as Hollowtop, Jefferson, and Potosi Peaks.

At 10,604 ft., the peak with which Hollowtop Lake shares its name is the tallest in the Tobacco Root Range. My suspicions as to the origins of the name “Hollowtop” were confirmed in a book I found on Montana place names, which emphasizes “the peculiar bowl-shape the mountain presents when viewed from the north or northeast.”

After an initial 1.5 miles along a two-track ATV road, this is a nice forest walk through groves of spruce and fir. Best of all, it’s mercifully devoid of people during the week. Though a sign at the trailhead welcomes ATVs, we didn’t see (or hear) any. The only people we encountered were a handful of horseback riders led by a guide, likely tourists on a chartered trip.

The trail ascends slowly up to a beautiful lake basin and finishes with a stunning ridge walk featuring excellent views of the Tobacco Root Range. Water is abundant thanks to the proximity of North Willow creek—though the last four or five miles are dry so plan accordingly. The trail passes over the creek at several points and crossings might be difficult in the spring or early summer.

I thoroughly enjoyed this hike. The only real downside is the ubiquitous presence of cows—and their inevitable mounds of shit. Cows were the only fauna of any size we encountered, which was a bit disappointing. The full spectrum of fecal dessication was on display from the fresh and steaming to the dry and flakey, forcing us to watch where we walked. The stench was overpowering at times. Still, this is a minor issue for an otherwise wonderful trail.

By the time we returned to the trailhead, hunger had set it so we thought to try the fare at The Pony Bar. Unfortunately, the kitchen was not yet open at 4.30 P.M. so we drove to the (slightly) larger community of Harrison instead and enjoyed a meal at the the Town Haul Diner before heading back to Butte.



Hollow Top Lake


0.0 miles: N. Willow Creek Trailhead. Begin at North Willow Creek Trail 6301 at the northwest side of the parking lot, near the privy.

1.5 miles: Keep right at the junction with Albro Lake Trail 6333.

2.0 miles: Pass through a barbed wire fence gate.

4.0 miles: Keep right at the junction with Potosi Peak Trail 6365 to continue on to Hollow Top Lake. The sign here is a bit confusing. When we came through it looked like someone had messed with the trail numbers. Just keep right. The trail should start climbing more steeply and become fairly rocky for the last stretch up to the lake.

5.0 miles: Reach Hollow Top Lake. The area around the lake has some good camping areas andturn around and retrace your steps one mile back to the junction with Potosi Peak Trail 6365.

6.0 miles: Turn right at the junction with Potosi Peak Trail 6365 and continue past Trail 6306 not long after after. (Bear in mind, Trail 6306 is not indicated in the description printed in Hiking Montana, so always refer to current maps.)

7.5 miles: Turn left at the junction with Albro Lake Trail 6333, an ATV road.

8.5 miles: Keep left at the junction with Trail 6303.

9.0 miles: Keep right at the junction with Loop Park Trail 6302 and enjoy the stunning scenery along this ridge. The trail in this stretch is not always clear. Remain alert and follow the wooden posts. Somewhere around mile 11.5, you pass over another barbed wire fence gate before switchbacks take you back down to the parking lot.

12.5 miles: Finish at the Loop Park trailhead on the opposite (southwest) side of the parking lot from where you began.

Hollowtop Lake Map.jpg

Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest Map (Central)

Trailhead GPS: 45°39’01.0″N 111°54’36.0″W
Elevation gain: ~2,500 feet
Distance: 12.5 mile loop
Maps: U.S.G.S. Pony and Potosie Peak; Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest Map (Central)

Ⓐ Hiked by the author, August 12, 2016

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.


An abrupt end to a beautiful trail.


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 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


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


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