Permits at Two Medicine


We arrive at the tiny town of East Glacier around 3.00 PM after four hours in the car with an impatient two year old, passing garish tourist campgrounds and motels before taking the road into Glacier National Park. The Park complex is visible for miles before you arrive, a series of walls rising distantly on the horizon above fields beaten and dry under the relentless Montana sun.

When we pull in, the Two Medicine campground is abuzz with tourists of all kinds—families with small children running around in bathing suits, old couples, college kids. Someone is playing Led Zeppelin. Motorboats and SUVs fill the parking lot and the smell of grilled hot dogs wafts all around as I step into the small Ranger Station. Last March, I attempted to reserve 14 nights in the backcountry… but Glacier has seen record visitors in recent years and by the time I had submitted my application (within the first five minutes of the website opening), thousands of others had already beaten me to it. And so, a month later, the Park declined my reservation because “the sites on your application were full for the dates you requested.” Perfect. Fortunately, the Park retains at least half of the backcountry sites for walk-in requests and I had arrived here a day before setting out in the somewhat desperate hope that it would be possible to reserve 14 nights in person.

The Ranger Station is a small two room structure decorated with large maps, a white board where tourists have scrawled recent wildlife sightings (7/26 bighorn sh. 7/27 GRIZ!!!), and a large pair of antlers apparently belonging to an elk killed some time in the 90s by a Grizzly Bear near Two Medicine Lake. A young ranger sits at a small desk as three hikers, two bearded men and a woman, hover impatiently above him. By their “hiker trash” appearance (and unmistakable odor), these are not day hikers. Probably completing the Continental Divide Trail, I think. They’re negotiating with the ranger.

“Are you sure you can handle those miles? I can’t have you violating the permit.”

“Yeah, definitely, definitely.”

“And you have your passports with you for Canada?”

They nod.

“Good, I just need you to watch a short safety video.”

He shuffles the three off to a corner of the room with a small television and presses a red button. The video begins with a dramatic monologue: “You have entered Glacier National Park, home to towering forests, alpine tundra, and tender flowered grasslands…” The hikers chuckle softly among themselves and the ranger turns to me.

“Can I help you?”

I learn that it will not be possible to spend my first night at Oldman Lake after all (other walk-ins have nabbed the last spots) and decide to make it a longer first day to Upper Nyack Campground in the Coal Creek area instead. The Coal Creek area is the only part of the Park where “undesignated camping” is allowed (with a permit). If the other official backcountry sites are full, I figure it should be possible to get a day or two of undesignated camping without altering my trip substantially. And I’m right about this. Coal Creek Campground is full so I reserve two nights of undesignated camping followed by Beaver Woman Lake. The rest of my trip falls easily in place after that. Most people don’t plan trips for longer than two or three nights so vacancies open up once you secure the first few dates.

Counting every ounce.

The ranger prints my permit, which is peppered with special advisories just for me, including: ITINERARY NOT RECOMMENDED! And because I’m going undesignated for two nights,  there are  a few other matters to discuss. He hands me a small plastic item and smiles ironically.

“We can’t have undesignated campers digging catholes out there. You’re going to have to poop and pee in this and pack it out.”

It’s called a “WAG bag.” It chemically coagulates human excretion in handy little plastic wraps—and I have have absolutely no intention of using it.

“Oh, ok sure,” I say with as much conviction as I can muster.

“This means you’ll have to carry it with you until you reach the first trash can on your trip…” He looks over a large map on the desk. “…at Reynold’s.”

That’s six days into my trip. There is no way I’m carrying my own shit for six days, I think.

“Ok, no problem.”

Appeased, he has me watch the safety video. I’m interested in what it has to say about Grizzly Bears. Glacier has been the site of a number of fatal Grizzly attacks and they nearly always involve solo hikers—like me! Because of this, I have read and reread Stephen Herrero’s Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, so the video simply confirms what I already knew. Bears do not ordinarily pose a threat to humans. Attacks are rare for a reason. Taking a few measures to avoid confrontations is very simple, but everyone in Glacier is so palpably paranoid when comes to Grizzles that it was beginning to make me nervous.

I pay for my permit and, before leaving, ask about the hikers who had been ahead of me in line.

“Oh, that was just a stupid permit I issued. Shouldn’t have done it. They’re taking on too much.”

“How much?” I ask.

“90 miles in two days. It’s a one night permit. They’re hiking the entire park in two days.”

I wonder if they made it. 45 miles per day is insane mileage. It’s one thing on flat and easy terrain, but 45 miles in Glacier means a lot of elevation gain and loss per mile. 30-40 miles is doable—but 45? If they began hiking at 5.00 AM both days and maintained a brisk pace of 3 mph without breaks, they could have gotten to camp at 8.00 PM. And maybe that’s what they did. Who knows.

With my permits secured, we head back into East Glacier, book a private room at Brownie’s hiker hostel and get dinner at the restaurant next door. The 45-milers are already there eating copious amounts of food, as hikers do: large burgers all around and then huckleberry pie with double scoops of ice cream. Eavesdropping confirms they’re finishing the Continental Divide Trail. I wonder if they were deceiving the ranger about their mileage and really plan to take an extra day. It would save them money, certainly. But they don’t bring it up and, if anything, seem to be serious.

“I dig it,” one of the beards announces as he stretches his legs to leave. “Long miles, light pack, the end in sight. I dig it.”

Perhaps they managed 90 miles in two days after all.

Both hostel and restaurant are entirely staffed by European kids on a summer gig. They chatter in Polish, French, and German. They tell tell us there is no drinking allowed in the rooms, which I find a bit infantilizing, but whatever. As with the WAG bag, there is no way I can possibly agree to this and we spend the evening in a sweltering room trying to get Otília to sleep (she’s way too excited) over a few clandestine glasses of terrible boxed wine.

I have an extreme case of butterflies in the stomach. I’m here! I’m in Glacier National Park! I know the next two weeks will be wonderful, but the prospect of leaving my family always makes me a bit blue before I head off. Eventually we all fall asleep and I dream about being eaten by a family of bears.

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

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 more broken down cars than. 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 so 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 Montana History Wiki 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.

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.

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 15.11.59

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

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

DSC_0037 (1).jpg

Still too much snow in mid-May.


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

Maud S Canyon

Maud S. canyon is one of the most beautiful of the range. The stream fed by springs above comes with a roar over rocks and down timbers, and flows on over the valley. Wild roses flourish in tangled profusion and the rocks are hidden in some places by tall bushes of white syringa, whose blossoms perfume the air. —Anaconda Standard, 1906

Because of its sheer proximity to the city, the Maud S canyon trail is one of the most popular short day hikes in the Butte area. The small parking lot is usually full on summer weekends but people frequent the canyon throughout the year. Unfortunately, many inconsiderate dog-owners leave shit all over the trail, so watch your step.

Like pretty much everything else in Butte, the trail is named for a mine that once operated in the area. John D. Leslie of New York commissioned the mine in 1888 and local tradition suggests he named it Maud S after his daughter Maud. Historian Richard Gibson offers a different story:

A more likely origin for the name may be one of the most famous horses of the day, Maud S, “Queen of the Trotting Turf.” She was a Kentucky chestnut mare 15½ hands high, the world’s fastest trotter for more than a decade. Maud S set the record for the mile at 2 minutes, 10¾ seconds in 1880, a record that did not fall until 1891. She was owned by William Vanderbilt, son of railroad magnate Cornelius, who sold her to Robert Bonner in 1884 for $40,000. Anyone attuned to the racing world of the 1880s would have known of Maud S.

Screen Shot 2016-03-13 at 09.53.18

Leslie’s Log Cabin in Maud S Canyon – Anaconda Standard, August 12, 1906

Whether or not the mine (and perhaps his daughter) were named after a race-horse, the trail is definitely worth a trip. You can do the quick loop or else a longer out-and-back along the CDT. The first time I hiked the trail, I attempted to reach Our Lady of the Rockies via the CDT but ultimately couldn’t find the connector trail, though I came within a quarter mile of that obscene colossus.

As always, be prepared for encounters with wildlife. Mountain lions have been spotted in the canyon so if you’re hiking alone, be sure to make plenty of noise.

Payette Beardtongue

Payette Beardtongue (Penstemon payettensis) blossoms dot the trail in mid-summer.


0.0 miles: From the Saddle Creek Road parking lot, two trails ascend to the train tracks, to the right a straight shot along what appears to be a dirt road. To the left, gravel switchbacks.

0.5 miles: Trains tracks, followed by a fork in the trail 70 feet further. This is where the loop begins so it’s up to you which to take.

If you opt for the left, the Maud S Loop (Tr. No. 4816), the grade ascends moderately to views over the 90 freeway and Butte beyond. Taking the right , the eponymous Maud S Canyon trail (Tr. No. 4815), the trail ascends more gradually. The rest of this description assumes you took a right at the fork.

2.1 miles: You’ll arrive arrive at what appears to be a triangle intersection of trails. It’s all very well signposted. An extension was completed to the Continental Divide Trail in 2012. From this point, it’s another 1.5 miles. For the loop, follow signs to the vista. It’s just a short walk through a grove of birch trees.

2.25 miles: Great views of Butte and beyond.

3.52 miles: Loop trails intersect just before the train tracks.

Continue another half mile or so back to the parking lot.


An extension to the Continental Divide Trail was completed in 2012.

Trailhead GPS: 45°57’54.0″N 112°28’19.1″W
Elevation: 5584 ft.
Distance: 2.25 miles to the vista; ~4 miles loop
Maps: U.S.G.S. Homestake

Ⓐ Hiked by the author, July 3, 2015; March 18, 2016