Humbug Spires

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cons: None come to mind.

Fire Rings Destroyed: 1

Trash Removed: 2 plastic bottles

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

Description:

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

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

2.9 miles: Pass the ruins of an old cabin.

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

6.0 miles: Return to the trailhead.

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

Ⓐ Hiked by the author, August 12, 2015

Haystack Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pros: Very close to Butte; stunning views.

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

Fire Rings Destroyed: 1

Trash Removed: 2 plastic bottles, 1 plastic jug

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Still too much snow in mid-May.

Description:

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

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

5.0 miles: Return to the trailhead.

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

Ⓐ Hiked Attempted by the author, May 18, 2016

Leverich Canyon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trash Removed: 1 plastic bottle

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

Description:

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

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

1.75 miles: Abandoned mineshaft and cabin.

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

4.5 miles: Return to the trailhead.

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

Ⓐ Hiked by the author, May 13, 2016

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.

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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.

Description:

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.

Intersection

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

Paumanok, Land of Tribute

Although both Queens and Kings County are physically located on Long Island, the urban landscapes bear little resemblance their suburban siblings, Nassau and Suffolk. Together, these counties span the length of the largest island in the contiguous United States, a 118 mile protrusion beginning in New York Harbor and stretching out across the Atlantic just south of Connecticut. 18,000 years ago, as the continental ice sheet proceeded steadily south from Wisconsin, pulverising and dislodging stone and sediment, Long Island became a kind of geological dump—the terminal moraine marking the end of glacial advancement at the recession of the last Ice Age. Over the course of 10,000 years, tidal activity moulded the glacial detritus and seawater flooded the northern basin, thereby forming the massive estuary known today as Long Island Sound. In geological terms at least, Massapequa is more or less identical to New Haven, but I wouldn’t have been able to guess as much as I stepped off the train at the side of Sunrise Highway.

That quaint feature of smalltown America, the welcome sign, stood alongside the motorway, whitewashed and emblazoned with the usual symbols: local chapters of the Elks and Rotary Club, the Boy Scouts of America, the Massapequa Chamber of Commerce, the Knights of Columbus, etc. Just across the road I spotted a tower of chrome and smelled the sickly aroma of artificially-flavored pancake syrup: the Massapequa Diner. The parking lot was packed with shiny SUVs. One bumper-sticker read: “THE 2ND AMENDMENT: America’s Original Department of Homeland Security”—historical revisionism in 140 characters or less.

A procession of wrinkles, Keds, and aluminum walkers ambled from the parking lot up through the entrance. Having worked at Dennys for a hellish few months during college, I knew diners to be magnets for seniors, but the demographics of the clientele on this particular morning suggested a day out at the convalescent home. Against my best judgement, I had been drinking too much the previous night. A few potent Manhattan cocktails were now, only six hours later, stoking the latent migraine I could sense throbbing at my temples with greater and greater intensity. I got a table and ordered up a western omelet and a pitcher of water, hoping to thwart my fast-developing hangover.

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Scrambling at Breakneck Ridge

Manhattan’s population swells from 1.6 to 3.1 million during weekdays and much of this human tide flows through Grand Central Terminal, but at 6 AM this Memorial Day it was quite calm. Beams of artificial light filtered through the station’s enormous windows, casting orange shadows across the nave of this secular cathedral. Several police officers guided a German shepherd past two young tourists, allowing the canine to sniff plaintively at their backpacks. Newlyweds posed for a photographer beneath a massive American flag draped from the ceiling above the 42nd St. entrance. The photographer likely predicted an empty station early on a holiday morning and sacrificed sleep to capture the surreal memento: Grand Central Terminal occupied by no one else but them. Now he holds her above his head. Click, click. Now she waves bashfully as he looks on. Click, click. Now they wait for a gaggle of tourists to pass. Ok, now kiss. Captured.

The station is stubbornly devoid of benches—exiled some time in the mid-1940s to avoid being used as cots by the homeless—so tourists, commuters, and hikers all are forced to either stand or else line the walls and stairways with their bags and bodies. The dearth of benches had never been apparent to me before, but when you’re negotiating a coffee, newspaper, trekking poles, water bottle, and a train schedule all at once, it stands out.

I was bound for the Metro-North’s Hudson line, a route which, after passing through Harlem and the Bronx, clings to the eastern shores of the Hudson River, past the Palisades and along a shoreline that very quickly and quite unexpectedly becomes a shroud of green. The city  vanishes, replaced by a matrix of foliage that hugs the riverbank like a dense fog, concealing all within. The illusion is bracing, but a slight push in any direction would reveal the network of suburban towns and villages dotting the river from Westchester county on up. I got off just north of the town of Cold Spring at the Breakneck Ridge station, a tiny platform abutting the river, so small that passengers are made to disembark from the very last car. The Metro-North only services the station on weekends and holidays—and only a handful of times throughout the day at that—but it’s a wonderful convenience for hikers to access the eponymous trail. Continue reading

Staten Island Greenbelt Trails

When hiking in New York, I’ve usually chosen to leave the city limits. For my latest adventure however, I made my way to the Staten Island ferry at 6 AM and took in the wonderful harbor commute past the Statue of Liberty over to St. George, where I caught the S61 bus bound for the Greenbelt—a system of parks and woodlands occupying a large section of Staten Island’s interior.

The bus left me at the corner of Bradley and Harold, just a short distance from Brielle Ave., which abuts the Greenbelt along its central West side. According to my map, the longest of the Greenbelt’s trails begins here, just East of the College of Staten Island, a network of greenery hemmed in by ostentatious houses, SUVs, meticulously groomed lawns, and all the material trappings of suburban life. Staten Island is the only Republican borough in New York City and judging by the look of the neighborhoods, it could have been anywhere in Middle America. This was not a side of the city I knew.

The trail began with a slight ascent up towards the ruins of Seaview Hospital. After less than half a mile, I was confused to find myself in a construction site. According to the New York Walk Book, “this area has been targeted for a senior citizens’ development, and the trail will be relocated around the development once it has been complete.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have been completed yet. The blue blazes were extremely inconsistent and I retraced my steps to be sure I hadn’t gone wrong. Unable to find where the trail reconnected beyond the construction site, I decided to bushwhack through thick brambles, ripping my legs up in the process. So much for three miles an hour… an auspicious start to the day. Continue reading