WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — Looking at the map, it didn’t seem like it would take long to drive up and over the Castle Mountains in central Montana.
I was wrong, which is not unusual on my outings — just ask my family.
The winding road that climbs from Fourmile Creek, over the mountains and down to Hensley Creek took a couple of hours of weaving, bobbing and bumping along the Lewis and Clark National Forest road. But the view from the top looking south toward the Crazy, Absaroka, Gallatin and Bridger mountains seemed payment in full for eating so much fine dust on a hot day.
I’m not the only one to appreciate the view.
“It’s my favorite mountain range,” said Erin Fryer, writer and editor for the Lewis and Clark and Helena national forests.
Fryer, who has lived in nearby White Sulphur Springs for seven years, used to work as a range specialist for the forest, so she has spent a lot of time in the island mountain range just north of the Crazies.
“You get up on top and you have those beautiful views and there are tons of wildflowers in the meadows,” she said.
It’s a sentiment that’s long been echoed.
In an 1896 U.S. Geological Survey report on the Castle Mountains, the author wrote, “Though lacking in bold, jagged peaks, this mountain presents a pleasing type of scenery, while from its slopes the views of neighboring ranges are very impressive. The deep gorges that score the mountain and the upland parks and summit meadows are extremely picturesque.”
An odd mix
The Castle Mountains either got their name from the reddish shale ramparts rising out of the forest near the old mining town of Castle, or from the large rounded hunks of granite towering above the forest on the west side of the range, overlooking White Sulphur.
In geological terms, the mountains are an odd mix.
To the east, the Castle Mountains are mainly composed of sedimentary rocks built up when a shallow inland sea flooded the region — characterized by the outcrops of limestone and shale. To the west, the range is defined by a large extrusion of granite — which was once molten magma that cooled near the earth’s surface about 50 million years ago. The magma flowed upward from what’s called the Willow Creek thrust fault, pushing the sedimentary rocks to the side and creating the mountain’s high point, 8,589-foot Elk Peak. The fault is also credited with warming White Sulphur Springs’ namesake hot springs to 115 degrees.
But it is in the sedimentary rock that miners first discovered silver and lead in the mid-1880s near what is now the ghost town of Castle. Hensley Creek, which flows by the town, is named after the three Hensley brothers who were the first to develop the most successful mines in the area — the Yellowstone and Cumberland.
“Prospectors located about 1,500 claims, of which 15 to 20 became significant producers of primarily lead and silver, with some copper, gold, manganese and iron,” according to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s abandoned mine website. “The most important, the Cumberland mine, was the state’s largest producer of lead in 1891 … turning out 5 million pounds of bullion.”
Back then, as now, the mountains were far from any transportation hub to ease hauling to the ore market. When the United States slid into a depression in 1893, and the federal government overturned a law guaranteeing it would purchase silver, the mining area was devastated.
Castle plummeted from a town of almost 2,000 with 10 saloons to only a few hangers-on. Yet some of the patents are still being kept active by hobby miners. Ghost town devotees should know that the few remaining buildings are on private land, but can be seen from the road.
During the mining rush the “thrifty, pleasing little city” of White Sulphur Springs had boomed to 2,500 residents, but now the entirety of Meagher County has fewer than 2,000 residents, according to the last U.S. Census Bureau estimate.
Yet folks are still flooding into the Castle Mountains, now mostly to ride their ATVs or hunt elk.
“The Castles are actually one of our higher used areas on the forest,” Fryer said.
The eastern half, which is part of the Musselshell Ranger District, has fewer travel restrictions than the western half. Fryer said that makes it easier for retirees with second homes in the community of Checkerboard to hunt that side of the mountain range. After Oct. 14, the trails on the western side of the mountains are closed to ATVs, creating a more primitive hunting experience for those willing to walk or ride horses.
“You can run into some sizable herds on the west side, in the Manger Park area,” Fryer said.
Four main roads feed into the forest — two from the south, one from Checkerboard on the east and the other along Fourmile Creek from the north. The two developed campgrounds — Grasshopper Creek, which has 12 sites, and Richardson Creek, with three — are located on the north side of the mountains closer to White Sulphur Springs. There are also corrals at Richardson Creek, a popular campsite for horsemen. During the hunting seasons, Fryer said there are also a lot of dispersed campers along the creeks and side roads.
Richardson and Grasshopper are also the takeoff points for two hiking and horseback trails that climb up to 8,218-foot Beartrap Peak. The 10-mile round trip gradually gains about 2,400 feet as it follows Richardson Creek and weaves through stands of lodgepole pine and mountain meadows dotted with wildflowers, wild strawberries and huckleberries. Details on the route can be found in the “Hiking Montana” book by Bill Schneider.
Much of the mountain range’s lodgepole pine trees are 100 years or older, which has made them susceptible to mountain pine beetle infestations.
“The beetle kill in the Castles is one of the worst areas on the forest,” Fryer said.
The Forest Service is looking into possible removal of some of the dead trees, especially on the west side where Willow Creek, White Sulphur Springs’ water source, has its headwaters.
So whether its wildlife, camping, hiking, hunting, scenic views or a small taste of Montana’s mining history, the Castle Mountains — although tiny — provide a wealth of opportunity.