The Belt Loop
BRETT FRENCH/Gazette Staff Upper Memorial Falls is just a short, half-mile hike off the Kings Hill Scenic Byway in central Montana. Belt Creek flows through Sluice Boxes State Park. A 7-mile trail winds up the bottom of the canyon, with several creek crossings along the way. mestone caps a mountain that towers over the upper end of the South Fork of the Judith River in the Little Belt Mountains. A resident mule deer warily watches visitors to the Porphyry Fire Lookout.

Think of it as the ultimate Labor Day loop. The route is through the Little Belt Mountains over the Kings Hill Scenic Byway to Sluice Boxes State Park and back along the South Fork of the Judith River. For outdoors folks it offers wildlife, waterfalls and limestone canyons. Along the way you can hike, fish, camp, mountain bike or ride your all-terrain vehicle. Travelers can do the journey in a jam-packed long day, or linger along at a leisurely three-day Labor Day pace.

Whatever the time frame, here is a way break up the trip that's as easy as 1,2, 3.1. King of the Roads This scenic tour begins at White Sulphur Springs, about 150 miles northwest of Billings. The turnoff for Highway 89 and the Kings Hill Scenic Byway begins three miles northeast of this small town known for its natural hot springs. (Hit the Spa Motel if you're into soaking).

Just a short way down 89, you'll find soaking of a cooler kind. Newlan Creek Reservoir, west of the highway, is the perfect place to float your boat, wet a line or go for a swim.

A quick glance at a map shows several campgrounds right off the highway. If you're looking for an out-of-the-way spot, consider the Moose Creek campground. It's small, only seven units, and isn't recommended for big rigs. But for tent and trailer campers it's a nice spot to get away from traffic. There are also a few undeveloped sites along the creek. The Forest Service charges $8 for a night of camping.

After sacking out at Moose Creek, hop back onto Highway 89 to the Kings Hill Summit (elevation 7,393 feet). At the top, turn left and drive to the Porphyry Fire Lookout. From the vantage point of 8,192 feet, visitors can see 120 miles and 12 mountain ranges on a clear day, according to fire lookout volunteer Shelly Milburn, 25, of Helena.

Milburn, who lives in the lookout five days a week during the summer, is working on a science fiction novel when not spotting smoke or chatting with visitors. Sightseers from as far away as San Francisco, Seattle, Colorado and Wisconsin have ventured to the out-of-the-way vantage point.

Don't be worried about your rig making it up the rutted and rocky road. Milburn's little Honda Civic makes it up no problem. If you arrive after Sept. 1, however, you'll have to climb to the top of the mountain, which is also the top of Showdown Ski Area. It's about 1 1/2 miles up.

Get to the lookout early in the day and you might see a mountain grouse and its brood picking gravel from the road, or the resident doe mule deer that feeds at the base of the lookout. Milburn says she's also seen three black bears this year.

After taking in the view, hop back on 89 and head north to Memorial Falls Trail No. 738. This short, half-mile hike over stone steps is a nice spot to cool off on a hot day. Cliffs closely guard this trail that even wee ones can negotiate. They'll enjoy playing in the small spring along the way, or picking some of the plentiful wild raspberries crowding the path.

The lower falls is an easy 10-minute walk. Follow the trail to the left up the hillside and around the cliff to reach the upper falls. It cascades about 15 feet from a copper-colored cleft in the stone.

The turnoff for the trailhead is just north of Many Pines Campground on the east side of the roadway.

Highway 89 continues on to the historic mining towns of Neihart and Monarch. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality's Web site ( www.deq.state.mt.us/rem/mwc/linkdocs/techdocs/41tech.asp) offers a wealth of information on the history of mining in these areas and the rest of Montana.

According to the site, Neihart was "a major silver producer in the state … producing about $16 million in silver between 1882 and 1929." Neihart, named after prospector J. L. Neihart, was founded shortly after ore was discovered in the area in 1881. The area was so remote, that mined ore had to be hauled by freight wagons, or pack trains to Fort Benton "where it was carried by steamboats on the Missouri River for shipment to Swansea, Wales, for treatment."

That sounds difficult, but at the Galt Mine just north of Neihart, miners had to drag ore down the mountainside in deer skins before it was transported to White Sulphur Springs by pack horses, hauled by wagon to Livingston, and then sent to Omaha or Kansas City smelters by rail, the Web site says.

Because of the history of mining and logging in the Little Belt Mountains, there are numerous side roads branching off from the scenic byway. The Forest Service has a detailed map showing bicycle routes and their elevation gain, along with other brochures on hiking trails and campground information. Contact the Kings Hill Ranger District in White Sulphur Springs for more information at (406) 547-3361, or log on to www.fs.fed.us/r1/lewisclark/2. Water walk After you've driven the Kings Hill Scenic Byway and explored some of its side trails, you may think: "It can't get any better than this."

Wrong.

Sluice Boxes State Park, about 23 miles north of Neihart, provides a near-wilderness experience along a canyon-lined stretch of Belt Creek.

The trailhead is just off the Evans-Riceville Road, at the northern end of the park. Just before the turnoff to Evans-Riceville Road is a scenic overlook of the canyon. Stop and see what you can expect to explore.

The creek's chalk and rust canyon walls climb 150 to 300 feet above the squiggly creek. The canyon is similar in appearance to the more popular, and harder to access, Smith River canyon, but with less water and less use.

"In some ways it's even prettier than the Smith because the cliffs are so tight," says Joe O'Neill, of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which manages the area. "It's a neat hike, that's for sure."

The state purchased 1,450 acres along seven miles of the creek that include the abandoned Great Northern Railway's Monarch Branch line. The track was built in 1890 and abandoned in 1945. The park was designated by the Legislature in 1974.

Most of the old railway bridges have been torn down, but remnants can still be found along the chokecherry, gooseberry and raspberry crammed route. Camping is allowed in the canyon after the first water crossing, but according to O'Neill the area sees little overnight use.

Most users of the park are day hikers and fishermen, O'Neill says, with a few inner tubers hitting the lower stretches. Rafts and canoes can negotiate the canyon early in the season, but be aware that the corners are tight and there are old railroad bridge pilings still staked in the creek.

According to the trailhead map, there are 11 crossings if you follow the creek all the way to the Logging Creek bridge on its southern end. When hiking in from the bottom, each creek crossing is deeper as the canyon becomes narrower. Bring your swimming trunks and shoes you don't mind getting wet. A stout walking stick is also helpful when crossing the fast, cold water.

Little kids would enjoy the lower stretch of the creek, but don't expect them to put up with multiple stream crossings.

There is an alternate trail into the canyon from above. After crossing Belt Creek continue down the Evans-Riceville Road to a turnout at the top of the canyon. The trail avoids the first three creek crossings before dropping down.

For more information on Sluice Boxes, log on to FWP's Web site at www.fwp.state.mt.us/parks/parksreport.asp?mapnum=16 or telephone the Region 4 office in Great Falls at (406) 454-58403. Judith River's scenic South Fork A taste of Charlie Russell country provides a panoramic climax to this loop through the Little Belt Mountains.

Russell, the noted Western artist, spent time punching cows along the South Fork of the Judith River, hanging out with his pal Jake Hoover.

The C.M. Russell Auto Tour pamphlet points out significant sites along the way. The pamphlet is available in Stanford at the Judith River Ranger District office, or call ahead at (406) 566-2292 and get a copy mailed out.

To reach Stanford from Sluice Boxes State Park, continue north on Highway 89 to its junction with Highway 200. Take 200 east to Stanford. After Stanford, and maybe lunch at the Basin Trading Post Deli, hop back on Highway 200 to Windham. From there, hit Route 541 south to Utica. At Utica take a right turn onto the gravel road that parallels the Judith River.

Along the way travelers can stop at the Judith River Wildlife Management Area (454-5840), just west of Sapphire Village. This is a winter range and calving grounds set aside for the Little Belt's elk herd. Further down the road, turn right up the Middle Fork of the Judith (Forest Road 437) to the old Judith River Ranger Station. Built in 1908 by Ranger Thomas Guy Myers, the Forest Service is restoring the interior of the red log building.

Just below the ranger station is a campground and trailhead for the Middle Fork of the Judith River.

Along the Middle Fork and adjacent Lost Fork, 87,000 acres have been recommended for wilderness designation by conservation groups, but for now remain simply a nonmotorized area.

Take Forest Road 437 back to Forest Road 487 and turn right to travel along the South Fork. Three campgrounds populate the lower end of the stream as it winds through cave-pocked limestone cliffs.

Burley Peak, with its limestone crown, dominates the view as travelers break out of the lower canyon and into a large alpine meadow. The mountaintop sits at about 6,200 feet. In the distance, Bluff Mountain cuts a sharp, white line across green, tree-carpeted slopes.

Hunters drive 487 to the top of the mountains in the fall in search of elk and deer. Much of the valley bottom is private, but side roads into national forest lands are abundant. Trailheads lead off into the upper portion of the river and into the Lost Fork of the Judith.

The road is well marked across the upper mountains. Follow the signs through meadows and clear cuts to Spring Creek, a campground just off Highway 200, nestled alongside chalk cliffs.

Drivers can negotiate the route from the ranger cabin over the top to Highway 200 in a couple of hours. It's about 35 miles from the first campground, the Fred M. Ellis Memorial Campground, to Highway 200. Or stop anywhere along the way to camp, hike, fish and take in the incredible scenery.

For more information on the route, contact the Judith Ranger District in Stanford. For more information on the Middle Fork of the Judith and its wilderness values, log on to the Montana Wilderness Association's Web site at www.wildmontana.org/MiddleForkJudith.htm

Labor Day weekend is the perfect time to negotiate this roundabout route, before the snow flies and summer comes to a ceremonial end. Or, if you already have plans, file away the idea for next year. The Belt Loop will still be round. Brett French can be reached at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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