Hiking on the Palisades Trail, just minutes from downtown Red Lodge, is a sensory delight.
Shoes crunch on dried pine needles, releasing a pungent scent. A light breeze blows through the pine and aspen trees, mimicking the sound of a rushing river.
Thick green foliage softly brushes against a hiker’s legs, and a variety of wildflowers in a rainbow palate of colors dots the landscape. At one point next to the trail, a half-dozen brown, black and white butterflies feast on the nectar of a cluster of yellow flowers.
Looking up, jagged gray limestone rocks jut out of the forest, contrasting against the blue sky.
“You can see these limestone crags, these palisades, all around here,” said Grant Barnard, who’s along for the hike.
Barnard points out a limestone kiln, one of several in the area that 60 years or more ago were used to process limestone.
“You see the palisades all the way from the Wyoming border — they kind of wrap around the edge of the mountains all the way up to Nye,” said Barnard, president of the Beartooth Recreational Trails Association.
In addition to operating the Red Lodge Nordic Center in the winter, the association promotes and helps build, maintain and resurrect trails along the Beartooth Front.
Hiking, he said, encourages an active lifestyle, so it’s good for the health, “and it’s really enjoyable.”
“People come to visit and I tell them ‘I have a long list of places I
want to show you,’ ” Barnard said. “And there’s more being created all the time.”
The BRTA has produced a brochure that lists hiking trails near Red Lodge. Some, like the Palisades Trail, are relatively easy. Constructed by the U.S. Forest Service, the 3-mile trek includes a gentle uphill 700-foot gain.
More challenging, Barnard said, is the Mount Maurice Trail, which starts four miles south of Red Lodge and takes hikers up a 3,000-foot incline to the Line Creek Plateau.
“There are a lot of trails around here in the Beartooths that have easy access to the plateaus,” he said. “Those are difficult in most people’s books.”
Jeff Gildehaus, recreation planner for the Beartooth Ranger District based in Red Lodge, said people can find a number of day hikes that go into the wilderness, as well as some newer trails the Forest Service has built closer to Red Lodge.
“We’re trying to provide an opportunity so people can connect without having to drive from Red Lodge, or close to that,” he said.
Palisades, the newest, was built in 2013. It was constructed primarily through a volunteer partnership with the BRTA, Gildehaus said.
“In a time of reduced budgets and things like that, it’s hard to be able to build new trails,” he said. “But where we can get a partnership, like the one with the Beartooth Recreational Trails Association, that’s a nice connection.”
BRTA paid for Montana Conservation Corps employees to work on the trail. Forest Service workers joined in as well.
A trail’s difficulty depends on the hiker, Gildehaus said, but he mentioned three that might be considered easy, moderately difficult and hard.
For an easy hike, Gildehaus suggested the Silver Run Trail, which is 2.7 miles south of Red Lodge, off of West Fork Road. The trail has an elevation change of just 200 feet.
For medium difficulty, he suggests the west fork of Rock Creek Trail. That also is off West Fork Road, in the other direction. The distance hikers go on that trail can range from 10 to 19 miles, depending on how far they want to go.
“It’s a little more difficult; it’s in the wilderness, so that’s a nice hike for somebody that wants to get a real good look at some of the high peaks in the backcountry,” Gildehaus said.
For a difficult hike, Timberline climbs 1,800 feet in elevation, he said. It goes 4½ miles to Timberline Lake.
Hiking the plains
The mountains aren’t the only place to find a day hike. Cameron Sapp, Eastern Montana field representative for the Montana Wilderness Association, discovered that for himself.
“I’ll admit I didn’t care for prairies a long time ago because I didn’t stop and look at what they really are,” Sapp said. “Once I did, it really changed my perspective.”
There are lots of picturesque public lands in Eastern Montana for all levels of hiking, he said. But the prairie also carries its own challenges, including weather.
From heat to snow to wind to rain, the elements can challenge even experienced hikers, Sapp said. It can be difficult to find shelter during a heavy rain that can cause flash flooding, and rigs can get stuck when roads turn into gumbo.
Another misperception is that people think that driving to get to hiking spots in Eastern Montana takes too long.
“But really it takes as much time to drive to Miles City as Bozeman,” Sapp said. “So they’re not as distant a landscape as they’re made out to be.”
For the past 52 years, the Montana Wilderness Association has offered free, guided wilderness walks around the state. The group publishes an annual “Wilderness Walks” booklet to detail all the hikes, and also puts the information online.
The MWA is divided into six regions and walks are scheduled for all of them. The dates of the majority of the walks range from May to October, depending on the region, but there is also a smaller series of winter walks.
“It’s an incredible tool for us and an opportunity because it’s really important, in my opinion, to connect people with places,” Sapp said. “We have a huge state and so many places to discover, but sometimes it’s difficult to know where to start, so this is a tool to get started.”
That’s especially true in a region like Eastern Montana, he said, where people may be less familiar with what’s available. The hikes can vary from year to year.
Early on in the year, Sapp will pick areas he wants to connect people to or celebrate. At that point, he’ll find someone to lead the hike, and some hikes are led year after year by the same people.
“We have an amazing system of devoted volunteers and organizations we work with to make this happen,” Sapp said.
The wilderness group produces a free booklet titled “Wilderness Walks.” The information also can be found on its website.
For his trio of guided hikes, Sapp picked three that will happen over the next several weeks:
For an easy walk, he suggests the morning Prairie Above Pompeys, which takes place Sept. 14, starting at 9 a.m. at the eastern gate of Pompeys Pillar.
For a moderate hike, which requires quite a drive from Billings to Ekalaka, he mentioned Chalk Buttes, on Sept. 27, which starts at 7 a.m. at the Summit National Bank parking lot in Ekalaka.
For a more difficult hike, Sapp suggests Walking on the Moon (Lake) on Aug. 28, which leaves at 9 a.m. from the Beartooth Ranger Station parking lot in Red Lodge.
All of the walks require registration, which can be done at the Montana Wilderness Association website.