Slideshow: Montana State Parks

July 27, 2014 12:00 am  • 
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  • An old joke here goes something like this: “Montana’s beautiful, but you can’t eat the scenery.”

    True, but the scenery does help a lot of people pay the bills.

    In 2013, there were 2.1 million visits to Montana’s 56 state parks, which broke the previous record. Those visitors spent $289 million within a 50-mile radius of the state parks.

    “We are an economic engine for Montana,” said Jennifer Lawson, marketing director for Montana State Parks.

    The economic impact of Montana’s state parks was tracked in a 2013 survey by the University of Montana Bureau for Economic Research, confirming what many already believed — tourism matters in Montana.

    Montana parks are celebrating their 75th anniversary this year, which commemorates the state’s first park, Lewis and Clark Caverns.

    A state parks poster, “Smith River in June,” was created by Missoula artist Monte Dolack and is available on the state parks web site at Special programs are being held at parks throughout the summer, including concerts by composer Philip Aaberg, of Chester.

    And they’re free

    Montana has 56 state parks, 54 of which are operating fully. All are free to Montana residents. A $6 fee charged when you license your vehicle provides the major funding for operation of the parks. Out-of-state visitors pay a $5 fee per car to enter state parks.

    There are enough state parks for one in every county in the state, but some counties, like Flathead County, have more, with five state parks in that area. Some state parks, like Cooney State Park,

    are geared to water sports, and others, like Bannack State Park, are devoted to telling the history of Montana.

    The most-visited state park is Giant Springs in Great Falls, which had 307,666 visits in 2013.

    The largest park is Makoshika State Park near Glendive, which is 11,538 acres.

    Makoshika was recently named by Country magazine as one of the Top 10 Hidden Gems among parks across the U.S.

    The park’s name comes from a Crow word, translating to “bad land.”

    The smallest, at 1 acre, is Elkhorn, which features two historic structures, Fraternity Hall and Gillian Hall, preserved as examples of frontier architecture from the silver-mining ghost town.

    Discovering the caverns

    In 1882, Whitehall ranchers Charles Brooke and Mexican John, prompted by American Indian legends, explored a hillside where they discovered an opening, the area now known as Lewis and Clark Caverns.

    Ten years later in 1892, two more local ranchers, Tom Williams and Bert Pannell were hunting and discovered the opening, but had no way to climb down into the cave.

    In 1898, Williams went back with candles and ropes, leading to some of the first excursions into the caverns, which were carved from the Madison Limestone Formation, a rock layer that formed 350 million years ago when the area was covered by a shallow tropical sea.

    In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated the Lewis and Clark Caverns the 12th U.S. national monument, named for the famous explorers who never actually saw the caverns but were in the area of the park on the Jefferson River when they came through in 1805.

    Roosevelt sent Civilian Conservation Corps workers into the caverns to build steps and to blast a 538-foot-long exit from the cavern. Some visitors like to run through the long tunnel, anxious to get outside.

    Each year, 55,000 people tour the caverns and another 15,000 visit the 3,000-acre park, which offers 40 campsites, and 10 miles of hiking and biking trails.

    Tours of the caverns attract visitors from all over. Los Angeles couple Jonathan and Patty Hume stopped by on their way from Yellowstone Park to Glacier National Park in early June.

    “We saw the signs and decided to stop,” Jonathan said. “This place is pretty amazing.”

    Toddlers to 80-year-olds

    The tours are available to all ages. Tom Forwood, naturalist and park ranger at Lewis and Clark Caverns, said he has taken visitors as young as 3 and as old as 85 through the caverns.

    “The people are always interested in the bats,” Forwood said. “Of the 15 species of bats in Montana, 10 of them are here in this park. The coolest bat is the spotted bat, which is black on top with three white spots.”

    The park features bat week the second week of August, and Forwood said he tries to demystify legends about bats.

    During a recent tour, one young boy asked if the bats are poisonous. The cluster of Townsend’s big-eared bats, clinging to the top of the cave near the entrance, had the visitors craning their necks to see the quivering bats. When one bat cut loose from the cluster and flew across the cave, inches above adult visitors’ heads, there were a few screams from the kids on the tour.

    “No, bats are not poisonous,” the tour guide told the group.

    Each year, 6,000 students tour the cave, according to park manager Lynette Kemp.

    “We are not the most visited park, but we are the most well-known park. People will come here when they’re young and then they bring their kids and their grandkids here,” Kemp said.

    Balmy 48 degrees

    The caverns stay a constant 48 degrees throughout the year, a soothing break from the heat in the summer and an escape from the cold in winter. During December, the park offers a candlelight tour, where visitors use candles in the second half of the cave tour, just like in the old days.

    Columns as smooth as glass and stalagmites rising form the floor of the cavern surround visitors as they walk through the caves. In the second half of the tour, new LED, full-spectrum lights allow visitors to see the true colors of the features, including bright pinks and purples. Tour guides keep the walk interesting for the kids, with stories about the rocks that resemble Santa Claus and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

    Possibly the best part of the tour is being unplugged from the outside world for two hours. Instead of checking your email, you’re scooting through the cold, slippery beaver slide and experiencing a drip of cool water from the pink and brown stalactites, hanging from the ceiling of the caverns.

    Unplugged and outdoors — two things to celebrate at the state parks.

    “We’re important because we encourage people to put down their computer and get outside,” Lawson said. “We’re all about hiking and camping and birding and picnicking and camping.”

  • The Lakota Sioux stayed away from what is now Makoshika State Park, calling it “land of bad spirits” because of the shifting soil and massive horned skulls poking out of the rocks.

    Now 60,000 visitors come every year to look at the dinosaur fossils and to take in the sun-drenched canyons and finger-like mesas that make this land look like it’s on another planet.

    Imagine wandering through the arid badlands of Eastern Montana hundreds of years ago, before paleontologists came up with names for the fossilized beasts buried in the soil.

    The only wildlife there now are small game and rattlesnakes. But 65 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period, dinosaurs thrived in the subtropical climate of the area.

    Moby Dick and the Goblins

    Some of the rocks bear descriptive names like Moby Dick, a long, rounded, whale-like form near Valley View Loop, or the Choirboys or Goblins, two names for the tall, human-like rock formations near the ampitheater.

    The Hell Creek Formation within Makoshika, just south of Glendive, captures history’s transition from dinosaurs to mammals. Ten species of dinosaurs have been discovered in Makoshika, most notably the Triceratops, whose fossilized skull is on display in the Makoshika visitor’s center, and the Tyrannosaurus rex. Visitors often find fossils that, while tempting, cannot be taken from the park.

    At 11,538 acres, Makoshika is the largest of Montana’s 56 state parks, and there are many opportunities

    for solitude. That was part of the lure for Luke Shelton, who was born in South Korea and adopted by a couple from Modesto, Calif., where he grew up. Shelton is working this summer at Makoshika and loving Montana so much he transferred to Montana State University Billings to finish his degree in communications.

    “If this park was in California, it would be as busy as Disneyland,” Shelton said.

    Turn left at birdbath

    Makoshika sits at the end of Snyder Street in Glendive. One minute, you’re driving through neighborhoods with manicured lawns and concrete birdbaths, and the next you’re in an eerie land of columns rising 25 feet out of the clay, casting shadows across the gullies.

    Walking or driving through Makoshika, the effects of erosion on the landscape are apparent. The wind carves the stone into shapes not unlike the dinosaurs that once roamed here. This contrasts with the thigh-high honey clover and ponderosa pine and juniper, making for some shaded, sweet-smelling trails.

    “My favorite trail is Kinney Coulee,” said Makoshika park manager Nate Powell. “You start in the pine trees, go through the badlands and end up in the pine trees again. The ecology just changes as you go through.”

    The Kinney Coulee Trail is a half-mile long and descends 300 feet to the bottom of the coulee.

    The clay and shale of the lower sedimentary layers erode easier than the sandstone layers, and when the softer material erodes away, caprocks of sandstone are left to teeter over the spires. It gives the area an otherworldly appearance.

    Parachute drop

    Some of the most impressive capstone rocks are near the amphitheater, where weddings are often held and Shakespeare in the Parks performed “Romeo and Juliet” in early July.

    “My parents got married there,” said Glendive resident Meg Geiger. “My dad, Sam, parachuted in 25 years ago for the ceremony with his groomsmen.”

    Geiger said one of her favorite hikes is the half-mile Cap Rock Nature Trail because it leads hikers along a natural bridge made of stone. Locals from the Glendive area comprise about 50 percent of the 60,000 visitors who came to the park in 2013.

    The community began advocating for Makoshika to become a park as early as 1893, but it wasn’t until 1953 that it became a state park. In 1939 the federal government built the main road into the park as a response to Montana Gov. Frank Cooney’s request to designate Makoshika a national park.

    “Our numbers continue to increase every year. The word is getting out,” Powell said. “I’ve talked with visitors here from all over the world.”

    Hidden gem

    Increased visitation may be the result of the attention Makoshkia has been getting from national media. CNN named the park’s towering Cap Rock one of the Top 10 rock formations in the U.S. In June, Country Magazine heralded Maskoshika as one of the Top 10 Hidden Gems among parks across the country.

    Harvey Meidinger and his wife, Darleen, who have lived in Glendive since 1955, come to the park often throughout the year. The park has 11 miles of road, some of which are paved and other portions of which are gravel and closed during the winter.

    “You appreciate things here. You have to look into this land to discover things. You can’t be impatient,” Harvey said. “You could be here 100 years and go out and see something different in it.”

    Buzz about buzzards

    Makoshika celebrates two things — dinosaurs and buzzards.

    The number of turkey vultures in the park has declined in recent years from its peak of 60 to the 30 vultures who are in the park this spring and summer. Park ranger Tom Shoush said a large rookery blew down in recent years, and it’s led to a decline in the population. More than half of Montana’s bird species are found in Makoshika, including mountain bluebirds, but the local favorite is the vulture.

    “Turkey vultures are one of nature’s cleaners. They take care of dead animals and are an important part of the biological cycle,” Shoush said. “When you see them, you know that winter is over. They are like a mascot to us.”

    Makoshika honors the return of the buzzard with the annual Buzzard Days road race and other events the second week of June. The buzzards migrate in the fall and return to lay their eggs on the exposed sandstone ledges in the park. The nestlings have hatched and are halfway to fledgling now, Shoush said.

    Seasonal traffic

    Spring and summer have been good to Makoshika, bringing more than the usual amount of rainfall and increased visitors and campers to the four designated camping areas. The 18-hole disc golf course has also been popular this spring.

    Visitors who spend a full day or two in the park can experience how the changing light affects the colorful shades of the rock in early morning or the evening. Shoush warns of driving or walking in the park when it rains because the clay turns to sticky gumbo.

    The Lakota may have feared this land, but for visitors today, Makoshika is a place of wonder and beauty with vistas changing with the light and the seasons.

  • VIRGINIA CITY — One spectator observed last weekend, “Brothel bed races, huh? Seems like win or lose, you still come out OK.”

    Women in corsets and nightgowns and one in prison stripes perched on antique beds, holding onto the metal rungs for dear life while four men ran full tilt, pushing the beds up Virginia City’s main street.

    The streets probably weren’t as full as they were back in the 1860s just after gold was discovered at Alder Creek and Virginia City’s population swelled to 10,000 people. Still, more than 300 people packed the boardwalk in front of the Bale of Hay Saloon for the second annual Brothel Days main event — the bed races.

    Bar owners, twin sisters Gay and Kay Rossow, wanted to showcase the history of brothels in Virginia City. So in 2013, for the 150th anniversary of Virginia City’s founding in 1863, they organized a wild event — the first round of bed races.

    The Rossows enlisted help welding lawnmower wheels to antique metal bed frames and lined up eight teams. Each team of five people had to include one woman dressed appropriately. Teams were timed rolling the beds up main street. The event hit a small bump last weekend, and after one of the antique beds broke the rules were amended to allow only one team to race at a time.

    One young group of AmeriCorps volunteers who called themselves the Dos Verde team tried their hand at the race. They ran a good race, but they were beat out for first place by The Players, a group of young actors performing for the summer at the Virginia City Playhouse. The Players finished the course in 9.6 seconds.

    Cindy Glaze, of Florida, was a rider in the bed race. Glaze and her husband, Chuck, are retirees from Florida who live and work in Virginia City during the summer.

    “We sell tickets and help people pan for gold and garnets. What job could be better?” Cindy said.

    Cindy wasn’t a bit squeamish about playing a prostitute in the race — it was all just for fun, she said.

    Celia Crook, of Oxford, England, was traveling through Virginia City on her way back to Billings after visiting Glacier Park when she stopped to watch the races.

    “We’ve never seen bed races before,” Crook said. “Is this something you do often?”

    James Bargsley, who portrays vigilante John Beidler in Virginia City, explained to her, the ratio of men to women was 20 to one, so conceivably there could have been a brothel bed race or two in the Wild West.

    Why celebrate brothels?

    “We just wanted to do something different. There had to be a couple hundred prostitutes here. It’s a fact of life,” Gay Rossow said.

    Economy of brothels

    The Rossows plan to continue to make Brothel Days and the bed races an annual event in Virginia City, held around the third weekend in June each year.

    Brothels were an important part of the early economy, historian Ellen Baumler said.

    “Just about every town supported an industry like that,” she said.

    Prostitutes and madams paid fines to local law enforcement, which helped bolster the local economy. Brothels were closed during World War I and World War II, but quickly reopened when the soldiers returned home.

    Baumler, who works for the Montana Historic Society in Helena, was invited to talk about brothels as part of Brothel Days last weekend. She said some Montana brothels were in business until the 1970s, and in Butte the last brothel didn’t close until 1982.

    When they closed down Big Dorothy’s brothel in 1973 in Helena, a barrage of letters — both for and against the closing of Big Dorothy’s — flooded the Helena Independent Record.

    “One person wrote in, ‘My father always said a town without a whore house is a stupid place to live,’ ” Baumler said.

    Proper attire

    The Brothel Days event last weekend included a costume contest, where women could either dress as hurdy gurdy girls or as prostitutes. While there were bloomers and lacy tops and boas aplenty, Baumler said real-life prostitutes in the 1800s were more likely to wear Mother Hubbard dresses, which were like simple cotton moo-moos.

    “They were wearing the dresses for easy access,” Baumler said.

    Living history interpreter Leona Stredwick, who works in nearby Nevada City, also debunked the Hollywood image of a prostitute as a woman sashaying around the saloon in her corset.

    “Women didn’t show their ankles because they had decency laws,” Stredwick said. “Hanging out in your corset and pantaloons would be comparable to hanging out in your bra today. It just wasn’t done.”

    The prostitutes dressed like all the other women when they were strolling the boardwalk downtown, and they were always treated respectfully, Stredwick said.

    “In 1865 in Virginia City, if a miner offended a lady of the evening, there were 10 miners ready to take him out because a lady is a lady,” Stredwick said.

    On the other side of Virginia City last Saturday night, a fancy ball was held at the community center. Almost 100 people dressed in attire from the 1860s, dancing the Virginia Reel to music provided by a six-piece string orchestra. The ball was early enough in the evening so the participants could change clothes and head to the Bale of Hay Saloon for a much rowdier party.

    Just plain folks

    Stredwick said madams had become such a normal part of the community that there was a front-page story on a fight between two madams in 1865 in Montana’s first newspaper, the Montana Post, which was published in Virginia City.

    “They were arrested for disturbing the peace. They were out in the middle of the street arguing over taxes. One madam was accusing the other madam of not paying her taxes,” Stredwick said.

    Working women were so integral to the town of Virginia City that the people decided to name their home for a woman. It was originally proposed to name it Varina, honoring the wife of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America. That suggestion inspired an outcry from civic leaders who were staunch Unionists. The name was changed to Virginia City, a variation on the name Varina.

    Brothels were not just economically important in the 1800s. In some cases they were vital to the survival of Western towns.

    In Colorado, Stredwick said there is a story about a gold mining camp where there was an epidemic and the only ones brave enough to help the sick were the local prostitutes.

    “The prostitutes were the ones credited to nursing everyone back to health,” she said. “They were credited with the survival of that community.”

    Stredwick said that even Calamity Jane, who passed through Virginia City with her father when Calamity was 13, did a stint as a prostitute.

    Changing culture

    By 1875, mining at Alder Gulch was cut back and the population in Virginia City had dwindled to 800 people. Not surprisingly, Montanans voted to move the state capitol to the more prosperous Helena. And perhaps symbolically, Bill Fairweather, one of the original miners who discovered gold at Alder Gulch, died at the age of 39 in August, 1875, a penniless alcoholic.

    Still, $90 million in gold had been extracted from Alder Gulch between 1863 and 1889 — what amounts to $40 billion today.

    When the money and the men left, so did the prostitutes. For more than a century Butte would become the brothel capital of Montana with the most brothels in the state, Baumler said.

    But brothels still have their place in Virginia City’s history. And for one weekend a year visitors can dress up, dance, and take a turn in the bed race down the town’s main street to revel in that history.

  • SLUICE BOXES STATE PARK — Daniel Edwards’ shorts were still dripping when I ran into him on the high ochre cliffs that tower above Belt Creek. Edwards, along with friends Stephen Hicks and Jasmine Helm, took a break from their jobs at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls to go for a swim at Sluice Boxes State Park.

    Edwards, of Florence, Ky., was swept downstream by Belt Creek’s deceptively powerful flows and nearly didn’t make it back to base.

    “We were trying to cross the stream to get across to the cliffs and I got sucked in by the current,” Edwards said. “I was going pretty fast and submerged for a few seconds. When I came up, I yelled for help and they shouted to get to the other side. I was scared.”

    Edwards, 18, was slammed against the rough limestone cliffs that rise from the creek, but he managed to push off and find his way to shallow water. It was a frightening experience, but not scary enough to keep Edwards from enjoying the day.

    It’s tough to imagine a more beautiful place to swim than Sluice Boxes State Park. Driving east from Great Falls, the land breaks below broad wheat fields near Belt. Follow Highway 89 a few miles from town and you’ll arrive at Sluice Boxes State Park, a geologic marvel of limestone cliffs and steep canyons that drop precipitously to the creek below.

    I’d come to Sluice Boxes to see what the canyon looked like during spring flows when kayakers and whitewater rafters enjoy the float from Logging Creek Road downstream to the Riceville Bridge. With backcountry camping permit in hand, we hiked along the verdant bluffs of the canyon enjoying views of the emerald pools below.

    Sluice Boxes State Park, named for the canyon’s likeness to the boxes placer miners once used to find gold, really has something for everyone. From historic cabins and railroad relics to trout fishing, birding and boating, the Belt Creek Canyon is a gem of the Montana State Parks system.

    The park encompasses 1,450 acres along Belt Creek, which rises near Kings Hill Pass in the Little Belt Mountains south of the park. During spring runoff, flows on the creek rise dramatically.

    Colin Maas, park manager for Sluice Boxes and nearby Smith River state parks, said the U.S. Geologic Survey installed a monitoring station on Belt Creek at Monarch in 2012. In early June of 2013, the creek briefly rose above 3,000cfs. On a recent Saturday, flows were a more manageable 500cfs.

    Maas said floating through the park has increased in popularity, but said boaters must be experienced and prepared for hazards.

    “When it comes to floating Belt Creek, we don’t have river rangers patrolling it or hiking the canyon,” Mass said. “I have calls every week with people asking if there are hazards and I just don’t know. Floating is at your own risk.

    “If people get in there, they have to be ready for self rescue,” Maas said. “With those vertical limestone walls, you are going to be going for a swim. Floating Belt Creek, you need a minimum of intermediate paddling skills.”

    In the late 1800s, mining came to Belt Creek. The now defunct town of Albright swelled to 500 residents in the 1890s when miners came to work the limestone quarry in Belt Creek Canyon. Limestone was shipped to Great Falls via the Belt Mountain Branch Line of the Great Northern Railway.

    The Belt Mountain spur was originally constructed to service the silver and lead mines of Neihart and Monarch. A trail along Belt Creek follows the old rail line past crumbling trestles and through tunnels blasted through the limestone.

    Hiking the trail now, it’s hard to believe the railroad was ambitious enough to build the line. It must have been a marvel of modern engineering.

    “The rail lines are still there,” Maas said on a recent Tuesday. “Albright is in the southern end of the park and it didn’t last very long. There are remnants of old machinery and rail cars at the town site.”

    As we made our way past one of the lumbering trestles, I spotted a trout swimming in a shaded section of the creek below.

    In 1914, the Great Northern Railway capitalized on Belt Creek’s fine trout fishing by scheduling a Sunday morning “Fish Train.” The train would depart Great Falls in the morning and run anglers out to their favorite holes along the creek.

    The last train ran through Belt Creek Canyon in 1945. By then, failing ore prices had closed many of the mines in the Little Belt Mountains and mining operations had taken a toll on the fishery.

    Today, Belt Creek has bounced back. The creek is home to native cutthroat trout, as well as brook, brown and rainbow trout, and mountain whitefish. While the fishing is good, reaching the water can be a real challenge. Scrambling up and down the cliffs to reach the creek is treacherous at best.

    After packing well into the canyon, we found a clearing overlooking the creek and pitched our tent. We boiled water on a camp stove and made a couple of packages of noodles. We watched as a robin swooped over the canyon and plucked a salmonfly from the air.

    Backcountry camping in Sluice Boxes State Park requires a permit. Permits are free and can be obtained at the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Region 4 office in Great Falls. Maas said the park requires the permits to keep track of visitors and their itinerary, and to communicate the principles of leave no trace.

    “State parks are public land, no different than national parks,” Maas said. “The public should cherish the parks, be stewards of the parks and take care of them for themselves and future generations.”

    Edwards said he’d found an appreciation for Sluice Boxes State Park during his visit.

    And a new respect for the waters of Belt Creek.

    “You underestimate the water, because it doesn’t look like it is going that fast, and that’s what happened, I underestimated it,” Edwards said. “I was thinking we could just ride the current down and I am glad we didn’t because it is a lot stronger than it looks.”

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