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.”