Story by BRETT FRENCH Photos by DAVID GRUBBS Of The Gazette Staff
LEWISTOWN - Finning through the shallow waters of Collar Creek is the easternmost population of native westslope cutthroat trout in Montana.
The 300 fish, mostly concentrated within a one-mile stretch of stream about 13 air miles northeast of here, average about 3 inches in length.
"The cutthroat population in this neck of the woods is a small, isolated population that has been protected from rainbow and brook trout intrusion," says Anne Tews, a fisheries biologist for the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Finding the fish so far east is unusual. But this is an unusual area.
The Judith Mountains, where Collar Creek gurgles above ground, were thrust upon the central Montana plains some 58 million years ago. It's a bit of a geological mystery as to why searing lava burst through layers of sedimentary rock in this spot, according to Jim Gruber, a Bureau of Land Management geologist.
This is a rocky spot. There is limestone, sharp pink stone, gray stone and warm tan stone.
Maybe because of their rocky grandeur, the Judith Mountains have long attracted people.
An Indian trail once cut through Ross Pass to the east. East of Ross Pass, solitary Black Butte was an Indian vision-quest site.
The Judith Mountains got their anglo name from William Clark. The famed explorer, while pulling and poling up the Missouri River in 1805, named the Judith Mountains and Judith River after his fiancée, Judith Hancock.
In the 1800s, the old Carroll Trail cut narrow wagon ruts from the Missouri River past the west side of the Judiths on the way to the booming mining town of Helena.
The remains of Fort Maginnis occupy state land on the east side of the mountains. The fort was quickly constructed in 1880 to protect settlers in the wake of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and just as quickly abandoned when the threat vanished.
Supplies for Fort Maginnis were hauled in from Junction City, near present-day Custer on the Yellowstone River. Junction City was as far as most steamboats dared travel up the Yellowstone.
Connecting the dots The Bureau of Land Management owns a fair chunk of the Judith Mountains, 22,000 acres of which are designated a special recreation management area, or SRMA. The area includes a 5.5-mile loop trail up Collar Peak, the top of which cuts the prairie air at 6,126 feet above sea level.
Lewistown resident Mark Manseau, 46, frequently dodges stones while threading his mountain bike along the trail.
"It's quite technical and very rocky," he says. "It's a great ride, but it's not something I would take a novice on."
Deer, elk, ruffed grouse, black bears and mountain lions hide in the hills. In one canyon lies the skeletal remains of the old mining town of Maiden. It was estimated that $18 million in gold was taken from Maiden before the town burned in 1905, according to Norma Tirrell's book "Montana."
More recently, Judith Peak was the site of a U.S. Air Force early warning radar system, part of the United State's defense against a nuclear attack by the former Soviet Union.
"There's quite a bit of history around the Judiths," says Rod Sanders, a wilderness study area specialist with BLM's Lewistown office. "What we're trying to do in the next few years … is inventory all the roads, trails, wildlife habitat, water quality and streams. From that we'll develop a comprehensive plan for managing the whole area."
Part of BLM's work includes a new, seven-mile trail up Lime Kiln Canyon. The loop trail will feature an overlook toward Lewistown and access to New Year and Burnette peaks.
Earlene Duvall donated an easement to the agency across her land in Lime Kiln Canyon, which is surrounded by BLM holdings. A quarter-mile of the new trail across her land will be handicapped accessible.
Duvall's son, Randy Ludeman, says the possibility of 1,500 to 2,000 visitors trekking the trail in a year doesn't bother them.
"We're here to share," he says, while pausing from his work on a new deck.
"I think there's a lot of opportunities for recreation up here," Sanders says. "There are a lot of old logging roads and mining roads. It's just a matter of connecting the dots."
Brett French can be reached at 657-1387, or at email@example.com
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If you're a biker: Mountain bike review.com offers these directions to the Collar Peak Trail:
Take U.S. Highway 191 north from Lewistown 10 miles. Turn right onto Maiden Gulch Road.
When the pavement ends continue on and take the left fork toward Judith Peak. The trailhead is about two miles up the road on the righthand side. Look for a BLM sign (which in May was torn down).
The Web site calls the trail a "good mountain singletrack" with "lots of variety and scenery, some screamin' downhills and leg-burning uphills."
It's a six-mile roundtrip to the top of the peak and is rated for intermediate-level bikers. For more trail reviews, or to offer your review of the Collar Peak route
If you like history: "Montana Pay Dirt," by Muriel Sibell Wolle has information on Montana's ghost towns, including Maiden and nearby Gilt Edge.
The Montana Ghost Town Preservation Society can be contacted at: P.O. Box 1861, Bozeman, Mont. 59771.
For more information, log on to: www.mt.blm.gov