By Gen Geda
Reaching for the clear, cool Montana skies through a jungle of conifer forests only to land a star on your fingertip is not such a stretch for many that are Montana-born. Living in a state with a widely rural population that finds solace and religion in hiking, off-roading, winter sports and hunting between the rigid cirques of the Rockies and the rolling sagebrush hills of the HiLine allows for Montanans and visitors alike to take in some incredible landscapes and recreational opportunities.
Laying in between the extremes of the west and east side of the state is Central Montana, which boasts a beautiful combination of landscapes, including long stretches of mountain ranges such as the Little Belt Mountains parented by the Rockies and nestled in the Lewis and Clark National Forest. The Little Belts are a host to wildlife such as elk, white-tailed and mule deer, as well as black bears. If your interests include camping, several campgrounds are offered throughout the mountain range, such as Dry Wolf Campground, Kings Hill Campground, and Judith Station Campground—to name a few. Hiking the numerous trails and taking out a quad on the logging roads may also be one’s cup of tea. Peakbagging—which is essentially the climbing of mountains to check certain peaks off of a list of peaks – has become more alluring for more people in the last few decades, and Big Baldy Mountain is just one on said lists and calls the Little Belt Mountains home. While on the trail to summit Big Baldy or if you’re just on a jaunt around the ridgeline it is easy to see where a micro-burst ripped through the dense forest and left a wide girth of wreckage through the valley.
If ghost hunting is on your bucket list, then the Judith Mountains are the place to be. Like much of Montana, the Judith Mountains are rich in mining history, resulting in ghost towns like Maiden and Gilt Edge. While inhabited, these areas were significant in gold mining discoveries, as well as other precious metals found in Central Montana. Some buildings still stand in Gilt Edge and create a picturesque area to photograph and quiet place to reflect on what life was like in the nineteenth century. At this time much of the Maiden area is on private property and has to be viewed from the maintained gravel road that circles through the area, but don’t fret, it makes a wonderful road-trip for the day tripper in all of us.
The nearby Moccasins are split into the North and South ranges and are considered “island ranges” to the Judith Mountains. Kendall Ghost Town is another easy trek by vehicle while on the ghost hunt day trip. Several remnants of stone buildings still stand amongst the trees and can be dated back to 1901 when the land was first settled. Though difficult to believe, Kendall was once a bustling town during the search for gold that so many traveled so far to achieve in the greater Montana area. Though there are few hiking trails in the area, there is a Boy Scout camp that is well maintained and easy to look up for day use.
Another island range in the more northern part of Central Montana is the Highwood Mountains in the northern end of the Lewis and Clark National Forest. It is an area rich with backpacking opportunities, a few hiking and camping areas, and a wealth of hunting prospects for those wanting to bag an elk or deer. For the avid hiker and backpacker, Highwood Baldy offers gorgeous scenery on the ascent and over a 7,000- foot peak (which makes it an inclusion on peakbagging lists), but if a trail hike is what tickles your fancy, a six mike trek to Windy Mountain and back on a loop could be just the ticket. In addition to the Windy Mountain loop are two shorter trails – one that runs along Briggs Creek, as well as the Highwood nature trail. Briggs Creek and Thain Creek also offer brook and rainbow trout for the fisherman in all of us.
In many of these areas there are also Forest Service Cabins available for a nominal nightly fee, such as the Dry Wolf Cabin, Calf Creek Cabin/Lookout, and Judith Guard Station, which make for a cozy and traditional setting for those wanting to reach a rustic stay without sleeping in a tent. OHV, hiking, biking, and horseback trails are abundant in many of the mountain ranges encompassing the Central Montana area, but users are cautioned as many of these trails are shared. Paying attention to the trail signs posted is also key in keeping these areas managed throughout Montana’s many recreational seasons.
If you’re simply out for a drive to a new destination, on the hunt for proof of life of those who came before you, checking off another peak on your list, or searching for the peace and quiet of a mountain getaway, taking an exploratory look at the central region could be right up your alley.
The beauty of the mountains encircling the ever-reaching grasslands of the area is proof, and a reminder, of how far and wide the miracles of nature, and man, can extend. At present we are enjoying the cool mountain runoff in the Little Belts and the perfect temperature of a mid-day climb to a semi-secluded waterfall in the depths of moss and evergreens. For those Montanans, like myself, that seek an adventure amongst the trees, where wonder lies behind every branch, Central Montana certainly is a wondrous place to behold.