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Central Montana Hikes & Attractions Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

The Yellowstone River

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The Yellowstone River is one of our nation’s most remarkable treasures. It’s the last major free-flowing river in the lower 48 states, traveling 680 dam-free miles. The river begins as a melting snow bank on Yount’s Peak deep in the Wyoming wilderness south of Yellowstone Park. From here it runs north then east until it joins the Missouri River in North Dakota.

The upper sections of the Yellowstone River provide world famous fly fishing for wild trout along with unmatched recreational floating. The middle and lower sections remain quite wild. In fact, in some places it’s still the same as when Lewis & Clark explored the West.

Yellowstone River Headwaters

The Yellowstone River begins as snow melt on Younts Peak in the Teton Wilderness Area. Tiny rivulets merge to form defined creeks which become the South Fork and the North Fork. They join together on the west side of Younts Peak to officially become the Yellowstone River. From here to Yellowstone Park the river runs northward through the Thorofare Region. The landscape here provided a relatively flat and open access route for native Americans and early trappers. Thus, it was named the Thorofare.

While historically known as an easy route to traverse, today the Thorofare is the most remote area in the lower United States. The Thorofare Patrol Cabin in Yellowstone Park is farther from a road than any other building in the lower 48. Built in 1915, the Park Service uses the cabin in the summer and the cabin’s outhouse is a prized destination for hikers. It’s only 32 miles to the most used trail head!

The Thorofare is remote and wild but it does see visitors. Backpackers and horse pack trips visit the area during the short summer. The section that is in Wyoming is very popular with big game hunters. To get a great understanding for this special area I recommend the book Hawks Rest: A Season in the Remote Heart of Yellowstone.

Yellowstone Lake

The river enters Yellowstone Park from the south and flows into the Southeast Arm of Yellowstone Lake. Before entering the lake the river flows through dense stands of willows and is amazing wildlife habitat. Fishing is reported to be excellent but anglers have to be constantly aware of bears. Since the dense willows are more than head-high it can be very unnerving to travel through this area.

The Southeast Arm of Yellowstone Lake is only open to non-motorized boats. Anyone who wants to visit this area must paddle in or backpack along the shore of Yellowstone Lake. Either of these would be a trip of a lifetime for most.

Waterfalls and Canyons

The Yellowstone River drains out of the north end Yellowstone Lake and flows through the majestic Hayden Valley. The meandering river changes character dramatically as it flows over the majestic Upper and Lower Falls into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This section of the river is wild, remote and inaccessible. In fact, it is illegal for visitors to try and descend to the bottom of the canyon. The yellow colored rock walls of the canyon that give the river it’s name.

Photo of the Upper Falls on the YEllowstone River in Yellowstone Park
The Yellowstone River is wild and remote through most of Yellowstone Park. Seen here, the 109 ft Upper Falls is in the Canyon area. Just downstream the Lower Falls is almost three times as high. Below the falls the river races through a deep and inaccessible canyon.

The canyon walls gradually lower and the Yellowstone River merges with the Lamar River near Tower Junction in Yellowstone Park. From here it runs through the remote Black Canyon as it heads toward Montana.

Yellowstone River in Montana

Right at the Yellowstone Park border the Yellowstone is joined by the Gardiner River. This junction, which is right in Gardiner, MT is where floaters are allowed to be on the river. From here the Yellowstone River runs north through Yankee Jim Canyon and the famous Paradise Valley until it reaches Livingston, Montana. It’s worth noting that the north flowing Yellowstone is unusual for major rivers in the US where most flow in a southerly direction.

Through the Livingston area the Yellowstone River makes a gradual sweeping turn to the east and the river runs east/northeast for nearly 500 miles across the state of Montana before joining the Missouri River at Fort Union North Dakota.

Photo of the Yellowstone River near Emigrant, MT
The Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley south of Livingston, Montana. This is the “Blue-Ribbon” fishing section that attracts fly fishers from around the world.

For its entire length the Yellowstone River is unaltered by any major dams making it the longest free-flowing river in the lower 48 states. As a free-flowing river the Yellowstone experiences an annual flood cycle that results in significant water flow changes over the course of a year. When the snow melts in the spring the river gets high and flooded and as the dry days of summer arrive the river gets low. This is an annual cycle that the river has seen for millennia. Today the fish, animal life and habitats are much the same as they were when Lewis and Clark visited the area more than 200 years ago.

A Floater’s Paradise

Floating on the Yellowstone River is a cherished activity with lots of opportunity. 540 miles of the river are open to floating, from Gardiner, MT to Fort Union, ND where the Yellowstone River joins with the Missouri River. On the Yellowstone you can find just about any type of water imaginable. Beginning as a whitewater river as it leaves Yellowstone Park, the Yellowstone is a crystal clear and cold trout stream in the upper section. As it flows downstream the river becomes slow, sluggish and muddy as it reaches its confluence with the Missouri.

Deer fawn on the river bank
The river remains very wild and most floaters see a wide variety of bird and animal life while enjoying the river. Deer are common along the shorelines and it is not uncommon to see spotted-coat fawns.

The 540 miles of floatable river outside of Yellowstone Park is generally described as having three sections; the upper, middle and lower. The upper river section is world famous as a trout fishing mecca. The water in this section is clean, clear, quite cold most of the year and generally fast flowing. The stretches of the Yellowstone are not formally defined but the upper section is generally considered to be the stretch of river from Yellowstone Park downstream to somewhere around Columbus, Laurel or Billings, Montana.

Yellowstone River whitewater is found in the the upper 17 miles of the river after it leaves Yellowstone Park. This video shows what it is like to float through Yankee Jim Canyon at low flows.

The Middle Yellowstone

The middle section of the Yellowstone is a transition section for the river as it switches from being a mountain stream to a prairie river. The river becomes larger and gradually slower. The water gradually gets murkier and is not as clear as it is on the upper section. Water temperatures are cool but can be very warm in summer. The high temperatures on this section often exceed the lethal tolerance level for trout and there are far fewer trout found in this section.  

Yellowstone River near Billings, MT
The Yellowstone River retains much of it’s wildness even here near Billings, MT.

The middle Yellowstone has a diversity of fish species as cold-loving trout species give way to warm water fish such as bass, sauger and paddlefish. Despite the fact that the river is often paralleled by Interstate 90 and passes through Billings (Montana’s largest city), the middle Yellowstone remains wild. Much of this section is undeveloped and large cottonwood river bottoms with braided channels make chains of islands. Lots of birds and wildlife can be spotted on this section of the river.

As the Yellowstone transitions from the middle to the lower sections it becomes a big slow-moving muddy river. The gradient is low and the rock and cobble bottoms found upstream have gradually been replaced by sand and mud. The fish inhabiting the lower Yellowstone are almost exclusively warm water species yet fishing opportunities can be tremendous.

Lower Yellowstone River near Glendive, MT
As the Yellowstone continues eastward the river becomes wide and slow. The surrounding countryside flattens, the rocky shorelines are replaced by mud and the mountains are left far behind.

As with the middle Yellowstone, the lower Yellowstone River has a sprawling river bottom. There are many large wooded islands that are being rapidly invaded by non-native Russian olive and salt cedar. The very lowest part of the river is in oil country. Don’t be surprised to see oil & gas activity on the riverbanks, especially after crossing into North Dakota just before the confluence.

Attention Boaters

Beginning in 2019 Montana has instituted mandatory aquatic invasive species inspections on every watercraft that enters from another state. This applies to all boats and not just motor boats. The state operates roadside inspection stations on many highways as they enter the state so watch for signs. This is important and you can face significant penalties if you don’t comply. Information about the Montana Aquatic Invasive Species Program

Camping Along the River

Camping on the Yellowstone is a great way to really experience the river. From Gardiner to Billings you can plan a trip that will allow you to camp at public sites. However, there are lots of opportunities for setting up camp in undeveloped places along the river. Almost all of the lands along the river are privately owned and it is never OK to camp on private land without permission.

That said, there are camping opportunities that you can pursue. In Montana everything between high water marks is considered public land and is open to float camping. The state rule says camping is not allowed unless “it is necessary for the enjoyment of the surface water and the campsite is not within sight of any occupied dwelling or the campsite is more than 500 yards from any occupied dwelling, whichever is less;” On the Yellowstone there are many small islands and gravel bars that fall into this classification and with a bit of care you can usually find a site.

A sandy location smoothed out for a good tent site
Taking a few minutes to prepare a good tent site can make a big difference. Here the sandy soils have been smoothed out to eliminate any slope and to provide a flat surface with no rocks, sticks or bumps. This campsite was on sand in a river channel that floods each year so all traces of the leveling will soon be erased. Never do this type of site leveling in any area with stable soils. Disturb natural lands as little as possible.

You can never count on finding a good camping site on demand. Consequently, I recommend you begin looking for a good site early and if you find a good spot go ahead and make camp. It’s no fun being on the river as its getting dark and all you can find is posted private property. I’ve been forced to spend the night on my boat because of not setting up camp early.

Yellowstone River Fishing

There are great fishing opportunities along the entire Yellowstone. With everything from clear icy mountain streams to slow, warm, muddy waters there is fishing for almost every angler.

Fly fishing rules on the upper stretch of the river. Beginning at Gardiner the Yellowstone is famous for it’s excellent trout fishing. While almost everyone fishes with flies, some prefer artificial lures or even bait. If you plan to keep fish to eat you must be very careful. It’s catch and release fishing only for cutthroat trout and there are special regulations on some sections. Always check the regulations!

The Yellowstone gradually slows and warms as it moves east from Livingston. Smallmouth bass begin to be captured and ling fishing is very popular with some anglers. This is still suitable habitat for trout and they remain the main target. As the river continues on the trout become more isolated but they are still caught, even to the east of Billings. There are never distinct boundary lines for fish and gradually sauger, catfish, and many other fish are eagerly sought.

As the fish species mix changes so too do angling methods. While fly fishing dominates the upper river, artificial lures and live bait become the norm. Also, the upper river is almost completely non-motorized but becomes widely used by power boats.

Fishing for Dinosaurs

One of the most unusual fishing opportunities in North America is the annual paddlefish season at the Intake dam near Glendive, MT. Paddlefish are ancient creatures that are little changed from the days of dinosaurs. They are very long lived – up to 60 years and the largest recorded in Montana was 142 pounds. However, it is unusual to catch one over 100 pounds. They are closely related to sturgeon and, like them, produce massive amounts of eggs that are prized for caviar. There is actually commercial caviar produced in Montana from paddlefish eggs.

Anyone who wants to can fish for paddlefish but there are limits on how many can be harvested each year. Paddlefish swim upstream to spawn every spring and they concentrate in the waters below the Intake irrigation dam. Here, anglers line up to try and catch them by snagging. They cast out heavy treble hooks and bring them back in long pulls hoping to snag into a giant fish. There is a limit of one fish per person per year and they total harvest is limited. If you want to catch one plan to be there when the season opens as they can quickly reach the quota in a good year.

Learn more in this video:

Every inch of the Yellowstone River is amazing and you will be rewarded if you explore any part. There are a number of excellent books about the Yellowstone River. I particularly recommend:
Montana’s Yellowstone River: From the Teton Wilderness to the Missouri
Downriver A Yellowstone Journey
Fly Fishing the Yellowstone River: An Angler’s Guide

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Central Montana Hikes & Attractions

Moccasin Mountains & Kendall Ghost Town

This post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Some links on this site are affiliate links which means that, if you choose to make a purchase, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. I greatly appreciate your support!

The Moccasin Mountains are an island range that has two sets of mountains – the North and South Moccasin Mountains. Neither mountain range is very large. The highest peaks in the North Moccasins are at about 5,400 ft and the mountains top out at 5,800ft. in the South Moccasins. As with the nearby Judith Mountains, there is a road to the top of the highest peak in the South Moccasins where there are various telecommunications towers. However, this is not as extensive of an array as on top of Judith Peak and the access road is not nearly as well defined.

MT Hwy 81 splits the North and South Moccasin ranges. This road, which runs east/west, connects a string of small towns which help tell the history of the area. Each town has a large grain elevator and the towns are connected by railroad tracks. This was once a thriving area full of small communities. For more information about the historic rail lines in the area see Central Montana Railroads

There are few, if any, marked hiking trails in the Moccasin Mountains so they are best explored by vehicle. Both the North and South Moccasins have roads that run through and around them. These roads provide a lot of driving explorations.

Kendall Ghost Town

For most people the main attraction of visiting the Moccasins is the mining ghost town of Kendall. The town contains several significant remains, including a general store, many crumbled foundations and much of the foundation of a two story building that served several purposes including as the town bank. The solid, thick walled bank vault stands prominently in the center of the building. Steel I beams support the roof and would have helped to prevent break-in.

Photo of stine block tower that served as the bank vault for the ghost town of Kendall
This tower stands tall within the foundation of a collapsed building. There is good reason for this part to still be standing as it is the former bank vault that held all of the money in the community. Note the steel beams that reinforce the roof

The Kendall area is maintained by the Boy Scouts who operate the nearby K-M Scout Camp. The Montana Council of the Boy Scouts runs the camp. To learn more visit their site at K-M Camp. A lot of people know of the Moccasins Mountains because of the scout camp. However, far more know about them because of their mining history.

Gold Mining in the Moccasin Mountains

Since the late 1800’s there has been mining  in the area and Kendall was a vibrant gold mining town. Rather than write another history of Kendall, I’m excerpting here an account from the Montana Dept. of  Environmental Quality. This excellent summary gives a great sense of what Kendall once was.

 “The town of Kendall dates back to 1901 and the original development of the Kendall mines. It was laid out on a homestead of William A. Shaules, who staked out his land and sold lots to businesses and homeowners. In May of 1901 the town had several dwellings, a miner’s union hall, a saloon and a restaurant. One other building was noted but not described; it held two stagecoach loads of prostitutes who had arrived before most of the businesses. In August, the town had a new livery stable, a general store and two more saloons. In October the tally of businesses included five saloons, three general stores, two hotels, two livery stables, a restaurant, a butcher shop, a tailor shop, an assay office, and a photographic gallery. Within a year the town had grown to rival nearby Lewistown and had its own newspaper, the Kendall Chronicle, to crow its virtues. Several of the new buildings were made of stone, including the R. C. Cook building which housed a bank and a fraternal hall, the H. V. Turner block of shops, and the Shaules Hotel at the corner of McKinley Avenue, Teddy Street and King Mill Road. The wedge-shaped building cost $12,000, was two stories high and held 26 well-appointed rooms.

Stout rock wall with doorway in Kendall Ghost Town
This picturesque building is gradually crumbling but the wonderful rock work walls show the solid construction that once made this a formidable structure.

The hotel, as were all the buildings in town, was illuminated by electricity from the Kendall power plant. A few years later the town was improved by the construction of the stone-faced Jones Opera House. A Presbyterian church was built in 1907 at a cost of $3,500. In its first year of life the town was served by two stages a day. In later years three stages a day carried tens of thousands of dollars of gold bullion down to the banks of Lewistown. Plans were made for a Locomobile to speed service and increase the freight traffic and rumors of a railroad connection circulated. At its peak the town was said to have had a population of 1,500 and its mines credited with between $9 and $15 million in gold. However, when the Barnes-King mine folded in 1920, the town disappeared.”

Mining in Modern Times

The town of Kendall faded away but the gold in the hills remained. During the early boom miners had found high quality ore that produced significant gold using the methods of the day. However, the high quality ore played out and the refining techniques they used made mining a money losing proposition. However, by the 1980’s new refining techniques allowed corporations to profitably mine ores that historically were unusable.

In 1986 a corporation began to develop operations and Kendall began to see mining on a scaled never previously imagined. From 1987 to 1996 the Kendall mine produced 9 million tons of ore. Processing the ore with cyanide produced 300,000 ounces of gold and 135,000 ounces of silver.

Wall from ruined building in Kendall Ghost Town

Unfortunately, the use of the highly poisonous cyanide lead to massive environmental damage. Area ranchers sued to protect their waters and the Kendall mine closed. Then the mining corporation went out of business and Montana was left with a lot of clean up expenses. The Kendall mine was a large factor in the voters of Montana deciding in 1998 to use the initiative process to permanently ban the use of  cyanide in Montana mining. After many court challenges it now looks as the ban will stand. It’s likely there will never be another Montana mine that will use the dangerous refining process..

Visiting Kendall and the Moccasin Mountains

Finding Kendall is not too hard. Its best accessed from US 191 at the tiny town of Hilger where you head west on the Kendall Road. Follow the road for a couple of miles until you reach a Y intersection. Take the fork leading north on the North Kendall Road and you will reach the old town site after about 3 more miles. Ruined structures lie on both sides of the road so find a place to park and enjoy your exploration. Be sure to check out the interpretive signs to learn more about the site.

A tall rock wall is all that remains of the generakl store in Kendall Ghost Town
This was once the general store that supplied the booming town of Kendall

After visiting the site you can retrace your route back to Hilger on the Kendall Road. Alternatively, you can head south on the South Kendall Road. If you head south in about 4 miles you’ll hit Hwy 81 just west of Brooks and Hwy 191.

A visit to Kendall gives you a glimpse of the unique attributes of the Moccasin Mountains. This is a great trip from spring through fall and one that you will enjoy. Consider combining this with a visit to the mining ghost towns of Maiden and Gilt Edge. This makes a great day of exploring the mountains and history of the area.

There are several good guide books to Montana Ghost Towns. I recommend:
Ghost Towns of Montana: A Classic Tour Through The Treasure State’s Historical Sites

Montana Ghost Towns and Gold Camps – A Pictorial Guide

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Central Montana Hikes & Attractions

Little Belt Mountains

This post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Some links on this site are affiliate links which means that, if you choose to make a purchase, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. I greatly appreciate your support!

The Little Belt Mountains are located in Helena Lewis and Clark National Forest southeast of Great Falls Montana. There are a lot of different access areas providing a variety of camping, hiking and outdoor recreation opportunities. For motorized recreation enthusiasts, the Little Belts offer many miles of trails and roads to explore.

I highly recommend that visitors obtain a copy of the Helena Lewis and Clark National Forest travel map. These maps do a great job of showing the road network, trailheads and major trails. Study the maps and you will find lots of places to visit. Another great map option is the Montana Atlas & Gazetteer which contains topographic maps of the entire state.

Kings Hill

US 89 bisects the Little Belt Mountains running basically north to south and Kings Hill Pass is its highest point at 7,393 ft. This is a beautiful drive and the 71 mile section of the US 89 that runs through the Little Belt Mountains has been officially designated the “Kings Hill Scenic Byway”. There are hiking and camping opportunities along US 89 but the best opportunities are accessed from the numerous forest roads that crisscross the area.

At the top of Kings Hill Pass is the Showdown Ski Area. A great local ski area, Showdown offers excellent uncrowded skiing. At times Showdown gets heavy snow and provides unexpectedly good skiing. If you plan to ski Showdown check their hours in advance as the slopes are only open a few days a week.

Just to the North of the ski area entrance is the Kings Hill Winter Recreation Area. This hugely popular snowmobile area provides access to more than 200 miles of groomed snowmobile trails. There are large parking areas along the highway and this is a popular destination on a winter weekend. For more information consult the Kings Hill Area Snowmobile Trail Map

A scenic meadow in the Little Belt Mountains
Open meadows and forest are common features in the Little Belt Mountains. The open parks and meadows provide a diverse habitat for many wild creatures.

Visiting the Little Belts

While mostly forested, the Little Belt Mountains have many parks and open grassy areas. Some of these parks are very large while others little more than large clearings. If you study the maps you will find a number of large parks that are well worth a visit. Be sure to watch the parks and fields for wildlife. Elk, deer and black bear are commonly sighted.

There are several nice Forest Service campgrounds right on Hwy. 89. Additionally, there are campgrounds and undeveloped camping areas on the secondary roads in the National Forest. These roads are well worth exploring for those seeking an outdoor experience. Most of the roads are good gravel roads that can easily be driven in any type of vehicle. However, in the spring or any time that the roads are very muddy some can be a problem for a non-four-wheel drive vehicle.

Hiking, Biking, & More

Driving these secondary roads into the Lewis & Clark Forest will give you access to many different hiking, biking, fishing and camping opportunities. The roads are clearly marked on all good maps and its easy to plot a route through the forest. Much of the camping on the Lewis and Clark Forest is done in undeveloped campsites that are found in many areas along these roads. There is a lot of wildlife in the hills and mountains you are driving through and a careful observer will find much of interest.

In the fall you will often find hunters camped in the natural parks in the higher areas of the Little Belts. Elk and deer hunting in the Belts is excellent and both archery and rifle hunters are common. Always be aware of hunting seasons as many hikers prefer to limit their outings when hunters are in the hills.

Photo of a pair of sandhill cranes in a field
Wildlife is everywhere in the Little Belts. The combination of open meadows and forest provide a lot of different habitats. These sandhill cranes were spotted in a meadow alongside US 89.

Floating and Fishing

Montana’s famous Smith River has its headwaters in the Little Belts. It drains all of the southern and western sections of the mountains while the Judith River drains the eastern slopes and the northern sections run into Belt Creek. All of these rivers are fed by a lot of smaller streams and anglers will find a lot of fishing opportunities. A quick look at the map will show you the many streams available.

Belt Creek runs roughly parallel to US89 beginning near Kings Hill and heads north toward the Missouri River. Belt Creek cuts a deep steep-walled canyon through the area which has been preserved as the Sluice Boxes State Park. The canyon has a rich human history and once there was a rail line running through the canyon. The rail line carried ore from the gold mines in the mountains. Its possible to hike the length of the canyon but it requires multiple fording of the creek making it impossible at high water levels. Be sure to check for more information before you attempt to hike or float through Belt Creek Canyon and the Sluice Boxes State Park.

There is a lot of great exploring to be done in the Little Belts and around Kings Hill. Get a good map and learn what the various symbols and indicators are and go explore. You will find a diversity of habitat and experience that will really make you glad you visited.

Nearby Attractions

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Central Montana Hikes & Attractions

Judith Mountains and Their Ghost Towns

This post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Some links on this site are affiliate links which means that, if you choose to make a purchase, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. I greatly appreciate your support!

The Judith Mountains are a small “island” mountain range that lies just northeast of Lewistown, MT. There are a number of these island ranges in Central Montana including the Big Snowy Mountains, Little Belt MountainsCastle Mountains, Moccasin Mountains and others. While most of the island ranges are on National Forest, the public lands in the Judith Mountains are administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

The Judith Mountains

The Judith Mountains begin east of Lewistown and arch to the northeast for about 20 miles. In most places they are about 10 miles wide and consists of a number of low peaks broken by stream drainages. Pyramid Peak and New Year Peak, both on the southern end of the range are in the 6,000 – 6,200 ft range and when seen from Lewistown (less than 4,000 ft) they stand 2,000 ft higher than the surrounding area.

There are a number of peaks at about 6,000 ft in the range with the highest point being Judith Peak at 6,400 ft. This is rugged country but it has been significantly tamed. There are lots of roads in these mountains that are reminders of the mining and logging history of the area.

In the 1950s and 1960s the US Air Force operated a radar station situated at the top of Judith Peak. Today the road to this site provides a great opportunity to drive to the top of the mountains. Throughout the Judith range there are other roads that provide access to much of the high country.

The Judith Mountains are rich with human history. Significant gold discoveries resulted in a rich mining history and the ghost towns of Maiden and Gilt Edge make interesting stops for visitors. There’s a natural loop route through the Judith Mountains that visits these ghost towns and Judith Peak. The route can easily be extended to include a visit to Kendall Ghost Town in the nearby North Moccasin Mountains. This trip can be taken from any starting point and makes a great way to experience Central Montana’s mountains.

Gilt Edge Ghost Town

From Lewistown head east on Hwy for about 12 miles to the Gilt Edge Road. Turn left (north) and stay on this road for 6 – 7 miles until you pass through the old town site of Gilt Edge. Gilt Edge was founded in 1893 and, although gold seemed to be plentiful, it failed to thrive because of the illegal financial dealings of the mine manager. By 1899 things were sorted out and the town reached its peak at the turn of the century.

Today Gilt Edge consists of a couple of buildings and a scattering of ruins. The town site is right by the side of the road and you can easily park and explore the area. Two buildings remain standing in some semblance of the form they originally had. The very small building is the jail. Its easy to imagine that a stay in this tiny jail would not have been comfortable place.

Not much larger than a small shed, This long abandoned building is the original jail at Gilt Edge.

The other building is much larger and was the home for the ladies who entertained the miners at night. The building is picturesque and peering inside shows a complex building with many rooms. Unfortunately, its in very poor condition and no one should ever attempt to enter. If you explore the area around this building be very careful as there is an open well located in back that could be easy to fall into.

The old pleasure house in Gilt Edge still stands. Do not attempt to enter as it is in poor condition. If you explore this area be very careful to avoid the old well behind this structure.

Rubble piles and broken walls mark the places where other buildings once stood in the old town. In one place someone has erected a cross framed perfectly in the window carved by the fallen building. All of this is in an area where there are people living and working. None of the ghost town areas are posted but please be very careful to respect private property and take only pictures if you visit.

Just up the road is the very obvious tailings pile left over from past mining. The ore found around Gilt Edge was of low quality and the town never became prosperous. However, it had a very interesting history that has been recounted on a couple of other web sites. If you would like to learn more about the history of Gilt Edge visit:  
http://www.angelfire.com/ia2/flybee3/

Maiden Canyon and Judith Peak

Right at Gilt Edge the name of the road splits. Gilt Edge Road continues to the west while Maiden Road heads north. Follow Maiden Road as it travels up into Maiden Canyon. This is a picturesque drive on a well maintained gravel road. After about four miles you will come to a signed T intersection. Continuing on Maiden Road to the left you will quickly reach the remains of Maiden. However, a great side trip is to turn right at this junction and follow the Judith Peak road to the top of Judith Peak.

For years the Air Force operated radar station on top of Judith Peak. Today it is used for commercial telecommunications. You can get a sense of scale by looking at the man climbing near the bottom of the tower that is second form the left.

This well built and well maintained road takes you to the highest point in the Judith Mountains. As already mentioned, this road was built to service a radar station placed on the top of the peak. There is still a large complex of antennas and other telecommunications equipment here and the views are excellent. To the west and south are views of the rugged mountainsides below. Off in the distance are a few of the mountain ranges that break up the plains of central Montana. Looking north you see an endless expanse of flat terrain leading off toward the Missouri River.

The view from Judith Peak when looking south
From the top of Judith Peak you can see mountains to the south and west and prairie badlands to the north and east.
A photo of the view from the top of Judith Peak when looking north
Looking north from the top of Judith Peak you get a great view of the rugged badlands country.

Maiden Ghost Town

After you visit Judith Peak return the way you came until you reach the junction with the Maiden road. From here it is only a short distance to Maiden where you can see the ruins of a couple of buildings. The entire town site is now on private property so the only exploring is visual from the road and there is really not much to see, just a couple of tumbled down buildings viewed from a distance.

The Maiden of today is far different than when this was a busy mining area. Gold was first discovered in the general area in 1880 and miners quickly explored all of the surrounding areas. By 1888 Maiden was a thriving town of about 1,200 and many different businesses and services were found there. However, as the gold began to play out the population quickly diminished and by 1896 only about 200 residents remained.

Maiden was one of the first gold camps in the area and its commonly reported that its name came from one of the first miners, a man named Maden. He erected a sign that said Camp Maden and somewhere along the line the letter i was added making the town name Maiden. There is an alternate account that the town was named for the daughter of a friend of two of the original settlers. The youngster was fondly known to the men as “Little Maiden” and it is told that they named the town for her.

Warm Springs Creek

Heading past Maiden the road follows Warm Springs Creek. The Warm Springs drainage is very different in character than the Maiden drainage you have just traveled up. Maiden Canyon is a narrow confined canyon that quickly descends from the mountains. Its almost all BLM land and is unpopulated. Warm Springs Creek flows through a broad open valley that is almost totally privately owned. Its well populated with farms, summer homes and other residences. In the past it was the home to the three small towns of Maiden, Andersonville and Alpine. It also housed an air force station that later became a bible college. In short, Warm Springs Creek Canyon has seen a significant human history.

After leaving Maiden, the road turns from gravel to pavement. After about 2 miles you will pass the area of the old Air Force base. This facility was built to provide support to the telecommunications facilities on the top of Judith Peak. The base was located to provide an uninterrupted line of sight between the two points. Ultimately, the Air Force closed the facility. It then served for some time as a bible college and is now privately owned.

From this point it is about 6 miles to the intersection with Hwy 191. South leads to Lewistown to complete a great loop drive through Montana’s Judith Mountains. To explore another interesting old mining town cross Hwy 191 and continue on to Kendall Ghost Town.

Categories
Central Montana Hikes & Attractions

Judith Gap Wind Farm

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The Judith Gap Wind Farm is not a destination in itself but it’s an interesting feature on the Montana landscape. The wind farm is located on both sides of US 191 between Harlowton and Judith Gap MT. Wind farms are a common sight today but when it was constructed the Judith Gap Wind Farm was a welcome curiosity in Montana.

The project was first conceived in 2000 but it took until January 2005 before a contract was signed that committed Northwestern Energy to purchase the power produced. As soon as the contracts were signed contractors got to work. The first of the giant turbines began to generate power in October 2005. By early 2006 the planned 90 towers and generators were in place. Today the wind farm produces clean power on a consistent basis and residents applaud the development.

Photo of the Judith Gap Wind Farm
There are windmills in every direction as you drive Hwy 191 through the Judith Gap wind farm.

Giant Windmills

The windmills in this project are huge. The top of each tower is 262 ft above the ground and is capped by a large housing that serves as the hub for the three bladed  generator. Each of the blades is more than 125 ft long which means that the top height of the spinning blade in nearly 400 ft above the ground. The engineers that design the windmills try to make them as tall as possible to take advantage of smoother more consistent wind. These tall and imposing windmills can be seen by travelers more than 25 miles away.

The blades are designed to begin to spin in winds below 8 mph. At about 33 mph they reach maximum electricity production and when the wind speed gets above 56 mph the turbines automatically shut down to protect the blades from spinning too fast. The blades are not designed to spin rapidly with the normal rate being 10 – 20 rpm.

Photo of Judith Gap windmill blade on display
The windmill blades are 125 ft long and more than twice the height of a man. This blade is on display in Judith Gap.

These are very efficient wind generators and each unit is capable of producing up to 1.5 megawatts of power – enough to power somewhere between 350 and 400 homes. In full production the 90 machines produce 135 megawatts which is about 8% of the total power used by Northwest energy.

Judith Gap Blade Park

A single blade is on display in “Blade Park” in Judith Gap. Be sure to stop at the roadside park to see a windmill blade on display. The park is tiny but big enough to display an actual blade from one of the windmills. These blades are marvels of construction. Standing next to the blade gives you a real appreciation for how big the windmills are. When I examined the blade I was struck by how massive and how flexible it is. The park also has a few interpretive panels that tell the story of the development. There are no facilities at the Blade Park and few in Judith Gap.

Nearby Attractions

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Central Montana Hikes & Attractions

Greycliff Prairie Dog State Park

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This tiny state park is only 98 acres in total and offers visitors few amenities. The park really only has one thing – Prairie Dogs! Greycliff Prairie Dog State Park is home to a colony of black tailed prairie dogs that are easy to spot and fun to watch.

Its hard to imagine that a park could be easier to find than this one. It’s right off Interstate 90 at Exit 377, the Greycliff exit. The state park is well signed and easy to find. Its on the south side of the highway and just east of the exit on the frontage road. The directions make it sound more complicated than it is. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks administers Greycliff Prairie Dog State Park and there is no fee for admission.

Photo of Greycliff Prarie Dog State Park typical habitat - flat brushland
This is not a scenic state park photo but it is the habitat that the prairie dogs thrive in. Low brush is best for these herbivores. Interstate 90 is in the background but the prairie dogs ignore the traffic racing by.

A Great Place to See Prairie Dogs

There’s not much at the park. A couple of interpretive signs and a few picnic tables are the only amenities. There are no restrooms – not even outhouses – and no water. This is a day-use only area and no camping is allowed. The park is open year-round but you may have to walk in during the winter.

The habitat in the park is different than you would usually expect from a state park. The entire park is all open ground with no trees. Plan on full sun whenever you visit. The entire site is open for hiking and exploring but you will probably find that the best way to view the prairie dogs is by finding a good spot to just be still and watch.

Prairie dog watching is the only activity at the park but it is a great way to spend some time. There are 5 different species of prairie dogs and Prairie Dog State Park is home to black tailed prairie dogs. Prairie dogs were once abundant across the western United States. However, populations have plummeted. Many consider prairie dogs to be pests and in the past large scale extermination campaigns were conducted. Today we know that prairie dogs are a keystone species that is incredibly important to the ecology of many western habitats.

If you want to learn more about these cute and interesting animals Amazon has a lot of prairie dog books for kids and adults.

Photo of a family of black tail Prarie Dogs sitting on their burrow entrance.
A family of Black Tail Prairie Dogs sits outside their burrow. From here they can quickly scamper underground to avoid most predators

Creating Prairie Dog State Park

In the late 1960s Edward Boehm, a Livingston, MT wildlife photographer, realized that prairie dogs were vanishing and new highway construction threatened the Greycliff colony. In 1969, according to the Montana Standard, “Prairie dog champion Edward Boehm, Livingston, is waging a one-man crusade to save a prairie dog village threatened by interstate highway construction near Greycliff, southeast of Big Timber. Boehm wants the dog village designated a state park or wildlife refuge and has entered petitions to the state.” Ultimately, the state paid heed and the site was set aside to protect the prairie dogs.  We all owe a debt to unsung heroes like Edward Boehm who did so much to leave a legacy for us all.

Be sure to bring binoculars to the park and plan to spend some time watching these social creatures. You will notice that there are a number of family groups inhabiting their own homes that combine to make the town. Watch carefully and you will see lots of interesting interactions between various sexes, ages and families. Be sure to listen too. Its reported that prairie dogs have as many as 11 different calls or sounds that they use to communicate. They have a complex series of warning sounds and have different calls for each type of predator.

Prairie dogs spend much of their time below ground and their tunnels can reach up to 14 feet in length. They typically have separate rooms for sleeping, bathroom, a listening room and several other rooms. The bare tunnel entrances are easy to spot and the dogs will often be found close to the tunnel mouth.

Greycliff Prairie Dog State Park is a great place to stop and stretch your legs if you are traveling on I90. Although the prairie dog town on this hundred acre park is tiny compared to many in the west, this is a great place to get a close up view of the fascinating world of the prairie dog.

Nearby Places of Interest

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Central Montana Hikes & Attractions

Crystal Lake in the Big Snowy Mountains

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Crystal Lake in the Big Snowy Mountains offers camping, hiking and fishing in an island of wild mountains surrounded by prairie. The Big Snowy Mountains are one of the small ranges that dot central Montana. The mountains are south of Lewistown, MT and offer camping, fishing, hiking and backpacking.

Nearest CityLewistown, MT – 31 miles
SeasonLake access – all year
Camping – Memorial Day to Labor Day
AttractionsHiking, Camping, Fishing, Boating, Birdwatching
ManagementHelena-Lewis & Clark National Forest
Elevation5,700 ft
FeesNo day use fee
Nightly camping fee – $10.00

The Big Snowy Mountains are part of the Helena – Lewis & Clark National Forest and are one of the “Island” mountain ranges that are scattered in Central Montana. They cover as much as 10 miles north to south and 25 miles east to west. The highest peaks are at 8,600 ft and there are many miles of ridge line that can be followed at 8,000ft or higher.

Hiking the Big Snowy Mountains

There is a well developed trail system that runs through the Big Snowies. Unfortunately, there are only a few options for access. The US Forest Service (USFS) has forest maps that show trails and accesses. Another good option is the DeLorme Montana Atlas & Gazetteer.

The primary loop hike into the Big Snowy Mountains begins and ends at Crystal Lake and is officially recognized as the Crystal Lake National Recreational Trail. This fantastic loop trail that begins and ends at the campground. The hike is about 12 miles in length and starts with a tough 2,000 ft climb in the first three miles. After you reach the top it is easy hiking along the mountain tops. Be sure to take the side hike down to the Snowy Mountain Ice Cave to explore an unusual feature. There is no water available on this hike so take all you need with you.

Several years ago the Forest Service put out a Crystal Lake Area Trails brochure that can be helpful. I don’t think this is available any longer but the link is to a PDF of the brochure. You can find a full description of this hike as well as about 100 others in the book Hiking Montana which I highly recommend.

Visiting Crystal Lake

Crystal Lake is quite easy to find. From Lewistown MT, take US Highway 87 north 8.7 miles to Forest Access sign (Crystal Lake Road). Turn left onto the graveled Crystal Lake Road and go about 5 miles to a Y intersection. Bear left and go 4 miles to Recreation Area sign. Turn left at sign, continuing on Crystal Lake Road, and go nearly 13 miles to the campground. The Crystal Lake Road begins as a well maintained two lane gravel road. As you approach the mountains the road narrows and the last 6 miles are single lane and paved. 

If you are coming from Harlowton or points south Crystal Lake is easy to find. There is a well signed turn on US 191 that heads east. Just follow the signs until you reach the intersection with the road from Lewistown and turn south (right) and continue on to the lake. It seems odd that the lower sections of the road would be gravel and the upper paved. However, the last nearly 6 miles are single lane and are steep and twisty in places. There is a steep drop off right at the edge of the road so be sure to drive safely on this section.

Camping at Crystal Lake

The Crystal Lake Campground is a typical USFS campground. Its laid out in a single large loop with campsites located on both the inside and outside of the loop. There are about 28 campsites total and most sites are fairly close together. However, there is more privacy than at many campgrounds and a few sites are somewhat isolated. (I have not visited the campground recently but reports are that it is less private after a tree removal project.)Each site has a picnic table and a circular steel fire pit. If you are new to camping we have advice on Selecting A Campsite.

The campground has water available seasonally but don’t count on it early in the season or in the fall.  The campground is suitable for all types of camping – tents, trailers or RVs and several sites are accessible. The USFS charges a camping fee during the peak summer months.

In addition to camping, the Crystal Lake Cabin is available to rent by the night. This one-room cabin is suitable for up to 4 people and provides a great experience for those who want to enjoy the area without camping. The USFS offers this type of cabin rental wherever it is practical.

In 2017 the USFS closed the Crystal Lake Campground for a year while they removed hazardous trees. There are reports that the campground is not nearly as forested as it was previously.

Crystal Lake

Crystal Lake itself is very interesting. It is a 45 acre lake at about 5,700 ft elevation. Crystal Lake is a natural feature that is very shallow. The maximum depth is no more than 15 ft when it is full. The Lake is fed by snow melt from the surrounding mountains. The Big Snowy Mountain get good winter snows but no consistent rain in the summer, so, little water enters the lake after it fills from melting snow.

Crystal Lake sits on a rock layer of porous limestone and water seeps out of the bottom of the lake all year long.  Although the lake fills during snow melt, by late summer the water level falls dramatically and by fall the lake is little more than a large shallow pond. The open water of the lake is far from the shoreline and a broad expanse of soft mud surrounds the lake.

Photo of a lone photographer on the shore of Crystal Lake
In the fall of the year the water level in Crystal Lake falls very low. The water in the lake has slowly seeped out through the limestone bottom and the water is far from the edge of the lake. Here a photographer seeks to get a photo of a mature Bald Eagle feeding on the fish in the lake.

Fishing Crystal Lake

Crystal Lake is so shallow in the winter that it typically freezes solid, killing any fish that are in the water. Consequently, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks stocks rainbow trout into the lake every year. The stocked fish are usually about 12 inches in length and grow quickly in the fertile lake. The FWP management plan calls for Crystal Lake to receive 1,000 12 inch fish every year which can provide excellent fishing.

The lake is located in Montana’s central Fishing District and standard fishing regulations govern the lake.  To learn about the fishery resource and any management changes to Crystal Lake visit Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

Crystal Lake is open to all types of non-motorized boating. There is a boat ramp and beach area. The lake is perfect for kayaks, canoes and stand up paddleboards. Swimming is popular during the summer months and is often a family activity.

Birdwatching and More

With water leaking out of the lake bottom all summer the lake gets smaller and very shallow. As this happens the trout become very vulnerable to predatory birds. Although there are patches of aquatic vegetation, the shallow clear water makes it almost impossible for the trout to hide successfully. This makes for great bird watching opportunities and Crystal Lake in the fall can be an excellent place to view Bald Eagles.

Photo of bald eagle sitting in a dead tree
Crystal Lake is a frequent gathering spot for bald eagles in the fall. The lake has become very shallow and the trout are much more available to the eagles and other predators.

There is an interesting hiking trail that winds around Crystal Lake. This trail is about 1 3/4 miles in length and has very little elevation change. It is a great trail for almost anyone and alternates between forest and open areas. Benches that overlook the lake are located at several spots that provide places to take a break and enjoy the scenery. This is a great trail for bird watchers, photographers and other nature lovers.

The Big Snowy Mountains are overlooked by many but they offer a lot of great recreation opportunities. Especially for those looking for an off-the-beaten-path location. If you have the chance to explore the Big Snowies you will not be disappointed.

Explore these other nearby opportunities

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Central Montana Hikes & Attractions

Cooney Reservoir and State Park

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Cooney Reservoir is one of the most visited recreation destinations in south central Montana. Located within an hour of Billings, MT, Cooney offers great fishing opportunities for trout and walleye and is a popular destination for ice fishing in the winter. Cooney is great for water skiing, wake boarding, jet skis and all types of water recreation. Cooney State Park offers camping, picnicking and hiking and cross country skiing. No wonder it’s so popular – Cooney Reservoir and State Park has something for almost everyone.

Cooney State Park

Cooney State Park is south of Billings, Laurel and Columbus and north of Red Lodge, MT. A well signed access road to the park runs west from Hwy 212 south of Joliet, MT. This paved road reaches the reservoir after about 8 miles. The road arrives at the dam and you can follow roads to either direction to reach different units of the park. You can also reach Cooney Reservoir from the northwest by following a network of gravel roads from just south of Columbus, MT.

Cooney State Park has multiple campgrounds and boat ramps. It’s a good idea to check out the Cooney State Park Map before you go. The 300 acre state park stretches around Cooney Reservoir and provides access to the water in many places.

Cooney State Park is a fee area. For day use, there is no charge for any Montana resident. However, for non-residents there is a $5.00 fee for day use. There is a fee charged for camping that varies according to campsite type and other factors.

Camping and Recreation

Cooney State Park has about 90 campsites spread across 5 different campgrounds. The amenities vary at each of these areas. All of the campgrounds have toilets and water during the summer season. There are showers available at one of the campgrounds.

Most of the campsites at Cooney are best suited for trailers and RVs. About 20 sites have electricity. The smaller campgrounds have fewer amenities and may appeal to tent campers. If you have questions about picking a site read How to Select a Campsite for suggestions.

Many of the campsites at Cooney State Park are available for advance reservations and it’s a good idea to have reservations during the peak months. For more information be sure to check out the Cooney State Park official website.

Photo of Cooney Reservoir in South Central Montana
Cooney Reservoir is a very popular fishing and boating destination. The State Park the wraps around the lake and features lots of camping and hiking opportunities.

Cooney Reservoir

Cooney Reservoir was created in 1937 when the State of Montana constructed a dam across Red Lodge Creek. The earthen dam is 2,260 ft long and stands 97 feet high. Cooney Reservoir was built to store water for irrigation and the reservoir can store about 24,000 acre feet.

Red Lodge Creek drains an area of about 200 square miles upstream from the reservoir. Below the reservoir 20,000 acres are irrigated with water released from Cooney. Recently a major upgrade was scheduled to be completed on the concrete weir that is part of the dam which will allow for more effective water management.

Fishing Cooney Reservoir

Cooney Reservoir attracts most of the visitors to the park. With about 1,000 acres of surface, Cooney provides great fishing year round. Boat fishing is most popular but, at times, shore angling produces great results. In winter Cooney provides some of the best ice fishing in the area.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks manages Cooney Reservoir for rainbow trout and walleye. The walleye were first introduced in 1983 and have become well established. The walleye now reproduce in the lake and there has been no walleye stocking since 2006. The reservoir is stocked with rainbows every year and the current fishery management plan calls for continued annual stocking to insure the trout fishery is maintained.

Photo of p[addle boarder on Cooney Reservoir
A lone stand-up paddle boarder explores the shorelines of Cooney Reservoir. Cooney is a very popular destination for motorized and non-motorized boating.

Fun For All

People in the area describe Cooney Reservoir as being “toward the mountains” but it is not in the mountains. The elevation is about 4,250 feet and the water warms to great swimming temperatures in the summer. Cooney is a very popular destination for all types of water recreation. The lake is open to all types of boating. Water skiing and wake boarding are very popular as are jet skis. If you visit Cooney in the summer plan on sharing the lake with plenty of others!

Besides fishing and water sports, visitors enjoy hiking, bird watching and bicycling. The camping is great and Cooney Reservoir should be on your list to visit. You can learn more about all of Montana’s state parks in the book Montana State Parks, a guide to Montana’s 55 state parks.

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Central Montana Hikes & Attractions

Central Montana Railroads

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Montana is a very large state and in the late 1800’s it was a long way from Montana to any of the nation’s population centers. Before railroads reached the state regular commercial travel was problematic at best. The first rail lines brought both people and goods into the state and provided a way to send minerals and other products to distant markets. The Central Montana Railroads were critical to growth in the area.

History of Montana Rail Lines

Rail lines crossing Montana from east to west connected the Pacific coast with cities in the Midwest. Private companies constructed three rail lines which crossed the sate from east to west. The Northern Pacific Railroad was completed in 1883 and ran across southern Montana. The Great Northern Railroad which crossed the northern part of the state was completed to Seattle in 1893. Each of these lines received significant governmental support in the form of massive land grants which provided significant financial incentive.

The third line, the Milwaukee Road,  crossed through central Montana. It was the last of the lines across Montana and was completed in 1908. The Milwaukee Road was the only train line that was constructed without any land grants to reduce their development costs. However, the Milwaukee Road was developed in a fiscally sound fashion. It began as a regional rail line in the upper mid-west and only expanded as its profits justified. The Milwaukee Road was the hub for all Central Montana railroads.

The Milwaukee Road began operations in Montana by running the steam engines common at the time. Unfortunately, steam engines didn’t have the power needed to pull trains up some of the grades that had to be traversed. This was especially true in winter when very cold temperatures would significantly reduce the power a steam engine could generate.

Electric Powered Trains

The owners of the Milwaukee Line decided that electric locomotives would provide the consistent pulling power needed. Cheap electricity generated by dams along the Columbia River made electric trains very economical to operate. Consequently, the decision was made to switch to electricity. In 1915 the first section of the line switched to electricity and soon the entire line was electrified. The electric trains proved to be efficient and effective. They were dependable and operated well in the cold harsh conditions.

Providing uninterrupted power all along the rail line required significant infrastructure including overhead lines and power substations. Despite the cost of these improvements, the electrified railroad was more profitable and effective.

The story of electrification of the Milwaukee road has been fully documented in the book The Electric Way Across The Mountains: Stories Of The Milwaukee Road Electrification.

The Jawbone Railroad

One of the most interesting stretches of the Milwaukee Road was the “Jawbone Railroad”. This was a 157 mile stretch  between the cities of  Lombard and Lewistown MT. The Jawbone was officially named the Montana Railroad. It was a private line built to serve the mining and agriculture communities in central Montana.

The primary visionary responsible for the Montana Railroad was Richard Harlow, an attorney from Helena MT. Harlow believed that rail service was vital to the economic future of central Montana and worked hard to achieve his vision. His first attempt to construct a line began and ended in 1893. However, in 1894 he once again began to work on a new rail line and this time he succeeded.

Photo of abandonded wooden railroad trestle in Central Montana
This very impressive abandoned wooden trestle crosses Big Spring Creek northwest of Lewistown, MT. The terrain of central Montana is such that the railroads had to build many trestles and tunnels. This trestle is mostly built of wood but there are several “fire brakes”, sections built entirely of steel, designed to keep a potential fire from burning the entire structure.

The Montana Railroad began construction in 1895. Construction began from Lombard which was a Northern Pacific station located about 50 miles east of Helena, MT. Construction ran east toward the Castle Mountains where gold fields created a demand for train service. In 1896 the line reached Leadboro (also known as Leadborough) at the southern end of the Castle Mountain mining district. This was the first of the Central Montana railroads.

Unfortunately, by the time the rail service arrived the gold was exhausted. Harlo decided to extend the line further east into the open lands of Central Montana. In 1900 the line reached the new town of Harlowton which was named after Harlo. After reaching Harlowton more track was laid heading north and in 1903 the Montana Railroad was complete to Lewistown, MT.

Read the full history of The Montana Railroad: Alias the Jawbone

The Milwaukee Road

In 1908, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad was in the process of building their route to the west coast. Rather than build new lines they purchased the Montana Railroad in its entirety. Thus, the Montana Railroad became a part of what became the Milwaukee Road. The Milwaukee Road brought additional resources to the area. The Milwaukee Road only used the section of the line from Harlowton to Lombard. However, tracks were laid from Lewistown to Great Falls, MT as a secondary line serving that part of the state. Subsequently several spur lines were built that provided access to much of the country north of Harlowton.

This very large, long trestle crosses the Judith River. It is mostly all steel but there are concrete and wooden sections at each end. Although this is a particularly large trestle, there are many others scattered across central Montana.

By 1980 all of these lines had become abandoned and today the grade remains in most places as a testament to the peak of rail traffic. Losing the railroad meant significant change for this part of Montana. The Rail stations had become focal points for communities and grain elevators became major fixtures around which communities sprang up. Once the rail traffic slowed and trucking became the most common way to transport grain these small communities quickly lost their reason for existence. Today most stand as modern ghost towns dotting the plains.

Photo of abandonded building sitting along an abandonded railroad in Central Montana
Abandoned buildings such as this stand in many places as testament to days gone by. At one time there were quite a few small towns and railroad stations in central Montana. Both the raised railroad bed and an abandoned grain elevator can be seen in the background.

Abandoned Rail Lines

Abandoned rail lines and modern ghost towns provide a lot of opportunities for people looking for an interesting glimpse into the Montana of years gone by. Some of the rail lines are easily followed by paved roads while others mostly cross private property and can only be accessed in remote places.

A careful study of the widely available maps will show you lots of major trestles, tunnels and town sites that can be visited. Half the fun of exploring these areas is the discovery. Follow the tracks and look for grain elevators. In many places the abandoned elevators are easily visible from miles away. Very often there will be interesting sights to see around these sites.

Photo of an abandoned church in Central Montana
Once an anchor of a vibrant community, this abandoned church sits just across the street from an abandoned schoolhouse. This is jut an example of the history on display when you seek out the abandoned rail lines of Central Montana

Harlowton, Montana

Harlowton, MT is a great place to visit for some railroad history. The Milwaukee Road had a big presence in Harlowton and the community is trying to preserve the heritage. The Harlowton Milwaukee Depot Museum and the Upper Musselshell Museum each have significant Milwaukee Road exhibits.

Be sure to visit the locomotive that the community has on display. This is one of the last two engines operating when the electric line was eliminated. It is hard to imagine the apparatus attached to the roof of the engine connected to overhead wire that supplied enough electricity to power a train.

The round house that was in use for many years still stands but it is not open to visitors. It is a massive building complex that is used for storage and should only be explored from the outside. Before you leave the site be sure to check out the snow plow blade that has been placed near the station. This blade was originally abandoned in Ringling, MT but was moved to Harlowton. The massive concrete weights that were used to weight down the plow are still located alongside the abandoned rail line just on the edge of Ringling.

Although they are abandoned, the Central Montana railroads provide lots of interesting railroad history. The rails had a very significant influence on the people and development of Montana. Exploring these towns and rail lines is a great way to explore and enjoy the Big Sky State.

Learn more about all the railroads of Montana in Railroads of Montana

While you are in Central Montana you might enjoy these attractions

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Central Montana Hikes & Attractions

Camping and Hiking in the Castle Mountains

This post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Some links on this site are affiliate links which means that, if you choose to make a purchase, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. I greatly appreciate your support!

The Castle Mountains are an island mountain range located just east of White Sulphur Springs in Central Montana. The Castle Mountains are not the steep chiseled peaks encountered in other areas of the state. Rather, they are more rounded and not as severe with the highest peaks being about 8,000 ft in elevation. However, the forested hillsides of the Castles make them a favorite destination for hikers and hunters.

Access to the Castles is rather limited. The mountains are all National Forest land but the lands surrounding the mountains are privately owned. Fortunately, a public road runs through the national forest and provides opportunities for access.

Photo of Montana's Castle Mountains
Montana’s Castle Mountains have gentle sloping sides and rounded peaks

Castle Mountain Camping

There are two developed forest service campgrounds about a mile apart on Fourmile Creek Road (Forest Service Road #211) about ten miles from White Sulphur Springs.

Grasshopper Campground is the first encountered as you drive from White Sulphur Springs and is the larger and more developed of the two.  It sports about a half dozen or ten sites and has water available. This campground is preferred by those who are in campers and RV’s. There is a moderate nightly camping fee.

Richardson Campground at 5,500ft elevation is much smaller with only two or three campsites.  There is no water but there is a single pit toilet. This area is all on a slight hill and it can be difficult to find good level parking areas for campers. Unfortunately, it can also be hard to find good level tent sites.  However, this campground receives much less use and generally provides better solitude.

The Castle Mountains are very popular with hunters so keep that in mind if you plan a camping trip here.  During both archery and rifle hunting seasons the campgrounds almost always have groups of hunters, some of whom host elaborate and extensive camps.  These are great people that really enjoy the out-of-doors in their own way but they often consider four wheelers and generators to be a necessary part of their camping experience.

A typical tent camping site at Richardson Campground in Montana’s Castle Mountains

Castle Mountain Hiking

The hiking in the Castle Mountains is good but there are not a lot of trails. However, there are trailheads from both of the campgrounds. There is a great ten mile out and back hike described in Hiking Montana that will take you to the highest points in the mountains. Along this trail you will get a great idea of the terrain that makes the Castles special.

There is a network of trails that loop through the heart of the Castle Mountains. Backpackers can plan a multi-day trip through the Castles visiting areas that few hikers ever get to.

Castle Ghost Town

The Castle Mountains are home to one of the historic mining areas of Montana and the mining ghost town of Castle is located on the south side of the range.  There is a road that travelers right through the original town site and it is an interesting area.  All of the lands surrounding the ghost town are posted private property and there is no excuse for trespassing.  Look at the ruins from the road but please respect the property owners and do not leave the road right-of-way.

You can learn more about Castle Ghost Town in Ghost Towns of Montana: A Classic Tour Through The Treasure State’s Historical Sites

The Castle Mountains make a great off-the-beaten-path camping destination complertye with mountain meadows, forested trails and lots of wildlife.

Here are some suggestions for other places to visit in the area.