Central Montana Hikes & Attractions

Little Belt Mountains

The Little Belt Mountains are in the Helena Lewis and Clark National Forest southeast of Great Falls, Montana. There’s 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.

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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 it’s 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. It’s 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.

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