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Blackleaf/Blindhorse

Solitude and Splendor on the Rocky Mountain Front

T.gif (911 bytes)here’s not a lot of places where you can pull into a trailhead that accesses spectacular mountain country, on a mid-July weekend, and find yours is the only vehicle there. That is exactly what happened to me on a recent trip along the Rocky Mountain Front, though. I went on a fairly short (both in mileage and duration) trip into some absolutely spectacularBlackleaf.jpg (11754 bytes) country and didn’t see another soul. In most parts of the country, and even many other areas of Montana, you could have trouble finding a parking spot at a trailhead, but solitude is the normal order of the day along the Front. I guess that shouldn’t surprise me, but it always does, given the splendor that awaits visitors.

The entire Front is relatively lightly used, but the trailhead I chose is particularly so. Blackleaf Canyon doesn’t have any established campgrounds, although there are several primitive campsites available at or shortly before the road’s end. With the exception of Bynum Reservoir, a prairie lake some ten miles from the mountain front, there also isn’t much for fishing in the area. What it does offer is absolutely stupendous scenery, easily accessible for day hikers, or for that matter without ever leaving your vehicle. If you don’t mind shouldering a pack, though, area trails offer several great possibilities for trips ranging from overnighters to expeditions.

To reach the Blackleaf Canyon trailhead, turn west onto gravel at the small burg of Bynum, located on US 89 between Choteau and Dupuyer. Follow the signs for the Blackleaf Wildlife Management Area to the road’s end twenty miles to the west. There are a couple of potentially confusing intersections, the first eight miles west of Bynum. There is a sign with an arrow pointing to the road departing to the north: ignore this and continue west. The other is when you reach the Wildlife Management Area, where a sign indicates that you can either turn south or continue west. You want to continue ahead to the west where the road ends at the mouth of the canyon. This is one of the most spectacular trailheads around. Blackleaf Creek exits the Front through a narrow notch between the towering 1200 vertical foot walls of Volcano Reef to the north and an unnamed but perhaps even more impressive massif to the south.

The surrounding Blackleaf Wildlife Management area is worthy of mention, if for no other reason than to note it is closed to human use from December 1 to May 15 each year for wildlife security. It provides tremendous wildlife habitat for the area’s elk and deer, as well as predators ranging from coyotes to grizzlies. Wolves are also making inroads into this area, something that doesn’t gladden the hearts of area ranchers. The wolves were here first, though, and coming from anMount Frazier.jpg (18782 bytes) agricultural background I feel the long-term survival of the ranchers is probably more in doubt than that of the wolves. The area bear population is also thriving. Area biologists have told me there are currently around 25 bears, both black and grizzly, living in the vicinity. This mix of wildlife adds immensely to the ambiance of the area, although visitors shouldn’t necessarily plan on seeing a lot of wildlife. Generally speaking, they tend to inhabit the areas above and below where most visitors will be. Much of the actual Blackleaf WMA is quite brushy and swampy, and best left to the wildlife, especially since a close-range grizzly encounter is likely not high on most people’s wish list. Animals that don’t live in the vicinity year-round tend to summer in the Bob Marshall Wilderness to the west. The country hikers will likely utilize is a transition zone, mostly used by animals migrating between winter and summer range. The most likely wildlife sightings will probably be bighorn sheep in the high basins under the peaks, but careful observers could be rewarded with sightings and photo opportunities of any of the area wildlife.

Hikers have three main alternatives from the Blackleaf trailhead. Following trail #106 along Blackleaf Creek offers relatively flat hiking, at least for the first couple of miles, offering superb views of Bob Marshall Wilderness peaks to the west, framed by the grandeur of Mount Frazier and Mount Werner to either side. Trail #106 then gains elevation fairly rapidly before crossing a divide into the East Fork Teton. Those who have arranged a vehicle shuttle can descend to the West Fork Teton trailhead at the end of the North Fork Teton road. Total distance is about seven miles. Given the complications of arranging a shuttle, though, I think a better alternativeTrail 153.jpg (19087 bytes) particularly for those out for an overnighter is to use trail #153, which intersects trail #106 a mile from the Blackleaf trailhead. This trail runs generally north and south just inside the Front, and offers relatively easy access to some awe-inspiring country. North of Blackleaf Creek, trail #153 ascends just shy of 1000 vertical feet through mostly open slopes between Volcano Reef and Mount Frazier before descending to the South Fork Dupuyer Creek. Distance from Blackleaf Creek to South Fork Dupuyer is just shy of three miles. Good campsites are available along the creek, and there is plenty of opportunity for further exploration close at hand. I particularly recommend continuing north along trail #153 to below Old Man of the Hills mountain. As with similar spots all along the Front, the combination of rugged mountain scenery and seemingly endless views east onto the plains defy description.

Following trail #153 south from Blackleaf Creek is the route I used on a recent trip, and I highly recommend it. After crossing a low timbered ridge it first reaches Muddy Creek after two miles. Those who wish to make a short day of it or get a late start will find a couple of good campsites here, as well as an interesting remnant of a large steam engine which powered an early-day sawmill. After Muddy Creek, the trail again ascends for about a mile and a half through timber. This trail had been recently cleared when I used it, but parties using pack stock might want to be prepared to clear down timber if they are not so fortunate as I was. At any rate, you will be rewarded with tremendous views when you reach the open divide above the Blindhorse Creek area. This area is on BLM land, and has beenBlindhorse.jpg (28224 bytes) designated an "Outstanding Natural Area", which I certainly have no argument with. The trail crosses three forks of Blindhorse Creek, which exit the cliffs to the west over waterfalls before descending along lush meadows offering abundant campsites. This is a gorgeous area, and there is a good chance that you will have it to yourself. Trail #153 continues south and reaches the North Fork Teton road in another few miles, but crosses private property for the last bit. Obviously, if you wish to continue this direction you will need to have obtained permission beforehand.

I was primarily interested in exploring trail #177, which departs trail #153 at Blindhorse Creek and leads into a high basin below Choteau Mountain before descending to the Clary Coulee trailhead on the North Fork Teton road. I can say that this basin is absolutely spectacular, easily on a par with the more well known alpine areas of the state like Glacier Park, but thatI don't think so.jpg (26509 bytes) the northern part of trail #177 where it descends out the high basin only exists on maps and/or in mapmakers imaginations. Before my departure I was unable to obtain my usual 7.5 minute (1:24000) topographical maps and was relying on the 1:100,000 scale Bob Marshall, Great Bear, and Scapegoat Wilderness Complex map put out by the US Forest Service. It has topographical lines, but they are on a 50 meter contour interval, as compared to the 40 foot interval on the 7.5 minute maps. Trust me, the lack of detail makes route finding difficult, especially since the trail location on the map varies significantly from the actual trail location in several vicinities. Those interested navigating this area should definitely equip themselves with the 7.5 minute maps; Volcano Reef, MT and Cave Mountain, MT. I obtained them on my return, but I must disagree with where they show trail #177 in one critical spot. According to the map, the trail ascends along the right (north) side of the waterfall of the southernmost fork of Blindhorse Creek. This is a cliff, not climbable without using ropes and technical climbing techniques. I studied it from below, and think it might be possible to get up the left side of the waterfall, but I continued south below the cliff for a few hundred yards and found a chute that was somewhat less steep and rocky and a good deal safer, in my opinion. Judging by the amount of bighorn sheep droppings in this chute, the sheep feel the same way. Once you get above the cliffs, the trail is obvious and you are shortly standing above a most awesome alpine basin nestled below the cliffs of Choteau Mountain. Choteau Mountain.jpg (22876 bytes)I climbed a short way southwest to a saddle between Choteau Mountain and the unnamed peak to the north and was rewarded with even more stupendous views of the upper Teton River country. Rocky Mountain, the highest peak in the Front Range was visible to the south, as well as Old Baldy, Teton Peak, Mount Lockhart (with the slopes of the Teton Pass ski area), Mount Wright, and countless unnamed peaks. These mountains aren’t particularly high elevation, mostly from about 8000 to 8500 feet, but they are extremely rugged and if you make this climb you will not be disappointed. Aside from the section through the cliffs, this hike was not difficult. From my camp on Blindhorse Creek to the saddle mentioned was a little over a mile, with about 1200 vertical feet elevation gain. The section through the cliffs makes the trail impassible for pack stock, though, with the possible exception of pack goats.

On a somewhat related note, I recently purchased a hiking staff. Not too long ago I would have scoffed at these as yet another equipment item mainly designed to separate outdoor-minded yuppies from their excess cash. I bought it mainly because it has a camera mount on the top of the handle, which in combination with a small ball head makes for a compact monopod, but now that I have used it some I am quite impressed. It is a great aid in getting around on rough terrain, and makes ascending and descending steep, rocky slopes easier and safer. It works well as a camera support, also. Mine is a three section collapsible model made by Cascade Designs, called a Tracks. Other models are available from Leki, a European company. These staffs, or trekking poles, have reportedly been popular in Europe for some time, and I can now see why.

Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front is truly unspoiled, spectacular country, and the Blackleaf area offers easy access to some of the best the Front has to offer. It’s well worth checking out, and if you decide to, maybe I’ll see you on the trail.

 

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