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Bozeman, MT 59715
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Sweetgrass Hills

Prairie Sentinels

J.gif (902 bytes)utting abruptly out of the surrounding plains about ninety miles east of Glacier Park and tight against the Canadian border is a most impressive cluster of volcanic outcroppings, the Sweetgrass Hills, that would be called mountains if they occurred most anywhere else. The tallest, West Butte, rises over three thousand vertical feet from the surrounding prairie, with a summit elevation of 6981’. If you should choose to climb it, a most worthwhile undertaking, I am sure you would agree that no matter what they are called, these are mountains.

The Sweetgrass Hills consist of three main buttes, West, Middle (Gold),West Butte.jpg (17746 bytes) and East Butte, each with an attendant cluster of lower hills extending primarily to the north from the main butte. The three are separated from each other by a distance of roughly ten miles, and the whole area is about fifteen miles north to south and twenty five miles east to west, a good scope of country even by Montana standards. The entire area boasts tremendous views and abundant wildlife, and all the solitude anyone could want. During hunting season it gets visited by a reasonable number of people from the surrounding area, but for the rest of the year it is for all practical purposes untouched, except for a sparse population of hardy ranchers. You’re not likely to see it mentioned as a hiking destination in any of the mainstream tourist literature, but that only adds to its allure in my opinion. While there aren’t any established hiking trails, as such, the possibilities are nearly endless for anyone equipped with map, compass, and a modicum of navigating ability. Besides, I know I am not alone in enjoying being able to just head out and choose my own path.

Speaking of maps, it’s fundamental that anyone going hiking in an unfamiliar area (or even a familiar area, for that matter) should be carrying good maps. The US Geological Survey topographical maps are hard to beat, and are available from any good sporting goods store. If you can’t find them in your area, they can be ordered from the US Geological Survey, Denver, CO 80225. I get mine from Selby’s, an engineering supply business with locations in Bozeman and Billings, and the Bozeman phone # is 406-587-0782. In more rugged areas I use the 7.5 minute (1:24,000 scale) map series, but my map of the Sweetgrass Hills is a 30 by 60 minute map (1:100,000) and it is very adequate. Another good set of maps is the DeLorme Montana Atlas and Gazetteer. It provides topographical maps of the entire state in one handy book, although they are primarily 1:250,000 scale. They are useful for an overview, although serious exploration will usually require more detailed maps with a smaller scale. Possibly the best feature of the DeLorme maps is that they show public land locations, as well as all the roads, even some quite primitive ones, and are extremely useful in locating places to recreate. If you can’t find the DeLorme maps locally, call them at 1-800-452-5931 or check out their web site at http://www.delorme.com.

The Sweetgrass Hills aren’t really on the way to anywhere, and it’s doubtful you are just going to find yourself in the neighborhood. If you are visiting Glacier Park you are sort of in the neighborhood, by Montana standards, and most people reading this who wish to visit them wouldSweetgrass Sunrise.jpg (9633 bytes) probably incorporate it as a side trip from Glacier. A visit is a worthwhile venture no matter where you are coming from though, and if you are in north central Montana on a clear day, keep an eye on the northern horizon and you will likely see them far off in the distance. Speaking of distance, the Sweetgrass Hills were part of the longest view I have ever had. I included this as an aside in my article on fishing in the Sweetgrass Hills, but it’s worth also including here. On one particularly clear winter day a number of years ago a friend and I were skiing at Showdown, in the Little Belt Mountains south of Great Falls. From the top of the mountain, incredibly, I could see the Sweetgrass Hills, over 150 miles to the north. To the south, I could see the peaks of the Absaroka Range just north of Yellowstone, also over 100 miles away. It was an incredible view that encompassed nearly the entire state, north to south.

To get back to finding your way to the hills, though, there are a number of possible routes, and the DeLorme maps provide the best guide. It’s quite possible to make it to the Sweetgrass Hills without a map, although I would certainly advise having one as a hiking aid once you get there. Since they are visible for a great distance in any direction and the roads in that part of the country are laid out in a grid, if you head in their direction off of either of the roughly adjacent highways; Interstate 15 or US 2, you will eventually arrive at your destination. More specifically, though, some of the better routes are as follows: The most direct route to the West Butte area is to head east from the town of Sunburst, which lies along I-15 eight miles south of the Canadian border. Turning east (right) at the bottom of the Sunburst exit will put you on Route 552, Ninemile Road which intersects with Coal Mine road near the southeast corner of West Butte. The Gold Butte area can be reached from Route 343, Oilmont Highway, which departs I-15 at the Kevin-Oilmont exit fifteen miles north of Shelby or ten miles south ofGold Butte.jpg (14646 bytes) Sunburst. To reach the Cameron Lake area or the west side of Gold Butte turn north onto Miner’s Coulee road eighteen miles east of I-15. If you continue on the Oilmont Highway for an additional 4.5 miles, you can turn north on Route 217, Strawberry Road, to access the east side of Gold Butte as well as East Butte. This area can also be reached by turning north off US 2 at Galata and travelling north on Galata road which intersects with the Oilmont Highway just under two miles east of Strawberry Road. Another route off US 2 which leads to the East Butte area is the Whitlash road, which leaves US 2 two miles west of Chester.

Once you arrive you will undoubtedly be struck by the ambiance of the area. It is clear that this is a special place, simultaneously harsh and beautiful. The nearest convenience store or subdivision is a long way away; this is truly remote country. Most of the land is still native range, with evergreen forest blanketing the lower slopes, and it supports an abundance of wildlife. Herds of deer and antelope abound, and if you’re lucky you may see some of the elk that have colonized this area in recent years, or even the odd moose. Waterfowl, as well as other birds are abundant, due to the many potholes and lakes in the area. The Sweetgrass Hills receive more precipitation than the surrounding area, which can make the area seem like an oasis in the surrounding arid plains. I particularly remember a family outing during my teens when we climbed Gold Butte. It had been a particularly wet spring that year, and the spectacular view from the summit included a seemingly uncountable number of lakes and potholes.

A little knowledge of the history of the area adds to the enjoyment of a visit. Prior to the coming of the white man, we know that this area was a favorite of the Blackfeet Indians, in fact it is still considered a sacred area by them. Just north of West Butte in the valley of the Milk River lies Writing On Stone, a Canadian Provincial Park. There are extensive petroglyphs carved into the sandstone bluffs there, and the area figures heavily in local Indian mythology. If you’re in the area this is a very worthwhile spot to visit. It is most easily reached by crossing the border at Sweetgrass on I-15. Proceed north about ten miles to the town of Milk River. Signs point the way from there to Writing On Stone Park.

The Writing On Stone and Sweetgrass Hills area also figures somewhat prominently in the history of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; the Mounties. This group was originally dispatched from eastern Canada, with the mission to bring order to the area and put an end to the whisky trade with the Indians. At the time, around the 1870’s, some white traders, mostly from the Fort Benton area further south on the Missouri River were doing a brisk business trading with the Blackfeet. Unfortunately their stock in trade was primarily whisky, which was wreaking havoc on the tribe and causing all sorts of problems. While the Mounties were eventually successful in their mission, they were at first woefully unprepared and somewhat ignorant of the challenges before them. One account I have read said that on their initial trip west, the original group was lost and near perishing in the country north of West Butte. They knew Fort Benton was somewhere to the south and a couple of them struck out in a desperate attempt to find it. They managed to do so, and the traders there sent wagons of supplies north and the party was rescued. It’s somewhat ironic that the traders were working both sides of the coin, so to speak, supplying both the Indians with whisky and the Mounties who were sent to put an end to the whisky trade. The traders, the Conrad brothers and I.G. Baker, were astute businessmen, however, and amassed a fortune from this and later dealings. The Mounties primary headquarters in the area was at Fort McLeod further to the west, but they also established an outpost at Writing On Stone. Apparently one of the favored routes of the whisky traders was through a large coulee west of West Butte that leads to the Milk River at Writing On Stone. The Mountie’s outpost there considerably complicated this venture, though, and to this day the ravine is known as Police Coulee.

Not long after the whisky trading days, gold was discovered in the vicinity of Middle Butte. The town of Gold Butte quickly sprang up and flourished for a time, as was the nature of mining towns. From that time on, Middle Butte is more commonly known as Gold Butte. When I was a youngster, my family and relatives often went of Memorial Day picnics in interesting places, and one year we went to Gold Butte. At that time, the mid to late 1960’s, much of the town of Gold Butte was still standing, although uninhabited. There were numerous buildings, most notably a jail with bars still in the windows, and a large livery barn. Unfortunately, the ranchers who own the property grew tired of their cattle getting stuck or injured in these old buildings and bulldozed them, something of a tragedy in my opinion. All that remains now is a cemetery and a few other scattered graves, plus some assorted mining debris. If you wish to visit the site, though, you still can via Gold Butte road, which connects Miner’s Coulee road with Strawberry road. In recent years there has again been some gold mining activity, which has caused no small controversy. The Blackfeet Indian tribe as well as many conservation groups oppose mining activity in this area, and since cyanide leach mining was prohibited in the last election and gold prices are currently low, I think it’s unlikely the area will be disturbed in the foreseeable future.

Also during this era, cattlemen were attracted to this area due to its superb grass production and resulting grazing potential. Pioneer ranchers everywhere were a tough breed, but probably nowhere more so than the Sweetgrass Hills. This area is still remote now, and you can only imagine the fortitude and resourcefulness required when the nearest town was a multi-day wagon trip away. Most of the modern inhabitants of the area are descendants of these pioneers, and they remain a tough and hardy bunch. If you pass someone on the road wearing a cowboy hat in this area, it’s a safe bet they are the real deal, the genuine article, and not a recently transplanted hobby rancher.

Without further digression, I should no doubt get back to the original topic; hiking. Since these buttes provide such a commanding view of the surrounding countryside, most people will probably be interested in climbing them. Since this is going to require an elevation gain of around 2500 vertical feet, it can’t accurately be described as casual. It requires no technical climbing ability, though, and is well suited for those of all ages.West Butte Trail.jpg (24017 bytes) During the family outings I mentioned previously everyone from kids to seniors managed to reach the summits, if they desired. Those who wish to expend less energy, or just see even less frequently visited parts of the hills, will find plenty of opportunities at lower elevations. The public land portions of the Sweetgrass Hills are primarily BLM land, with some State land, and are managed as a Special Recreation Use area by the BLM. Recreational use of State land requires an appropriately named State Land Recreation Use License, available anywhere hunting and fishing licenses are sold. The Delorme maps provide the easiest way to locate the public land areas and avoid trespassing. Regulations and good manners preclude off-road driving, and most areas should be accessed on foot or horseback, which is the idea of the whole thing anyway, as I see it.

As mentioned previously, West Butte is best accessed from the intersection of Ninemile and Coal Mine roads. There is a section of State land immediately adjacent to this intersection, and it ties into BLM land to the east and north. Much of the area consists of open slopes, and you will have no difficulty choosing a route to the top of West Butte or anywhere else you may choose to go in the rolling hills to the north. For those with the skills and desire, the cliffs on the southeast side of West Butte are reportedly one of the best places around for hang gliding. It should go without saying that this can be a most hazardous activity, and fatalities have occurred in this area.

Equally and perhaps even more stupendous views are available from Gold Butte a few miles to the east. While Gold Butte itself is BLM land, it is surrounded by private land and access is a little trickier. The closest access is off Gold Butte Road, but the last time I was through there the area in the immediate vicinity of the Butte was posted due to the mining activity. Access is still available from Cameron Lake, which lies two miles directly west of Gold Butte. For more detailed information see the article on Cameron Lake in our fishing section. Cameron Lake lies on private land, but the MT Dept. of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks has an agreement for public access to it. The private land between Cameron Lake and Gold Butte is not posted, and hikers may cross it without additional permission from the landowner (unless they are hunting).

East Butte is probably the easiest of the three to access. There is extensive State land on its southeast side which are traversed by Blackjack Road. For that matter there is a road of sorts to the top of East Butte since the summit is occupied by communication repeater equipment. In my opinion, this detracts slightly from the ambiance, and those seeking a wilderness experience will probably prefer the other two buttes. East Butte is not without its attractions though, as the folks who love to hunt there will attest. While I haven’t yet got around to investigating it, there is also a cave which spelunkers will reportedly find interesting at Devil’s Chimney.

While the Sweetgrass Hills doesn’t possess the rugged alpine grandeur of some of Montana’s more well known destinations, it is a great area for those seeking a unique experience far off the beaten track. Like many areas of eastern Montana, it possesses a unique charm that is hard to articulate but equally hard to ignore. If you decide to check it out, maybe I’ll see you there.

 

 

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