‘Wilderness Walks’ unveil beauty of Eastern Montana

A hike into Bitter Creek

Dee Blank

A hike into Bitter Creek, a 60,000-acre wilderness study area north of Malta, is set for June 15.

Starting this Sunday and continuing through the end of September, a series of “Wilderness Walks” will be offered at 10 locations in Eastern Montana and northern Wyoming.

You could probably tell what part of Montana many of these walks are in just by glancing at their names: Bitter Creek, West Crooked Creek, Terry Badlands, Tongue River Breaks and Chain Buttes. A lot of the places are spectacular, but in subtler ways than places like Paradise Valley or Glacier National Park are spectacular.

And some of them are predominantly prairie, rolling grasslands where the main attractions are the solitude, the quiet, the expansiveness.

Charlie Smillie, talking about the Chain Buttes area, a chunk of Bureau of Land Management prairie near Winnett, described it as “wide-open country as far as the eye can see. I don’t know if there’s any place like it in the Lower 48.”

Smillie is the field director for the Eastern Wildlands Chapter of the Montana Wilderness Association, which is sponsoring the excursions in Eastern Montana and one in northern Wyoming. They are part of more than 100 day hikes, overnight trips and trail-building and maintenance projects being offered this summer throughout the state by the MWA.

There is no charge for any of the hikes.

“We want people to get out and experience these places,” Smillie said. “That’s kind of the foundation of the whole program.”

The Wilderness Walks began informally in 1960, when Ken and Florence Baldwin, founders of the Montana Wilderness Association, led a group of  hikers into the Crazy Mountains.

The association’s first official Wilderness Walk happened two years later, in 1962, when the Baldwins took 40 hikers to Table Mountain in the Spanish Peaks near Bozeman. That make’s this year’s walks the 55th consecutive year of the event.

The hikes in this region range from a two- to three-mile hike at Castle Butte, north of Pompeys Pillar, with a difficulty rating of “moderate,” to a “strenuous” 4.4-mile hike into the Pryor Mountains, setting out from Lovell, Wyo. That hike is described as one of the most spectacular hikes in the Pryors, short but steep.

Different volunteers lead each hike, and each guide is responsible for arranging transportation and advising participants on the gear they should bring, and how much food and water. People are free to drive to the trailhead alone, but often the guides will have everyone meet somewhere in Billings or another nearby town and then carpool from there.

Music for the Wild

The annual fundraiser for the Eastern Wildlands Chapter of the Montana Wilderness Association is set for Saturday, May 20, at the Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co.’s Garage Pub.

The Music for the Wild show will feature Grant Jones with Parker Brown, and Wesley and the Revolving. Music starts at 6 p.m., with an $8 cover.

Some of the trips include some information-gathering on behalf of the MWA. On the Bitter Creek hike near Malta, Smillie said, he will be joining the two guides to collect information for use in a “wilderness character assessment.” Bitter Creek is one of the largest wilderness study areas in the state, with terrain similar to the breaks of the Musselshell and Missouri rivers, “but even more wild, open prairie,” he said.

The assessment gathers information on roads, natural features, conditions and more, information the BLM might not have time to gather but which could be used in determining the ultimate fate of the land.

You can get more information on Wilderness Walks all over the state on the Montana Wilderness Association website, and the entire schedule is available in the MWA’s “Discover Wild Montana” publication, a benefit for association members. You can join the organization by going to its website, too.

Besides the Wilderness Walks, the MWA is sponsoring nine different volunteer trail projects this summer, mostly along the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. You can see that whole schedule here.

The MWA also has free maps of wildlands attractions in southeastern Montana. You can get one of the Buttes, Breaks and Badlands maps by calling Smillie at 690-3725. You can also call him to obtain a newly revised map of the Terry Badlands. We wrote about how difficult it was to find the original map when we visited the Terry Badlands a couple of years ago.

Here’s a rundown of the Eastern Montana Wilderness Walks on tap this year:

♦ Tongue River Breaks Sunday, May 7. Location: Birney. Leaders: Larry Winslow and Terry Punt.

Explore the multi-colored sandstone cliffs and pine-studded buttes of the Tongue River Valley. Birney-area ranchers will talk about protection of the landscape and the agricultural values in the Tongue River Valley. Six miles, moderate.

Castle Butte, Saturday, May 20. Location: Billings. Leader: Bethany Schatzke.

Castle Butte is a hidden gem that lies in Eastern Montana. Hike to the top of a butte and enjoy sweeping views of the surrounding prairie wildlands. This hike is a great combination of natural and cultural history, offering the chance to see petroglyphs, wildflowers and birds. Two to three miles, moderate.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

The view from the top of Castle Butte.

Chain Buttes, Saturday, June 3. Location: Winnett. Leaders: John Bradley and Charlie Smillie.

With its big, rugged coulees, Chain Buttes characterizes central Montana. Hikers experience an intact river-to-prairie ecosystem teeming with wildlife, including Montana’s second-largest elk herd. Five miles, moderately strenuous.

Palisades Trail, Saturday, June 10. Location: Red Lodge. Leaders: Bernard Rose and Marge McArthur.

Palisade Trail winds along the base of the Beartooth Mountains. This always-beautiful hike is typically adorned with wildflowers this time of the year. Five miles, easy.

Bitter Creek, Thursday, June 15. Location: Malta. Leaders: Mary Frieze and Mark Good.

Join us for a real prairie wilderness experience at Bitter Creek, a 60,000-acre Bureau of Land Management Wilderness Study Area, where we will conduct a wilderness inventory and take time for a few short hikes and an overnight car camp. Three miles, easy.

Bear Canyon, Saturday, July 1. Location: Bridger. Leaders: Charlie Smillie and Kelli Hackley.

Explore some of Montana’s premier desert canyon country on the southwest slope of the Pryor Mountains. Bear Canyon is a cottonwood oasis in a vast expanse of sagebrush-juniper desert, winding out of Douglas-fir forest and subalpine meadows, and is home to some of the best bird watching in Montana. Five miles, moderate.

Makoshika Vista Trail, Saturday, July 8. Location: Glendive. Leaders: Tom Shoush and Sue Veroye.

Hike Makoshika State Park’s Vista Trail, a road-to-trails project that provides non-motorized access to the undeveloped backcountry to one of Montana’s finest state parks. Four miles, moderate.

Upper Layout Creek, Saturday, Sept. 2. Location: Lovell, Wyo. Leaders: Rita Harding and Roger Otstot.

Join us for one of the most spectacular hikes in the Pryor Mountains. The short but steep hike will explore a wide range of ecosystems, including a unique and fragile spring with semi-aquatic moss and plant gardens, rare in southern Pryor Mountains. Four and a half miles, strenuous.

Terry Badlands, Saturday, Sept. 16. Location: Terry. Leaders: Karen Stevenson and Mike Stevenson.

Join us as we travel through historical and geological time in the Terry Badlands. One will come away with a sense of discovery and a flash drive filled with photos of a landscape and sky-scape that are oceanic in size. Five miles, moderate.

West Crooked Creek, Saturday, Sept. 30. Location: Winnett. Leaders: Charlie Smillie and Katie Jacobsen.

Explore the ponderosa-lined buttes and sweetgrass coulees of the Musselshell Breaks country, where stunning, intact Bureau of Land Management wildlands tie the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge to Montana’s upland sagebrush sea. Five miles, moderate.

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