I’ve long loved the Sun Canyon area roughy an hour and a half southwest of us. Years ago we looked for grizzlies and mountain lions in this region while working on films for National Geographic, and it was always a pleasant change of scenery for me versus fighting crowds in Glacier or the Canadian parks. Even when I lived in Kalispell in post-filming days, I always wanted to find a way back. One year, friends and I hauled our horses over and stayed at Sun Canyon Lodge for a few days riding and enjoying the gentle breezes of the region. (Translation: gale force winds that literally took your breath away and made you hang onto your hat.) It’s a wild and fun place to be, and as part of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act passed at the end of 2014, it’s going to stay that way.
This year we’re focusing on spending more time in this area, particularly since Glacier is undoubtedly going to be loved to death this summer. Last season over 2.4 million visitors came to relish in its beauty, and while I can’t blame them one iota, it’s just too much at times. The Sun Canyon is the perfect place to go to hike without the crowds.
Since I’m still learning a lot of the trails in in the Sun Canyon area, I was delighted when the Montana Wilderness Association offered a kids’ hike to the area this spring led by Len and Deva. We’d already visited the impressive pictograph wall, but I had never hiked the easy, but beautiful, Wagner Basin. It was one of those situations where I knew were Wagner Basin was, but I wasn’t sure how to get over to it. Without question, I was very grateful to be able to follow experienced folks to lead the way.
Shortly into the hike, Len pointed out a few pictographs along the cliffs. You wouldn’t know they were there unless someone told you, or you simply were keen enough to specifically look for them. From there we hiked to the renowned skull tree, which is a short 1/2 mile from the trailhead, where local artists paint natural history scenes on animal skulls and leave them on the tree. The talent represented in this simple art exhibit is magnificent. Since I completely lack these skills it never ceases to amaze me when an artist can bring out the details of feathers or fur, or the gleam in the eye, of our native wildlife. Beyond the skull tree, we took a look at the old beaver dams and discussed their impact on the ecosystem, then traversed up the hill. This is when it really got fun.
We didn’t go as high as we could, by any means, but it was enough of a climb to gain a terrific perspective on the area. The arrowleaf balsamroot was starting to bloom, and I suspect in another week the area will be absolutely bathed in happy yellow flowers. From there we decided to bushwhack over to the opposite slope for a different route. Tromping through the thick aspens and trying to find a game trail to follow was a blast for the kids. They were in their glory. The proverbial cherry on top was when our youngest, John, found a dandy deer antler. He was ahead of me winding our way through the small trees and shrubs, when he spotted it sticking up out of the mud. Oh man, was he excited! That totally made his day.
Besides the gorgeous scenery, what was so neat about this region is what the kids found. They picked up snail shells (big ones!), bones from animals lost this year or in previous ones, ants trapped in sap, flowers, rocks, and caterpillars. Whether you looked up or down you were going to see something interesting. The hike back to the rigs through the open slope dotted with flowers was simply spectacular, and it was pleasant to be able to chat with fellow hikers on the way down while the kids bounded along yelling out new finds.
The second leg of our adventure started at the big pictograph display, and traveled along the river to the bridge we crossed to go to Wagner Basin. It’s beyond beautiful at this time of the year with the bright green leaves and high, running water. Everybody, including the boys, talked as we walked along this easy trail remembering the day’s finds, as well as reminiscing on past experiences. The bonus find of the day was the small garter snake in the middle of the trail. And while the boys wanted to take him home, we made sure he made it safely back to the rocks.
Once we arrived at the bridge, the kids and I waited as the drivers took Len’s vehicle to shuttle back to the other cars at the parking area near the pictographs. In the meantime, we walked over to a group of aspens that Len pointed out to find the bear claw marks on one of the trees, and I did my best to keep the younger kids (including ours) away from the river for fear that my friend Julie would never speak to me again if she returned to find wet children!
Overall, it was a phenomenal day. The kids were happy and this will undoubtedly be the topic of many conversations in the future. They loved the adventure of bushwhacking through the aspens, and relished in all of the interesting plants and animals (even if it was just parts) they found.
On the way home, we spotted a fox den along Rt. 21. Sam spotted one of them on our way to Augusta, then Grant saw two sitting outside the den. (Unfortunately, it appeared that their sibling was squished on the road.) We turned around to have a better look and was able to take a couple of photos. They are so unspeakably adorable. It was a nice way to wrap up the adventure.