Winter in the Sun Canyon

Castle Reef in Wagner Basin with bighorn sheep at the base.

Winters are fickle in these parts. Last year, our February slogged on with temperatures well below zero for weeks on end and heavy snows. Yesterday, we traveled on mostly open ground with plenty of sunshine. That makes me happy.

Sun River Wildlife Management Area

Sun Canyon is one of my favorite places near our Great Falls’ home. Roughly 45 minutes to the small town of Augusta, then another 45 minutes up the Sun Canyon, it’s a gorgeous transition from the seemingly endless prairie to the rugged mountains. Along the way, travelers pass the Sun River Wildlife Management Area, which is closed from December 15 to May 15 to give the 4500+ elk a safe place to overwinter as they migrate from the high country in the Bob Marshall Wilderness to the more open foothills and prairie. Yesterday, we spotted a few hundred braced against the wind along the hillside, but more could possibly be out of sight just beyond another rise.

Just beyond where we saw the elk, we caught a glimpse of another herd. At first, we assumed they were elk, but upon closer inspection they were actually mule deer… with 4 white-tails hanging in with the bunch. On our way up the canyon, they were all bedded down, but on the way back they were up and moving so I counted 77 of them as they meandered along the grasslands.

Walking into Wagner Basin

Despite it being a bit breezy – probably 30 mph winds gusting to 50 mph – I talked the boys into hiking to the “skull tree” in Wagner Basin to see if we could spot sheep. After crossing the bridge over the Sun River, you veer right to the Wagner Basin area. There was a little snow on the road in the shaded areas, and a grouse was hunkered in the middle before wandering off to the side.

I was pleased to see the culverts were replaced at the creek along the way allowing us to drive to the trailhead instead of park 1/4 mile short and walk. Two years ago, heavy snows followed by spring rain caused extensive flooding, blowing out the stream crossing. Cabin owners with trucks seemed to find their way across, but I always felt more comfortable parking on this side of it. Now we don’t have to. A single bighorn sheep ewe hung out near the cabins, which seemed odd until we stepped out of the truck and were blasted by the wind. Maybe she’s the only smart one who figured out how to not be blown to death?

The hike into Wagner starts on a narrow trail along a limestone cliff face. It’s narrow, but not scary. Much scarier sounding then it really is, the skull tree is a local where local artists hang the (mostly deer) skulls on which they paint wildlife and other outdoor themes. There aren’t many of the painted ones left as the color flecks off in the harsh conditions, but we always like to check. There’s also a picnic table in the little grove of trees (I have no idea who hauled that back there!), making it a nice place to stop before continuing up the hill, or just to bring a group of kids. It’s only 1/2 mile from the trailhead on a relatively flat trail so this is one practically anyone can do.

Thankfully, we saw a white-tailed doe in the trees causing us to hike up in the more protected area where we eventually spotted a small group of bighorn sheep. We managed to work our way closer to them noticing they were all ewes and young rams. A large group of white-tails were nearby in the grove a bit further down, and Grant spotted a large group of bighorns at the top of the overlook. (Which is where I really love to go, but I didn’t want a mutiny on my hands.) Of course, since it’s a couple of miles away, he couldn’t quite tell if the bigger rams were up there.

There’s a reason Sun Canyon is my go-to for a quick outdoor fix. It doesn’t take long to be out of cell range and in the middle of some of the best wildlife viewing opportunities around, along with so many different hikes there’s always an adventure that fits the mood for the day. Plus, it always changes. No matter how many times I visit, there’s always something new. New tracks, new wildlife, new flowers, or the scenery changes as the seasons progress. It’s a snippet of the whole world of wonder so close to home.