Stepping into hiking season

This past winter was one for the books, but the gloriously warm spring made up for it by melting the snow and giving us a fantastic wildflower display this spring. We’re warming up by taking the kids on several of our early season favorites, including Wagner Basin, as well as exploring new territory. As the snow melts in the high country, the higher elevation hikes are just around the corner.

Highwood Baldy

On National Trails Day, Samuel and I joined a group from Get Fit Great Falls to hike the service road to the top of Highwood Baldy in the Highwood Mountains east of Great Falls. The greatest challenge of this particular hike is reaching the trailhead, as the last 3 miles of the road are terribly rutted and would swallow normal cars. Thankfully, our leader, Dave, had a new Jeep Rubicon that crawled over the mess without hesitation. 

The actual walk up the road to the top was just under 3 miles and 2000 ft. elevation gain. While it was a steady uphill, it wasn’t terrible by any stretch, and the expansive views of green hillsides  made it all worth it.

The sun was out the entire day, but so was the wind, making it downright chilly at times.  Samuel was happy to have his down jacket when we reached the top.

It probably wasn’t the best day to experiment with packing ice cream on the trail, but it worked. I made vanilla ice cream the day before, and after it froze relatively solid in the freezer, I packed a few scoops in the Hydro Flask thermos   and kept it in the freezer. When we left the next morning, I put it in a softer lunch cooler where I packed Samuel’s sandwich. Once we stopped for lunch at the top, the ice cream was a little soft, but still a terrific consistency. The next time I’ll make it at least another day ahead of time so it can freeze harder within the thermos in the freezer. I think the kids will love having homemade ice cream during a hot day of hiking. 

At the summit, there are communication stations and lots of equipment (which we can see from near our house if we use binoculars), yet once again, the elevation gave us a tremendous view of the entire area. It was a good day to be on top. 

Wagner Basin – Sun Canyon

Several years ago, I joined a hike with the Montana Wilderness Association for a kids’ hike in Wagner Basin. While I’ve spent time in the Sun Canyon area outside of Augusta, I never really hiked the trails (chasing mountain lions over the hills with a camera doesn’t count). It was a simple walk through the gorgeous little area tucked along the mountains and the Sun River, and it’s now an annual trek. It’s as if hiking season doesn’t officially begin until we visit Wagner Basin. 

Friends joined us for this outing, meeting the boys and I at Sun Canyon Lodge where I interviewed Niki, one of the owners, for an article. They all decided we need to come back and stay together since it’s like a playground, including a terrific restaurant and daily horseback rides, within the larger playground of the Canyon. 

The path into Wagner Basin starts alongside limestone cliffs where you can see a few pictographs from the early people of this area before it opens up into the beautiful basin. Our first stop is always checking out the skull tree, where local artists paint wildlife scenes on deer or other animal skulls, then attach them to the tree. We also want to check on which ones still remain, as well as to notice if there are any new ones. 

From there, we went up. Wagner Basin can be an easy hike along the bottom, or you can gain elevation for tremendous views of the entire area. Last year friends and I hiked to the overlook where you can see all the way into Great Falls, but this year we only went about halfway up where we stopped for lunch. 

Afterwards, a group of kids wanted to hike higher so half of us continued to the tree line. And, since my focus early in the season is to train for a backpacking trip later in the summer, I’m always game to go higher. 

On the way down, one of the boys found a large rock embedded with coral, which is a distinct reminder that this landscape was once under water. Our geologist friend said it is called horn coral. We’ve also found oyster shell fossils along the prairie during a different outing, and from what I understand, Sun Canyon is a hot spot for the geology minded types. 

With perfect weather, great friends, and a beautiful location it was one of those days we reflect back upon when we’re hind-end deep in snow.