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.

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.

 

Kids’ Hike in Sun Canyon

Hiking in the Sun CanyonI’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.

Pictographs in Wagner Basin
Pictographs in Wagner Basin

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.

The skull tree
The skull tree

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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.

Hiking up the slope
Hiking up the slope

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Bushwhacking through the aspen.
Bushwhacking through the aspen.

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.

First antler find
First antler find

There was always something to check out.
There was always something to check out.

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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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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.

Walking along the Blacktail - Hannan Gulch connector
Walking along the Blacktail – Hannan Gulch connector

Garter snake
Garter snake

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!

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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.

Gibson Reservoir
Gibson Reservoir

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.

Fox pups at the den.
Fox pups at the den.