Exploring the Big Snowy Mountains Near Billings
When going on adventures in Montana, I generally aim for the Beartooth Mountains. They’re close, they’re big, and they can be seen from Billings. Why venture farther away when there are many miles of wilderness to explore just south of town?
I finally broke down and got the All Trails app for my phone. Not the paid version of course, but the free one. It opened me up to finding other adventures that are nearby, but outside of my usual adventuring spots. Justin came up from Texas for a long weekend getaway and to experience a little snow in the Big Snowy Mountains.
The Rainy Drive to the Mountains
Since we would be hiking on the 21st of September, we had to have a couple of different options. The weather in Montana at the beginning of fall can be spotty, so we had some backups in case we weren’t able to get to where we wanted.
As the day drew closer, the weather looked crappy. And not just the local weather, the map showed the entire state covered in green for rain. Fortunately, however, the rain looked like it would be moving out of the area by about 10am, so we were ready to risk it.
Leaving around 7 in the morning we would have plenty of time for the 150 mile drive to Crystal Lake. It rained on us for the first two hours of the drive, but then as we went through Judith Gap, it cleared up and the sun even poked out for a little while. Turning off the highway, it was into the unknown. The roads, clearly marked to the lake, were dirt until you entered the forest service land where they once again were paved.
The 12ish miles of unpaved road had me nervous. We were taking my ’97 Honda Civic, and while it is an off roading beast, it’s still a 2 wheel drive car. Fortunately, my fears were waylaid and the dirt road was in great condition. When we got to the paved section we were in good spirits and ready to go adventuring.
It Reminded me of Glacier, Just Smaller
As we worked our way up the narrow paved road, we climbed higher following Big Rock Creek (which this time of year was completely dry). The valley was lush with vegetation, a few deer braved the steep mountainsides, and the occasional bird was seen overhead. Having traveled through Glacier National Park over the summer, that area was fresh on my mind.
The road is getting old. There are no big guard rails. Driving off the edge could lead to quite the tumble to the canyon below. It felt strikingly similar to Glacier, but reduce everything to about a quarter the size; maybe even less.
Soon, we topped out near the lake. On your way in you drive past the boat launch area, then a picnic area, and then you get into the Crystal Lake Campground. There was apparently a fire that whipped through the campground recently; one that was able to be maintained and not get out of that localized area. Fortunately the forest was saved. Unfortunately, there are hardly any trees remaining in the campground.
Parking at the trailhead, we were ready for the loop. Our chosen trail encompasses the entire valley, with an ice cave almost smack in the middle of the 12 mile hike. With the recent weather we figured there would be some snow, but we weren’t sure how much there would be on top of the mountain.
Gearing up Justin looks at me and say, “Oh yeah, do you have a daypack for me?” I did. At home. When that question would have been appropriate to ask. I think he did it on purpose so I had to carry food and water.
Trekking the First Miles without Snow
Getting started up the trail it felt almost as though we were in the Pacific Northwest. It wasn’t raining, but moisture hung in the air. The vegetation was thicker than most places, and there was a bit of moss dangling from many of the trees.
The hike had a steady incline, and we made quick progress up the mountain as we wrapped around the giant bowl with Crystal Lake at the bottom. The clouds were set in low and would break occasionally to give us a view of the valley below. Soon we started seeing little bits of snow stuck to the tree limbs and rocks. We knew there would be snow, but we were in for quite a bit more than expected.
Onward, Upward, Snowier, Windier, Cloudier
We progressed higher onto the mountain and the snow deepened as we went higher. The temperature was still warm despite the snow, in the 40’s or upper 30’s, and it made for great weather to be hiking in as the exercise kept us from getting too cold. Until we got to the top of the mountain when the wind set in.
Progressing through most of the hike it was fairly easy to stay on course. Despite the snow, the trail cut a nice path through the trees. Higher up, however, the trees cleared out a little bit, and the trail basically disappeared into an arctic tundra-like landscape. There were a few rock cairns to mark the way, and the GPS built into the All Trails map was quite the savior to keep us from getting lost.
Just like lower down, the clouds would break on occasion affording us a great view from the top. But just as quickly as they separated, they came back together obscuring the plains below. Crossing the open space, we eventually came to the first of the caves; a system that likely intersects somewhere within the mountain.
Two Caves Nearby Begging to be Explored
Going into the hike we knew we would find the ice cave. But what wasn’t on any of the descriptions of the area was the Devil’s Chute cave. Basically a hole in the ground, dropping away at an angle, this one was a little too treacherous looking to investigate; at least while there was snow on the ground. Another adventure for warmer weather.
Just on the other side of the ridge from the Devil’s Chute the well-marked trail wrapped downhill to the entrance to the ice cave. Easy to find, and easy access we ducked inside to get a little respite from the wind and to take a break for lunch. The cave, at least at this time, was pretty packed with ice. It may melt out a little bit more in the summer, but for now it was just one big room with some neat ice formations. Some small leads that might open up further in would necessitate proper caving gear.
Exiting the cave we discovered that the sun was trying to break through the clouds, and while it wasn’t exactly warm out, it was indeed warmer out.
The Snow Wanes as we Descend
Continuing the 12ish mile trek around the giant bowl, the snow was starting to melt. The sun warmed the clumps in the trees, and every few steps the snow would slough off the trees hitting the ground with a “fwump”. Every time I knew that it was just the snow, but I couldn’t help but to be startled thinking a large mammal had intentions of making me its next meal.
Just as the snow increased on the way up, it decreased on the way down. Eventually, it faded away until there was none left to trudge through.
On the way down, the higher clouds remained in most places, but the lower ones cleared up significantly. It helped to allow us a good view of just how far we had already trekked, how big the bowl was, and a clear view back down the valley that we drove in on.
Clearing Up for a Grand Overlook View
On this side of the bowl are large cliffs and rock formations. One palisade type cliff band juts out farther than the rest, allowing a great lookout area from where you can see the lake. The Grandview Point is just a few dozen yards from the main trail, and was a neat place to stop and look at just how many more miles we had to walk to get back to camp.
The fortunate part was that it was all downhill from here. And not a steep downhill, but a casual dropping in elevation that makes walking easy and quick. The unfortunate part was that we would pass within a quarter mile of the campsite, then turn and go all the way to the lake before coming back in. Checking the map it appeared to be a good idea to cut through the trees and shave 2 miles off the trip.
What wasn’t quite as clear on the map was the fact that the trees were thick, and the hill was steep and wet. We shortened the walk considerably, but both Justin and I fell a lot, and our pants were soaked past the knees simply collecting water from the grasses and branches we had to walk through.
Checking out the Shallow Lake with a Single Fish
Back at the car we were able to clean up a bit, grab some snacks, and go to check out the lake. The lake, which didn’t appear to be the brilliant blue that all of the images online made it look to be, was incredibly low. Much of the water seemed to have drained from it.
We walked the shoreline, at least 6 feet below normal water level, and realized that there was no spring to this lake. Instead, that massive bowl collected rain and snowmelt providing the water needed to fill the lake every spring. It would then drain all summer long, and by the time the fall hit, it was rather shallow.
The good news, however, was that we could see fish in the lake. They were way in the middle where there was still a few feet of water. Getting to them was a chore, as my feet would sink into the mud, poke into hidden sticks and rocks, and nearly cause me to fall over. Landing one healthy rainbow trout was enough of those shenanigans, and we went back to set up our tent.
A Dinner Cooked Over the Fire and a Thunderstorm
The weather was still a bit rainy. The little green tent isn’t designed for hard rains. Fortunately, proper prior planning meant I threw the big tarp into the car with the rest of the gear. We got the tent set up, and covered it with a tarp to keep most of the rains off.
After getting camp ready, we gathered a bunch of firewood and roasted bratwursts for dinner. As the sun was getting ready to set, storm clouds rolled in.
A clap of thunder perked us up and we realized that we were in for quite the storm. The thunder got louder and closer, and the clouds looked intimidating. We debated for a few minutes on if we wanted to weather the weather, and decided that we would most likely just be miserable.
Tearing down camp as fast as we could, we threw all the gear into the vehicle just as the rains came. The sun set, the rain fell, and we high tailed it out of the mountains. Halfway home the skies cleared, it would have been a short while in the tent, but there was no way of knowing just how long the storm would last.
The Big Snowy Mountains provide a great place to explore, and the encounters mean more time needs to be spent there.