Montana Trip 2021 | Hiking in the Little Belt Mountains | Driving Across Montana | September 2021
On Thursday morning, it was time to begin our long drive back to Nebraska. We said goodbye to Great Falls as we took US-87 Southeast out of town, then South on US-89. The main purpose of this was, of course, in pursuit of new counties and a new highway driven across the state, but it came with the benefit of being able to drive through the Little Belt Mountains and the opportunity for a few short hikes and scenic drives while still in this mountainous area.
We made our first stop at Sluice Box State Park and went for a short walk here. We knew the trail would eventually have several stream crossings without bridges and that it was simply too cold for that, so we just walked as far as we could before coming to the first crossing and then turned around. The fall colors and the tall canyon walls surrounding us made the short hike worth it. The part of the trail that we hiked was flat and easy as it followed Belt Creek, and very straight forward — to Curtis and I, at least, but not so much to Charlotte who was convinced we needed to take every spur trail to the creek.
Our next hike was to Memorial Falls, located just South of Neihart. The trailhead was right off of US-89 and we hiked just under a mile round trip to see both the lower and upper waterfalls. Curtis was also able to find a letterbox planted by some of our friends. The trail looked like it continued going on past the second waterfall, but much to Charlotte’s disappointment we turned around here. Curtis had learned from some research that this trail would go up steeply over 4000′ to a peak in the Little Belt Mountains, but he hoped we would find a much easier way of reaching those higher elevations by driving up another forest road.
The situation here was similar to what we dealt with in the Big Snowy Mountains: There weren’t a lot of official National Forest trails with descriptions on Alltrails, the site we usually use to find and research hikes, and it seemed like a lot of listings were just trail blazing. But unlike the Highwood Baldy Mountains, the Little Belt Mountains seemed to have more vehicular recreational opportunities rather than open ranges and private properties, and forest roads criss-cross the entire range, so we decided to attempt to explore further. We drove up one forest road which was bumpy and a bit narrow and steep at times, but the conditions were good so it was doable in our Subaru. We saw one guy on an ATV who might have thought we were crazy — for now, our method of transportation is suitable for our adventures, but maybe someday if we lived near an area like this we might consider other off-roading vehicles. Maybe a snowmobile at the least, if we lived somewhere that had real winters. Anyway, I digress. We drove for about an hour, and finally just decided to get out and hike up to the nearest bald summit, which happened to be Teepee Butte. It wasn’t the highest or most prominent peak (Big Baldy Mountain) like Curtis had hoped, but it did give us expansive views of the surrounding peaks in the forest, and all the other central Montana ranges: Crazy Mountain, the Big Belt Mountains, Highwood Baldy, the Snowy Mountains, and others that Curtis couldn’t remember. We were thankful for skies clear of smoke, even if it made the air colder and the wind a little strong.
After crawling our way back along the forest roads – which always feel shorter coming out than going in – we followed US-89 South to US-12 where we began our long drive East across Montana. We took this all the way to Forsyth and I-94, and were able to get 4 new counties and (most of) their courthouses along the way. Overall, it was a much more scenic route than MT-200 had been, following the more dramatic bluffs and yellowing cottonwood trees of the Musselshell River. After a short drive on I-94, we exited at Miles City and found a campsite for the evening in Strawberry Hill Recreation Area. Free and run by the BLM, we managed to arrive right around sunset, and the whole area lit up red just like a strawberry.