Not just a summer thing.
I live in Helena, which is located between the Continental Divide and the Missouri River – about 15 miles from each (as the crow flies). Although I haven’t spent much time on the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) during the summer, it has become my “go-to” place for winter fun. I especially enjoy snowshoeing in the Stemple Pass area, which is a 35-mile drive from Helena. From there I like the hike north to Crater Mountain, or south to the Granite Butte Lookout, but my favorite is the 11-mile trek from Stemple to Flesher Pass on the CDT. (photo tour)
Black Friday Special.
The trail between these two passes features gentle climbs and descents, stretches that are densely forested, and big open areas where you can see for over 100 miles. When my friend Rick and I did this hike the day after Thanksgiving in 2015, it was a calm, sunny day, and the valleys were in the midst of a foggy temperature inversion – which was really neat to see from our vantage point on the CDT. But what really set this day apart was our view of an incredible mirage that appeared beyond the Helena Valley over the Big Belt Mountains. WOW, what a fascinating sight! The strange illusion, known as “Fata Morgana”, is something I’d only seen once before, and that was in the early 1980s over the Little Rockies in north-central Montana.
Castles in the sky.
“Fata Morgana” is so-named because it is the Italian name for the Arthurian sorceress Morgan le Fay, and it was believed that she created these illusions of distant castles or land to lure sailors to their deaths. In reality all mirages are due to refraction (bending, redirecting) of light from distant objects – What we observed during the hike was the result of light from distant mountains being refracted as it traveled through layers of air that had different temperatures (diagram). Apparently the temperature inversion that blanketed the area that week was one of the factors that allowed the sorceress to do her handiwork.
Looks good in white.
As you will see in the Google Earth image (link to photos below), the area between the two passes is riddled with old roads, and in some places the CDT is actually on these roads. One reason the area appeals to me more as a winter playground is that the roads and beetle-killed trees look much prettier when blanketed with snow. However, the snow also makes it VERY difficult to find the trail in several places. Do not attempt this in the winter without a GPS device that shows you the path of the CDT, and marks your location on the trail. The day we hiked, snow depths varied from 4-18 inches. Although it would have been nice to have another foot of snow in some places, deeper snow also makes the snowshoeing more challenging.
Details, logistics, etc.
The hike from Stemple Pass to Flesher Pass requires doing a shuttle. My wife and I drove to Flesher Pass, while Rick followed in his car. We left his car there, and then my wife gave us a ride to Stemple Pass to start our hike. We left Helena at 7 am, started hiking at 8:30 am, finished by 3 pm, hopped into Rick’s vehicle, and were back to the Helena at 4 pm. I would rate this 11-mile hike as “difficult” if done on snowshoes (moderate if you do it as a summer hike). If the snow is really deep, it could be upgraded to “extreme”.
Click on the links below to learn more.
- Photo Tour: Stemple to Flesher
Great photos of Fata Morgana!
- Science Behind Fata Morgana
Includes a diagram.
- More about temperature inversions
Does not open on many mobile devices.
- Interactive Map of the Hike
Zoom in or zoom out, etc.
- More About the Science of Fata Morgana
Includes another great diagram.