Three-day weekends were a great invention.
I’ve hiked the four-mile stretch of CDT from Stemple Pass to the Granite Butte a few times over the past several winters, each time stopping to admire the beautiful lookout tower before heading back. The classic tower, which was recently restored, became available as a rental in August 2016. Apparently I’m not the only one who has been waiting to rent the place – It has been booked every Friday and Saturday night all winter! However, to my surprise, I was able to reserve it for the night of Sunday, February 19 (Presidents’ Day weekend). So, at noon that Sunday three friends and I set off on our adventure. ( Photo Tour)
On a roll.
Stemple Pass is a 37-mile drive from Helena, with the last 8 miles on gravel. We weren’t sure what to expect when we got there – Helena (elevation 4,000 ft.) received a higher than normal amount of snow in December and January, but recent Chinook winds had eaten much of that away. So, we were ready for less-than-desirable trail conditions, and mentally prepared to deal with the fierce winds that are so common in the high country this time of year. Amazingly, as we arrived at Stemple Pass (elevation 6,750 ft.), we were greeted by almost ideal winter conditions – hardly any wind, a plenty of snow, temperatures in the 20’s, and mostly sunny skies. From Stemple Pass we followed the well-marked CDT for 4 miles to the tower, enjoying our good fortune and GREAT views of the area as we walked.
There’s something about a fire.
We reached the tower at about 3:30, removed the panels from the windows, started a fire in the wood stove, ate some dinner, and then settled in for an evening of good conversation. The place made us feel a bit like a bunch of 12 year olds having a sleepover in a REALLY cool treehouse. Around 9 pm a front moved through, causing a period of snow, wind, and several distant flashes of lightning. So we dimmed the lantern to enjoy the show, and then hit the sack at 10 o’clock – way earlier than a gang of 12 year olds would have. For more about the trip, including a map of the route, and many photos taken along the way – as well as photos taken in and around the tower, take the photo tour, and be sure to read the captions.
FYI – Links, etc.
1. The photo tour includes photos of trail, the tower (inside and out), and maps.
2. Because of the short distance (4 miles one-way) and ideal conditions, I rate this hike as “easy”. We left Helena at noon on Sunday and returned shortly before noon on Monday. Here is a interactive map of the area. Once it opens you can zoom in or out, etc.
3. I’m not kidding – If you do this as a winter hike, be ready for ferocious winds. We did have the winds, but they held off until after dark and were gone by the time we left the tower at 9 am Sunday. We read many accounts in the guest book of folks who weren’t so lucky as we were.
4. Here is an article about the work that was done on the tower to get it ready for use by the public. Thanks to the Montana Wilderness Association, all the volunteers who restored the tower, and the USFS. It is a great place to spend a night!
5. The USFS provides a nice supply of firewood to feed the wood stove. Other information about what is provided, etc. can be found on this site.
6. The Unabomber’s cabin was near the Stemple Pass Road about 10 miles from the pass.
7. Here’s another photo album from a second trip to the tower in March of 2019.