Note to Self
When packing 40 pounds of gear, avoid steep off-trail hiking, especially on routes you are not familiar with.
Ever since I started hiking in the area west of Augusta a few years ago, I’ve had my eye on the rugged 6-mile ridge that connects Steamboat Lookout* and Steamboat*. Although Steamboat is more noticeable to those who drive along The Rocky Mountain Front, Steamboat Lookout is 268 feet taller. I’ve climbed Steamboat a few times by following a nice trail along the Dearborn River to “Devils Glen” (waterfalls), then going off-trail along the edge of a prominent limestone cliff that leads to the summit – It is a difficult 8-mile hike (one-way). My only hike to Steamboat Lookout was easier – A trail that starts at Elk Creek took me all the way to the top (7 miles one-way). Both summits were great destinations, but that rugged ridge between them has been calling my name. (Photo Tour)
Room with a view.
So when my daughter (also lives in Helena) told me she had a weekend off and would like to do backpacking trip, I was ready with a plan to hike from Elk Creek, up to Steamboat Lookout, walk the ridge, camp on Steamboat, and come down to the Dearborn River. This 21-mile hike could be completed in one day by a REALLY fit hiker. However, I liked the idea of camping on a big ledge near the summit of Steamboat and looking out over the plains at night.
What doesn’t kill you . . .
We had perfect weather and our views of the Scapegoat Wilderness and the Rocky Mountain Front were incredible, but this was WAY more difficult than I anticipated – one of my most difficult days of hiking ever! According to my GPS unit, it was 13 miles from the trailhead at Elk Creek to the ledge on Steamboat (with over 6,000 ft. of elevation gain). The first 11 were challenging, but pleasant, however the last 2 were extremely difficult due to the steepness of slopes, cliffs, loose rock, and the fact that we were carrying heavy packs. We finally reached the ledge at 8 pm Saturday night – totally spent, but happy to look back on what we had accomplished. It was a good “character builder” for Amy who plans to start the PCT next spring – and a good reminder for me to do more research next time I plan an off-trail adventure.
We left Helena at 7:30 am Saturday morning (July 1), drove 70 miles to the trailhead along the Dearborn Canyon Road, left her car there, drove back out of the canyon then over to the trailhead for Steamboat (25 more miles of driving – last 3 miles are REALLY rough), and started hiking at 10 am. We followed the trail to the top of Steamboat (7 miles), summiting at 2 pm. From there we followed the ridge (no trail) to Steamboat (distance for ridge portion was 6 miles). We arrived there at about 8 pm Saturday evening (EXAHUSTED). We started hiking down at 8:20 Sunday morning (3.5 miles of off-trail), arriving at Devils Glen on the Dearborn River at about 11 am (we were tired and slow!). From Devils Glen we followed the trail 4.5 miles to the place where we left Amy’s car the previous day. After retrieving my car at Elk Creek, we stopped in Augusta for a well-deserved burger and cold beverage.
*Its confusing! On maps Steamboat is referred to as Steamboat Mountain East, and Steamboat Lookout is referred to as Steamboat Mountain. According to “locals” like my high school physics teacher (Norm Kamrud) in 1976 (who happened to be on Steamboat Lookout when we arrived there!), Steamboat Mountain East is the one they call “Steamboat” and the the taller less prominent one is referred to as “Steamboat Lookout”. Norm has lived in the area for over 40 years, so he would know.
- Photo Tour of the Hike
Great views of the Scapegoat Wilderness and the Rocky Mountain Front.
- Photos from a day hike to Steamboat Lookout in 2016
A 14-mile round-trip hike from Elk Creek.
- Photos from a day hike to Steamboat in 2015
Includes some nice photos of Devils Glen.
- Interactive Topo Map of our approximate route.
Went around 2 high points on the ridge and did some switch-backing on the way down.
Below: This map marks hikes that have been featured on bigskywalker.com so far – Select full screen to expand, zoom in for more detail, or click on a marker for a link to the post.