Home on the range.
Crown Butte is one of my favorite places to take people, especially students from our Helena High Outdoors Club. It is reasonably close to Helena, there is public access, it’s not too difficult (5-6 miles round-trip, 900 feet of elevation gain), and it is VERY different from the mountainous landscapes where the students have done most of their hiking – It’s fun to show young people the beauty and variety that Montana’s prairie has to offer. Since Crown Butte is situated at the southern end of the Rocky Mountain Front 30 miles west of Great Falls, it offers vistas of distant mountains in all directions, and provides a nice vantage point for viewing neighboring buttes as well. To top things off the geology of the butte is incredibly interesting, so I get to explain several unusual features that students notice along the way, and tell about the butte’s connection to an ancient volcano located between Helena and Great Falls. I’ve done the hike over 20 times since the late 1990’s, but I doubt that I’ll ever get tired of taking people onto Crown Butte. (Photo Tour)
Thanks to The Nature Conservancy . . . and an ancient volcano.
Crown Butte is one of four larger buttes located in the area west of Great Falls. Crown Butte, Square Butte, Shaw Butte, and Cascade Butte are all “laccoliths” formed during a period of volcanic activity millions of years ago as dinosaurs wandered the area. The actual volcano was located between Craig and Cascade – You go through what’s left of it every time you drive I-15 between Great Falls and Helena. When the volcano was active (roughly 70-80 million years ago) some of the magma beneath it worked its way laterally through vertical fractures in surrounding rock layers. In places, the magma’s upward movement was halted by a durable layer of sandstone that domed upward as the magma pooled below. Eventually the magma hardened, becoming rock. Then in the millions of years that followed, erosion removed hundreds of feet of overlying sedimentary rock, exposing remnants of the more resistant igneous formations (the buttes). Square Butte, which can easily be seen from the highway between Great Falls and Cascade, is the most prominent of the four laccoliths, but it is privately owned. Thankfully, The Nature Conservancy purchased Crown Butte in 1982. Although their intent was to preserve the undisturbed grassland ecosystem located on top of the butte, they’ve also provided access to geologic features that have attracted the attention of experts from all over the world.
If you go.
1. To access the trailhead from Cascade or Simms take the gravel Simms-Cascade Road. About 15 miles from Cascade (6.5 miles from Simms) turn west onto a dirt road that goes along the edge of a ranch (see photo tour). Follow the dirt road for 1.5 miles to a parking area marked by a sign. Walk along the road through a gate. Eventually the road turns into a walking trail that will take you to the top. Once on top, the trail fades. I like to walk toward the cliffs on the north side (facing Simms) and then follow the cliffs along the east side. I’ve included an image in the photo tour that shows my favorite route.
2. Drive a high-clearance vehicle. The last mile is on a rutted dirt road. I don’t have any problems with my Subaru Outback, but the road is impassible when it is wet.
3. Watch for rattlesnakes! I used to take folks up there during the summer, but stopped due to the frequency of snake encounters. I prefer early October (before hunting season) or April. Pick a day that is too cold for snakes to be active.
4. You’re not supposed to take dogs onto the butte – And don’t throw or push rocks over the cliffs! There are plenty of nests and dens below the cliffs.
Note: My most recent Crown Butte hike took place on October 1, 2017 – The temperature was in the 50’s, skies were mostly cloudy, and it was unusually calm. Eight students and five parents joined me. It was a very enjoyable hike, but my photos weren’t as good as ones I’d taken on sunnier trips to the butte. So the photo tour includes my best photos from several trips to the butte.
- Photo Tour of the Hike
A collection of my best photos from several Crown Butte hikes.
- Interactive Topo Map of the Crown Butte Area.
Includes three of the four larger buttes – Zoom in or out, etc.
- Very Good Three-step Animation.
Shows how laccoliths and other plutonic formations originate.
- Wikipedia page
More about that ancient volcano between Great Falls and Helena.
- Crown Butte Virtual Field Trip
Does not open on mobile devices.
- Another blog post about my hike to nearby buttes.
Great views of Crown Butte, more about the geology of the area.
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.