February can be a real grind.
I’m convinced that several Winter Olympic events are things people came up with just to make February a bit more tolerable. I plan outings for each of the winter months, but always make a special effort to schedule something interesting to look forward to in February. This time I reserved a lookout tower south of Bozeman – My family and I were going to snowshoe up to it over Presidents Day Weekend and spend a night, but bitter cold temperatures forced us to cancel. In fact, wind-chill, deep snow, and road conditions put the kibosh on several of my plans this winter. So, when I saw the favorable forecast for Tuesday, February 27, I decided to take the day off and snowshoe up to some frozen waterfalls in the Elkhorn Mountains southeast of Helena – about a mile and a half northwest of Casey Peak. I recruited my friend Mark and my daughter Amy to go along. (Photo Tour)

Back to the drawing board.
I’d  made two attempts to reach the falls earlier in the month by hiking up from the bottom of the drainage – once on each side, but the snow was way too deep for such steep slopes. Our strategy this time was to take a much longer route on the Montgomery Park Trail, which gains elevation more gradually and then passes a hundred feet above the falls. From there we hoped to find a route down to the frozen falls. We had a great start to our journey – sunny skies, no wind, temperature around 5 F, and perfect trail conditions for snowshoeing. It took about 4 hours to hike 5 miles to the place where the trail passes above the falls. But once we started down to the falls, it didn’t take long to realize that we wouldn’t be able to make it. The combination of steep slopes, with dead-fall and rocky terrain hidden beneath waist-deep snow convinced us to turn back. Dang! It was disappointing, but still a great day to be out in the mountains with two of my best hiking buddies. I need to explore the area next summer, figure out the best route down to the falls, and then try again next winter. There has to be a way to get to those frozen falls!

Like a box of chocolates.
The Casey Peak area has been my “go-to” place for solitude this winter. It’s only 30 minutes from town, the road has been nicely plowed, and it is a beautiful area with several routes to choose from (see map in photo tour) – a perfect cure for the winter blues. The one thing people might not like about the area (and snowshoeing in general) is that you never know what the trail conditions are like until you get there. If you are the first one out after a big dump of snow, even walking on a flat trail can be challenging – plus it may be difficult to discern where the trail is. It’s always good to hike in a group so you can take turns breaking trail, and be sure to take a reliable GPS/mapping device along (or an actual topo map). One fortunate thing about our hike this past Tuesday is that someone had been out within the last few weeks. So we were able to tell where the trail was (most of the way), even though there had been several inches of snow since they’d been through – pretty ideal conditions for snowshoeing.

By the numbers.
We left Helena at 7 am, drove 17.4 miles to the Jackson Creek Trailhead, and started walking at 7:30. We walked along the .5 mile stretch of road that had not been plowed to the Casey Meadows Trailhead, followed it (#343) for .2 mile, then turned right onto the McClellan Creek Trail (#302) for 2.3 miles, and then turned left onto the Montgomery Park Trail (#301) for the final 2 miles to the ridge above the falls. It was 5 miles from the Jackson Creek Trailhead to the falls, with 2,000 ft. of gain. According to my GPS unit, we averaged 2 mph when we were moving during the 10-mile round-trip hike. However, our overall average was 1.5 mph (because we were NOT moving for 1 hour and 40 minutes). We got back to the car at about 3:10 pm. The three of us agreed that it felt like we’d hiked at least 15 miles – physically exhausted but mentally refreshed.

Below: This map marks hikes that have been featured on bigskywalker.com so far, including several in Glacier Park – Select full screen to expand, zoom in for more detail, or click on a marker for a link to the post.