Helena’s back yard.
I burned my last “personal vacation day” this past Wednesday (5/9) to enjoy another adventure in the Gates of the Mountains Recreation Area (GOM) 20 miles north of Helena. The GOM is a 6-mile long area where the Missouri River cuts through a spectacular limestone canyon. Although it is one of the most scenic segments of the 2,341-mile-long river, the only way to get there is by boat. Every summer thousands of tourists take rides down and back through the canyon on tour boats that board at Upper Holter Lake (I highly recommend this if you are in the area). The canyon is also popular among locals who travel by motor boat to go fishing, camping, or just want to get out of town for a few hours. The river can actually be REALLY busy in the summer, so I like to make my visits in the spring and fall, and I prefer to travel by kayak. In fact, some of my best outings have been days when I’ve paddled into the canyon, parked my kayak, and hiked up away from the river to explore. (Photo Tour)

Eyes on the prize.
A couple weeks ago (4/27), I paddled through the GOM, and then hiked up onto the chest and nose of the Sleeping Giant. My goal on this trip (5/9) was to climb Willow Mountain on the opposite side of the river, 6 miles east of the nose. Both the Giant and Willow are visible on horizon as you look north from Helena, both are challenging hikes, and both offer great views of west-central Montana. I’ve been on Willow before so I thought it would be fun to share it with a couple young guys (Johan and Kris) who I know through their involvement with our Helena High Outdoors Club. To reach Willow Mountain we drove to Upper Holter Lake (Missouri River, 20 miles north of Helena), kayaked 3.75-miles to the Mouth of Meriwether Canyon, and then hiked 4.7-miles to the summit. We followed a trail for 3 miles into Meriwether Canyon, before veering off and making our way to the top – The off-trail part was very difficult! Soon after lunching on the summit, a thunderstorm chased us down to the bottom of Meriwether Canyon where we followed a stream back to the trail. Although the area was gutted by a fire in 2007, we were treated to the usual great views of distant mountain ranges, plus a variety of other interesting things, including waterfalls, fossils, springs, and natural bridges. Click here to see the photos.

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.