I’ve hiked through Trout Creek Canyon a dozen times, including a couple times during winter – and each time I notice something new and interesting. On my most recent trip this past Sunday (11/4/18) with several members of the Helena High Outdoors Club, once again, the canyon did not disappoint.
What’s not to like?
The 6-mile out-and-back hike through Trout Creek Canyon is a good one for our outdoors club, or anyone else looking for a relatively easy hike – It is close to Helena, the trail gains less than 900 feet of elevation, and there are plenty of interesting things to see. Yet, despite being only 27 miles from town (all paved, except for 3 miles), many students in the club have never experienced the canyon – So, I was happy to get 18 students signed up for the Sunday afternoon outing. Unfortunately, because the weather was cloudy and windy, most of the students opted to stay home. Those of us who did participate (6 students, 5 adults) were dressed for the conditions, so we were able to handle some minor weather issues and enjoy everything the canyon has to offer. Here are some of the highlights of the afternoon, and the hike in general . . .
1. Goat show. Less than half a mile into the hike we spotted a huge mountain goat perched on a cliff 100 feet above the trail. Decked out in his thick winter coat, the impressive male patiently posed for photos, seeming to enjoy our admiration. Surprisingly, he was standing in the exact same place as we walked past on our way out of the canyon later that afternoon. Seeing the big guy was definitely the highlight of the afternoon.
2. The disappearing act: At the trailhead near Vigilante Campground, Trout Creek was flowing at 50-100 cfs. But, starting half a mile up the trail, the channel was completely dry the rest of the way to our turn-around point. It was amazing to see that all of the water in the creek was coming out of springs located at the base of the cliff below the goat. At certain times of the year, I’ve seen water flowing the entire length of the canyon, and at other times it has only been present in short stretches. The water can soak in and then re-surface at springs located along the stream bed – typical for a stream that runs through a canyon of limestone.
3. Tropical Montana: The canyon walls are made of Madison limestone – a type of rock made from sediment laid down 340 million years ago, when Montana was the floor of a shallow tropical ocean. I’ve done many hikes in canyons and on cliffs made of Madison limestone, ranging from the Little Rockies in northcentral Montana to the Bridgers north of Bozeman. On this day, mostly cloudy skies with occasional splashes of sunlight made for interesting lighting as we viewed the layers and folds in the steep limestone walls.
4. Rinse and repeat: There used to be a gravel road through the canyon, until it was washed away by a flood in 1981. The road was first damaged by flooding in the early 1950s, but it was repaired. Over the next three decades it was damaged by floods and repaired three more times, until the flood of 1981 delivered the final blow. As water rushed through the canyon at 717 cubic feet per second, debris blocked the flow, forming a dam. Then on May 20, 1981 the dam burst, washing the road away. The Forest Service threw in the towel, and decided to manage the route as a non-motorized recreational trail instead. Evidence of the flood can still be seen along the trail.
5. Ash from an ancient volcano: On our drive back to Helena, we stopped a few hundred yards southeast of the York Bridge (Missouri River) so I could show my hikers a distinct white layer in a road-cut on the west side of the highway. The layer, which is several inches thick and tens of feet long, is ash from the explosive eruption of Mt. Mazama in Oregon 7,700 years ago. It is estimated that the eruption expelled over 40 times as much ash as the 1980 explosion of St. Helens. Today, Crater Lake occupies the caldera created by the eruption of Mazama. How cool is that!
FYI – The York Bar has great cheeseburgers, and you drive right past it on the way home – Just sayin.
- Photo Tour of our hike through Trout Creek Canyon.
Includes photos of the big goat, the ash layer, etc.
- Map of Trout Creek Canyon.
Zoom in or out.
- History of the Trout Creek Canyon Trail.
Includes downloadable self-guided tour (PDF file).
- Much more about Mazama ash.
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.