Not just eye candy.
The Rocky Mountains are great, but those of us who grew up east of the divide have a special appreciation for Montanan’s island ranges – those small isolated mountains that dot the prairie of central Montana. They’re not breath-taking like peaks in Glacier Park or those along the Rocky Mountain Front, but they definitely add to the beauty of the landscape. Often surrounded by ranches, and only accessible by gravel (or dirt) roads, they support ecosystems that are much different from the sea of grass that surrounds them. Like many Montanans I’ve spent decades admiring them from a distance, but in recent years I’ve enjoyed exploring them as well. I’ve climbed in the Crazies, the Bear Paws, the Big Snowies, the Little Rockies, and the Highwoods – and this past week I finally ventured into the Sweetgrass Hills for an amazing day of peak-bagging.

Neither hills, nor buttes.
The thing that sets the Sweetgrass Hills apart from the other ranges in north-central Montana is their prominence. Compared to other ranges in the north-central part of the state, the “Hills” jut up abruptly from the the prairie. The contrast is impressive, but it also makes for some VERY steep hiking. These are legitimate mountains – not hills! Another striking aspect of the range is it is made of three distinct areas. As you view them from a distance East Butte, Gold Butte (aka Middle Butte), and West Butte each stand alone, separated by several miles of prairie. Maybe this isolation is why they were named “buttes” even though there are no flat tops on the Sweetgrass Hills.

Above:The Sweetgrass Hills as viewed from I-15 north of Shelby.

Island hopping.
It’s a 230-mile drive from Helena to the Sweetgrass Hills, so I decided to make the most of my time there by climbing the “big three” in one day. I car-camped on Black Jack Road 8 miles east of Whitlash on Tuesday night and started hiking at 5 am Wednesday morning. I’ve included details about my routes, the geology, etc. in the photo tour, so be sure to read the captions as you look through. Here (below) is a basic account of the day. (Photo Tour)

1. Breakfast – East Butte.
First up was Mt. Brown, high point in the patch of mountains called East Butte (6.4 miles round-trip with about 3,000 feet of elevation gain). I enjoyed the grassy ridge that led to the steeper, rocky north slope. Several elk greeted me along the way, and it was a treat to see Gold Butte and West Butte illuminated by the morning sun. The summit of Mt. Brown is densely forested so I scrambled down around the south and east perimeter for views of the Highwoods and Bear Paws, both over 75 miles away.

2. Lunch – Gold Butte.
Next, it was over to Gold Butte (~15 miles on dirt roads) for a 5.4 miles round-trip hike with 2550 feet of gain. I parked along Gold Butte Road and walked along a fence, before following a grassy ridge to the base, and then scrambling up the rocky switch-backs where I passed a group of friendly hikers. The group of seven, which included a few locals and several from Great Falls, was helping Dean Hellinger fulfill a wish he’d made on his 85th birthday – to climb Gold Butte one more time. It was nice to have some company, and witnessing Dean’s touchdown moment as he reached the top was one of the highlights of the day. Photo below courtesy of Art

3. Dinner – West Butte.
After getting back to the car at 2 pm, I drove over to start the hike up West Butte (4.1 miles round-trip with 2500 ft. of gain). West Butte is the high point in the Sweetgrass Hills, but might be the easiest of the three to access and hike. However, after climbing East and Gold, I struggled to reach the top. If it had been 5 degrees warmer, I wouldn’t have made it. The best thing about West Butte was its broad, grassy summit – the kind of place that a guy could pitch a tent, or even sleep out under the stars.

Better eat your Wheaties.
There’s a lot of summer left, but it will be tough to beat this day. I started hiking at 5 am and finished at 4:45 pm. It was one of the most enjoyable and most challenging days of hiking I’ve experienced in awhile – a total of 16 miles hiking with over 8,000 feet of elevation gain. For comparison, climbing Crazy Peak was 12.7 miles of hiking with 4,800 feet of gain (see previous blog post). Fortunately I was blessed with perfect conditions – temps in the 70s, very little wind, plenty of sunshine, no bugs, no snakes, dry roads, and green grass.

Be respectful.
The ranchers who live around Montana’s island ranges are some of the nicest, hardest-working people you’ll meet anywhere – so leave no trace, don’t be driving off-road, and mind your manners. The ranges are also sacred to Montana and Alberta’s Indian people who for centuries have been drawn to their summits for vision quests (some still do this). So be respectful and take some time to imagine what it might have been like to be fasting alone for several days on one of these peaks 300 years ago.

Below: This map marks hikes that have been featured on 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.