At the outset, I'll premise this post by stating a few aims dependent upon your geography and adventure-lust. First, if you live in Montana and have a high adventure quotient, this post aims to help you steer clear of the mistakes we made as you attempt to climb Highwood Baldy from the Deer Creek Trailhead. Second, if you live in Montana and are intimately familiar with this route, you might sympathize and/or laugh at the predicament we found ourselves in. Finally, if you live outside Montana, this post aims to provide some comic relief to your day. I've coined the term "Montana Misadventure" because it characterizes so many of our outings in this great state.
Highwood Baldy is the highest landmark near our home. It calls to us as it rises out of the plains in its island range of the Highwood Mountains. We had to summit it! Last year, we tried walking up the service road then returned to our car when high winds left our 1 year old daughter wailing in her baby backpack. This year, we opted for a route up the North Side that, from reading other's posts, seemed physically challenging but straightforward. Hopefully this post will dispel that "straightforward myth."
The first challenge was finding the trailhead. Silly us, we rely on website posts and didn't bother getting a map. Thankfully, a woman out walking her dog at Thain Creek Campground had an extra map and we saw that we needed to backtrack and take Upper Highwood Rd, paralleling Highwood Creek (see photo below). Do yourself a favor and grab a map at a local ranger's station. Deer Creek Trail number 453 is clearly marked on the map and there's a large, unmistakable Deer Creek sign at the trailhead. Better yet, get a proper topo map and compass or even a GPS device. I've never been tempted to hike with GPS before this but now I'm thinking about it.
We'd read about three creek crossings from other posts. We drove a 4WD, high clearance vehicle and were able to ford the creek twice before stopping at the trailhead. We parked, laced up our boots, and then realized we had to walk across Highwood Creek for the third crossing before the trail followed the smaller Deer Creek. Off came the boots and down slipped the tape from our feet. We were off to an inauspicious start.
We laced back up, pausing to right our now 2 year old daughter who managed to tip herself over in her baby backpack while reaching for a leaf. The next challenge was finding the trail. East up a hill? No. West along the fence line? No. We checked the map and decided to walk by Deer Creek because this was, after all, the Deer Creek Trail. When I say the trail was barely perceptible, I mean I was looking beneath head-high grass for evidence of yesteryear's trail. No exaggeration. Perhaps the trail is more obvious before the grass grows. We stayed by the creek and finally made our way to a Deer Creek Trail #453 sign indicating we'd hiked 2-1/2 miles along the creek. I guess we more or less followed the trail. Did I mention our shoes and pants were soaked at this point? Not from the numerous creek crossings, mind you, but from the head-high grass still wet from the rain the day before. Waterproof pants and boots to this point would have been nice.
Now began the fun part as we forged a bush whacked path up the mountainside. There's a 3,200ft elevation gain over 3.5mi. Because the first 2.5 miles are along the creek, you could probably guess the last mile is excruciatingly steep. We headed up the grassy slope to a ridge and then steered left of some trees to remain in the meadow. Funny how finding one's way to the top is easy -- you just keep going up. Past the meadow, we bushwhacked through dense undergrowth, across talus slopes, and finally scrambled to the radio tower at the top. Oddly enough, we head voices emanating from inside the Bresnan (Charter now?) Communications building that was padlocked on the outside. We assumed there must be a continually transmitting radio locked inside.
After a snack break, we headed down and things got "interesting" in the sense that what took three hours to climb would take another three hours to descend. We're fairly conditioned hikers EXCEPT we didn't have a good map, a compass, or a GPS device and we relied on our intuition to take us down. BAD MOVE! One might even say those are the marks of novices. Laugh if you must, just be better prepared than we were. Thankfully, the sun stayed high in the sky since it's July in Montana and we shared water. Water drops or tablets might be another good, light thing to throw in your bag.
Anyway, back to the hike gone awry. The path down seemed clear enough from the top. We skirted left of a rocky knob partway down the peak and must have cut too far right after that. We totally missed the steep meadow through which we ascended and ended up on even steeper talus slopes. From a clearing on the talus nightmare, we tried figuring out which drainage was Deer Creek. Again, take a picture or select some unmistakable landmark from the top so you head back the correct direction. (Yes, this is where the GPS device or map+compass would have come in handy.) We had to backtrack and emerged at the bottom of the tree and talus debacle. After another debate about which was the Deer Creek drainage, we picked our poison and hiked down an extremely steep, grassy slope. In between slips down the mountain, the late-day golden light made for beautiful photos. I kept repeating, "this, too, shall pass," while glorying in our 2 year old who seemed thrilled with the adventure. Thankfully, we chose correctly (albeit not wisely) on the drainage and made it back to the Jeep. I hiked right through Highwood Creek in my boots since they were so water-logged and muddy.
Morals of the story? Hmm, be prepared for route finding. Convince someone who's been there before to join in (not us, though, thank you very much). Never turn down an adventure because it makes an amusing story in retrospect.