" I must admit that they have also become my “soft spot”. In addition to being a source of endless challenges, they have given me solace and fed me spiritually. The Elkhorns seem to be one of those places that cast a spell on the people who go there often, and like Mark, I am willingly under their spell forever."-Jodie Canfield, Elkhorn Coordinator- Helena National Forest 1991 - 2005
They call it "Childhood Amnesia". The inability to remember the first years of our life. Typically, one's first remembered event that lasts into adulthood occurs between the ages of two and five. Mine happened when I was four. It was dumb luck and it was beautiful on a late summer night in Montana. Out the window of a car heading southeast on Highway 287, the first memories I was to have that would last into adulthood were there. Flickering and twinkling on the backs of dark black monsters in the distance, the Elkhorn Mountains were on fire. My father was moving the family to Montana, and we were exploring for a final destination. Thankfully, not long after, I found myself growing up in the morning shadows of the Elkhorns, and came to love them and feel that they were mine.
The Elkhorns are a much loved mountain range. No craggy peaks to speak of, no dark ominous canyons. Just rolling mountains, forested to the top, all leading to a primary spine that roughly runs on a North to South line for 21 miles from Helena to Three Forks. The upper reaches of the mountains hold some beautiful lakes. Leslie, Hidden, Glenwood, and the Tizer Lakes all surround the highest points in the Elkhorns: Crow Peak and Elkhorn Peak, with Crow Peak being the highest at 9,414 ft. These lakes are amazing. The Tizers are a shallow pair of Brook Trout filled ponds, accessible by the Tizer Lake Road that runs east out of Jefferson City to the headwaters of Prickly Pear Creek. Leslie Lake can be reached from the Ghost Town of Elkhorn, and not only offers fish, but an abandoned miner's cabin that any one can stay in. After you have had a bath in the tub that straddles a stream draining the southwest face of Crow Peak, you can also sign the guestbook, but you have to heat your own water, which is half the fun. The scenic jewel of the range is Hidden Lake, crammed right up against the northeast wall of Elkhorn Peak. Though it is only a short hike from the more accessible Tizer Lakes, you often have it to yourself, and nothing is better than being a lone fly fisherman on top of a rock, in the middle of a lake, on top of a mountain range, in the middle of nowhere.
Geologically the Elkhorns were born of two events, millions of years apart. 70 Million years ago, sedimentary rock, layered thick from migrating inland seas billions of years prior, began to fault and move. This tectonic activity thrust and folded these layers toward a very different Montana sky. From this, the breadth of the the Elkhorn Mountains was established. 10 Million years later, this range became volcanic, and covered the Elkhorns and the surrounding area with molten rock. 60 Million years ago, there is a good chance that what we see in Yellowstone Park today is what would be witnessed in the Elkhorns. Active Geologic processes. This was a caldera. Through millions of years of erosion, the granite remnants left over from this time are largely what we come to mean when we talk about the Elkhorn Mountains. During much of this erosion, Late Cretaceous rivers carried sediment from the Elkhorns all the way to the Crazy Mountains of Central Montana. They share the same rocks. For the last 2 million years, ice has covered and retreated from the mountains repeatedly, giving them their smooth, gradual ridges and rounded summits.
The Elkhorns are almost entirely ours. Over 230,000 acres of public land make up the range, and a 160,000 acre Wildlife Management Unit is designated for the heart and spine of the mountains. Within this Unit is some of the most productive elk habitat in all of Montana. Every year since I was old enough to hunt I've been putting in for the Elkhorn Mountains "Big Bull Tag". I've yet to get it. But of course there is more than elk, and these mountains are an important island of biodiversity for the greater central Montana Rockies.
Because the Elkhorns are higher than neighboring ranges, even those that carry the Continental Divide, they receive significantly more moisture. The high peaks hold snow well into June and July, and water from the hills drain into the Helena Valley, the Boulder Valley, and the Prickly Pear Valley, all leading to the mighty Mo. This moisture is not only conducive to the many wonderful lakes within the range, it also makes some very scenic waterfalls. The most well known being Crow Creek Falls. Reclaimed from the ravages of mining, this is a shining example of successful reclamation.
Because of the variability in the types of rocks, as well as a volcanic past, the Elkhorns have been mined extensively. Many towns, no longer in existence, at one time rested on the flanks of the range. If you explore the Elkhorns it is no rare thing to find a lonely cabin, nestled in some miserable gulch, unoccupied since long before your own existence became an event. A great place to go visit is the ghost town of Elkhorn, northeast of Boulder, Montana. Many structures from the days of mining still remain, and a cemetery, filled with children who died in a Diptheria epidemic are reminders that life can be harsh, even in beautiful places.
The Elkhorns are largely roadless, with only a few roads reaching the heart of the range. The main spine and northern half of the range lack roads and are a hiker's paradise. The southern portion of the range has more roads, primarily due to past mining activity, but still offers large tracts of roadless country. This chain also holds a proposed wilderness.
When I was in grade school, I stole a map from my dad's office and plotted out a traverse of the range. From High Peak to Casey Peak, through the Tizer Basin and down in between the Boulder Valley and Radersburg. I figured I'd pop out somewhere south, maybe in the Tobacco Roots, then hitch a ride home. I never did it, and I regret it. I love these mountains. They were my playground growing up and were my daydream viewscape when class was boring. (Mountains are always more interesting than class. It doesn't matter how old you are.) Being the romantic that I am, over a tub of fried chicken I asked my wife to marry me amongst the skeletons of decades old burnt trees, whose fiery demises coincided with my first memory, near the headwaters of Crystal Creek, in the Elkhorn Mountains. She said yes. It's pretty cool how Mountain Ranges can become important aspects of our lives.