Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Montana's Lionhead or Henry's Lake or Madison Mountains

     I've spent the last week enjoying one of my favorite regions of Montana: The Lionhead Mountains. Actually they are more often referred to as the Henry's Lake Range or the Southern Madison Range. The fact is that most Montanans have never heard of them, much less visited them. Which is unfortunate, because they offer a unique Montana experience. 
     On the southern end of the Madison Range and to the east of the Gravelly Mountains, the Lionhead Mountains tower nearly 4,000 feet above the upper reaches of the Madison Valley. Like most of southwest Montana, block faulting thrust this range into the sky and left the valley below sometime around 60 million years ago.  The northern and eastern boundaries of the range are formed by Hebgen and Quake Lakes. The southern end of the Lionhead is bordered by Henry's Lake, Idaho, while the western side looks down on the Madison Valley and Reynolds Pass. 
     These mountains really are a  treasure. The northern two thirds of the Lionhead lies in Montana, and the remaining southern chunk is in Idaho. They are a high set of mountains, with nearly all peaks surpassing 9,000 feet and a range highpoint of 10,609 ft, at Sheep Point. They really aren't big in terms of area, and the whole of the Lionhead can be found within a 12 mile by 8 mile rectangle of earth. Half a dozen fish filled lakes can be found in the high reaches of the range, and crystal clear streams filled with native Cutthroat drain the melting snow off its high peaks well into August.
      In terms of recreation, it is a paradise. Nearly every animal that can be found in Yellowstone Park can be found in the Lionhead. The Griz, the Wolf, and large elk herds are numerous, and even the occasional stray bison will wander its way to the Hebgen Lake side of the range from West Yellowstone only 5 miles to the east. Because of the elevation, distance from major population centers, and other regional attractions such as Yellowstone Park, as well as the Madison, Gallatin, and the Gravelly Ranges, these peaks are seldom visited, and it often seems as if you've got the mountains to yourself. The Lionhead contains a proposed wilderness, and has plenty of hikes as well as a portion of the Continental Divide Trail. But if backpacking and hiking isn't your thing, this mountain range offers scenic snowmobile trails in winter and popular mountain biking trails in the summer. To top it all off the Lionhead are surrounded by some of Montana's greatest lakes. Quake Lake, where in 1959 a mountain sized pile of dolomite collapsed into the Madison River, killing 28 people and flooding the basin, forms the rift between these mountains and the Madison Range to the north. Hebgen, Henry's Lake, Cliff Lake, and Wade Lake are all only minutes away as well.
     According to the Montana State Library, they are officially the Henry's Lake Range. Numerous geographers have claimed they should be called the Lionhead Range, while others have said they really don't deserve their own toponym and should just be considered the southern end of the Madison Range. After all, geologically they are identical to the mighty Madison Mountains, and the only thing that really distinguishes them as a different landform is Quake Lake and the Madison River, which separates them on its short west-east run. 
     I don't think The  Henry's Lake Mountains is a good name for two reasons: It is a boring, unsuitable name for such a great pile of mountains, and it is geographically misleading. Henry's Lake contributes only to a small portion of this mountain chain's border. It is not nearly as significant a lake as Hebgen, nor as interesting and wild a lake as Quake Lake. The majority of the water that drains from the Lionhead Mountains enters the Madison River Drainage, and doesn't even touch Henry's Lake. Also, the majority of this mountain range is in Montana, while Henry's Lake is in Idaho. Those who appeal that they do not need their own feature name do have a legitimate point, but I don't see the harm in it. The boundaries we create for toponym distinction are often arbitrary, and to me, Quake Lake and the Madison River are boundaries enough. What harm comes from Montana recognizing one more mountain range?  The Lionhead is the name of a significant peak within this chain, absolutely worth seeing. It's an applicable name for a mountain range that is wild, sometimes frightening, and for the most part, left alone.

1 comment:

  1. The couple of times I've done it, I've loved the drive up Hwy. 87 past Henry's Lake from Island Park towards Ennis. One of the most interesting and chilling things to see is when you round that last bend headed up towards Hwy. 287. The ground rather abruptly rises about 10 feet. It's visually interesting, but rather chilling when you realize that break was created in minutes during the '59 quake.

    Just for the record, I've always found Quake Lake to be kind of creepy too.