Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Montana's Tobacco Root Mountains

     I don't want this to be a geography blog that only covers mountain ranges. The non-mountainous parts of Montana often get short changed, and they shouldn't. But there are 67 mountain ranges in the state, 131 if you include the subranges, and I keep finding myself in the mountains so let's look at another great chain, or more accurately, blob.  The Tobacco Root Mountains are near and dear to my heart. My first experiences of backpacking and fishing alpine lakes took place in their upper reaches. They are stunning, accessible, and being nearly entirely covered in National Forest,  all of ours
     The Tobacco Root Mountains are 30 miles southeast of Butte. On their western side is the Jefferson Valley, to the north are the Mountains of the Boulder Batholith, and to the east is the Madison River and Gallatin Valley.  They are a tight cluster of peaks, covering an area 15 by 20 miles. Within them are 43 summits over 10,000 ft, and more than 50 mountain lakes.  The highest summit in the range is Hollowtop Mountain, a 10,604 ft beauty, and a great climb.  Though heavily roaded, this country has deep untouched canyons, where encounters with Grizzlies, Wolves, Elk and Goats are often found. Even high up over 10,000 ft you may run into a peakbagging Moose. I have.
     The Tobacco Roots are a pile of earth consisting of Precambrian basement rock with a granite heart. Ancient rock, dating back 2.7 billion years can be located in the range. Around 70 million years ago, a large batholith punched its way up and through the overlying bedrock, giving the Tobacco Root Mountains their igneous core.  Because of the minerals formed around this contact zone, this range shows the signs of significant mining. The gulches and mountain flanks hold and hide numerous cabins and rich evidence of excavations of yesteryear.  Despite all of the exploration and attempts, no large scale mining ever took hold in the range, and remnants are all that remain. To the Geology nerd the Tobacco Roots are a smorgasbord, and there is even a Geological Field Station owned by the University of Indiana on the eastern flank of the mountains.
     Some really great hikes can be found in the Tobacco Roots. One of my favorites is the Lost Cabin Lake trail. It is also a bike trail, so you have to watch out for two-wheeled maniacs (in a good way) flying down the mountain. It is a gradual, 4.5 mile ascension into some of the most beautiful mountain high country Montana has to offer. It's a great trail for introducing someone to backpacking, or in my case, seeing if my cardio is up to snuff for the high country with a small human being on my back.  The fishing is superb, and numerous summits give the hiker peakbagging options if a side trip is desired. The thing is, this could be said about tons of hikes in the Tobacco Roots.  Cedron Jones, in his book Peakbagging Montana, rightly points out, "the terrain is perfect for beginning peakbaggers: steep and with an alpine feel, but never too hard or gnarly."
     If you are looking for a short afternoon or morning drive, I highly recommend driving the South Boulder River Road. A few miles south of Cardwell, MT, the road leaves Highway 359 and heads southwest, right into the heart of the range. You drive through a beautiful canyon, and as you head south the Sedimentary formations get successively older, until you are driving through basement rock, which eventually turns into the igneous mass that is the center of the range. The vestiges of mining are frequent. The road gets progressively worse the further you take it, but you should at least make it just past the community of Mammoth, an old mining town, now turned into summer cabins. Just after Mammoth, you climb a small hill and enter National Forest. As you come over the top you are greeted by a gorgeous, grassy meadow. The river runs along the northern side of the road and there are numerous campsites and picnic locations along its banks. Gazing across the meadow you get your first real look at the heart of the Tobacco Roots. Ominous mountains and rock, juxtaposed against a green picturesque meadow. One of my favorite places.
    Around the Tobacco Roots are some of Montana's wonderful small towns. The great fishing town of Twin Bridges, near where the Ruby, Beaverhead, and Big Hole Rivers combine to form the Jefferson River, is a great place to stop and explore. When I was 19 but my I.D. said I was 23, I would always stop in the Blue Anchor Bar for a beer. It's a great little watering hole. Towns like Sheridan, Whitehall, Harrison, Virginia City, and Cardwell all have their own unique character, and supporting the small town shops and restaurants they have to offer is always a good idea. More often than not they are owned and operated by great people with great products.
     The Tobacco Root Mountains have it all. For the four-wheeler, sportsman, peakbagger, biker and hiker they are a playground. If there is one category in which they fall short it is large roadless areas. The mountains are heavily roaded. Most mining country is. There are still very wild roadless canyons and high country, but in comparison to the rest of the range they cover only a small area. There is a 96,000 acre proposed wilderness within the range, and it would be nice if at least one large chunk of the Tobacco Roots could be preserved wild in perpetuity. 
     These are your mountains. They belong just as much to that dirt-bagger thumbing for a ride you drove past on the way to work this morning, as they do to Bill Gates. That's the way public land works. What a wonderful thing. Get out and experience what is rightly yours, and if you're in the general area of the Tobacco Root Mountains, get out and explore them. How could you not?


  1. Hey great read! I'm headed to the Roots in a few days to camp for four days. Cant wait, thanks!

  2. Wow! What a great blog! Why did it take me years to find it?

    If you would like, you can read about a Montanan in Siberia here: http://transformsiberia.com/2010/11/10/meeting-the-greyling-of-sable-lake-part-1-of-snowy-river/

    Stop by and learn about Siberia, an amazing place much the same, yet quite different from our Montana.