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  • Writer's pictureAmy Grisak

Adventure in the Little Belts

This article originally ran in Distinctly Montana Magazine. Check it out with all of the pretty pictures at "Adventure in the Little Belts."


We’re keeping a secret in Central Montana. While Glacier and Yellowstone receive the accolades, the Little Belt Mountains are the diverse and wild playground less than an hour from Great Falls.


Stretching from Armington Junction along US 89, the Kings Hill National Scenic Byway, 74 miles to White Sulphur Springs, the Little Belts are a one of Montana’s often overlooked island mountain ranges. With the renowned Smith River running along the western edge of the Little Belts, and the phenomenal Belt Creek fishery to the north, all surrounded with over 9000 ft. high peaks, this untamed area is home to elk, moose, a few wolverines, black bears, mountain lions, and the rumored grizzly. For those seeking adventure or solitude, the Little Belts are the place to be.


The biggest cheerleaders of the area are Charley Willett, and his wife Ally who co-authored the beautiful photo book, Into the Little Belts and Beyond, as well as the created the information packed website, Into the Little Belts (intothelittlebelts.com), where they answer questions and provide live webcams of the area. His enthusiasm is palpable.


“I grew up here,” says Willett. “After I left and went to college, I came to realize the Little Belts were very important. Not a lot of places in the world are so free.”


The beauty of the area is it hasn’t changed much. “I feel one of the biggest differences is you can get cell phone coverage in Monarch,” he says. “That’s what I love about it.”


Mining origins


In reality, the Little Belts have undergone an enormous transformation over the past 140+ years. Born from mining like so many parts of Montana, Buck Barker was one of the first men to stake an official claim in the Barker/Hughesville area in 1879. For roughly a decade, the area bustled with silver and lead mines until these early efforts petered out shifting activity towards Neihart where silver, gold, lead, and copper were mined from the Queen of the Hill, Galt, and a number of other claims. From 1882-1929 the area mined over 16 million dollars in silver, and was considered one of the richest areas in the world.


During the early days of mining, ore was often shipped to smelter operations in Nebraska, or as far as Swansea, Wales. Great Falls took over the process when the Montana Central Railroad with its construction in 1889-1891 to bring the materials from Neihart to Armington. Despite the 56 mile distance, the challenging projects requiring carefully constructed stone walls and 40 trestles spanning Belt Creek and along canyon areas in what is now the Sluice Boxes State Park. With the required blasting and overall dangerous conditions, several workers perished to bring these precious metals to the world.


The allure of the Sluice Boxes


From the early days, the Sluice Boxes was renowned for the exceptional fishing and hunting. As early as 1913 a “fishing train” dropped off anglers in the morning and retrieved them at the end of the day. Although the train stopped running on November 11, 1945, and the tracks are gone, more than ever, the Sluice Boxes is a popular recreation area.




The main entrance is at the Evans-Riceville parking area where many people start their fishing journey in this popular stream. The other option is to drive up the road to the Overlook parking area to access the upper part of the 7.34 mile trail that crosses Belt Creek 16 times.


There is an alternate route to avoid the initial cliff area along the upper trail, but the views of this spectacular area are worth walking the narrow trail. There are several opportunities along the trail to visit Belt Creek making it a perfect hike for a picnic or quick fishing trip, and many people continue along the route to the 200 ft. long tunnel blasted through the rock with its soot-blacken ceiling.




This hike is unique as it combines stunning natural beauty with equally intriguing manmade features such as the drystack stone walls and remaining trestles. Venturing roughly 3 miles past the tunnel, visitors can explore the ghost town of Albright, a booming limestone quarry for decades, where abandoned boilers and the remnants of the town remain.


There’s only enough room for a half-dozen vehicles, but some hikers park a second vehicle at the Logging Creek Bridge to be able to shuttle back to their vehicle. This is also a popular spot to launch kayaks to float these Class II-III rapids in the spring.


Drawn to rock


While the Sluice Boxes is well known, the rest of the Little Belts allows people to spread out. With over 400 miles of roads, countless trails exploring remote mountains and canyons, there’s something for everyone.


“There are a lot of cool caves around here,” Willett says. Most of the caves are not well publicized to prevent vandalism, but Lick Creek Cave near the Logging Creek Campground is a popular spot for locals. To connect with experienced cavers in this area, one of the best resources is the Northern Rocky Mountain Grotto, the only organization in Montana recognized by the National Speleological Society.


Rock climbing in the limestone, granite, and quartz formations is another sport growing in popularity. “It is a fantastic mountain range,” says Brian Thompson of the Hi-Line Climbing Center in Great Falls and avid outdoor climber.“What’s mostly true about the Little Belts is there are more rocks that need to be climbed than climbers to do it.”


Thompson says the Prospector Route near Memorial Falls, which is set through predominately Neihart quartz, a rock initially named for this area and found in only one other place in the world, is a popular route because it has a lot of moderate climbs. But throughout the mountains there is the full spectrum of challenges ranging from easy routes to extremely difficult. Since there aren’t official routes, climbers often rely on word of mouth reports. “There are people out there putting up new routes,” he says. And when asked the specifics, “They’ll send you a hand drawn map.”


Trails for everyone


Hiking trails and all-terrain vehicle routes sometimes intersect in the Little Belts, but there are plenty of areas that beg to be explored on foot. Besides bringing along a topographic map, pick up a copy of the travel use map at the Belt Creek Ranger Station along Hwy 89 to find trails exclusively for hiking or mountain bikes, as well as the motorized options.


“If you’re on a 4WD trail, you’ll see a ton of people,” says Thompson, but stepping off these well-worn roads loses the crowds. “It’s easy to find solitude.”


A moderate, yet dramatic, hike or motorcycle ride is to the 9175 ft. High summit of Big Baldy out of Neihart. In reality, the most difficult part of the trek is accessing the trailhead after a slow and bumpy traverse to the trail #416 accessible most years by mid to late July. Starting in a beautiful, flower filled meadow, the initial stretch winds through mature aspens before opening up to talus slopes and switchbacks. This is an area where butterflies abound. Listen for the pika and marmots that reside in these rocky outcroppings, and keep an eye open for the occasional mountain goat.




Once on the ridge, it’s easy walking to the summit overlooking Rhoda Lake, where you can sign into the climbers’ register, as well as view 8 different mountain ranges including the Judiths and Snowies. This is also the realm of the threatened whitebark and limber pines jeopardized by the decades long battle with blister rust. But since live trees still remain, listen for the raucous calls of Clark’s nutcrackers as they uncover previous stashes and work over maturing pine cones.


The beauty of this area is once you reach the ridges in many situations, the options of where you can go are practically limitless. Plus, for those with families looking for an easy walk, the Little Belts don’t disappoint as the half-mile stroll into Memorial Falls outside of Neihart is a longtime favorite. Even driving to Porphyry Peak Lookout at the top of the Big Seven Ski Run at Showdown is a terrific way to soak in the views and enjoy the high country.


Camps and cabins


There are a number of Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest campgrounds, such as Logging Creek, Jumping Creek, Moose Creek, and many others along with dispersed camping.


Reserving a cabin, such as the Kings Hill, Judith Guard Station, or the Dry Wolf cabins, as well as the Monument Peak Lookout, is also possible via recreation.gov. These rustic structures provide a memorable experience with a few more amenities than tent camping in some very remote parts of the area.


Exceptional fishing


The popularity of fishing still holds fast in the Little Belts, and there’s equal room for fly enthusiasts to bait anglers in the reservoirs, rivers, and streams. Besides bordering the beloved Smith River, the Little Belts hold the headwaters of the Musselshell River, and catch the South and Middle Forks of the Judith River. While there’s plenty of big fish in these larger waters, the small streams are the best place to take kids where they can easily toss in a fly with great success.


Fish for cutthroat and rainbow trout where Belt Creek runs from Monarch and Neihart, and brook trout thrive in the Dry Fork of Belt Creek up the Hughesville Road, as well as Dry Wolf Creek. And Sheep Creek is good for all three.




Newlan and Sutherlin Reservoir, which are both closer to White Sulphur Springs, boast several species of trout, along with burbot and Kokanee salmon.


Wrapping up the day with a soak


As if a day or a week in the Little Belts couldn’t be more enjoyable, locals flock to the hot springs at the Spa Hot Springs Motel in White Sulphur Springs as the ultimate way to relax. With 3 pools of varying temperatures, including the super steamy indoor soak, the motel is an excellent place for home base, although many make it an afternoon destination just to soak.


The Little Belts truly have something for everyone. Bring your sense of adventure, be prepared for anything, and make the most of the this truly remarkable mountain oasis.

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