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  • Writer's pictureAmy Grisak

Center Ridge Trail #415 in the Highwood Mountains

The Highwood Mountains are always impressive. Only 45 miles from Great Falls, this stunning island mountain range offers nearly 1800 square miles of recreational opportunities including hiking, fishing, camping, hunting, horseback riding, mountain biking and ATV/motorbike travel. With numerous established trails in this area, the Center Ridge Trail #415 is a good choice for a mid-length length hike with enough elevation gain to bump up your heart rate.

Mileage and Elevation: 8.1 miles with 1375-feet elevation gain

Difficulty: Moderate

Potential Hazards: Stream crossings

Dog Friendly: Yes, preferably on a leash

Other Trail Users: Bicyclists, motorbikes, ATVs, horses

Toilet: There is a vault toilet at the parking area.

Water Availability: Yes.

Useful Gear: Hiking poles, bear spray

Additional Considerations: Upper Highwood Road is gravel and the road leading to the trailhead is best suited for higher clearance vehicles. It’s particularly nasty when wet. During the summer, don’t be surprised if you see cows during your hike.

Thain Creek camping area is a central location for many of the hikes in this section of the Highwoods, but to begin the Center Ridge Trail head to the right before you reach the camping area. This is a large parking area that can accommodate multiple trucks and trailers, whether for horses or ATVs.

The beginning of the hike requires crossing Highwood Creek over a large plank bridge with a rail on one side. This is a loop trail so what direction you choose, partly depends on your preference for knocking out the hard part. If you're someone who prefers to have the inclines behind you early in the adventure, go to your right at the sign and hike the loop counterclockwise. If you like to warm up for a while, continue going straight and you will eventually curve around and head up the hill. Either way is spectacular.

For the counterclockwise option, the first 2.6 miles is a steady hill pull gaining 1000-feet to this trails highest point at 5546-feet. Roughly one-quarter of a mile from the sign, there’s a gate. Go through it, but close it behind you. It’s there to keep the cows on their pasture.

As you gain elevation, be sure to turn around to soak in the stunning views of Highwood Baldy (elevation 7670-feet) and the surrounding hillsides. From the end of May to the first part of June arrowleaf balsamroot covers the meadows in waves of bright yellow. And as the summer progresses look for lupine, sugarbowls, calypso lilies, coral root, sticky geraniums, death Camus, blue bells and many more amazing blooms. Parts of the trail wind through aspen groves or alongside lush hawthorn bushes with pure white flowers and their no-nonsense thorns that eventually mature into berries for the birds. And in the early part of the season, the lush green grasses are off-the-chart gorgeous.

Once you crest the top it's a series of declines with a few inclines just to give your quads a rest. The nice aspect is it isn’t terribly steep making it easier on knees. Be ready for several stream crossings. Some of the creeks are seasonally dependent, but expect to cross at least seven of them. There are a few that have adequate stepping rocks to take you across without a problem, but if you don’t want wet feet, bring water shoes for several of the crossings.

There is a beautiful meadow with the remnants of an old corral at roughly the 3.5 mile mark that is a good place to stop for snack or to have lunch. From here there is a bit of a descent before one more little climb prior to the final 3-ish miles to the trailhead. At the 5.4 mile mark there is a junction that connects you to the North Fork Highwood Creek Trail #423, which is the last leg of this loop when you turn left. Turning right (east) allows you to venture to the end of #423, which parallels the creek the entire way.

The final stretch continues to run along the North Fork of Highwood creek, which is a terrific spot for brook and rainbow trout fishing. Overall, this one of those perfect late spring-early summer hikes that offers a stroll through fields of flowers, knock out views, and potentially camping and fishing, and later in the season still provides the views with the possibility of seeing elk and other wildlife.

Finding the trailhead: On US 89 travel approximately 6 miles east of Great Falls, then turn left and travel east 13 miles on MT-228, then pick up County Road 121 and travel another 16 miles. Take a left at the Thain Creek Campground sign and travel to the junction, which is roughly 1.4 miles on Forest Road 8840. At the junction, veer to the right and the parking area is only a mile or so down this road.


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