Butte Cabin Ridge - Montana Mountain Project

Butte Cabin Ridge with Quigg Peak to the left
Separated from the Sapphire Mountains by the fishing mecca of Rock Creek, the John Long Mountains are relatively unknown despite being close to Missoula and having some large trail loop options. The John Longs are often described as a sub-range of the Sapphires, but from the high point it is very obvious that Rock Creek splits the two ranges and they are divided by more than other ranges given separate statuses.

Like the Sapphires, the John Longs are full of steeply wooded slopes with narrow drainages. From Rock Creek nothing looks too prominent, but as one climbs up more of the range reveals itself and it keeps going up until the trees get a little shorter, rock faces are exposed, and panoramic views appear. 

Micah crossing a frozen snowfield
The highest point in the John Longs is Butte Cabin Ridge...on some maps. Some maps do not identify it with a name, and some call it Quigg Peak East. Quigg Peak is a more obvious mountain from the Rock Creek Drainage and because of that is the more famous of the two. But from up high it is quite obvious that Butte Cabin Ridge (we'll call it that for simplicity, and that's what Montana.gov calls it) is higher. 

If you think of Butte Cabin Ridge as a ridge, you're not doing the peak justice. According to Cedron Jones, perhaps the most prolific peakbagger in Montana, the peak ranks 81st in the state for prominence, but is only 8468 feet high.1 From the actual ridge it is still a steep push to the summit and definitely deserves a name more fitting of a mountain. It also appears to be the junction of Hogback Ridge and Butte Cabin Ridge making the "ridge" moniker even less justified.

There are multiple trails leading up to near the peak, but Micah Drew, my hiking companion for the day, and I chose the Hogback Ridge Trail because it is mostly south facing so less likely to have snow early in the year. We parked at the old Hogback Homestead on Rock Creek road and set out up the trail.

The homestead was a testament to the backbreaking work it took by families living in this area before we could access Rock Creek by car. Originally the homestead was intended to be a large farm, but because of the hostile-to-farming terrain only a portion of the farm was arable and crops only grew on 10 or so acres. The homestead is now a cabin that can be rented from the Forest Service.

Even before the homesteaders arrived, however, the area was inhabited by early indigenous populations. A prehistoric site exists in the same area as the homestead (where Hogback drainage empties into Rock Creek) and based on mixed projectile points archaeologists have been able to show that long distance trading occurred. Evidence also suggests that Rock Creek was actually a main corridor for groups traveling between the Phillipsburg area and the Ninemile Valley.2 From the top of the peak Rock Creek is obviously an easy path to take in relation to the other multiple ranges that would need to be traversed.

Enjoying the sun on top
The first few miles of the Hogback Ridge Trail wound gradually uphill through lush (at that time of year) fields filled with gorgeous yellow balsam root flowers with spectacular views of Rock Creek and the Sapphires. The trail then turned steeply uphill and made a push for the ridge through wooded terrain.

By mile five the trail began to level out and just as were greeted with our first views of the peak, we hit snow. Because this section of the trail is less exposed to the direct sun, it initially still had large drifts, but that quickly turned into all snow. Through one low section we lost the trail, but since we were on a ridge line, and knew where the trail was supposed to go, and could see where we were supposed to end up, we weren't too worried.

The snow thinned out a bit as we entered a burn area and we were able to pick up the trail for a half mile as it crossed a steep talus slope before beginning the final push to the summit. From the end of Hogback Ridge to the top was probably another 500 foot gain and we opted to head straight up the snow rather than traverse our way around to the west side for a potentially more gradual approach.

Panorama from the top
The summit was snow free and we were able to kick off our shoes, let our socks dry some, and spend a while laying back and enjoying the panorama. From the top we were treated to views of the Pintlers to the south (the source of Rock Creek), Sapphires directly west, Bitterroots over the top of the Sapphires, Flint Creek Range, Garnets, Rattlesnake, Missions, and the southern end of the Scapegoat Wilderness.

A run through the meadows
The snow we fought on the way up made for a quick glissading exit off the summit and soon we were back on the ridge. Like most mountains, I never realized how much elevation we gained on the way up until we were descending back down, especially since we were running in wet shoes.

I've explored a few trails in the John Long's now and believe this is a greatly underrated mountain range. There may not be a plethora of mountain lakes, or alpine ridges, but the panoramic views from the high points, and the abundant wildlife make me realize why this has been a favored route of travel for hundreds of years.

1 Cedron James, Peakbagging Montana (Helena: Riverbend Publishing, 2011), 94.2 Brenda Lynn Reed, "Flaked Lithic Artifacts from the Hogback Homestead Site (24GN13)" Theses, Dissertations, Professional Papers, Paper 2371 (Missoula: University of Montana Press, 1994), 34.