Big Baldy - Montana Mountain Project

Big Baldy - Highest Point in the Little Belts
The windshield wipers on the borrowed Prius could hardly keep up as I turned off Highway 89 onto the dirt road. I was nervous about driving a friend's low clearance car on an unknown dirt road and the rain wasn't helping. Not to mention the fact that I was about to get out of the car into the downpour and try to go up a mountain. Luckily I only gently bottomed-out once (sorry Katie!) and the rain abated within the first mile or so, which calmed my nerves significantly.

Zeno ignoring my attempts to find a paw-friendly route
The road I traveled contoured on the west side of the highest ridge in the Little Belts. This range is cleaved into two parts by Belt Creek and the north-south highway. My plan to go up Big Baldy took me into the eastern half of the mountains, but on the side facing the western half. Basically this meant that after I parked I could watch the various peaks across Belt Creek play hide-and-seek in various rolling afternoon rain/snow squalls.

Like the Big Belts, the Little Belts see a wide range of recreational activities from hiking, to ATV-use, to resource extraction. During the seven miles I drove to my trailhead (no trail, just a spot that I arbitrarily picked as a take-off point for bushwhacking) I passed numerous ATV trails with well marked signage, and hillsides in different stages of recovery from logging efforts.

Big Baldy - High Point in the Little Belts- Montana Mountain Project
The storm that hit me as I reached the summit
Yogo Sapphires, a gem more rare than diamonds, are also found in the Little Belts. Apparently this is the only place in the world that this type (species?) of sapphire is found and is unique in its cornflower blue clarity, according to Although more sapphires have been uncovered in Montana than anywhere else in the world, the Yogo sapphires bear a separate name than the Montana Sapphires typically found in Western Montana. Sapphires were initially passed over by gold prospectors in the late 1870's before Jake Hoover became curious enough to send a box back to New York to be assayed. Ultimately his curiosity earned him more than searching for gold ever did and mining operations have continued on and off for the last 140 years. Since 1878 at least 28 million carats have been mined. In non-jeweler terms that means 6.2 tons of blue rock. The Vortex mine still has limited operations in the Little Belts, but after owner Mike Roberts perished in an underground accident in 2012 mining has understandably slowed.

Looking down into Rhoda Lake
Yogo Creek is on the East side of the Little Belts so the chances of me stumbling across any blue stones was minimal; I was even too far away to see any evidence of mining. Instead I focused on picking the easiest way through talus fields to protect Zeno's paws as we cut up to where I hoped to find a trail on the westward shoulder of Big Baldy. Zeno didn't seem to care that I was seeking dog-friendly routes and made his own way up the rocky sections.

After a couple miles we popped out onto a wonderfully friendly ridge complete with a well maintained trail. The north side of the ridge fell away rather steeply down to a lake and was clearly the more rugged side. Looking east we had an unobstructed (aside from a few snow drifts) path to the summit of Big Baldy.

With a nervous glance back at the thick virga obscuring a point less than a mile away I broke into a run up the steep, exposed trail to the summit. Alternating between running and power hiking I was able to make good time and reached the top in front of the storm. 15 seconds later the storm caught up.

At the top of Big Baldy
Before I even had time to get my pack off snowflakes whipped by horizontally. Fortunately I had climbed high enough that the rain turned to snow and bounced off, but the increase in wind gave my search for hat and gloves a sense of urgency.

After a few chilly minutes taking in the large cirque on the eastern face, I turned into the wind and began a mad dash down to the trees leaving Zeno to fend for himself on the descent.

After seeing the well-worn conditions of both the ATV and foot trails I already have a few long days mapped out for a return to the Little Belts. Maybe this time I'll stumble across a blue rock or two.