Haystack Mountain - Montana Mountain Project

Zeno leading the last pitch up Haystack Mountain
It took two-and-a-half attempts, but I finally made it to the top of Haystack Mountain, the high point of the Boulder Range. Driving north from Butte this range is easy to overlook as it does not present a dominating facade even with a maximum elevation of 8,819'. From the highway it's defining feature is the fact that it provides an eastern border to Elk Park. Do not be fooled! I underestimated this range twice and missed reaching the summit both times (more do to complete unpreparedness rather than any sort of danger).

The start of my post-holing session during attempt #2
The trail up to the top of Haystack Mountain is around 3.5 miles and gains around 2,000'. It's a climb, but it isn't excruciatingly steep, and there is great trail the entire way up. It's actually a National Recreation Trail, which means that under the 1968 National Recreation Trails Act (the same act that established National Scenic Trails, and National Historic Trails) the trail up Haystack receives special promotion, technical assistance, and access to funding. According to americantrails.org NRT's are "exemplary trails of local and regional significance," and are part of a goal to realize "Trails for All Americans." So, like the West Pioneers National Recreation Trail that took me near the summit of Stine Mountain, the Haystack National Recreation Trail provided me public access to public lands that I could enjoy. Thank you National Recreation Trails Act. 

The aftermath of post-holing only 200 yards.
Legislation from 1968 did not help me make a smart decision last March, however, after Sara and I, along with two friends, drove over to attempt a hike up Haystack. We had snowshoes in the car, but opted to leave them in the trunk, despite having too much snow to get to the trailhead. I cannot explain my thought process, but looking back it was clearly the wrong decision. After a few miles of awful crusty post-holing we decided Headframe Distillery in Butte sounded less miserable and turned around. 

My next attempt came the night before I was actually successful last week. I left work at 5 pm and quickly grabbed Zeno and jumped in the pre-packed car to drive the two hours with the hope of running to the top before the sun went down. Snow had been melting quickly and I hoped that enough had disappeared for me to make the top before it got dark. Halfway to Butte I realized I forgot my headlamp so if snow started too low I wouldn't make it up before dark. Of course there was snow two miles up and after 200 yards of post-holing ripped into my shins, I bailed again. 

Summit of Haystack with the Highlands and Pioneers on the horizon
After camping at the trailhead I started again the next morning, this time with snowshoes in hand. We (Zeno on leash) followed the trail meandering around a couple drainages as it climbed up to the snow. The colder temperatures the night before helped me stay on top once we hit the snow and even allowed Zeno to stay on top more than the previous evening. We followed the deep tracks of a struggling hiker from a few days before that only reminded me of how nice snowshoes are when you actually use them. 

The entire hike is in the trees with little change in terrain until the last half mile when granite outcroppings emerge and the summit boulder pile comes into view as well as Elk Park down below. The summit itself is a pile of rocks slightly higher than some other piles of rocks. But from the top you can see twenty different mountain ranges (according to Cedron Jones in Peakbagging Montana) and they were on full display when I reached the summit. 

Lady bugs on the summit boulders
The snow capping the Flint Creeks, Anacondas, Pioneers, Crazies, etc. made them pop against the skyline and dominated my field of vision, and interest, for a while. Although logically I know that every time I summit a mountain I will be able to see distant peaks, emotionally I am still enthralled by the experience. I love sitting on top recalling trips in other ranges on the skyline, and wondering what adventures other ranges hold. Despite being a pile of rocks, my view from Haystack was surprisingly complete. That's probably why there was a fire lookout up there at one time. 

According to the August 30th, 1936 edition of the Montana Butte Standard, construction on the lookout  began when an ERA crew hauled equipment up to 8,000', just below the summit. They were to blast out a trail and establish a cabin with equipment for fire detection and weather monitoring. Work continued through the winter and after a mid-December storm a telephone line was placed between the lookout and the Elk Park Inn. Today the only evidence of a lookout is the remnants of stairs, a few foundation blocks, and two ceramic insulators that I noticed from the trail. Even with no lookout, the trail is well maintained and in better condition than the road to the trailhead. 
Enjoying the weather on top