“Jerry’s Journeys” Blog — 2009

My passion is to explore and discover the beauty of this great country of ours, to capture it, and to share it with you.  Often, there’s an interesting story to go along with the photos. On these pages, I share not just beautiful images and video clips, but “the stories behind the pictures.”

June 27, 2009

The Wild and Scenic Boulder River, Montana

At 692 miles, the Yellowstone River is—happily—the longest un-dammed river in the United States. In 2009 and 2010, I lived in the Rockies, close to the headwaters of the Yellowstone, which spring mainly from the snows covering the Absaroka Mountains in Wyoming and Montana.

After the channel of the Yellowstone reaches north to Livingston, Montana, it bends eastward and begins collecting water from its major tributaries, which also spring from cold, clear mountain creeks. The first of these is the Boulder River, which flows north from a canyon which divides the Absaroka and Beartooth mountain ranges. The headwaters of the Boulder are in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Like most national wilderness areas, access is restricted to non-mechanized travel.

Fortunately, the lower portion of the headwaters lies outside of the restricted access wilderness—and one can get there from Interstate 90 in an hour. The upper Boulder valley is overshadowed by Monument Peak and Sheepherder Peak, which are pictured below. This photo was taken in mid-June, just after the snow had melted from the open meadow. Perennial pasqueflowers, quick to feel the warmth of the sun, were already in bloom. Usually, by July, folks with an ATV or a small, sturdy 4WD can get to this place from Interstate 90 by taking exit 367 at Big Timber and traveling south on Montana Hwy. 298. At the boundary of the Custer Gallatin National Forest, the pavement ends; travelers can continue south on Forest Service Road 6639.

#08239 - Pasqueflowers begin to bloom as the snow recedes in the Boulder River headwaters below Monument Peak and Sheepherder Peak, in Montana’s Absaroka Mountains - photo by Jerry Blank

Panoramic view of Monument Peak and Sheepherder Peak, Absaroka Mountains — Click / tap image to view full size

Summer travelers can enjoy fly-fishing, kayaking, camping, and hiking in this valley just as much as in the Yellowstone valley just south and west of the Boulder River, if not more; in this part of Montana, visitors are few and traffic is light. Such were my thoughts as I drove through the valley in June of 2009. As I passed the parking area shown here, I absently wondered why people with 4WD pickups were unloading their ATVs at that spot instead of continuing farther south on FS 6639. I learned why soon enough!

Back in 2009, Google Earth satellite imagery was in lower resolution, and both my Forest Service road map and Google Maps assured me FS 6639 contined south another five miles. But in the current high-resolution Google Maps view, you’ll notice the road all but disappears south of the parking area I just mentioned. And that is exactly what I discovered on the ground during my journey. I stopped my SUV and walked south a bit. The graded gravel road had ended at the parking lot behind me. All that remained of the road was a rocky, primitive 2-track trail, and it was now obvious why the other guys were leaving their larger rides at the parking lot.

Unfortunately, I didn’t own a horse or ATV. My eyes bored into the rocky trail ahead, until I finally decided I would chance it with my SUV. I was unwilling to walk five miles just to get to the wilderness boundary; I knew beforehand I’d have to hoof it once I got there!

There isn’t much to see along those five miles. Once one gets south of the confluence of the East Fork of the Boulder River, the valley narrows into a canyon, and the tree cover along the route is pretty dense.

#08298 - Whitewater on the upper Boulder River, Absaroka Mountains, Montana - photo by Jerry Blank

Whitewater on the upper Boulder River

In any case, my mind was far away from the scenery. I got out of my car many times, but only to figure out exactly how I’d have to align my front tires to keep from bottoming out on an unyielding chunk of granite. I also had to ford the Boulder a couple of times. In that area, it’s merely a creek instead of a river, so that part felt fun... kind of like Jeep’s TV commercials.

After what seemed an eternity of stop-and-start driving, I finally reached the five mile mark, just south of where Basin Creek and Sheep Creek empty into the Boulder. At that point, one can follow the road roughly westward along the Basin Creek drainage to the site of the Independence Mine.

Exploring abandoned mines is something many hikers and ATVers in the Rockies like to do. If the route had not been buried in snow, I would have done some exploring myself; but I had arrived at the Boulder headwaters about a month too soon for that. The access road follows the north side of Independence Peak, and usually doesn’t melt out till sometime in July.

I observed that an unmarked and unnamed two-track road forked south where FS 6639 turns away from the Boulder River canyon. Following the mystery trail, I pleased to discover that it was much less gnarly than the Forest Service road. I followed it about a quarter of a mile to a place where the canyon opens up to an expansive meadow under the shadow of Monument Peak. The snow had only recently melted off the lower meadows, which were blanketed with pale yellow pasqueflowers.

I took quite a few photos at this spot, including the wide panorama at the top of this post. Midday light is generally not the best for capturing photos of wildflowers and mountains, but it worked well for me that day.

If I had wished to “get away from it all”, I couldn’t have picked a better spot than this one. There wasn’t another human being in sight. The air was crisp and clear, and I could hear nothing except the trickling of melted snow, the breeze in the spruce trees, and a few bird calls. It was the perfect spot for a lunch break.

I had reached the northern boundary of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, but I opted out of hiking into it. The snow had not yet melted beyond the open meadow, and I didn’t have a pair of snowshoes with me. I figured I’d rather explore the lower reaches of the Boulder River, having noticed many photo ops on my way upriver.

I returned the way I had come, at a more leisurely pace. I don’t recall seeing any ATVers until I passed the parking area once again, which wasn’t surprising; they probably already knew that the road I had chosen would be a dead end for motorized travel until Independence Peak melted off.

The graveled Forest Service road crosses the river over four bridges. At that time of year, the Montana Rockies are nearing the end of the spring runoff, and fording the Boulder River downstream is impossible. The riverbed is full of (obviously) large granite boulders, and the whitewater rapids pictured here are a force to be reckoned with. The Boulder definitely belongs to the “wild and scenic river” club.

08388 - Rainbow over Natural Bridge Falls on the Boulder River, at Natural Bridge Falls State Park near Big Timber, Montana - photo by Jerry Blank

Rainbow over Natural Bridge Falls — Click / tap image to view full panoramic size

Continuing downstream, the Absaroka Mountains give way to limestone foothills. The valley begins to widen, and one passes many Forest Service trailheads and campsites, which makes things nice for those who want to “get away from it all” but aren’t inclined to “rough it” to the degree necessary in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

The most accessible scenic location in the Boulder River valley is Natural Bridge Falls Picnic Area, a Forest Service day-use area located just within the National Forest boundary, 25 miles southwest of Big Timber on MT Hwy. 298. It’s a great day-trip or family trip destination with a good network of trails, including one which is handicap-accessible.

Montana has plenty of waterfalls, but few of the large ones are in the south central region. Yellowstone Falls, across the border in Wyoming, is larger than Natural Bridge Falls—and much more photographed—but I consider Natural Bridge Falls to be more picturesque. If you click or tap on the photo shown here to get the full panoramic view, you’ll see why.

In ages past, a short way upstream of the picnic area, the churning waters of the Boulder tunneled underground through the relatively soft limestone riverbed. The subterranean channels are now so large that the river runs underground for much of the year, re-emerging from a round opening in the limestone cliffs at Natural Bridge Falls. As the river swells during spring runoff, it overfills the underground channel and flows over the surface riverbed—then makes a dramatic 105-foot plunge just above the lower falls, as seen in this picture. To spice things up just a bit more, there is a small “spout” of water jetting out of the rock between the upper and lower falls.

The pool below the falls is shallow, which makes for a lot of churning, foaming, spray, and mist—perfect ingredients for a rainbow, if one happens to be viewing the falls from the west side of the gorge late in the morning, as I did when this image was captured.

I highly recommend a visit to the Boulder River valley for anyone who happens to be traveling central Montana via Interstate 90... anyone who wants to “get away from it all” for a little while, as I did on more than one occasion!