Ice Caves

Trailhead: Crystal Lake
Length: 10.5 mile loop
Elevation gain: 2,500’ (5,600’-8,100’)

I had a busy pre-4th of July holiday with the fun Got Grit 5k obstacle course race in Choteau, Montana on Saturday and then headed out to Moore, Montana on Sunday for a “Wilderness Walk” with the Montana Wilderness Association (MWA). I’ve had great luck with the MWA, completing a three day trail build in 2015 and a group hike in 2016. This time I was off to the Ice Caves south of Lewistown. I’d heard about these caves and was definitely intrigued by how ice could remain at the low elevation of 8,000’ year round.

The weekend also presented itself as an opportunity to finally experience my truck camper in its element as a I planned to stay Sunday night and explore Lewistown on Monday. Sunday morning dawned pretty uneventfully and the travel was fast until I met this on the gravel road outside of Moore, MT:

Yes, that is a horse-drawn buggy you see through my bug-crusted windshield. Central Montana has developed thriving communities of both Amish and Mennonites, which I was aware of but whose vehicular units I had yet to see in action. During the rest of the trip, I saw five more buggies, all driven right on the gravel or even the main highway.

After passing the hard-working equine, I headed towards the Big Snowy Mountains, one of many island mountain ranges in central Montana. My truck tires only hit gravel for a short stint when pavement met us again as soon as the mountains started to build, an oddity for Montana! Usually, I brace myself for the teeth jarring, washboarded rocky roads as soon as mountain fir starts in earnest.

Once I pulled into the trailhead, I met a large group of 24 hikers willing to brave the climb. As usual, I was impressed by the varied interests represented in the MWA group: we had people from health care, agriculture, education, journalism, economics, biology, and forestry, which made for almost unending conversation along the trail. We saw zero wildlife, most likely due to said stream of constant conversation.

The trail is well developed and winds around the south-east end of Crystal Lake up a steep sidehill. Most of the elevation was gained in the first three miles. Once we broke through the trees, the wide vista of central Montana opened.

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Crystal Lake with the Judith Range behind it.

 

Once we summitted the ridge at around 7,900’, we had an easy ridge hike west to the Ice Caves. We paused for lunch and then headed down to the caves, whose temperature is kept cool due to temperature inversion and insulation, so ice stays plentiful while the porous limestone filters surface water down through the mountains. Often, runoff on the surface appears to disappear underground multiple times before eventually feeding into Crystal Lake.

The entrance is a small cut in the rocks that could easily be passed over if not signed.

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Cool air quickly met skin as I walked through the cliffs and down to the main ice “stalactites”. Our guides informed us that the snow had receded considerably even in the two weeks since they had scoped the caves, which allowed us to get further into the caves than we would have earlier.

That kid wasn’t in our group but ended up in most of our pictures.

I was impressed the ice truly looked like stalactites. It ran in hardened rivulets or slowly accumulated on itself in fountain-like style formations. Most openings in the rock above our heads had ice “flowing” from them.

We found that a little light behind the ice made for really cool shots and had fun playing with a headlamp and different structures to find the coolest shot.

Overall, I was impressed with the caves. Anytime I get underground I feel the immensity of the earth and am awed by how much more exists below the surface of what we see and know.

After getting our fill of the caves, we kept heading around Crystal Lake (eventually making a full loop back to the trailhead). We were given some impressive vistas before starting our descent.

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The best view of a few island ranges on a hazy day. Furthest to the right are the Judiths, center are the Moccasins, and then you can just make out Square Butte and the Highwoods to the left. If we were to keep panning left, the Little Belts, Big Belts, Castles, and the top of the Crazies would come into view.

The trail follows a majority of the ridgeline pictured above, offering many great views on the way down.

We found a few fossils in the limestone on the way down and also a patch of “hoodoo” like formations on the side of the ridge, along with a multitude of different wildflowers along the trail (including the elusive lady slipper, which I erroneously neglected to photograph :(.

The trail was a nice cool out since the only real climb came at the beginning, and then it was a pretty leisurely cruise back to the trailhead, at which we enjoyed beer and brats provided by our wonderful group leaders Sadie and Sarah!

After a full day of sun and conversation, my new bed felt wonderful and all my gear worked as intended, leading me to feel pretty confident about this new lifestyle I will be trying my hand at the next few months!

Last mile craving: Mushroom Swiss burger

BONUS – Crystal Cascades Hike

Monday morning I woke up and traveled a short distance back down the paved road to the first trailhead, “Crystal Cascades”. Here I found an easy 5.75-mile hike (the signs say it will be a full 7, but that’s definitely not true). The trail winds through a sometimes dry, sometimes not, creek bed (I definitely recommend hiking sandals because your feet will get wet many times). The creek banks were ripe with all kinds of wildflowers.

After zigzagging through the thick brush, the trail eventually opens to a great waterfall definitely worth basking by for a little while.

As I cleaned the trail dust off and readied to make my way back to civilization, I grabbed a few cookies to hold me over until lunch. One summed up my feelings of the weekend more accurately than words:

Last mile craving: Turkey sandwich with peanut butter (which I found, sans peanut butter, at the Rising Trout Cafe in Lewistown – highly recommended!)

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