Mountain High 

Any state referring to itself as “The Last Best Place” damn well better have some extraordinary offerings in the form of state-recognized natural or historic features. Not just the biggies—nationally recognized features like the geysers of Yellowstone National Park or the unparalleled matterhorns of Glacier National Park—but lesser-known features for locals, smaller in scope but no less noteworthy.

Like Giant Springs State Park near Great Falls, a massive hole in the ground laying claim as “one of the largest freshwater springs in the world,” whence no less than 338 million gallons of water gurgle from the Earth daily. The spring then flows into what the Guinness Book of World Records calls “The shortest river in the world,” the 200’ Roe River, before emptying into the Missouri.

Of course Montana lays claim to a host of fascinating, obscure or otherwise noteworthy landmarks. If your visitation requirements include learning more about a state with a settlement history tied intimately to the extraction of gold, silver, coal and other elements, consider Anaconda Stack State Park, where you can view—you guessed it—“one of the largest free-standing brick structures in the world.”

Or, if you’ve got a hankering for an historical locale where no less than 30,000 artifacts of ancient Americans have been excavated, consider checking out the moving history of Pictograph Cave State Park.

For years, these areas and the other 39 state parks in Montana have charged both in- and out-of-state visitors daily fees—currently $5 per vehicle or $30 for an annual “passport.” Whether you support “improvements” to public land or not, this annual flow of $750,000 is used to build and maintain outhouses, boat ramps, parking lots and the like, as well as pay the guard station fee handlers.

On weekends and holidays, the staffed entrance booths and the “Stop! Pay here” signs do a seemingly adequate job of getting folks to drop the five-spot in the slot. But on weekdays, or in the off-season, the booths are often empty, and visitors have been known to use the facilities without ponying up their share. But a bill passed by the 2003 legislature aims to change all that.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the state agency in charge of managing these lands, will soon begin receiving their operating expenses at the time Montanans register their vehicles. An additional $4 fee will be added to vehicle licensing costs, and out-of-staters will still have to pay at the gate. No word yet on whether or not this change will affect the staffing of the booths.

Those of you who do not arrive late and leave early will still have to pay for camping, and other non-entrance fees will still be in effect. But at least now you won’t have to decide whether to pay to access a lake at a comfortable fee area or save the cash by bushwacking to a shore after parking at a non-designated pull-off.

If you are one of the many Montanans who uses state parklands, you’ll be paying less—and FWP will still be raking in an additional $250,000 under the new plan. This seems like a fine way to fund these areas, but if you’re adamantly opposed to the four bucks, just write a letter telling FWP that you’re not a state park user. They’ll waive your fees straight away, although you’d be better off taking advantage of this bargain and exploring some of Montana’s lesser-known wonders.

The summertime bonanza of club-sponsored hiking, biking, running and climbing outings seems to be wrapping up, and although the winter’s first earnest cold snap is upon us, until the snow is deep enough to ski or stand on, the schedule of winter recreation events printed here might be a little thin. In other words, now is a great time to hit the mountains solo, or with friends. Ask at gear stores for ideas, or just drive up the valley, eyeball an attractive mountain or drainage, and go get lost.

But The Rocky Mountaineers are still leading trips, making the most of the not-yet-winter walking options by tooling up to Superior this weekend for a day hike to Lost Lake on Nov. 2. Note that this is the first full weekend of hunting season, and wise woods walkers will do everything in their power to communicate to gun-toters that they are NOT something to be shot, gutted, wrapped in paper and stashed in the freezer.

Anyway, the route will gain a modest 1,000–1,500 feet of elevation, making it unlikely that you’ll be hiking in snow, but the planned circuit will involve sticking to a ridge, which makes it more likely that you’ll be hiking in a brisk wind. Bring hunter’s orange, warm clothes and the tastiest food you can muster. Hikers are meeting at Durango’s Restaurant in Superior at 9 a.m., so call Jim Goss (822-5000) to get on the roster, or Steve (721-4686) to carpool from Missoula.

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