Deerlodge Valley Excursion Sun. May 26th 2024

Participants: Becky & Gary Jones, David & Julie Kahl
This trip had three parts to it, it was postponed from May 19th due to inclement weather.
May 26th was a hard day to dress for, cool and cloudy in the morning to sunny and in the 60’s/18c in the afternoon. Always with the Butte area incessant wind. I brought my hiking sticks in case the trails were muddy. We arrived at the new trail head area, to the west of Big Butte (the one with Butte’s M), parked at around 5700 ft/1737.36m. Gary used to live in Butte and went to Montana Tech, and he said that this area is old mine tailings, most from the Orphan Girl Mine (the one that you can go down into as part of the Mining Museum)5cd, that no ones even suggested they clean up yet. It has a maze of trails, an “user developed” dirt biking area, and lots of people with dogs. Newly developed, it is still supporting many invasive species, plant wise. We followed the trails to Big Butte, they were well signed. On all sides of Big Butte were highly visible, rocky, eroded “straight up and down trails,” but on the south side a switch back trail as well. He kept to that, and I was surprised that it went into a wooded draw. Gary said most of those trees weren’t there when he was in school here, and climbed Big Butte a lot. We came out on a shoulder with some good views of the Continental Divide to the south, (the CD surrounds three sides of Butte) then we were going into a second wooded gully when Gary ran into an old friend walking his dog. After that we were in serious switch backs, some “corners” and legs quite rocky, but we came out on a road end parking lot, just below the “M.” This is where Butte sets off its Third of July fire works. The “M,” made of rocks, is lite with electric lights, and surrounded by a fence. A steep eroded trail went up to it, maybe 30 ft/9.14 m, up from the road. We didn’t go up, instead stayed on the switch back trail which now went to a “saddle” at the top, between two rock outcropping, one higher than the other. We had passed close to the top of the “M.” We took pictures and waited as another couple were up at the summit with their dog, then David and I went up, 6300ft/1920.24m. It seemed like the trail going back down the west side of the butte would be better for descending, and we picked our way down it. We had been seeing some scraggly phlox all over, but now saw some stunted bluebells, and “alpine” dandelions -regular dandelions that were only a few inches high, with one blossom each. We came to one of the straight up and down trails, noticed that our trail which also became steeper, went down to a large parking lot on the north slope, probably the same road we had encountered above. That route was covering a lot of ground we didn’t need to cover. We could see a trail going south west from the parking lot just below us, and decided to go cross country down to it. There in an even more “exposed alpine slope” cushion phlox was dotted everywhere. We paralleled the up and down trail, but stayed in the grassy slopes next to it, it wasn’t very rocky. Back on the trails we followed them out to the trail head were, despite the wind, we had a tailgate lunch. My GPS said 2 1/2 miles/4.02k, elevation gain 600 ft/182.88 m.
Next we went on a grand tour of Butte as Gary wanted to put flowers on family graves, showed us landmarks like mining baron’s homes, a plush hotel. Ending at the Memorial for the men killed in the Granite Mountain-Speculator mine fire in 1917. The mine’s hoist cable failed and fell to the bottom of the shaft. It was “insulated” with an oiled paper like covering, which caught fire from a carbide head lamp (open flame). The worse hard rock mining disaster ever -to date. The site over looks not the Berkley Pit, but the world’s largest dirt diversion dike, diverting toxic drainage into the pit. Gary’s background is in hydrology and water systems, and he could point out features of the water treatment plant we could see. Since 1982 there has been no more “mine shaft mining” in Butte, but two open pit mines still run on the east side of the Berkely Pit. We got Pork Chop John’s sandwiches and left Butte for the Warm Springs Ponds.
It was warmer and sunny now. We stopped at the parking area on the east side with an eagle rookery. Immediately, we saw an eagles nest in a new site, close enough to get good photos. The smaller shrubs and roadside fences were alive with birds: starlings, a common yellow throat, western tanagers, white bellied swifts, we could hear meadow larks. The reeds along the ponds and wet lands were brimming with red wing black birds and yellow headed black birds. We saw a nest woven into the reed, that further investigation said it was situated more like a yellow headed blackbird’s nest than a red wing’s nest. On the way back to the parking lot we saw a harrier hawk, doing it signature hovering. The water was really choppy from the wind, but we saw a lot of sea gulls skimming, the wave action was stirring up nutrients. When we looked with our binoculars we could see lots of ducks of various species and coots, feeding in the waves also, but only in one pond and not another. There were no flowers of note. When the area was reclaimed it was seeded with Great Basin Wild Rye, which gets thick and tall and, at least temporarily, crowds out both invasive species and wildflowers. Originally this area was a basin where Silver Bow Cr. from the east and Butte, Warm Springs Cr. from the west and Anaconda, and Mill-Willow Cr. from the south, flowed together to form the Clark Fork River. Just down the Clark Fork from its origins  is another set of ponds being developed, The Job Corp Ponds, to deal with mine tailing deposits, called slickens, where the sewer discharge from the Warm Springs Institutional Campus comes into the Clark Fork. The Warm Springs Ponds are formed by ground water, and don’t change water levels very much. But the Job Corps Ponds do dry up more and are a good place to see a variety of shore birds later in the season. (No state recreation permit required for Warm Springs Pond, but is for the Job Corp Ponds.) We drove around the Job Corp Ponds before heading for home.
Looking for a leisurely afternoon? Go down and bird watch and there are several miles of walking/biking trails.  Leader: Julie Kahl


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