Fish Creek Road, Sunset Hill Road

Date: April. 13th, 2019
Participants: Steve Schombel, Marianne Cassidy, David and Julie Kahl
I like when an otherwise casual hike turns into a mystery of sorts. Fish Creek road is off of the part of Sunset Hill Rd. south across the Blackfoot River from The PawsUp Resort. It is on the flanks of Bata and Baldy Mts. The start of the road actually runs on a divide ridge between Elk Cr. to the south and Fish Cr. on the north. David and I had explored part of it back in January and now we were back to extend the explorations. The road was mostly clear of snow now, but with recent rains it was damp mud. The day was cloudy in the upper 40’s/7.2c. Not far in we saw elk off in the distance through the trees, deer were everywhere. We also saw blue birds, woodpeckers in all the areas, and geese over head. But no flowers not even buttercups. Not quite 2 miles/ 3.22k back we came upon a trail junction, with a gated two-track road that went southeast into a section of the Clearwater State Forest, that was not on either our map or GPS’s. And a continuation to Fish Cr. Rd to the east and north. We stopped to have lunch at the junction and discussed our possibilities. It was about four more miles to Mt. Baldy, one way, or there appeared to be a loop that would bring us back to Sunset Hill Rd. maybe 1/4 of a mile/0.40k from where we were parked. We continued on Fish Cr. Rd. which turned onto a north slope and had snow several inches/cms deep across the entire road. A short ways up an, also snow covered, road left the road going up. Here confusion set in. My GPS showed us to be on Fish Cr. Rd. whereas David’s was saying Sperry Grade Rd. Huh? Sperry Grade, as we all know, is associated with the fishing access way over east on the other side of Clear Water Junction, off of Hwy 200. My understanding was that it was somehow associated with the old Blackfoot Railroad. What was it doing up here in the north flank of the mountains? My GPS showed that the road that turned off here, was Fish Cr. Rd. that ran a few miles and ended.  We continued on what now was Sperry Grade Rd. even on my GPS. It shortly crossed Little Fish Cr. on a culvert, and here there was all sorts of new roads that weren’t on the map or the GPS, but The Nature Conservancy was doing much tree thinning back in here so we figured they were thinning related. We saw a very distinct set of BIG cat tracks. The GPS showed the road we wanted going up hill so we followed that and soon came to the end of TNC land, and a high point on the road. Nearby USGS Section Boundary markers (no less than 3 of them of various ages) showed us that we were just exactly where we thought we were on the map. However, from here the road dropped several hundred feet into the main Fish Cr. drainage, and if we wanted to turn back, we should do it now. We were about 2 1/2 miles/4.02k back. The loop we were looking at still had about 5 miles/8.05k to go, not a problem, but it went through private land, and David’s GPS seemed to show the road not being there, like it was on the map. We’d had enough experience with finding roads no longer existing, and rather than go several more miles and finding the road through the private land either closed or non existent we turned back. Steve wanted to go back and explore the continuation of Fish Cr. Rd. but the rest of us didn’t want to walk on the snow covered road. Instead we went back to the junction where we had had lunch and went on the two track road into the Clearwater State Forest. Immediately there was signs of horses and cows we hadn’t seen in the other areas. This road gradually dropped down into the Elk Cr. drainage, and was very open forest and grass lands. We went aways then stopped and took another break, where Marianne was exploring and found a beautiful tiny spring coming out of the hillside below us with bright green vegetation. That was a nice way to end our explorations and we just headed back to the car, all told having done about six miles. Before getting in we checked for ticks, didn’t see any. We had felt a few rain drops during the day, but noting serious until we were back in Marianne’s car driving home, then a light rain.  Later at home I found a tick, I think it came off the map.
I tried looking up the Sperry Grade on Google, there were pages and pages of property for sale on a Sperry Grade Rd. in Bonner, and a N Sperry Grade Rd. and S Sperry Grade Rd. at Clearwater Junction (all considered Greenough). After many pages I finally came to a Montana History site where they talked about logging in the area.  First with log drives from timber cut near the river, then locomotives were disassembled and transported to the Potomac area (Union Cr.) and reassembled to set up rail transport on that side of the river, by the logging company. Later, The Milwaukee Road Railroad built a line into the area that had logs, now moving on trucks, to be piled at railroad landings, of which one was the Sperry Grade Landing, by the Bear Cr. bridge across the river. Bear Cr. is the next drainage to the east-north of Fish Cr. Logging in this area stopped in the 1950 or 60’s. It did mention the building of the Sperry Grade Rd. on the south side of the river. I sat down with my GPS and tracked the Sperry Grade Rd. From our turn around point it continued in a maze of roads around the north flank of Baldy Mt. then turned north up Bear Cr. crossed the Blackfoot River at the no longer existing Bear Cr. Bridge and ran north to today’s Hwy 200. At an intersection on Sunset Hill Rd. there is an Elk Cr. Rd. that goes up Elk Cr. to the south and crosses over the divide of the Garnet Mts. to the Clark Fork River side. There were lots of mines up there. I suspect that the two track road we were following down into Elk Cr. came off Elk Cr. Rd. somewhere down there and it was the original Sperry Grade Rd. This area offers a lot of new roads and possible loops.
Titles of photos: Cat Tracks (above), Snowy Road, Area Map, Rattlesnake Mts., Maria and David Testing Water Temperature In The Spring

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