It was a hard day to dress for, the weather reports said we could find a dusting of snow at valley level, but we didn’t. But, after meeting at the Snowbowl parking lot in Grant Cr., as we drove west down I-90 to the western Alberton exit, it was obvious we were driving into snow squalls. It took a minute of looking on our GPS’s to find the entrance to the frontage road, it comes into the freeway on ramp. We followed it along the interstate until it turned away from the highway, went through the terraces of abutments from an old Milwaukee Road trestle that had crossed a gully. A hundred feet/30.48m or so beyond that was the gate into the trail head, with a large parking area. I had last been here in 2013, when this area had just been developed, with trails and kiosks, and this was where we had parked then. We could see the profiles of various roads and routes in the bank above us, but walked down the road/trail that was the obvious route. Right off we came upon a patch of buttercups, and I was looking for an osprey next I knew was there, but we didn’t see it until the way out. About 1/4 mile/0.40k down the road we came to the formal entry of the trail system, with another small parking area and kiosks, we could have driven to here. Here the old Mullan Road and the bed of the railroad tracks run separately, and we started up the Mullan Road route. Kiosks told us about the building of the road, about a family that raised strawberries here to sell at a stand on the old Hwy 10, now where I-90 runs. We looked around at the remaining foundation of a building, trying to figure out where they had raised the strawberries, and found what was probably part of their irrigation system from a spring. Another kiosk explained about the 2005 “chain dragging on I-90” that is suspected of starting a string of fires in this area. Before the fire, trees and shrubs had obscured much of Mullan’s -black powder blasted- road cuts in the rock above the Point Of Rocks Rapid, in the Clark Fork River, below. There were several cuts, like long steps going up the rock, all far narrower than the 16 ft/5.0m wide that Mullan claimed all sections of the road were. Like Traveler’s Rest in Lolo, it was one of the few places where you knew exactly were people from long ago (1859-60) had worked, ate lunch, drove wagons, as they went about their daily lives. As we were going up this part of the trail it had gotten sunny and warm. Just short of 2 1/2 miles/4.02k the road goes up a grassy hill and goes onto private land, you can follow its course along the side of the ridge, visually, for a bit.
Here we dropped down about fifty feet/ 15.24m or so to the railroad bed, coming down past a dirt bank with bank swallow holes in it -no swallows. Where the trail rejoins the railroad bed is Milwaukee Road Tunnel 18 -the 18th tunnel in the Milwaukee Road line since it entered Montana’s eastern border. We investigated the tunnel, the west half had several feet of rock rubble that had fallen from the ceiling. The east half had been lined with concrete, its floor was clear of any rubble and the smooth concrete walls were an art gallery of graffiti. Just outside the east end of the tunnel, on the edge of the road, is a small rise that gives good views up and down the Clark Fork Canyon. We saw several eagles hunting the river. There was a better viewing spot for the rapids at the Point Of Rocks on the river, a little further down the road as we followed it back. Now, it had gotten cloudy and there was a chilly wind. Back on the section of the road between where we were parked and the formal entry was we saw pussy willows and the empty osprey nest. It was only 2 miles/4.02k coming back. A nice way to spend an early spring afternoon.
Leader: Julie Kahl