Monday, June 4, 2012

East of the Great Divide

We are at the Skidway Campground in the Helena National Forest (map), just off US-12 east of Townsend, Montana. There are just 13 sites here, but once again we had the entire place to ourselves. Previous occupants had gathered a good deal of firewood, albeit not very high quality, and I was able to grill our steak over wood coals. It was warm enough to dine al fresco on the picnic table, and we had a great view of snow-capped mountains around us including Mt. Edith.

Our guides said this place was difficult to access for large rigs, so we parked at the bottom of the hill along US-12 and I scouted it on the scooter first, as it is two miles up a dirt road, and I did not want to discover there was no place to turn around. As it turned out, though, other than a fairly sharp uphill right-hander into the camping loop, the entire route and campground was easily accessible. Our guide also said there was water here, which we needed, but that turns out to be a hand-pump well, so we ended up pumping five gallons into our collapsible water jug and transferring it to the tank, to ensure we had enough for the night (we use about ten gallons a day aboard Odyssey). The guides had also said this campground was free, but, alas, it is now $10 per night.

Yesterday we traversed the Mullan Pass into Helena, passing through the western section of the Helena National Forest. We stopped at the brake check area on the Continental Divide to let everything cool down before the 8% descent, having lunch in the process. The retarder easily handled the downgrade, however, and we made it to Helena without ever touching the brakes. As state capitals go, Helena is a sleepy little place, and US-12 goes right through it.

Our directory had a couple of stopping options in Helena, but there was really nothing we wanted to see there, so we continued east to Townsend, where our guides listed a free campground near Canyon Ferry Lake, just north of town. The campground was, indeed, free, and had we felt the need to stay near a town it would have been a good option, but it was very nearly full and otherwise rather unappealing. We continued instead to the National Forest.

Our official Forest Service map listed a somewhat more convenient campground a few miles west of here called Deep Creek. Sometime in the decade since that map was published, however, that site has been redesignated as a picnic area for day use only, so we continued here. We're really glad we did, because the view is nice, we had our preferred solitude, and the temperature was pleasant at this elevation. This was also the quietest place we've stayed in recent memory, with no insect sounds at all after dark. The late afternoon and evening, however, were full of birdsong, including grouse thumping.

We've been ruminating about whether to drop south into Yellowstone or not. We had a wonderful visit there four years ago (June, 2008 archive), and we'd been thinking about returning some day, but we also remember the camping as being quite crowded inside the park. The park roads are also congested this time of year, and it's a long way off our route to South Dakota. As breathtaking as it is there, we're going to continue eastward. Although the actual decision point is somewhat east of here, on US-89 north of Ringling, and we've been known to change our minds at the last yawning instant.

Absent that, we should be continuing on US-12 east of Martinsdale until Lavina, where we will likely turn south on MT-3 to Billings. We could, alternatively, continue east on 12 all the way to Selby, SD -- both routes are about the same length and equally interesting, but at some point we will need water, fuel, and a new battery for the genny, so we need to swing through some part of civilization.

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