CDT 2021: Day 127, Big Sky to South Fork Spanish Creek

Hear the hissing of summer lawns

walking in Bear Basin, Montana

Top O' and I have only been hiking with Polecat for a little more than two days, yet I'm already starting to feel like we are taking advantage of him. To be clear, he's been agreeable to all of the support he's provided. His generosity has been so valuable that it will be hard to avoid becoming dependent on him.

Polecat has made our walk easier by letting us lighten our pack when possible by carrying some of our gear in his truck. Also thanks to him, we saved a lot of money by driving to a hotel that was less expensive than those in Big Sky.

Top O' and I are trying to return Polecat's favors by paying for meals and gas, but I doubt we will be able to balance all that he's done and will do for us.

DateTuesday, August 17, 2021
WeatherPartly cloudy and smokey, with a brief light rain and wind gusts up to 40 mph; temperatures from upper-40s to mid-70s
Trail ConditionsAsphalt, then dirt roads, followed by a long climb and descent on a well-maintained but sometimes rocky trail
Today's Miles15.0
Trip Miles1852.2

Our stay at the Super 8 in Belgrade came with an unexpected bonus. Made-to-order hot breakfasts were served this morning. The food was far better than the usual fare of packaged muffins and cold cereal.

After we checked out of the hotel, we traveled a short distance to an Albertson's grocery store to purchase food for the next section of our hike. This large store was also a benefit of traveling with Polecat because we found a better selection than in Big Sky.

Top O' walks through a golf community

Polecat then drove us back to the shopping center parking lot in Big Sky, which is where we started our flip-flop slackpack walk yesterday after lunch. Top O' and I needed to start here today to reconnect our footsteps as we began hiking north.

We won't see Polecat again for two days. Our route started with three miles of road walking, and Polecat was understandably not interested in joining us for that.

Top O' and I began walking shortly after 9:30 a.m. The first 1.5 miles of the route took us through a golf community. We followed a street past homes with lawns attached to the greens and fairways. Several golfers were out on the course this morning, but none paid any attention to the two backpackers strolling by.

Top O' leaves the golf community

The sky was so smokey this morning it was impossible to tell if it was also cloudy. The weather forecast called for a 40 percent chance of rain today and an 88 percent chance tomorrow. Rain was also in the forecast for each of the following four days.

Montana Highway 64

Our route through the golf community kept us off Montana Highway 64 for only part of the way. After we reached the west side, we turned onto the highway. Much of the distance was lined with guard rails, forcing us to choose between walking on a narrow shoulder or on a gravel slope.

Musk thistle flowers

The highway took us past wide-open fields with mountains in the distance. Musk thistles were growing along the side of the road. They might be pretty to look at, but they are non-native noxious weeds. They are found throughout the North American Rocky Mountains and many other parts of the globe.

It wasn't surprising to find musk thistles here because they thrive next to roads and at building sites where the soil has been disturbed.

Entering a gated community

The Continental Divide Trail Coalition said hikers shouldn't use the Big Sky/Super Butte Alternate, though we didn't realize that when we started. The reason given for not going this way is that the route crosses some private land. No information has been provided about where that land is located, nor if there are ways to get around it.

Top O' and I have been simply following the route we found on the Gaia app. This more or less seemed to be the same route nearly all northbound and southbound thru-hikers were following this year because of wildfires elsewhere in Montana.

Still, we didn't expect the alternate would take us on a gated, private road. There was nothing on the map to indicate this was a restricted road.

Top O' was a short distance ahead of me when he paused at the gate and warning sign. A moment later, a motorist pulled up next to him at the entrance and told him it was okay for us to go that way.

Top O' walks past trail signs

A sign said there was no public access, but that wasn't true. The route we followed with our app took us directly to Summit Lake Trailhead in Gallatin National Forest, where we picked up the Bear Basin Trail.

On the way, we passed signs for some other trails. One was called Walkin' Jim's Way. It was named to honor Walkin’ Jim Stoltz, a long-distance hiker, musician, and environmental activist who lived and worked in this area for many years. He died of cancer in 2010 at the age of 57.

Top O' catches sight of two bears

While walking along the Bear Basin Trail, Top O' stopped suddenly and quietly motioned for me to look up the trail. He whispered that he saw two bears, a mother and a cub. I only caught a glimpse of them before they moved off the trail. I don't think they saw us.

Top O' said he was reasonably sure they were black bears, not grizzlies. Nevertheless, we took our time before continuing up the trail.

A trail junction

We had the option of continuing on the Bear Basin Trail or following the Beehive Basin Trail, which took a slightly different route to get over a mountain ridge. As we stood at the trail junction to consider which route to take, I found a comment in the Gaia app about the Beehive Basin Trail. It said, "Did this route. Stupidly steep and loose. Dangerous with a capital D."

That was enough to convince us to continue on the Bear Basin Trail.

Crossing Bear Basin toward the Spanish Peaks

The trail we took did not disappoint. By 3 p.m. we saw what many southbound hikers had told us about, the Spanish Peaks. They said the beautiful scenery was a highlight of the alternate route, and now I saw what they were talking about.

Our approach to the ridge was a wide meadow that gave a full view of it, with its craggy peaks and steep gneiss walls. Straight ahead was a saddle, and it seemed obvious that was the direction we would be heading. Immediately to the left of the saddle was a hump, which is called Bear's Hump.

To the left of the saddle was another, higher saddle, then a jagged couloir called Bat Ears. I confess neither rock feature reminded me of a bat's ears or a bear's hump.

Climbing to a saddle on a ridge

The whole distance to the saddle was treeless. The trail wasn't difficult and only got steep in the last quarter-mile, which included several switchbacks.

Looking back to Bear Basin

A look back from the top of the climb gave me a new appreciation for the valley I had just traversed. I wished the sky was clearer to make the view even more rewarding.

Looking to the other side of the saddle

The wind at the saddle was gusty enough to knock a person over if they weren't careful. I didn't stay long before heading down the other side. The valley to the north looked much different than Bear Basin. Instead of wide and grassy, it was narrow and mostly filled with trees. Both valleys were bounded by rugged mountains.

Cheeto Jackson and Spamcake

Starting from an elevation of 9,500 feet at the saddle, the trail began a long and rocky descent. I took my time by taking deliberate steps.

Along the way, I met a couple of hikers who had stopped to take a break. One was Cheeto Jackson, whom I had met a couple of times before. The last time I saw him was in Pinedale on Day 107.

I managed to embarrass myself with my introduction to the other hiker. I misunderstood when she told me her name, thinking she said her name was Sand Pig. I remembered meeting a hiker with that name on the PCT in 2019, and she said she also hiked the PCT that year.

Her name was Spamcake, and I have no idea how I heard Sand Pig when she said her name. I fear I came across as a hard-of-hearing, feeble-minded grandpa.

South Fork Spanish Creek

After descending about a mile into the valley, the Bear Basin Trail began to follow the south fork of Spanish Creek. This was a small and lovely stream that trickled down the middle of the valley.

Mirror Lake

The trail continued along the creek for another mile before reaching Mirror Lake. Top O' and I stopped near here to eat dinner.

The valley stetches below

We were walking at the bottom of the valley, which continued to drop steadily. By 7:15 p.m., I began to wonder if we would ever find a flat spot to camp.

When I stopped to look at the map, however, I could see a couple of trails and another stream that met in a vicinity that appeared to be less steep. I thought this would be a likely spot for a campsite.

Rocks on the trail

My assessment was correct, though getting there wasn't easy. The trail became rocky, and once again, I took my time to avoid any stumbles.

The campsite we found was near the creek. I arrived there at 8:15 p.m. It barely offered enough room for everyone who camped there, which turned out to be a surprising number of hikers. Spamcake, Cheeto Jackson, Spench, and Loverboy joined Top O' and me in the little site nestled among spruce trees.

The trees caused a problem for us. It was difficult to find any with branches high enough and suitable to hang food out of a bear's reach.

Later, as I was trying to fall asleep in my tent, I made an unfortunate discovery. For the second time on this hike, my sleep pad had a slow leak.

He bought her a diamond for her throat
He put her in a ranch house on a hill
She could see the valley barbecues
From her window sill
See the blue pools in the squinting sun
Hear the hissing of summer lawns

He put up a barbed wire fence
To keep out the unknown
And on every metal thorn
Just a little blood of his own
She patrols that fence of his to a Latin drum
And the hissing of summer lawns


"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.