Top O' walks on a road toward mountains

Look out, the wind blows high

Day 131, Potosi Campground to Rock Creek Trail

Saturday, August 21, 2021

No rain fell overnight. That was the first dry night since we left Big Sky. Our campsite was in a deep canyon, however, and a lot of condensation formed inside our tents despite the lack of rain.

I hoped we would get enough sunshine today for another "yard sale" to dry our gear.

Weather Mostly cloudy with brief, light rain and an evening thunderstorm; temperatures from the mid-40s to upper-50s
Trail Conditions A long climb and longer descent on a dirt road, ending on a short, steep climb on a single-track trail
Today's Miles 16.4 miles
Trip Miles 1,909.2 miles

Today was Day 8 of the platinum-blaze hiking Top O' and I have been doing with Polecat. While it's true that a Forest Service campground would never be called luxurious, that doesn't mean we didn't enjoy another elevated experience.

Polecat prepared for us a breakfast of bacon and eggs. If this kind of pampering continues, I might not want to finish my hike and go home.

Top O' walks on a gravel road

Top O' and I left the campground at 7:15 a.m., and once again, Polecat did not hike with us. We didn't expect to see him again until we arrived in Whitehall the day after tomorrow.

Today started overcast and cool. The last weather forecast I saw called for periods of rain continuing until tomorrow. The sky looked like there was a good chance that would at least hold true for today.

We got a headstart on Cheeto Jackson, Spamcake, Loverboy, and Spench, but they didn't need much time to catch up and pass us. They went by when we stopped to filter some water.

The road becomes rougher at a switchback

Nearly all of today's hiking was on roads, as yesterday had been. The difference was today's route started with a steeper climb. We had about 4,500 feet of ascents today, with nearly all of the climbing coming in the first 7.5 miles.

The first four miles went up about 1,000 feet, and the route got steeper from there. The road also became rougher. Polecat mentioned that the road to the campground was barely suitable for his truck. There was no way he would have been able to continue in the direction we were hiking.

A large puddle fills the width of the road

One stretch of the road had several large, deep puddles that would have swamped his truck. They weren't easy for us to walk around because they filled the full width of the road.

The road becomes much rockier and steeper

Before long, only the most rugged, high-clearance 4WD vehicles could have made it up the road. It was eroded and covered with loose rocks, which began to slow me down.

The road may have been constructed when mining was active in the area. Gold was first discovered in the Tobacco Root Mountains in 1863.

Placer mining was used at first. That's a process of separating flakes of gold from sand or gravel with water. Panning for gold is the original method of placer mining.

A study released in 1937 by the U.S. Bureau of Mines showed that more than $67 million of precious metal ore was extracted from these slopes to that time. Much of it was removed before 1900 using placer mining.

Working mines may still exist in these mountains, but I didn't see any.

A closed gate blocks the road

If anyone had attempted to drive up that rutted road, they would have been stopped by a closed gate.

We were hiking to a pass between Horse Mountain and Little Granite Peak. I didn't know it at first, but if the gate were open, it would have been possible to drive all the way to the top. That's assuming you had a suitable vehicle and nerves of steel.

The road approaches the pass

The GPS track we were following didn't match the map exactly, which caused a couple of moments of confusion. We eventually decided it didn't matter which was right or wrong. There was only one way up to the pass.

A view from the top of the pass

The top of the pass was windy and cold, so I didn't expect to find anyone there when I arrived at noon. I turned to look back in the direction where I started and saw several mountains that weren't visible from below.

The sky remained overcast, and now I could see that smoke was filtering back into the area. The rain that fell for a couple of days failed to keep the sky clear for long.

Spench, Loverboy, Spamcake, Top O', and Cheeto Jackson stop for lunch

When I turned to go over the pass, I was surprised to find Spench, Loverboy, Spamcake, Top O', and Cheeto Jackson hunkered down against the side of a rock slope. They were eating lunch and had spread out their gear to dry despite a lack of sunshine. I decided to do the same.

The others packed and left before Top O' and I were done. It was a good thing for me he was still around. As I reached for my groundsheet, which I use to protect the floor of my tent and sleep on when I cowboy camp, a gust of wind blew it out of my grasp. The thin fabric began swirling and lifted several feet above my head like a kite without a string.

Top O' scrambled in one direction while trying to climb up the slope. I went in another as we attempted to guess where the wind would blow the groundsheet. It seemed as if it might lift high enough to sail over the top of the ridge. I thought I was seeing the last of it.

Then in a brief moment, the groundsheet floated low enough for Top O' to snatch it out of its flight. I wish I had been able to photograph that, but it happened so unexpectedly that I had no time.

The trail descends across a broad slope of loose rocks and gravel

With my gear packed safely away again, we began the descent from the pass. It started slowly for me because the trail went across a steep slope of rocks and loose gravel. It was difficult to tell if this was scree or tailings from a mine. Regardless, the footing wasn't good, and I needed to take a slower, more deliberate pace.

Nicholson Mine

After gingerly making my way for nearly an hour down the west flank of Horse Mountain and Mount Jefferson, I discovered this was the area of a mine. Several pieces of rusting, abandoned equipment stood on both sides of the trail. Up on the slope, I could see the ruins of an adit, a horizontal entrance to the mine.

This was the Nicholson Mine, which opened in 1900. Records show it operated until 1975, then re-opened in 1980 before shutting down for good in the mid-1990s.

An old cabin at Nicholson Mine

A couple of old, rotting cabins also stood in the area. The buildings and the equipment made the place look like the miners stepped away for a break one day many years ago and never bothered to return to work.

Entering the small community of Mammoth

We began to meet people as we continued farther down the severely eroded road. First was a group of people attempting to drive up the road in Land Cruisers. They jostled back and forth while the drivers tried to negotiate over and around the ruts.

I caught up to Top O' when he stopped to talk to three people out for the day in a UTV.

We reached a small, unincorporated community called Mammoth at 5 p.m. It began as a mining town in 1870 and somehow survived when the mine closed.

The 2020 Census counted four full-time residents in Mammoth, but showed 42 dwellings in the tiny valley hamlet. There didn't appear to be any businesses here unless maybe some of the homes were rental properties. This disappointed me because I hoped to find a store where I could buy a cold drink.

A large mine operated for many years along South Boulder Creek. Mammoth Mine was said to be the largest producer of gold in the Tobacco Root Mountains. An estimated $2 million of precious metal was extracted from the mine.

Arriving at Rock Creek Trail

Spamcake, Cheeto Jackson, Loverboy, and Spench were now far ahead of us, and we didn't see them again today.

Top O' and I knew we would be turning from the road to follow Rock Creek Trail on the north side of Mammoth, but finding it was a challenge. We guessed the trailhead had been moved because it was nowhere near where the map showed it to be. If we had followed the map, we would have had to walk through the front yard of a home.

The time was now 6 p.m., so Top O' and I decided to stop a short distance from the trailhead to eat dinner before we began looking for a campsite.

The trail started with a steep climb that included switchbacks. This wasn't suitable terrain for a campsite, but before long, we were willing to accept any spot that provided the least bit of room for our tents. Thunder began to rumble, followed by a few flashes of lightning. We knew we would get soaked if we didn't find a campsite soon.

We found a spot that turned out to be perfect, though it was only four-tenths of a mile from where we had stopped for dinner. Now that we're in grizzly country, we usually try to walk a mile or more from where we cooked food before setting up camp. This time, a shorter distance would have to do.

We hurriedly set up our tents, then hung our food bags while keeping an eye on the dark clouds rolling ever closer. Rain began to fall just as we finished, and we dashed to our tents. A downpour started minutes after we crawled inside.

Read the street like written words
Where fires of anger burn
Been here ten thousand times
When will you ever learn?

Here's the locomotive
Weighing down the track
Once you see what you have seen
There ain't no, no looking back

Full head of steam
Look out, the wind blows high
Full head of steam
Grab your hat and wave goodbye
Full head of steam
Look out, the wind blows high
Full head of steam
Grab your hat and wave goodbye

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