CDT 2021: Day 132, Rock Creek Trail to Jefferson River

Scared you'll run out of time

A straight gravel road leads to a mountain range

The last few days have followed a consistent pattern. Top O' and I have had a daily diet of long climbs and bad weather. Then last night, a large thunderstorm dumped a lot of rain and finally brought a change to the weather. We also saw some different terrain starting today.

Though we started the day with yet another big climb, we enjoyed mostly sunny skies. The last half of the day wasn't mountainous at all.

DateSunday, August 22, 2021
WeatherMostly sunny with some smoke; temperatures from the mid-40s to low-70s
Trail ConditionsA climb, followed by a long descent to a flat valley, mostly on gravel roads
Today's Miles14.3
Trip Miles1923.5

By noon, we were on a long descent into Jefferson Valley, which lies between the Tobacco Root and Highland mountain ranges.

We don't have many miles left on the Big Sky/Super Butte Alternate before we return to the official CDT route. That's not to say we will stay on the official trail for the rest of the way to the Canadian border. This is the CDT, after all, where "make your own adventure" is the byword of each day.

Morning sun shines through tall, slender trees

I noticed the change in the weather as soon as I woke up and left my tent. The temperature was warmer than usual.

When we began hiking before 7:30 a.m., a bright orb shining through the trees immediately caught my attention. This was the most obvious clue that today's weather would be different.

There was also no doubt it would be a good day to dry our tents, which were still wet from last night's storm.

The trail climbs to an open patch on a slope

The climb started right away. We had to go up 1,200 feet in 1.7 miles. Though not especially steep, it was a good way to get my blood flowing so early in the morning.

We started from a valley along Rock Creek before ascending to a meadow at about 7,500 feet in elevation.

Manhead Mountain stands in the distance

The gentler hiking conditions and sunny weather made up for a lack of inspiring views. One of the few sights was Manhead Mountain (9,966 feet), which stood about two miles away.

We weren't heading in that direction, though. We had already climbed as high as we would get today, and we'd been on the trail for less than an hour.

I managed to find a cell signal at the top, so I called Kim. We had lots to talk about. As she did after my AT and PCT hikes, she plans to meet me when I finish this hike. Today was still a little too early to nail down our plans, but we were excited to start thinking about them.

Mountains in the Pioneer Range are barely visible far in the distance

The few views from the top ended as soon as the trail began to descend. On the way down there was just a glimpse of a cluster of mountains to the west. They were called the Pioneer Range.

The CDT's official route makes a circling loop around the other side of those mountains before turning to head east. We will reconnect with it near Butte.

A sign points the direction of the Coalpit Trail

My long phone call with Kim caused me to fall far behind Top O'. By the time I caught up to him, he had stopped for an early lunch so he could dry out his tent.

According to the track we were following on the Gaia app, the Big Sky/Super Butte Alternate turned from the Rock Creek Trail to follow the Coalpit Trail. Top O' said he had been looking at this and noticed that trail made another big climb. He also found a different route that avoided the climb. Call it an alternate of the alternate.

I agreed his suggestion looked like a better route. It was about the same distance but would take us more quickly into the valley and along the Jefferson River. The trail so far had been very rocky, so it would also be nice to have some relief from that.

We intended to hike into the town of Whitehall tomorrow where we would meet up again with Polecat. Following Top O's route would likely get us there a little sooner.

I noticed when I passed the junction of the Coalpit Trail that someone had written "CDT ALT" on the trail sign. Seeing that reminded me of something I'd been wondering about. I guessed the fires burning west of here have caused more CDT hikers to follow this alternate route this year than any previous year.

A rutted old road through a forest

Top O' left our lunch spot before I did, so I continued to walk alone. I spent the rest of the day walking on dirt and gravel roads, starting with a two-track road that was partially eroded.

I had already descended 900 feet from the day's highest elevation when I passed the Coalpit Trail junction. Another 1,300 feet remained before I reached the river.

The Jefferson River Valley comes into view

The valley came into view at 1:15 p.m. To the right was the ridge I would have had to go up and over if Top O' hadn't suggested the road route.

Several large ranches stretched across the valley. I didn't see a lot of cattle and was surprised to see several beehives.

The sky's full sunshine sent the temperature warming to around 70º F. There was no shade for the rest of the day.

A fence surrounds a junkyard

My map app showed I could turn on a two-track dirt road and follow it to avoid a longer route on a gravel road. Wishing for some relief from the hot gravel, I followed the dirt road across a field.

After walking about a half-mile, I discovered the road entered a fenced area that can best be described as a junkyard. It was filled with rusting cars and farm equipment.

All of this area was private property, but until now I felt okay about being on the road. There had been no signs to warn I shouldn't be there. To not enter the junkyard, I had to scale a fence and walk around it. Once I was on the other side, I had to scale the fence again to get back on the dirt road, which then reconnected with the gravel road.

A gravel road appears to stretch to infinity

The gravel road seemed to extend to infinity. Walking on the hard surface began to make my back hurt, but there was no spot to sit and take a break. I eventually came to what might have been the only shade tree I passed since descending into the valley. I stopped there to take my third long break of the day.

A road curves around a mountain slope

The long breaks had slowed me down. I had only walked about 12 miles by 4 p.m., but that wasn't bothersome. Top O' and I knew before we started that we weren't going to hike all of the way into Whitehall today.

When we looked closely at the map, we saw homes and ranches beyond where the road passed the river. Finding a place to camp seemed highly unlikely if we got too close to town, so we were determined to find a site along the river.

Jefferson River

The slope of the mountain range converged with the river to leave only a narrow strip of land for the road. When I saw this, I wondered if we would have any luck finding a place to camp.

The Jefferson River was a braided and meandering shallow stream. I hoped to find a fisherman's camp or a patch of shoreline for our tents that was away from the road.

I didn't have to go much farther before discovering Top O' had already found such a spot. Mud was also there. We had not seen him since Day 113. Mud was still traveling with his trailer and his dog Sprout to support his wife Bug. We still had not met Bug on the trail.

Though Top O' and I would have preferred to hike a few more miles today, Mud confirmed there were no camping spots closer to town. We were soon joined by a couple who had just dropped their son off at college. They were using a new teardrop camping trailer for the first time as they tried out being empty-nesters.

Later, we were joined by another familiar person, though we hadn't seen her since we were in Colorado on Day 82. Crispi arrived in a car. She was no longer hiking with Longbird. She was now following him in the car and meeting him wherever she could.

Sunset on the Jefferson River

A nearby section of the river was fed by a hot spring, but we had no interest in going there. The day had been too warm for soaking in hot water.

Our spot on the river was peaceful. I was surprised, however, by how long it took for the air to become comfortably cooler. I enjoyed watching the sunset while listening to sandhill cranes call each other across the river.

After I got into my tent, thinking about my phone call with Kim this morning reminded me to calculate how long I still had to go before finishing this trail. I had been guessing earlier that about three weeks remained, so I was greatly disappointed by my estimate.

When I realized I still had about 30 days to go, my heart sank. I'm still enjoying this hike, but I'm getting anxious to see my wife again.

There was also a more practical reason for my disappointment. Despite the warmth of this late August day, I know there won’t be many more like it. Fall will arrive soon when I get farther north. In northern Montana, that means a snowstorm is a possibility at any time.

Getting to the Canadian border requires climbing several high-mountain passes in Glacier National Park. Snow is possible there at all times of year, and the chances increase significantly in mid- to late-September. Many CDT hikers have been forced to make a mad dash to the border in dangerous snow conditions.

I'd like to avoid that. It's time to pick up the pace.

When did the choices get so hard
With so much more at stake?
Life gets mighty precious
When there's less of it to waste
Scared you'll run out of time


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