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We had planned to take an exploratory day hike on Sunday in the Flint Creek Range, but with rain threatening, we opted instead to drive the long dirt road along the lower stretch of Rock Creek, looking for salmon flies along the way. If the sun came out and the fish came up, we'd pull on our waders and wet a line.
Along the way, we saw a cow moose, admired colonies of blooming phacelia, came upon some big horn sheep, and encountered the expected swarm of weekend anglers. But no bugs. So instead of fishing, we stopped at Welcome Creek and loaded up a pack for a two-hour walk.
Crossing Rock Creek at the wobbly suspension bridge, we strolled through recently burned timber decked with abundant wildflowers. Ambitious walkers can follow the path to an abandoned prospector's shack about five miles away, but we only made it about half that distance. It was already getting time to head back home, so the day would have to be a short one.
We lingered where the trail traversed a steep hillside about 30 feet above the gurgle of Welcome Creek. Renie stopped to examine some twinflower, a low-growing, matted plant with tiny, bell-shaped blossoms of white and pink barely as large as a pine nut. Nearby, a deep run interrupted the otherwise incessant tumble of water, and a group of little trout fed hungrily on hatching caddis. The sun, which had started a game of hide-and-seek just as we set out, finally broke through, piercing the water to illuminate the gravel bottom.
We made our way down the steep slope to the bank for a better view of the splashy rises. Perfectly camouflaged against the rocky streambed, the trout seemed to appear from nowhere to ambush the drifting caddis with reckless zeal. I admired their vitality, wondering whether they'd fought their way upstream in the spring runoff or wintered here in an icy trickle. Either way, they were tough customers.
We crept up to the water's edge to get a closer look. Renie, my beautiful bride-to-be, craned to get the best view of the trout, clearly fascinated by the scene, while I became entranced by the movement and sound of the water, its constant yet ever-changing flow. The sun felt warm, and life teemed all around—the fish, the flowers, the forest surrounding.
Here was abundance, more than enough to sustain us. And better shared.
Lay of the land
The Broadway Hotel offers cozy and convenient accommodations right in the center of Philipsburg. Fully renovated in 2003, six rooms and three suites each feature a different theme, from rustic cowboy décor in the Wrangler Room to South American artifacts in the Andes Suite, a nod to owner Sue Jenner's years in Ecuador. A spacious, common sitting room provides lots of cozy nooks to nestle with a paperback. Rates from $80 to $130 per night include continental breakfast. For reservations, call 406-859-8000.
We booked guide Adam Spenner through Flint Creek Outdoors, a well-stocked fly fishing shop across the street from the hotel. Flint Creek's guides drift just the top 16 miles of Rock Creek, and only until June 30, when the state ends the floating season. Later in the summer, they can take you wading anywhere along the 51-mile channel, but book early because their special National Forest Service permit limits them to 30 client days a year on the lower section. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 406-859-9500.
- Matt Gibson
- Boulder Lakes
Guidebooks will point you to the numerous world-class day hikes of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, just south of Philipsburg. For something a little less glamorous but no less rewarding, explore the Flint Creek Range, with peaks rising above 9,000 feet from the forested flanks on the eastern edge of town. The hike to Boulder Lakes makes for a very pleasant 6-mile round trip to seldom-visited alpine country. To get there, drive north on state Highway 1 to Maxville, then turn right on the Princeton Road and follow it up Boulder Creek. Look for an unmarked parking area where an obvious stream washes across the road (N46 22.716-W113 07.023), about two very rough miles past the Copper Creek trailhead. Scout for the trail heading south, then follow it up the timbered slope for a long mile-and-a-half before it rounds the crest of the ridge and the views open up. You'll reach the first lake at 7,500 feet, after 1,200 feet of climbing.