CDT ‘Big Sky route’ alt notes

A 350 mile approx. variation from the CDT in southern Montana and northern Wyoming The Big Sky variant or Butte Super Cut-off is a route that we hiked in 2009 that travels from the CDT south of Yellowstone (at Two Ocean Pass) north to meet the CDT again north of Butte (at Delmoe Lake).

It cuts out the Montana/Idaho border section of the CDT and travels through Yellowstone east and north boundaries, Gallatin Petrified Forest, Spanish Peaks and the Tobacco Root mountains.

We are not the first to thru hike this way. Jim and Ginny Owen did so northbound in 2006. The Onion hiked a roughly similar line in 2007, provided good notes and mapped out the northern half from Delmoe Lake to Yellowstone north border in ‘Jonathan Ley style’ maps downloadable on-line. Skittles and Recess have hiked it in 2008 too. I am sure that there are others.

Overview map with mileages (click on map to expand)

Why hike the Big Sky variant?
Well, we did it primarily for a bit of fun and adventure away from the CDT and to explore different ground. Southbound we thought the CDT in mid-Montana a bit dull with lots of lodgepole pine and the alternative provided some varied scenery.

It was also refreshing to be heading out on our own making the route up as we went along- or at least it felt like that. Somehow if we got into less interesting hiking we made more of it because the route felt ours more than the CDT. It covers some interesting territory too- the Spanish Peaks offered the best mountains we had hiked since Glacier NP, Gallatin Petrified Forest has nice ridges and … petrified trees, and we meandered on a long hike through remote, scenic and wildlife rich parts of Yellowstone. Yellowstone isn’t quite up to Glacier or the Winds but it still provides a worthy hike on good trails with few other hikers around.

It’s also a fair bit shorter than the CDT equivalents; about 353 miles as described, to the CDT Butte route’s 576 miles and the Anaconda cut-off’s 517 miles. A mileage breakdown is shown on the overview map.

We used days saved on the Big Sky to spend more time in the wonderful Wind Rivers further south in central Wyoming.

Click here for our photos from the Big Sky variant

Below are annotated topo maps for the route, please note they were produced in 2009 at the latest and so may be out of date in parts!

MAPS – Big Sky SOUTH Brian’s 20 maps (36MB)

MAPS – Big Sky NORTH Onion’s 13 maps (52MB)

Other Useful Maps
You could navigate the route as we hiked it using the downloadable maps above. Listed below are other useful maps which would be handy for planning.

Yellowstone and Grand Teton Travel Map ($4.95) I couldn’t find this on the web but can be purchased locally and is great- almost a must have for planning. Extends from Union Pass in the Winds, Togwatee Pass, Two Ocean Pass to Yellowstone and also the Grand Tetons. Also good for planning another alternative between Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons to Green Lakes in the Winds but that’s another story…

National Geographic 201 Yellowstone Good overview of Yellowstone NP although it doesn’t show campsites.

Beartooth Bozeman, Big Sky,West Yellowstone Covers the Skyline trail in Yellowstone, Gallatin ridge, north of Yellowstone over to the Spanish Peaks. Sometimes the Beartooth maps lack detail but I was glad I carried this one.

Beartooth Tobacco Root Mountains I haven’t seen this but it looks nice and it should cover Ennis to Whitehall.

Southwest Montana Interagency Visitor/Travel Map This has been updated for 2008. I had the 1996 one but it has no contours and I wouldn’t buy or carry it if hiking the route again. The Beartooth maps would be better IMHO.

Yellowstone camping guide You have to book campsites in Yellowstone but as a CDT thru hiker you can do it over the phone. This link provides details and a campsite map for the park.

Other References
2006 Hike Jim and Ginny Owen’s journal

2008 Hike Skittles and Recess journal description The Onion’s notes on his hike of the route

Big Sky Variant (aka the Butte Super Cut-Off)

Dear Reader, please be not be alarmed when we tell you that we have parted company with the CDT (for now)! We are still hiking, just not on the CDT. And we are still moving South in a continuous line, just not on the CDT. Why not the CDT? Well, compared to our new chosen route, the CDT is slightly longer and reputedly offers just more of the same i.e. trees, trees, trees.
We will meet the CDT again in South Yellowstone however, to follow it through the Windriver Mountains to the end (to Colorado).

So we are now on what B likes to call the “Big Sky Variant“, a line going from Whitehall more directly South than the CDT. We’ve just crossed a lovely mountain range called the Tobacco Root Mountains and are headed for the Spanish Peaks. Should be in Yellowstone NP in about a week.

On our way into the Roots, we got a tip-off from a passing local (as well as a cold can of Miller Light each!) to stop by some lovely wild hot springs in the Jefferson River Valley. They were literllay on route and we gladly stripped off and hopped in. We even had a little bathing companion in the form of a small swimming snake who paddled past my shoulder, head above water, beady eyes looking at me slighly annoyed at being disturbed. Sunflowers were framing the scene and an eagle was flying overhead! Apparently there are petroglyphs on the hill nearby. As soon as we were out of the water, the little snake was back.

Yesterday it rained quite a bit, so last night we went into the town of Ennis (very nice!) and got a cabin and watched “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” on video in the evening. Today we head for the Spanish Peaks.

Urban Montana

Three days gliding over gently rolling hills full of flowers and berries, to the left the yellow velvet of the prairies, to the right the dark green of the fir, spruce and pine covered “not so rocky” mountains. Above: the BIG SKY that this state is rightly known for. Heard coyote song again for the first time in a long time. Also had the company of lots of young ravens, squaking and honking joyfully as they surfed the thermals next to us on the divide. A silent deer occasionally appears on the edge of our vision, looks at us solemnly and then disappears into the half-dark of the trees again. If I carried any butter, we could have had wonderfully fried mushrooms every night. They grow everywhere, big and brown as newly risen loaves of bread. But I don’t carry butter.

Two nights ago we finally got into farming country: cattle grazing in open meadows and thin woodlands. We camped with some cows in a herby meadow next to a fenced-off spring and a tank with water for cattle. The water came out of a spout and ran crystal clear so memories of New Mexican cattle tank gunk where quickly banished.

As we were eating our dinner (reclining in the tent like Romans at a feast), we heard a truck drive up – farmer checking his cows. Truck stops a wee distance away, quiet, then the engine is started again and the truck comes closer, stops again. We hear a door slam (we’re too tired to pop our heads out of the tent). And then someone suddenly pings the back bungee on our tent !!! I shoot out of the front door and see a cowboy in his mid 20’s with a big stetson, big mustache and 80’s aviator specs looking startled as he fiddles with the back of our tent. “Ah didn’t even know it was a tent! Don’t look like one to me. Just though I aint never seen that thing there before – goan check it out” he appologised once I had given him a potted version of what we were doing and why we were there. (We were on public lands, so there was no argument about our right to camp there).

That night we had thunderstorms (again) and rain. In the morning we were woken by sonorous, low moooooooing and huffing. We were surrounded by 30 odd cows and calves – and 3 bulls giving it lalldy: peeing on the ground, kicking dirt around themselves, rolling their heads in the dirt, head butting each other and generally making a big song and dance about their virility. The cows had obviously seen the show before because they congregated in a semi circle around our tent and instead of paying the bulls much attention, watched us nervously dismantle our shelter and pack our bags. We were very much hoping that the bulls didn’t feel we were stealing their limelight and wouldn’t turn their excess energy on us in order to impress the cows. They didn’t – we got away unmolested!

So much for camping on range-land! And to think that we’ve been worried about camping in the woods with the bears!

Horse Whispering

160 miles since Glacier National Park and I am sorry to say, dear readers, that most of those miles were in the trees! Through the Bob Marshall Wilderness and most of the Scapegoat Wilderness, the CDT has been routed up and down river valleys in the forrest – our theory is that it’s all the horses’ fault: this is horse country, Rohan in the trees so to speak. The thing to do here is to pay an “outfitter” to take you into the back country on a horse for a weekend or longer. That also involves big tents, a cooking tent, mules to carry the gear and mules to carry horse and mule feed! So you end up with a pack train of 5 to 25 horses. Wonderful to see with the big western saddles and the fine shiny animals. Slightly less fun if you are a hiker in trainers following one of those horse trains. So the horse trails were here first and horses seem not to like the ridges and seem to prefer to be close to lots of water, so the CDT maybe just takes the existing horse-designed trailes rather than forging new, interesting and walker friendly trails higher up? That’s our theory.

Talking of excrement: we also saw lots of bear poo but had no direct contact with the big predators. Still, we had lots of fun trying to throw our bear cord over branches and hoisting our food bags onto a safe branch for night-time storage (10 feet up and 4 feet from the tree trunk) every evening before going to bed.

We had a few interesting things to see: a long limestone escarpment called the Chinese Wall and a hill that took us briefly above the trees. And the last day and a-half of the trail were on the divide itself and above tree line. What a relief!!! The flowers are starting to look a little tired now but in exchange, there are lots of berries to be picked in the forrest: huckle berries, strawberries and whortleberries we’ve eaten already – thimble berries are just about to come out!

We also had a day rest in a small town called Augusta which lies in the Prairies East of the Rockies. Augusta was great! We stayed in a tiny historic hotel from 1917. The town had a grocery store with the motto “if we don’t have it, you don’t need it” painted on the outside. It also had 3 bars where men in check shirts wearing stetsons sat drinking. We even got an excellent vegetarian pizza (though only after some deep soul searching from the lady who runs the diner – vetetarianism is not a common affliction in Montana). I can proudly say that we’ve managed so far not to crack any jokes about “Brokeback Mountain” to any of the locals.

Now we are in a place called Lincoln and are resting up. Our next stop will be the state capital Helena.

Glacier National "walk in the" Park

We hiked south from the Candian border through the rather wonderful Glacier National Park. The week that was in facts and stats:

  • immigration officers (1 Canadian, 2 US)
  • US National Park Rangers (several, all very concerned that we hang our food into the provided bear safe hanging tree over night, make lots of noise on the trail so as not to startle a bear and use the pit toilets at the campsite – “but don’t put trash in them”)
  • moose (10, grazing in a lake)
  • marmots (hoary and very friendly)
  • Columbian ground squirrels (standing bolt-upright like mercats)
  • mountain goats (white as snow with black eyes, kids and nannies)
  • Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep (group of tups lazing around, groups of ewes busy looking after lambs)
  • golden eagles (soaring)
  • bald eagle (soaring)
  • black bear (digging up stuff at the side of the trail)
  • tourists (thousands at the roadside visitor centre – very scary – only a hand-full on the trails)
  • miles walked through the park: aprox 90
  • weather: sunshine, hot
  • flowers: carpets of them (bear grass, forget me not, indian paint brush, penstemon, cinquefoil, Schafgabe, hollyhocks, geraniums, delphiniums, asters, glacier lillies and lots and lots I don’t know by name!)
  • mountains: SPECTACULAR

Many Glacier Lodge outside panob m at Grinell Pass MT3